A wa­ter plan for a changed state cli­mate

Cal­i­for­nia needs to con­front its chal­lenges with the ur­gency it has ap­plied to global warm­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter sup­ply is now in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied up with cli­mate change. In a warm­ing world, na­ture has al­ready brought smaller Sierra snow­packs and less pre­dictable pre­cip­i­ta­tion pat­terns. Gov. Gavin New­som, if he is to suc­cess­fully steer the state into the fu­ture, has to bring to his wa­ter agenda the same steely-eyed, re­al­i­ty­based drive that the two pre­vi­ous gov­er­nors brought to lim­it­ing car­bon emis­sions.

It’s time for the state to re­spond to its wa­ter chal­lenge with the same sense of ur­gency with which it adopted Assem­bly Bill 32, the land­mark law cap­ping green­house gas emis­sions, in 2006. That same year, the state be­gan a drought that may not yet have ended, al­though it has been punc­tu­ated by pe­ri­ods of ex­treme wet weather. Wa­ter forms the most tan­gi­ble edge of cli­mate change.

The task will be in some sense sim­pler than adopt­ing AB 32, and the re­sults could con­ceiv­ably be more re­ward­ing. Govs. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and Jerry Brown, in mak­ing the state a leader in the fight against cli­mate change, knew that they were set­ting an ex­am­ple for the rest of the world, even though re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions here has only an in­cre­men­tal ef­fect on our own air and cli­mate. Some­one had to show the way, and they did.

Now, if New­som rec­og­nizes the con­nec­tion be­tween a warm­ing planet and changes to Cal­i­for­nia’s hy­drol­ogy, he could drive a new ap­proach that not only sets a moral stan­dard for a planet in which wa­ter is an in­creas­ingly con­tentious re­source; he could also en­sure that the state’s own en­vi­ron­ment and econ­omy can sur­vive and in fact thrive amid wrench­ing change. A cli­ma­te­ori­ented wa­ter agenda ac­com­plishes more than moral lead­er­ship. It keeps our thirst quenched, our crops grow­ing and the price­less web of life in­tact.

Of course, wa­ter is more tan­gi­ble than car­bon emis­sions, and rights to it are owned, ex­er­cised and trans­ferred, so en­act­ing a plan for wa­ter re­silience in the face of cli­mate change will pose chal­lenges that may make re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions seem easy in com­par­i­son. But we have no choice. At least, not if we want Cal­i­for­nia to con­tinue to have a sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment and a vi­tal econ­omy.

Ground zero in the state’s wa­ter chal­lenge is the Cen­tral Val­ley, the vast, flood­prone re­gion that was tamed by 20th cen­tury en­gi­neer­ing projects and turned into the na­tion’s rich­est agri­cul­tural re­gion. The chang­ing cli­mate and more volatile weather pat­terns make the val­ley again sus­cep­ti­ble to flood­ing. Sacra­mento, in fact, is among the U.S. cities most vul­ner­a­ble to in­un­da­tion. Any wa­ter plan for Cal­i­for­nia should start with pro­tec­tion from flood­ing and with projects that cap­ture, reroute and store flood­wa­ters.

That means a dif­fer­ent ap­proach from the last cen­tury’s great en­gi­neer­ing projects. In­stead of dams, Cal­i­for­nia to­day needs projects that meet mul­ti­ple needs at once: re­duc­ing flood risk, recharg­ing de­pleted ground­wa­ter and restor­ing de­graded wildlife habi­tat.

It also means step­ping up the time­line of the land­mark ground­wa­ter laws that fi­nally re­quire that sub­sur­face wa­ter be mea­sured, man­aged and eq­ui­tably shared.

Less ground­wa­ter will in­evitably mean agri­cul­ture must be­come more ef­fi­cient, and per­haps more ge­o­graph­i­cally con­cen­trated, with rich is­lands of green amid re­tired land. At the same time, ad­vances in farm prac­tices that raise pro­duc­tiv­ity will also prob­a­bly mean field jobs be­come scarcer. New­som ought to not merely keep his eye on the San Joaquin Val­ley econ­omy, but be ready with an ac­tion plan that helps it di­ver­sify be­yond agri­cul­ture.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, we have our own crops to re­tire: lush, green lawns that must be soaked, fer­til­ized and trimmed but that never pro­duce any­thing that can be eaten, worn or sold. The long drought, and en­tice­ments from wa­ter agen­cies, con­vinced many home­own­ers to pull out their lawns. We must keep that re­tire­ment go­ing. Wa­ter is too pre­cious a com­mod­ity for such use.

New­som also has a role in help­ing the re­gion move more quickly to re­cap­ture and re­use stormwa­ter and waste­water. He ap­pears will­ing to en­cour­age cities to build more hous­ing — and to hold back fund­ing to those that drag their feet. He should con­sider a sim­i­lar sys­tem of en­tice­ments and penal­ties for wa­ter prac­tices.

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