In summary

Emergency conservation orders address short-term water shortages, but don’t move us toward the long-term goal of drought resilience. That requires strategic investments in local drought-resilient water supply projects.

By Sean Bigley

Sean Bigley is chair of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority Board, sbigley@roseville.ca.us.

Gary Croucher, Special to CalMatters

Gary Croucher is chair of the San Diego County Water Authority Board, gary.croucher@sdcwa.org.

On July 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded two earlier drought emergency declarations to cover 50 of the state’s 58 counties. In May, he directed state agencies to consider easing requirements for reservoir releases to conserve water upstream, and to make water transfers easier. Both are needed.

Notably, the governor’s emergency proclamation did not impose water conservation mandates. Instead, Gov. Newsom is leaving water conservation to each region — a smart and necessary approach that incentivizes regional investments in water supply. 

Emergency conservation orders address short-term water shortages, but don’t move us toward the long-term goal of drought resilience. That requires strategic investments in local drought-resilient water supply projects, costs mostly borne at the local level. 

The state recently took a step in the right direction by approving $3.5 billion in budgeted funds for water projects, but the details of how that money will be used are still being worked out. It is important that funds are directed to local drought-resilience projects. That would go a long way toward accelerating the 21st-century water solutions we need.

Consider our two regions: Sacramento and San Diego. We both have dry summers, but our water supplies are very different.

San Diego’s water comes from locally developed and imported water sources. Sacramento’s supplies come from nearby rivers fed by snowmelt and groundwater. That’s why we’ve chosen to solve our water supply challenges very differently.

A generation ago, San Diego County depended almost entirely on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River. Since then, $3 billion of strategic investments in water efficiency and supply diversification have changed the picture enormously. Today, per capita water use is almost half of what it was 30 years ago due to changes in both technology and behavior. The region also has added new supplies, including water recycling and reuse, seawater desalination and a long-term conserved water partnership with the Imperial Irrigation District. Those efforts and others mean San Diego County is well insulated from drought.

The Sacramento region, meanwhile, has water rights in both the American and Sacramento rivers. This means it does not need to buy water from other regions. When surplus supply is available from these water rights, as in wet years, it has been used to recharge groundwater. The region spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure to develop the groundwater aquifer and link the region’s water systems with new plumbing. As a result, groundwater can be sustainably withdrawn in drought years like this one and shared more broadly with surface water suppliers, easing strain on the rivers.

Reducing demand for water is an important component of drought resilience, but it is not the only one. It is critical to develop local resilient water supplies. 

Ratepayers in both regions have maintained steady investments in long-term water-use efficiency, such as swapping out lawns for low-water plants and installing highly efficient appliances.

This is different from conservation, which involves short-term behavioral changes, like skipping showers, an important strategy that may be necessary in some regions of California this year.

By supporting a county-by-county approach to drought, Gov. Newsom is encouraging water resiliency. This means we can spend limited ratepayer dollars on the most effective steps to improve water supplies for the long term, rather than on temporary conservation measures.

For Sacramento, that means investing in connecting surface water and groundwater supplies, which offers more benefits and costs less than other alternatives. 

For San Diego, the next steps are completing a handful of potable-water reuse projects that will purify wastewater and significantly increase the region’s water independence. 

These upgrades make sense as a climate change adaptation strategy.  Emergency conservation orders address short-term water shortages, but don’t move us toward that long-term goal. Strategic investments in local drought-resilient water supply projects do. 

Learn more about strategies for building long-term resiliency to drought and climate change for the Sacramento region at rwah2o.org/waterfuture and San Diego at sdcwa.org/your-water.

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