My turn: How the next governor can address our water crises

By Jay Lund, Special to CALmatters

All Californians make water decisions, from the length of our shower, to how we water our plants and irrigate farms, to how we manage runoff from our roofs. But when it comes down to it, California’s governor is our single most important water leader.

Governors control, if anyone does, the major state regulatory, water delivery project, and planning bureaucracies, with staffs of thousands and budgets of billions. Governors are involved in crafting, passing, and implementing water legislation. And governors react to, bring, and defend court actions regarding water.

This is no easy task. Water policy and management are highly decentralized and complex across the state, local, and federal levels. A governor’s interest and actions are often needed to bring these diverse decision-makers and stakeholders together.

California’s two recent governors, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been unusually skilled. Both responded effectively to urgent floods and droughts in ways that also brought long-term improvements.

The next governor will face similar water problems. And he will see opportunities, expectations, and pitfalls along the way.

Here are five major water problems that the next governor will contend with:

  • Implementing the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will come to involve most major state water agencies, as well as most water users and local water agencies. The issue of depleted groundwater is connected to surface water and environmental problems. That means the state will need a more unifying framework for water accounting, data, modeling analysis, and integrated management across California’s many water agencies and interests.
  • Our native ecosystems and fishes are under threat. Managing ecosystems is the most troubled, ineffective, and fragmented area of water management in California. State agencies lack coordinated authorities and adequate resources and accountability to accomplish this difficult goal.
  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water supply system, is degrading, especially with sea level rise and a warming climate. Proposals for water diversion tunnels, habitat restoration, and levee improvements will require government support and gubernatorial leadership.
  • Rural residents in parts of California have unsafe drinking water supplies. This problem has become intractable because of insufficient state and regional leadership.
  • Overall, the effectiveness of state government in water and environmental problems has decayed. Growing diversity of state responsibilities, inadequate development of agency talent, declining budgets, and ever-growing bureaucratic burdens are all to blame.

The governor must develop and deploy state agency staff effectively, and improve staff technical capability and organization across agencies.

The new governor will have a rich toolbox of legal authority, expertise, and resources for addressing these and other water problems. An effective recent innovation is the governor’s California Water Action Plan.

This 30-page plan identifies a range of specific gubernatorial priorities and actions, with identified agency responsibilities and deadlines. This single plan has been more effective at galvanizing interagency actions than the many individual agency and program plans.

Developing science-based solutions for water policy and management is another important enterprise crossing agencies, including universities and local government. Some initial efforts on data and science coordination are underway, but much more is needed.

By appointing capable and ambitious leaders willing to work together, reinforced by central leadership, the new governor can build on the successes of recent administrations.

Floods, droughts, and lawsuits give each governor opportunities to show effectiveness and to make strategic improvements, particularly if an administration is properly prepared.

Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

Latest in Commentary


Passage of $2 trillion stimulus package will help a wide variety of businesses and workers


As coronavirus impacts the hospitality business, chefs cook up a plan to help farmers and restaurants, and it also will help feed the hungry

coronavirus stimulus check


Stimulus checks for the coronavirus pandemic won’t be sent to my family

computer science education


Governor, legislators helping to ensure equity to computer science education in California

California State House


Three big Democratic clashes in California

Empty shelves of toilet paper and paper towels at Safeway in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco on March 13, 2020. On Thursday Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order banning events of more than 250 people amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters


Californians realize it may take three months or longer before life gets back to normal, poll shows