My turn: How Newsom can use water management to confront climate change

By Maurice Hall, Special to CALmatters

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom has the opportunity to chart his own course on climate change by addressing one of the state’s greatest challenges: the resilience of our water supplies.

Newsom didn’t waste any time diving in.

On Election Day, he co-authored a letter with Gov. Jerry Brown asking the state water board to delay voting on a plan to increase Delta water flows for salmon so that stakeholders could negotiate voluntary agreements.

Addressing the urgent needs of our aquatic systems requires a bold vision of water governance in California, along with more funding and investment in our natural systems.

To maintain the world’s fifth largest economy, it’s crucial for California to manage water in a new way that addresses the climate change realities of the 21st century—drought and an unpredictable water supply.

This starts with more reliable funding.

Although voters earlier this month rejected Proposition 3, an $8.9 billion water bond measure, the state still has a good start on major water projects with more than $1 billion from Proposition 68 approved in June.

However, we still need a steady funding source to pay for the work of stewarding our rivers, drinking water and groundwater. It’s common sense. We all understand we need to pay our water bill to help cover the costs of operating and maintaining pipes and treatment plants that bring clean water to our homes every day.

Another equally important but often overlooked part of our state’s water system is our natural water infrastructure: the watersheds that collect rain and snow, the rivers that deliver water to farms and cities, and the vast underground basins that store groundwater.

People who benefit from the water that these natural systems provide need to help pay for their upkeep.

In addition to reliable funding, we need more cohesive, inclusive management of our rivers.

Currently, management is painfully disjointed. Environmental Defense Fund proposes more coordinated management that includes representation from water users, dam operators, the environmental and environmental justice community, and state and federal wildlife agencies.

A critical component of this coordinated management is an environmental water manager to oversee our watersheds’ environmental water—water to support fish and wildlife—in a holistic, transparent way.

The environmental water manager should be backed up by planning, science and engineering staff, similar to those supporting municipal water agencies. The environmental water manager’s responsibilities would include overseeing approved bond funds for water storage improvements, which are crucial to making the state more resilient to climate change.

This is not to say we should put the needs of the environment ahead of people. It’s a disgrace that more than one million largely low-income residents face potential exposure to unsafe water in a state as wealthy as California. Legislation to create a statewide water fee to raise $140 million a year for safe drinking water failed earlier this year. In his first budget, Gov. Newsom should state that he will not tolerate the embarrassing fact that so many Californians lack safe, affordable drinking water and signal support for a renewed legislative effort for a fee to provide this fundamental right.

Many communities lack clean drinking water because of groundwater over-pumping. Only about 5 percent of California’s freshwater is above ground; the rest is groundwater.

Newsom will come into office as local agencies are starting to implement California’s most significant groundwater law in a century, which requires local agencies to balance their groundwater. Newsom can play a role in their success by providing them with resources to create sustainability plans and increase measuring and monitoring.

If California succeeds in balancing its groundwater supplies, the state will serve as a model for the West and beyond on addressing water scarcity caused by climate change.

If Newsom goes even farther by modernizing the state’s water governance and providing drinking water to all, he would truly make his own mark in establishing California as a world leader by building resilience to climate change.

Maurice Hall is associate vice president for ecosystems-water for the Environmental Defense Fund, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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