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In Praise of California’s Water Resilience Portfolio

Little girl holding glass of fresh water
August 5, 2020

Life in California has changed dramatically over the past five months. We’ve experienced toilet paper shortages, learned new terms like “Zoom zombie” and heard city officials tell us to stay home. It has been a lot to get used to.

One thing hasn’t changed though, and that’s the need for clean and reliable water. So we were heartened to see the State published its final vision for meeting water supply challenges like droughts, earthquakes, and aging infrastructure. It is hard to think about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic lately, but it is also a crisis that underscores the importance of access to safe and affordable water as key in fighting the spread of disease and ensuring people can stay safe in their homes. 

July 28 was publication day for the final version of the California Water Resilience Portfolio, a 141-page document accounting for the challenges and opportunities facing the state and its communities as we seek to secure every Californian’s right to water.

For us, the most excellent news was the inclusion of a single-tunnel, modern conveyance solution within the key actions in the portfolio. In our view, modernizing the State Water Project’s water delivery system through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is vital and makes everything else in the portfolio possible. We think it is no less than the linchpin to the state’s future water resilience.

This state-led system serves as the backbone of California’s water supply, delivering water to the homes, businesses and farms of 27 million Californians. Without it, California would have to replace 2.5 million acre-feet of clean, fresh water to meet average annual state demand on that system. Here in Southern California, the State Water Project represents 30 percent of the total water supply, serving 19 million people.

Water delivered through the State Water Project is a cost-effective source of water for Californians. Yet this critical supply has a weak link in its old, man-made dirt levee infrastructure found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Updating this system is critical to the success of the Water Resilience Portfolio. Not only will it build resilience should the “big one” hit along one of the state’s fault lines, it will also facilitate groundwater recharge in overdrawn basins and prevent saltwater intrusion from sea level rise. Building a large-capacity single tunnel under the Delta protects the state’s most valuable and affordable water supply and protects the public’s investment in the State Water Project, while safeguarding one of the richest ecosystems in the world.

We also must applaud the state’s approach that borrows heavily from nature to build and improve water systems that millions rely upon. Some say nature is the best engineer. We certainly agree that we can learn from — and imitate — natural ecosystems as we work toward a water supply system ready to help us cope with extreme droughts and floods, rising temperatures, depleted groundwater basins, and aging infrastructure. All will be amplified by impacts of climate change.

The state’s willingness to draw lessons from nature are evident throughout the portfolio. From smart, multi-benefit projects that combine flood control, farming and wildlife habitat (see the Nigiri Project for an example of how well this can work) to the Delta Conveyance project design that aims to create more natural flow directions in the Delta to help fish, there is a lot to admire in this vision for California’s water future.

It is also a fact that projects such as Delta Conveyance and the Sites Reservoir will benefit the local and regional economy through job creation. Construction of both will require a large skilled workforce for multiple years, an important consideration in light of the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. All told, there is much to admire in this Water Resilience Portfolio and we look forward to supporting the Newsom Administration as it aims to make these goals a reality.

A recent poll asked people ages 14-44 how they hoped U.S. society would change after the pandemic is over. A third said they hoped that everyone would wash their hands more.

Let’s make sure they have the water to do it.

Charles Wilson
Executive Director
Southern California Water Coalition