In summary

California needs a coherent strategy for harnessing its innovative spirit toward solutions that solve its water security challenges.

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By Danielle Blacet

Danielle Blacet is deputy executive director at the California Municipal Utilities Association, dblacet@cmua.org.

Adrian Covert, Special to CalMatters

Adrian Covert is senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council, acovert@bayareacouncil.org.

Earlier this month, camera crews once again gathered in the Sierra Nevada to watch a man plunge a pole through the snow. The pole was removed and, following a tense few moments, Californians learned we experienced another dry winter, and we are plunging further into drought.

These snowpack surveys are quaint rituals, but they’re also a jarring reminder of how little technological innovation has occurred in California’s water sector. 

The case for action is clear. 

Over the past decade, California has experienced the most severe drought in more than 1,200 years, prompting a tree die-off that is fueling cataclysmic wildfires across the state. Scientists estimate that by the end of this century the Sierra Nevada snowpack, California’s single largest source of freshwater, will decline up to 65% from the historical average. 

California’s water system was engineered around its temperate climate to capture and store gradual snowmelt, and is unprepared for prolonged droughts punctured by sudden deluges.

Yet most California households are provided freshwater from infrastructure that has remained fundamentally unchanged for about 100 years. Water is captured in reservoirs, moved to treatment facilities and piped into homes. Once used, water flows to wastewater treatment plants and is then sent back into the environment. 

Within this traditional journey, there are many opportunities to save water and create new water supplies.

For example, advanced sensor technology can help water managers more quickly locate and repair leaks, which account for up to 10% of the water homes and businesses use; mobile purification technology currently under development could be deployed to serve the estimated 1 million Californians who currently lack access to clean drinking water; and advanced climate and geospatial technologies can help water managers accurately predict available water supplies for cities and farms. 

Although many local and regional water agencies across California have adopted these and other technologies, the state does not have a strategy to ensure widespread adoption. This matters because California’s hydrology is interconnected – a severe drought in the Sierra Nevada can have a major impact on life in the Bay Area and beyond.  

Nor does California have a strategy to ensure it leads the inevitable technological revolution in the water sector. Water technology accounted for less than 1% of all U.S. venture capital investments in 2020, of which California-based startups received just 21%, an-all-time-low. Meanwhile, countries from Australia to Israel are actively promoting the growth of homegrown water-technology clusters. California’s own largest water agency is today participating in a Nevada-based effort to pilot and scale innovative water technologies. 

That’s why our organizations are proud to sponsor Senate Bill 351, The Water Innovation Act, introduced by state Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Salinas. SB 351 would create the Office of Water Innovation within the California Water Commission and direct state agencies to partner with universities, local water agencies, the private sector and other stakeholders to recommend changes to existing state laws and regulations that would better incentivize innovation in the water sector. 

We enjoy an in-person snow survey in California’s scenic Sierra Nevada as much as anyone. More importantly, California needs a coherent strategy for harnessing its innovative spirit toward solutions that solve its water security challenges. Passing SB 351 is a good start. 

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