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California’s boom and bust water supply: Where do we go from here?

California faces an urgent need to overhaul its water infrastructure as longer droughts and heavier rains stress the state's outdated systems, despite local efforts and proposed legislation like SB 366 aiming to secure future water supplies.

As our climate changes, rain and snowfall patterns in California also change. We have always had a pattern of drought years and wet years, but the droughts are getting longer, and the wet years are much wetter. We saw this in action over the last four years, where we had a record drought for three years, followed by record rain and snowfall last winter. During the drought years, most of California’s reservoirs and many groundwater basins were drawn down to critical levels. This resulted in mandatory water use restrictions across the state. In some areas, the restrictions were very severe, with outdoor watering limited to one day a week.

After our wet winter, most of the state reservoirs are full or close to full, and some groundwater recharge has taken place. We could have reduced flooding and captured 500,000 acre-feet1 of water that flowed to the ocean if we had better infrastructure to capture floodwater, move it to storage, and then move it to where it is needed in dry years. Unfortunately, California has not made any significant improvements to the state water system in over 40 years.

Local and regional water agencies are doing as much as they can to improve water capture, transportation, and storage capacity, and some exciting projects have recently been completed or are under construction. These include large new groundwater recharge basins below Seven Oaks Dam on the Santa Ana River, which will benefit water agencies in both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties – including both RPU and Western. Similar projects are under development in the Chino Basin to our west. The Metropolitan Water District has partnered with the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency to build the High Desert Water Bank, a 70,000 acre-foot groundwater storage facility that can store water in wet years and provide water in dry ones.

We need projects like this at the state level and the infrastructure to move and store it. To this end, water providers and users statewide have banded together to create a program dubbed California Water for All. This is an effort to educate state elected and appointed officials on the need for a legislative fix for California’s uncertain water future and provide a sustainable and reliable water supply for all beneficial uses now and into the future.

Working with the California Municipal Utilities Association, California Water for All has partnered with Senator Anna Caballero from the Central Valley to introduce a bill, SB 366, that would require the state to identify 10 Million acre feet of new water supply by 2040 and to set a goal for additional supply by 2050. The bill does not specify where the water supply would come from, and it could include everything from additional conservation, more wastewater reuse, ocean desalination, stormwater and snowmelt capture, and the infrastructure to move and store the water for use when needed. The bill also envisions providing water for all uses: domestic, industrial, agricultural, and for the environment.2

SB 366 passed the Senate with a unanimous vote earlier this year, but it stalled in an Assembly Committee. The bill will be taken up again in the Assembly next year. Several local legislators have signed on as co-authors, and it has bipartisan support.

Local water agencies simply cannot afford to develop this needed infrastructure. Even large regional agencies like the Metropolitan Water District cannot fund statewide projects. Without additional water supply, transportation, and storage capability at the state level, our local reservoirs will be harder to refill, and projects to recharge groundwater basins will operate less frequently and efficiently because we cannot deliver sufficient water to them when excess is available.

I urge you to learn more about California Water for All and SB 366 and to share your views with your elected representatives at the local, county, and state levels. We made it through this last drought with some serious challenges. We may not do so well in the next one if we don’t make significant improvements to the statewide water system.

  1. For reference, 500,000 acre-feet is about two years of supply for Western Municipal Water District.
  2. If we have water in storage, we can utilize it for all needs, from improved stream flow for fish populations to the full range of consumptive uses.