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The Colorado River, the State Water Project (SWP) and groundwater are where California gets its water. And all three are at risk, requiring significant investment and changes in current practices if water quality and reliability are to be maintained.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, guided by the steady hand of the state’s Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, offers a ray of hope. But the rest of us need to help.
We share the water in the Colorado River with six other neighboring states and Mexico, and it supplies up to 50 percent of Southern California’s water. The Colorado has been over-allocated, with “paper” water – water rights and entitlements – far exceeding “wet” water – how much water is actually available in the river – while flows have been severely diminished by drought and climate change. In addition, water transfers from Imperial to San Diego have accelerated the decline of the Salton Sea and triggered the urgent need for investments in restoration and mitigation of the environmental harm caused by its decline.
Groundwater supplies 40 percent of California’s water supply, significantly more in dry years. However, groundwater overuse may be even more immediate and daunting because our disadvantaged communities thirst for safe drinking water and jobs to replace those lost as agricultural land is taken out of production.
Thoughtfully implementing state law that requires local water users to bring groundwater use to sustainable levels within the next two decades will be part of the solution. However, this will result in withdrawal of large amounts of land from agricultural production and the loss of economic benefits. But we can repurpose those lands to support large scale storage and solar, as well as other renewable energy technologies that can help decarbonize our electric grid and create new jobs in the Central Valley.
The SWP, which is more than 60 years old and supplies Central Valley farmers and metropolitan Los Angeles with a huge portion of water supplies, is facing billions in seismic repairs and deferred maintenance. But California’s Department of Water Resources’ planning process appears to be isolated from other state water and clean energy infrastructure planning, while including little recognition of how climate change will impact California’s water delivery system.
In addition, the SWP and its member agencies have the opportunity to better integrate the state-wide project with California’s renewable power grid of the future and create mutually beneficial partnerships with the California’s grid operator and electric utilities.
Modernizing the state’s water delivery infrastructure, including access to clean and safe drinking water for all, is a crucial part of achieving California’s climate and clean energy goals. It will require state and local agencies to think outside traditional boxes, working together to create the climate-resilient water system the governor had in mind when he signed that executive order.