Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio puts California on course to climate resilience

It is encouraging that one of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first actions in 2020 was the Jan. 3 release of the much-anticipated Water Resilience Portfolio.

While Newsom has been forced to address climate change on many fronts during the past year – think wildfires, blackouts and automobile standards – the state’s myriad water challenges must remain a priority. Our state’s water system is decades old and needs to be re-envisioned for a new era.

Until late November, many Californians anxiously awaited rainfall and feared we might be on the cusp of the next drought or another record-breaking wildfire season. Although some encouraging rain and snow finally arrived, the devastating and unprecedented wildfires in Australia are a stark reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to make California — including its complex water system — more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

My EDF colleagues and I are pleased to see that several recommendations we provided to the state made it into the draft portfolio. Here are four elements of the portfolio that we believe are particularly important and, in some cases, still need strengthening.

1. Prioritizing sustainable groundwater use.

Successfully implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 is one of the most important actions the Newsom administration can take. The portfolio highlights several steps to help implement SGMA and achieve groundwater sustainability.

For instance, the portfolio calls for helping local agencies and creating an interagency state team to develop tools to respond to land-use changes in response to sustainable groundwater management. Such an effort is necessary to prevent a haphazard pattern of retired irrigated land, which could have very serious consequences for communities, the economy and the environment.

2. Supporting regional coordination and multi-benefit projects.

The portfolio rightfully emphasizes the importance of greater regional coordination and collaboration among water agencies, local governments, tribes and industries, with support from state funding and programs. It notes how a regional approach will be needed to implement SGMA but also more broadly to launch more projects with multiple benefits, including improving ecosystems.

The proposed expansion of the Regional Conservation Investment Strategies program is a powerful way to achieve better regional coordination. These strategies can guide land-use changes, sustainable groundwater management and habitat restoration under SGMA. New Water Resilience Portfolio will help California take a major step forward in ensuring that we continue to have a dynamic economy and thriving ecosystems. Click To Tweet

3. Expanding water transfers and improving water data.

The portfolio also recognizes the important role of water transfers to ease the movement of water to different uses and proposes several ways to promote transfers, including reducing approval time and developing best practices for groundwater trading.

However, the portfolio’s section on water transfers should be further strengthened to emphasize that all transfers — of not only groundwater but also surface water — must be designed with safeguards for ecosystems and disadvantaged communities.

In addition, water transfers require good data, so it is encouraging that the portfolio recognizes the need for more and better data to allow for transfers and make it easier to balance competing demands for water.

4. Accelerating environmental water needs.

It’s refreshing that the portfolio acknowledges that addressing environmental needs should go beyond mitigation and should instead be proactively integrated into water management. This concept is key in a future with increasing human demands on our water system and climate change.

However, the portfolio suggests that we need to know more about environmental water needs before taking action. While we certainly need to continue to learn and adapt, we have plenty of good science to take action now to reverse the alarming trajectory of ecosystem decline.

In fact, delaying action any longer could push some endangered fish species to extinction, particularly in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. We urgently need to dedicate more water to meet ecosystem needs. Such “environmental water” could be adaptively managed as our scientific knowledge expands.

There is no quick, singular fix to safeguard water for all Californians in the coming decades. But, as the portfolio acknowledges, if we take bold action and collaborate on an unprecedented scale, California will take a major step forward in ensuring that we continue to have a dynamic economy and thriving ecosystems.

I look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom administration to turn the Water Resilience Portfolio into action.

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