DROUGHT:

Calif.'s 5-year plan emphasizes water conservation

California must make water conservation "a way of life," the state said yesterday as it released a five-year plan for managing supplies that arrived as a record-breaking drought underscores the state's challenges.

The California Water Action Plan listed a number of priorities and put conservation at the top, with the document stating that "there is more that can be done and all Californians must embrace this effort."

The blueprint also said the state will look to improve its ability to store water and will manage groundwater more effectively. Water recycling also must be enhanced, it said. And California leaders pledged to balance the competing demands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which supplies water to 25 million Californians -- two-thirds of the state's population -- and 3 million acres of farmland.

"It is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought," Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in his State of the State speech last week, words that were quoted at the top of the water plan. "We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water. We need regulators to rebalance water rules and enable voluntary transfers of water, and we must prepare for forest fires."

The blueprint said the state faces problems that include uncertain supplies from the Colorado River, scarcity because of drought, declining groundwater supplies, poor water quality, declining native fish species, floods and the risk of earthquakes that could disrupt supplies. It all comes as the population is projected to grow to 50 million by 2049 from the current 38 million.

The drought could push the state to move forward with changes to how it handles water, said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

"We have a history of having a lot of California inaction plans," Lund said. "We just had decades and decades of people making plans often without a lot of high-level buy-in at the political level."

The latest plan, he said, is "only 20 pages and it brings a level of focus to the broad waterfront that we haven't seen in past water plans that have been maybe narrower in scope and maybe not at a high level for policy discussions."

He added, "I think a drought is going to get everybody's attention. It brings a level of focus that we don't always see."

The five-year plan lays out steps for balancing the needs of people, farms, fish and the environment. The document said the proposed changes will ensure "more reliable water supplies, the restoration of important species and habitat, and a more resilient, sustainably managed water resources system ... that can better withstand inevitable and unforeseen pressures in the coming decades."

The state probably can't achieve all its stated ambitions, Lund said. "But if they get 25 percent of it, maybe half, that will be quite an accomplishment."

Cutting consumption 20 percent

So far, Brown has only asked for voluntary conservation of 20 percent to deal with the drought. The plan notes that in 2009 the state adopted the Water Conservation Act, which required a 20 percent reduction in urban per-capita water use by the end of 2020. That law also mandated promoting expanded development of sustainable water supplies regionally. It required agricultural water management plans and efficient water management practices for those supplying water for agriculture.

"Conservation and efficiency are also keys to reducing the energy needed to pump, transport, treat and deliver water -- an important action included in the state's Climate Change Scoping Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," the blueprint said. "We must continue to build on our existing efforts to conserve water and promote the innovation of new systems for increased water conservation."

The Brown administration plans to ask the state's Legislature to expand funding for research on urban and agricultural water use efficiency, as well as the development of efficiency standards.

The plan also urged promoting local actions to cut water use. Those include "prohibiting certain types of wasteful water use," the blueprint said, including "watering hard surfaces such as sidewalks, walkways, driveways or parking areas; prohibiting outdoor watering during periods of rain; and not serving water to customers in restaurants unless specifically requested."

To deal with drought, the plan said, California will "revise operations to respond to extreme conditions." State agencies, working with federal counterparts, "will implement a series of administrative solutions ... to make water delivery decisions and propose options to address water quality and supply objectives in extreme conditions."

Asked to elaborate, Tim Moran, spokesman with the State Water Resources Control Board, cited the governor's drought declaration that said agencies will "expedite the processing of water transfers."

The state also will speed up funding for any water supply enhancement projects that can break ground this year, the governor's proclamation said, "and will explore if any existing unspent funds can be repurposed to enable near-term water conservation projects."

There also are limited cases where the state could suspend its protection law, the California Environmental Quality Act. Those include requests for transfers between the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

The drought proclamation said parts of the law could be "suspended on the basis that strict compliance with them will prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the emergency."

Moving ahead with tunnel plan

Other goals named in the plan include managing and preparing for dry periods, expanding water storage capacity and improving groundwater management, providing safe water for all, and increasing flood protection.

The plan also talks about achieving "the co-equal goals for the Delta." There are competing needs including supplying water to farms and meeting federal requirements that in some cases block pumping to protect fish.

"In recent years, important fish populations have declined dramatically, leading to historic restrictions on water supply deliveries," the plan said. "Moreover, the current system relies on water flowing through a network of fragile levees from the northern part of the Delta to the pumps in the south, where two out of three fish trapped near the pumps die."

The levees also were not designed to withstand a large earthquake, "the probability of which is greater than 60 percent over the next 50 years," it said. "They are also vulnerable to major floods and rising sea levels."

The water blueprint advocates going forward with the delta plan. That controversial goal, which Brown backs, would build 30-mile tunnels underneath the delta to carry water underneath it to the south, cutting back on the current practice of running massive pumps in the south delta that disturb fish like the endangered delta smelt (Greenwire, Oct. 8, 2013).

Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies irrigation water to about 600,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, said his group supports moving ahead with that plan.

"If the drought highlights anything for us, it's that the infrastructure we're living with today is outdated," Peltier said. "We need more storage, we need more conveyance, we need to get on with preparing the infrastructure for the next generation, something we've done way too little on."

But he said his group is concerned less about increasing water storage and more about increasing access to water from the delta.

"Today it's drought, but over the last 20 years we've seen our water supply in Westlands, we've had water supply cutbacks of 40, 60, 90 percent," Peltier said. Much of that, he said, is due to environmental regulations.

"We can't get access to the water that we've already developed, the water that's up north" in reservoirs, Peltier said. "Regulations keep from getting access to it." The proposed tunnels "could overcome the regulatory blockade," he said.

Some environmental groups have been critical of the Bay Delta tunnel plan, saying it won't do enough for the fish or the immediate region if state officials do not commit to reducing the amount of water exported from the delta to below current levels.