In summary

California’s water infrastructure is deteriorating and in need of the kind of financial investment that only the federal government can afford.

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By Mike Wade, Special to CalMatters

Mike Wade is the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, mwade@farmwater.org.

California is once again into a critically dry year with memories of the last drought all too fresh. Scientists warn that “boom or bust” water years are the new normal, and we all knew we’d be back here again. The question is, what have we learned and what have we done about it?

One of the first things our last drought reminded us is that as Californians, we’re all in this together. If drought pits us against one another, we all lose. 

Loss of water for cities, towns and businesses causes personal and economic harm. Take too much from farms and we have less of the fresh, healthy, locally grown food our families count on. And since you can’t grow healthy crops without a healthy planet, farmers directly feel the pain of environmental water shortages along with other Californians. We need a balanced approach to water shortages for the benefit of all Californians.

Massive investments in conservation aren’t enough to meet every water need in a dry year. Homeowners and businesses have done their part by installing low-flow appliances and drought-friendly landscaping.

Heading into the 2015 drought, California farmers had already reduced water use by double digits. Since 2015, they have taken even more steps to conserve.

Farmers have again increased investment in more efficient irrigation systems as well as new technology, which lets us pinpoint where and when water is needed by the plants and soil. We have also dramatically increased use of recycled water. 

Because reducing our carbon footprint helps lessen the impact on the changing climate that contributes to water shortages, farmers also invest in solar, wind and other clean energy for our farms. And since many of California’s wildlife areas exist alongside farms, we are implementing multi-benefit projects that improve California ecosystems while making our water supply more reliable for everyone.

However, while no one has been idle, our current situation is unsustainable, and we need to do more. Even without a formal drought declaration, Almost 2 million acres of farmland has already seen its water supply cut as much as 95%. Some farmers are anticipating it will be cut to zero. Many of them are making the difficult decision to not plant as much of the produce Californians love the most, like asparagus, melons and tomatoes, because there is just no water to grow them.

There are things we can do to avoid continuously ending up in this same situation. California’s water infrastructure is aging, deteriorating and in desperate need of the kind of financial investment that only the federal government can afford. We hope that will come in the newly announced infrastructure package. In addition to fixing what’s already in place, we also need to “Build Back Better” as the Biden-Harris administration says it wants to do.

That means not just repairing existing infrastructure, but also investing in new ways of doing things. There is new technology available on recycling and desalination. The effects of climate change tell us we must build new storage for both surface and groundwater. Science also has taught us that habitat restoration is an important component of a healthy water supply.

Addressing the critical needs of our water infrastructure does so much more than secure our water future. It will create jobs and help in our economic recovery, address some of the social inequalities in the system, help us adjust to climate change, better protect the environment and help maintain a safe and abundant local food supply.

The urgency of these needs demands that any legislation also includes ways to expedite projects rather than let them meander for years through a water bureaucracy made of more than 15 federal, state and local agencies.

We call on all our federal partners to join us. Standing on the edge of another drought, all Californians are watching to see if our leaders will take this opportunity to secure our water future.

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