Top Water Official Says California Improving, But Needs to Accelerate Change to Address Drought

The Chairwoman of California’s Water Resources Control Board says more needs to be done to prepare the state for more severe, long-term droughts that could last 40-to-100 years.

The San Francisco based Public Policy Institute of California is also calling for policy reform to the way California handles its water in the future.

The PPIC report was released shortly after a months-long NBC Bay Area investigation into California’s water crisis took the team half way around the world and uncovered dysfunction and systemic barriers that stand in the way of possible solutions in California.

NBC Bay Area sat down with Felicia Marcus, chair of California’s Water Resources Control Board, as well as the PPIC’s director of water policy, Ellen Hanak, to discuss the investigative project’s findings.

Included among those findings were concerns expressed about the state’s water security raised by 75 different experts, from farmers to economists.

In a wide ranging and frank discussion Chairwoman Marcus addressed issues such as the adoption of new technology, the fractured nature of California’s water management and divisive finger pointing.

Stephen Stock talks with Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, about California’s drought and what the state needs to do in order to combat it moving forward.

Marcus says that while the state is making strides towards a drought-resilient future, state and regional leaders still have much work to do.

Even while per capita water consumption has decreased because of conservation efforts, and strong storms predicted for this winter are expected bring plenty of needed rainfall; experts say it will take more than conservation coupled with more rain and snow to recover from the record drought over the last four years. In fact, many scientists say California’s drought could potentially last for decades. Marcus said that leaders in Sacramento must ensure the state is ready for potentially longer dry periods in years to come.

"A lot of our effort in California Water Action Plan is looking at what climate change is going to bring us," Marcus said. "The predictions are that we’re going to be a few degrees warmer. Well what does that mean? Who cares? It’ll be warmer. The thing it means is we won’t have snowpack. Right now our snowpack accounts for a third of the storage of the State of California in an average year."

Addressing the future effects of climate change is one of Marcus’ top priorities. She said geophysical evidence shows California has endured droughts in the past that have lasted over 100 years.

Because of that uncertainty, NBC Bay Area’s investigation showed that California needs to pursue sources of water not tied to weather or importing water over vast distances. Countries such as Israel, Australia and Singapore have already successfully used technology to overcome existential water challenges.

Many experts told NBC Bay Area there are proven solutions not being used to the extent they should be in California, such as water recycling, efficient irrigation practices and desalination in some of California’s drier urban areas.

"We kind of created this illusion of plenty, and then nature knocks on the door and says ‘no, it’s not going to work like that,’" said Pat Ferraro, a former director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Ferraro has been pushing for regional water recycling for decades and currently works as an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University.

"These past four years we’ve really, really depleted our water resources," Ferraro said. "We’ve drained the reservoirs. We’ve drained the groundwater basins. The Central Valley is sinking and we’re [Santa Clara County] going to be on the threshold of sinking because we haven’t had any water to put back into this local groundwater basin."

Ferraro said he thinks water officials are close to accepting this reality.

"Reuse the local supply, that’s the drought-proof sustainable supply," Ferraro said. "Don’t get more imported water, use it once and throw it away. That’s just not sustainable."

Marcus said she expects recycling will become a cornerstone in the way California manages water moving into the future, pointing to 1.6 billion dollars’ worth of projects in the cue to accelerate the use of recycled water. She also said better data collection and metering, as well as storm water capture will play important roles in the future drought-proofing of California. Desalination, though expensive, will also have a place in California’s future water portfolio, she said.

"We also streamlined the regulations for groundwater recharge," Marcus said. "And we’re working with an expert panel on the next set of regulations for surface water augmentation and even direct potable reuse. I think the next decade is going to be a decade of experimentation for major urban centers depending on what their plumbing systems are, what their groundwater basins are."

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit also traveled to Israel, a country that faced a similar water crisis about a decade ago. Back then, Israeli leaders aggressively pursued innovative techniques and emerged a world leader in water technology. Because of that new approach, Israel now produces more water than their citizens consume.

"With Israel you have the example of a nation state that’s managed to look at their water situation in the cool light of day and do what it takes," Marcus said.

Yet many local entrepreneurs and tech companies who spoke to NBC Bay Area say complicated rules and regulations that vary across the thousands of state and local water agencies make it difficult to get some of the very same new innovative technology permitted and used in California.

Marcus concedes the highly decentralized nature of California’s water management can be an obstacle for entrepreneurs trying to innovate in the water space.

"I think we have a very complex water system that is very diffuse, unlike other places," Marcus said. "And so for someone trying to market a new technology, they have to market it to hundreds of water agencies that are in charge of their future under our system. Is that good or bad? I don’t have an opinion. That’s just the way it is here and it’s grown up in terms of local control."

There are challenges presented by that fractured system, as well as the various factions and special interests still fighting over water, but Marcus said it’s time to move past finger-pointing.

"We’ve gone through a period of blaming," she said. "Whether it’s agriculture versus urban or it’s urban versus agriculture. Fish versus farmer, people picking on almonds or bottled water or whatever it is they don’t like. And that’s an understandable reaction because people want to make sure that things are fair. But it doesn’t solve anything and the fact is we are more interconnected than we think."

The Public Policy Institute of California released a detailed report in November calling for reforms in how California oversees water rights, trading and environmental issues. The non-partisan group says adopting those reforms would strengthen California’s drought resiliency, especially with the prospects of climate change on the horizon.

"What we find is that during this drought, some warts have been revealed in our water allocation system," said Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center. "There are some complexities that we could really simplify to streamline our system so that it’s more efficient and effective."

Hanak said California’s system of water rights, which go back over a century, need to be modernized.

"Right now California has this arcane, complex system that nobody would have created if we started from scratch," she said.

Marcus admits the system might be old, but isn’t ready to give it a complete overhaul.

"I’m sticking with making the system we have work better," she said. "Which at its heart is a 19th century system that got tuned up a bit in the 20th and in some places 21st century."

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