Climate-challenged California must learn to thrive with less water

Join us on Friday, November 18 for our Fall Water Priorities Conference in Sacramento. Register here.

California has long been a hub of innovation. But managing the increasing variability of our weather in an era of climate change will challenge even the best and brightest water and land managers. Conditions are changing rapidly and will continue to change. And hotter, drier conditions are revealing deep weaknesses in our water supply systems.

As we argue in our new report, California Water Priorities: Prosper With Less, even if we do everything right, the water supply may decrease. The great challenge of 21st century water management in California is learning to prosper with less.

It is important to recognize that climate change is here and not a future threat. California’s already variable climate is becoming increasingly unstable, with drier dry spells and wetter but less frequent wet spells.

This is compounded by an increasingly thirsty atmosphere, mainly due to warming. This parched atmosphere draws water away from the landscape, leaving less water available for runoff into rivers or seepage into aquifers. To complicate matters, California’s largest reservoir, its snowpack, is decreasing, which means less water is available during the summer when demand is highest.

All of these changes impact a water supply system designed for mid-20th century conditions, when precipitation, snow accumulation and runoff were more reliable and temperatures were lower. To sustain our urban and rural communities, our agriculture and our ecosystems, we will need to adjust our course.

Some actions are already underway and deserve to be celebrated. In total, communities, farms and non-agricultural businesses in California are using about the same amount of water as in 1990, despite adding 10 million people and doubling the size of the economy. These efforts to increase water use efficiency must continue.

But conservation will go no further. To adapt to changing conditions, we also need to modernize the way we store and transport water. At the top of the list, taking better advantage of occasional wet years to get through dry spells. This involves developing new storage, especially underground, and connecting our storage to transportation infrastructure, so water can reach its highest and best uses. Water recycling and rainwater harvesting will also be essential to modernize urban storage.

Rural communities – which face falling water tables and dry wells – will need to consider interconnecting and consolidating their small water utilities to build resilience. Upgrading wells and investing in new supplies, including partnering with city agencies, can also help. More interconnections will also help urban areas deal with modern droughts. Maintaining affordability, in both urban and rural communities, remains essential.

Agriculture, California’s largest user of water, will need to reduce its irrigated footprint over the coming decades. Although California will continue to be the nation’s most productive agricultural state, land will need to be fallowed to meet dwindling supplies and to meet groundwater sustainability goals. There are ways to mitigate the economic impacts of set-aside through water trading and groundwater banking. Other uses of fallow land, such as water-constrained agriculture or solar development, could also help maintain the economic productivity of this land while reducing environmental hazards such as dust.

Finally, managing water for the environment – ​​and the multiple benefits provided by healthy ecosystems – remains a fundamental challenge with no easy answers. The state needs a strategy to help ecosystems — California’s vital natural infrastructure — adapt to the impacts of warming and drying. This includes setting aside dedicated water supplies, accelerating the pace and scale of restoration activities, and finding and protecting climate refugia – habitat protected from climate impacts.

All of these actions will require unprecedented coordination and integration. And although the challenge is daunting, we deliberately chose the word “flourish”. California has the skills and the will to address these crises, along with abundant natural and human resources and a new infusion of state and federal funding to support the actions needed. In short, we have all the tools to thrive, even in this unpredictable climate.

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