A New and Improved California Water Action Plan?

Today, Governor Brown unveiled an update to the California Water Action Plan, the Brown Administration's roadmap for improving the state's ailing water system. As part of this unveiling, the Administration invited feedback on how they're doing on water issues, stating that this is the public's opportunity to share views on whether a course-correction is needed. NRDC recently did just that - assessing the state's performance over the last several years in a variety of areas highlighted in the Water Action Plan in a drought report card. Our assessment found that while the state has made impressive progress in some areas, including urban water conservation and improved water recycling efforts, it has a long way to go in other areas, especially in protecting the hub of California's water system - the Bay-Delta estuary - where we gave the state an "F," and in advancing efforts to capture water from the storms that the state is receiving now and in improving agricultural water use efficiency (where we gave the state "Ds").

Does the updated Water Action Plan propose significant improvements in these lagging areas?

Protecting the Bay-Delta Estuary - We agree strongly with Governor Brown that we have to update California's water system in a way that works with nature, rather than against it, and that such an approach is entirely possible. The Governor is exactly right that "ecology encompasses the economy," so we have to respect natural systems and what they require if we want to continue to rely on these systems for our own uses. That maxim is especially true for the Bay-Delta ecosystem, which supplies a core part of the state's drinking and irrigation water supplies, but won't continue to do so if we don't keep that system healthy.

But the science is overwhelming that keeping the Bay-Delta system healthy means, at its core, increasing flows and reducing diversions from the estuary. The state must act now - not next year or in 2018 or five years from now - to do so. We can reduce diversions from the Bay-Delta and sustain the economy by investing in local and regional water supply projects, including water recycling and stormwater capture in Southern California and the Bay Area, and improving agricultural water conservation in inland areas. Instead, during the drought, the State has weakened protections for fish and wildlife, diverting even more water and killing endangered fish and wildlife.

The Governor's tunnel vision on the WaterFix Project not only distracts local agencies from making these key investments, but it also fails to improve flows and reduce diversions from this precious estuary. These key components of protecting the Bay-Delta estuary and achieving the co-equal goals for the Delta are sadly missing from the updated Plan. That's a fatal flaw.

Capturing More of the Rain that Falls in Cities during El Nino and Beyond - the updated Plan recognizes that stormwater capture investments provide an important component of regional water supply strategies and promote regional water independence. It states that "[a]ll state agencies should take a leadership role in designing new and retrofitted state owned and leased facilities to ... incorporate stormwater runoff capture and low‐impact development strategies" and that "the administration will direct agencies and departments to evaluate existing programs and propose modifications to incentivize and co‐fund multi‐benefit projects that promote integrated water management, such as stormwater permits that emphasize stormwater capture and infiltration, which provide both flood protection and groundwater recharge benefits." These are positive steps, but the state can and must do more to set baseline requirements for all new development and municipal stormwater permits so that we no longer shunt rain out to the ocean in Southern California and the Bay Area when it does fall, rather than capturing it for later use. The state also should not be giving municipalities a pass on clean water requirements while waiting for these stormwater plans to be developed. The state should use its enforcement authority to ensure dischargers are complying with meaningful stormwater retention requirements.

The state is currently not on track to achieve its own targets on stormwater capture, and the experience with urban conservation during the drought demonstrates that waiting for voluntary actions isn't adequate. State mandates are needed to achieve the state's own targets for stormwater capture, let alone more ambitious goals.

Improving Agricultural Water Use Efficiency - improving water use efficiency on farms is critical to keeping California's agricultural sector thriving in the years ahead, and reducing waste on the more than half of existing farms that use outdated and inefficient flood and furrow irrigation. While the updated Plan promises to "provide technical assistance" and "incentives to urban and agricultural local and regional water agencies ... to promote agricultural and urban water conservation," it fails to offer meaningful benchmarks for conservation such as the 25% urban conservation mandate that prompted California's city dwellers to save over 328.9 billion gallons of water between June and November of 2015, or enough to supply five million people for a year. We urge the administration to take its own advice to heart when it states in the updated Plan that it will "consider new strategies based on lessons learned from the current drought." If there is one lesson that became glaringly apparent during the current drought, it is that conservation mandates work and that people will respond with strong state direction. Urban water use declined by a mere 4% in the current drought when Governor Brown called on Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. But people responded overwhelmingly and, in most cases, exceeded the Governor's subsequent call for a 25% mandatory reduction. Agriculture has long evaded such a requirement to the detriment of California's overall water situation.

We thank the Governor and his administration for the renewed commitment to preserving the Bay-Delta estuary, its salmon and other species, and for recognizing that California's water future depends on investment in local, sustainable water supplies. Here's hoping that the state turns these statements into reality in 2016.