A Fresh Start for California's Water Future
California needs a long-term approach to developing a resilient water portfolio. For statewide water solutions to succeed, all those impacted must be considered and included – from plan formulation through implementation, governance, and operation. This effort must also be guided by the state’s policy to reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs.
Resilient Water Portfolio Solutions that Work
Increased water exports and reduced freshwater flows through the Delta have caused a drastic decline in the health of the estuary, straining the ecosystem and degrading water quality. As communities, businesses and farms throughout the state seek reliable water supplies, California needs sustainable and cost-effective solutions, not a massive multi-billion dollar tunnel/Delta Conveyance Project that won’t add a single drop of new water to the system. Consistent with a “Fix it First” approach to infrastructure, the Delta Counties Coalition (DCC) recommends the following solutions to secure resilient, equitable, long-term water supplies while preserving natural resources for future generations.
Water Portfolio Solutions
System wide Levee Improvements
Strengthening Delta levees is vital to protecting over $60 billion of critical infrastructure, including pipelines, state highways and power and communication lines, along with the state’s water supply delivery system. In addition to statewide benefits, this infrastructure safeguards the lives and livelihoods of four million Delta Counties residents, and protects a vital Delta agricultural industry that contributes more than $4 billion to the state’s economy each year and supports a Northern California mega-region economy with an $875 billion annual gross regional product.
- Through-Delta conveyance meets the state’s co-equal goals mandate of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration in the Delta, provides critical flow through the Estuary to the Bay, preserves water quality and helps control invasive species while irrigating prime farmland in the Delta.
- The state and local partner investment program in Delta levees is incredibly successful. With an average $22 million per year investment since the 1980s, there has been a 50 percent reduction in levee failures. For about $1 billion (spent over 10-15 years), Delta levees could be improved to the baseline Bulletin 192-82 standard with a 24-foot wide crown to further safeguard against potential earthquakes.
- To ensure adequate freshwater flows through the Delta, legally enforceable through-Delta flow standards must be established based on best available science from independent, peer reviewed sources. Such flow standards must be consistent with California’s water rights priority system and statutory protections for the Delta.
Upgrades to Maintenance of Existing Water Delivery Systems and Infrastructure
California’s water infrastructure needs are ranked highest in the U.S., with a maintenance backlog of over $77 million dollars for improved drinking water, water treatment, water storage and wastewater infrastructure. Additionally, almost $1 billion needs to be invested each year to improve stormwater quality. These upgrades are necessary to secure future water supplies and would help our economy rebound from the COVID-19 downturn.
- Technology-based solutions for water and wastewater treatment, stormwater quality improvements, and flood control measures are crucial to make our water systems more reliable and climate-resilient.
- Operations and maintenance upgrades to existing conveyance infrastructure in the Delta to maintain flows and continue providing water to other parts of the state are essential. Upgrades reduce fish entrainment and reduce reverse flows but have been delayed while hundreds of millions are spent planning a controversial and damaging Delta tunnel. For example, non-physical fish barriers and/or physical screens should be implemented to safeguard fish along the freshwater pathway to the existing state and federal water project diversions.
- Given existing degraded water quality and fishery conditions, if any new diversions were considered in the Delta, such facilities could only operate in high flows to avoid injury to other water users and unreasonable effects on fish and wildlife. Any new diversions would also need to be scaled appropriately and sited on lands already owned by the state or other project proponents. The use of existing water infrastructure in the Delta, coupled with brackish water treatment, should also be considered.
Groundwater and Surface Storage
Additional storage throughout the state, specifically in the south-of-Delta export area, can capture water from the Delta during wet months and provide much needed water in drier periods when exports are most damaging to the Delta and also help local agencies comply with Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requirements. Storage projects can capture hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in storm water for later use during droughts. Groundwater storage alone could provide enough water for Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and Orange County to survive five consecutive years of drought.
- More storage capacity, including natural storage in our upper watersheds, is a key part of the water portfolio. Storage examples like Los Vaqueros or San Luis Reservoir expansions, when combined with groundwater recharge and storage projects, can provide additional resiliency for the state’s water system in the face of climate change. The state’s permitting and review system should prioritize and streamline these projects.
Though many communities must rely in part on water supplies from other areas of the state, local sources of water are safe, cost-effective, reliable, and support local jobs, local control and the local economy without taking financial risks that could make water unaffordable for environmental justice communities.
- Stormwater capture, water purification, desalination, reuse and recycling, conservation, groundwater cleanup, and conjunctive use are cost-effective methods for generating new sources of water. There’s as much new water available from these water supply sources as is currently exported from the Delta.
Protecting a Healthy Delta Ecosystem
As the portfolio actions are implemented, the Delta ecosystem must be protected and restored by ensuring adequate water supply and quality, enhancing Delta fisheries, and managing/eradicating invasive species.
- Well-designed habitat restoration, combined with adequate flows, can benefit salmon and other species. Projects developed in collaboration with local communities that preserve working landscapes, use existing public lands, and incorporate Good Neighbor policies should be prioritized.
What About Climate Resiliency and Seismic Activity?
Key findings from the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Adapts process indicate that flood risk in the Delta must be carefully managed, especially with possible changes in sea levels, precipitation, hydrology, and temperatures. Approximately 65 percent of the Delta’s population could be exposed to the 100-year flood by 2050. This puts a high concentration of Delta residents at risk including many socially vulnerable residents. Climate change will reduce Delta exports in all year types, with greater impacts in dry years. The existing water supply system does not provide enough storage to capture anticipated increases in runoff due to more variable precipitation.
No earthquake, including the earthquakes of 1906, 1989, 2014 has damaged Delta levees. In fact, seismic risk to water delivery conveyance systems is much greater in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions where major fault lines cross poorly maintained water delivery systems subject also to subsidence damage from groundwater over-pumping. Water export agencies have the resources in place to withstand the maximum possible supply interruption of six months from a major earthquake in the Delta, should one occur. Maintaining existing levees will further protect critical water supply infrastructure from both earthquake risks and climate change.
The DCC is committed to achieving the co-equal goals of increasing the reliability of the entire state’s water supply and improving the health of the Delta ecosystem while preserving and enhancing the unique agricultural, historical, cultural, environmental values of the Delta. A portfolio approach should fix our existing infrastructure first, and not require a new Delta tunnel. We urge water stakeholders to reconsider the options to provide for current and future statewide water needs and to select cost-effective options that will also protect the Delta’s unique and irreplaceable resources.
The Delta Counties Coalition advocates for genuine statewide water solutions that will support communities throughout the state. The DCC represents over 4 million Californians and works to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta Watershed, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. From the Mountain Counties at the headwaters, the Central Valley which helps feed the world, the Bay Area mega-economic region, to Southern California securing its water future, we must work together on resilient and equitable water portfolio alternatives.