Report Calls for Broad Reforms in Managing California’s Water

If California hopes to prevent further extinctions of native species of endangered fish, the state should abandon efforts to take desperate measures to save individual species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and instead look to bolster entire aquatic ecosystems. That's among a long list of recommendations in a new book that was released last night from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). It was written by a team of scientists, engineers, economists, and legal experts from three University of California (UC) campuses and Stanford University.

"Our assessment of the current water situation [in California] is bleak," says Ellen Hanak, a PPIC economist, who co-authored the study. "California has essentially run out of cheap, new water sources," Hanak says. Water quality is deteriorating. Pollution from agricultural runoff and other "non-point" sources is increasing. And efforts to manage water and species recovery are fragmented, with hundreds of local and regional agencies responsible for water supply, water treatment, flood control, and land-use decisions. The upshot is that, despite decades of actions to save aquatic species under the ESA, the trend has been relentlessly downward. Seven of the state’s 129 native fish species are already extinct. Since 1989, the number of native fish species listed as threatened or endangered has more than doubled to 31. And over that same period, the number of species that were “reasonably secure” has dropped from 44% in 1989 to 38% in 1995 and 22% in 2010.

Even worse crises are looming. Most threatening is the vulnerability of the hub of the state’s fresh water system, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, which drains water from the northern Sierra mountains. Massive pumps in the southern end of the delta suck nearly 10 billion cubic meters of water per year from the delta and send it to farmers in the Central Valley and urban residents in Southern California. Over the past century, farmers have built a network of more than 1700 kilometers of levees to protect farmland in the delta from floodwaters. Those levees, most of which are simple earthen berms, are weak and vulnerable to earthquakes, seasonal floods, and rising waters expected as a result of climate change. The failure of even a fraction of the levees would draw massive amounts of saltwater in from San Francisco Bay, forcing the state to shut off the pumps, cutting off water supplies for many months, and costing the state’s economy billions of dollars, the report says. Risks from droughts, floods, climate change, and declining habitat for fish are also rising over time.

“Today’s system of water management, developed in previous times for past conditions, is leading the state down a path of environmental and economic deterioration. We’re waiting for the next drought, flood, or lawsuit to bring catastrophe,” Hanak says.

To stave off such a catastrophe, the report says, California needs to revamp the way it manages water. Most notably, it should shift species protection from trying to safeguard individual species to restoring the health of broad ecosystems. That new approach could include strategies such as removing or setting back levees in some locations to promote seasonal flooding, strengthening regulations to reduce the discharge of contaminants into waterways, reworking the operations of some dams to facilitate fish passage, and changing federal and state laws to move conservation efforts to a broad, ecosystem-based approach.

Other recommendations include building a peripheral canal to ferry some Sierra runoff around the delta, increasing the “groundwater banking” of water in underground aquifers, increasing a water transfer market to allow water rights holders to sell access to water, and stepping up efforts to conserve water in urban areas. To pay for all the new approaches, the study’s authors suggest raising fees for water use and charging fees for dam removal and chemical releases, among other things.

“Some of these reforms will require changes in laws and institutions, while many build on existing efforts and can begin to be implemented now,” says Jay Lund, a study co-author and director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “California can’t afford not to take bold steps now. By the time a crisis strikes, the best solutions may be unavailable or far more costly, and political positions too entrenched to overcome,” Lund adds.

But pulling off such changes is likely to be very challenging. In a statement issued today, Timothy Quinn, the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento says that there is “plenty to agree with” in the report. However, notions of raising water-use fees and changing jurisdiction over groundwater “are provocative and would be widely opposed by the water community,” Quinn says. He adds that other ideas, such as modifying the ESA and ramping up water transfers, would likely be supported by water agencies, but are likely to be controversial among other groups.

The study’s authors concede that numerous entrenched interests, such as farmers, utility companies, and landowners, have already proven reluctant to make less sweeping changes. “It’s not going to be easy,” Lund says. “It’s not going to be popular.” However, he adds, the current system is failing. “This is an approach that is not working. We need to take a longer view of it.”