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California Water Summit: A New Landscape for Water Management

Kristin Landry — June 21, 2016

??????????????????Drought is not new to California, but 2012-2015 has been the driest 4 consecutive years in history. With climate change forcing us to face the idea of a new normal, the biggest question is: What if the next drought is even worse? This year’s California Water Summit highlighted how the discussion around California’s water situation is shifting focus from emergency measures to long-term preparation. This will require stakeholders to generate new solutions to address water management, both from the top down and the bottom up.

Top Down: Putting the Right Systems in Place

The California Department of Water Resources has been managing the variety of funding opportunities available to public utilities and others through Proposition 1. One focus area relates to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee the management of the groundwater basins that provide over half of California’s water in dry years. The process of forming GSAs requires the input of many stakeholders on how to protect our watersheds from unsustainable use. As this effort evolves, it will be important to help these entities organize effectively and meet their planning requirements.

Another hot topic as resources become scarcer is that of water rights. Nobody wants to lose their access to water, but things have definitely changed since this fragmented system was put in place, resulting in suboptimal use of a precious resource. The summit called upon a number of Australians to share their experiences with the electronic water markets implemented in response to a culmination of factors, including their own drought that lasted over a decade. Though the endeavor was technologically challenging, the Australians said the largest obstacle was political inertia.

The California Water Summit also exhibited a strong focus on recycled water as an important water supply. Case studies showed the criticality of regulation and investment that support this resource as consumers become more comfortable with expanding its uses.

Bottom Up: Aligning the Resources

The Pre-Summit Workshop was dedicated to public-private partnerships, termed P3s, as a way to spur investment in water infrastructure. Various opportunities were discussed throughout conference sessions, including grant funding, which can take up to several years to secure. The summit wrapped up with a number of case studies that highlighted the importance of involving various stakeholders at every step in the process. One set of stakeholders to be particularly aware of is disadvantaged communities, as these sometimes overlap with areas hardest hit by drought.

Infrastructure is composed not only of large civic construction projects, but also of the more subtle IT networks that enable more precise management of water-related systems. These investments are also necessary as utilities seek to eliminate inefficiencies from leaks and other sources of waste. As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” We can expect increasing focus on (and hopefully investment in) California water data over the next few years.

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