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As the climate gets hotter and drier, state’s water plan must consider all options

The proposed Sites Reservoir would flood this land west of Maxwell.
The proposed Sites Reservoir would flood this land west of Maxwell. Sacramento Bee file

Climate change presents a clear and present danger to California: Rising temperatures will continue to reduce the Sierra snowpack — essentially California’s largest bank of water — and will cause more frequent and dangerous droughts.

As we continue to recover from the historic drought that stretched from 2011 to 2017, we must accept this new reality and start preparing now.

The Sierra snowpack is the source for 30 percent of California’s water supply, but it’s at risk. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory project that climate change will eliminate more than half of the snowpack within the next 20 to 40 years; they estimate 79 percent of the snowpack will be gone by the end of the century.

Dianne Feinstein.jpg
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Becky Hammel

At the same time the snowpack is dwindling, droughts are expected to become more severe. One example: scientists predict a strong likelihood that the Colorado River Basin will experience a megadrought of 20 to 50 years in duration during this century.

Add to that challenge of our antiquated water infrastructure — predominately built in 1960s, when California was home to 16 million — and you see the dire straits we face. California is now home to more than 40 million people, and it keeps on growing. We really have our work cut out for us.

To address these problems, I partnered with fellow western Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to introduce the bipartisan Drought Resiliency and Water Supply Infrastructure Act.

Our bill provides a map for improving our aging water infrastructure in three fundamental ways:

1. First, the bill invests in an all-of-the-above strategy to replace our dwindling snowpack. There is no silver bullet that will replace snowpack loss, but there are significant steps we can take. To capture more water from large rainstorms and the rapid spring snowmelt in the future, the bill authorizes $670 million for surface and groundwater storage projects. It also provides funding to improve canals to transport floodwaters to be stored underground. The bill also authorizes more funds for alternative water sources. That includes $100 million for water recycling and $60 million for desalination.

We can’t hamstring ourselves by not investigating and funding a comprehensive strategy. New technologies will have to be a part of any successes we have, and the federal government will play a role in helping support that.

2. Second, the bill obtains maximum benefit from limited federal funding by leveraging federal dollars. The bill creates a new cost-effective loan program so water districts can afford to invest in new projects. The loans, offered at 30-year Treasury rates, will allow the federal government to heavily leverage the money it devotes to these projects. By investing just $150 million in federal funds for this loan program, a total of as much as $12.5 billion in loans would be realized to facilitate many vital projects. And taxpayers are protected since water districts rarely default on loans.

The bill also stretches federal dollars further by requiring 50 to 75 percent of the grant funding for water projects to come from state and local sources. Because of California’s investment in state water bonds, we will be very competitive for these grants.

Make no mistake, this isn’t just a state issue or a federal issue. It will take buy-in and investments from local, state and federal governments, outside groups and the private sector to modernize our water infrastructure in order to cope with climate change and droughts.

3. Third, the bill helps protect and restore imperiled species and reduces the risk of destructive wildfires. The bill authorizes $140 million for environmental restoration to help protect fish, migratory birds and forests from climate change. The bill also authorizes significant funds to improve habitat for salmon and Delta smelt and to combat invasive species. And it helps fund storage projects like the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County in order to increase cold water habitat for salmon.

Importantly, the bill requires that all applicable federal and state environmental laws — including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act — are followed before a project can receive funding.

Regarding wildfires, the bill allows the Bureau of Reclamation to contribute to forest, meadow and watershed restoration projects. Healthier forests upstream can improve water quality and reduce the risk of sediment dumps polluting reservoirs during wildfires.

The bottom line is that climate change is forcing us to rethink our approach to water. That means improving storage, maximizing the efficient use of our existing water supply and finding new sustainable water sources. All of these goals will require significant investment so we can modernize our water infrastructure.

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