NRDC’s Response to the Climate Resilient Water Portfolio

Three key recommendations for an actionable path to a climate resilient water future
Yuba River
Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District

Three Key Recommendations for an Actionable Path to a Climate Resilient Water Future

It’s raining in Los Angeles today, but just a few weeks ago parts of California closed out one of the driest Februarys on record. And attention is once again focused on the need for California to figure out how we can ensure safe, sufficient, and affordable water for people and the environment under increasing pressures from climate change, population growth and an economy heavily reliant on availability of water.

While the first draft of the Governor’s Draft Water Resilience Portfolio (Draft Plan) wasn’t the transformational vision many had hoped it would be, there is still time to deliver on a plan that will help us rise to the challenges ahead. Given Governor Newsom’s interest in technology, innovation, and data, and encouragement for stakeholders to think “outside of the box” when crafting recommendations, we are hopeful that the revised plan will go beyond the Water Action Plans of the past to envision a new water paradigm in California. To do so, the new plan will need to include:

  1. Connections between the water we need for our homes, farms, businesses, and healthy ecosystems, and the new water supply infrastructure we will need to develop
  2. Guidelines for how the state will prioritize investments
  3. Timelines and metrics for achieving the Draft Plan’s recommended actions

The Draft Plan includes several general broad goals and numerous specific recommendations that NRDC supports in concept but needs more linkages that describe how the over 100 recommended actions relate to and affect one another. For example, with about 80% of our developed water supplies going to agriculture, California can significantly reduce our overall water use while maintaining the same set of crops on the same acreage by investing in improvements in agricultural water use efficiency. But what happens to that saved water? Will it be dedicated to public uses, like replenishing depleted rivers, or will it be used for private gain, like expanding planted acreage? Or if Los Angeles succeeds in its laudable goal of reducing its use of increasingly unreliable imported water, what happens to the imported water it no longer uses? Does that water remain in the Colorado River or the San Francisco Bay-Delta, or does the wholesale Metropolitan Water Agency of Southern California simply decide to divert it and sell it? These are the questions that a climate resilient portfolio should answer if the State is to ensure that its cities, farms, and the environment all have the water they need going forward. But the current Draft Plan falls short in addressing these critical questions. 

During the unprecedented drought California faced from 2011 to 2017, many Californians took significant steps to reduce their water usage by nearly 25 percent in a just a few months. Many believed the water they saved would help maintain flows in the rivers. In reality, water saved by our urban communities was either placed into storage by urban water suppliers like Metropolitan Water District for later use or used by farmers; and did not help improve water quality in the Delta, nor benefit the environment. The Draft Plan provides an opportunity for the State to determine how it will maintain the flows, wetlands, and other habitat that are sufficient to protect fish and other wildlife during increasingly frequent droughts, rather than simply cry “emergency” and sacrifice the environment each time a drought occurs. 

During the solicitation of stakeholder input, one of the key recommendations of conservation groups, including NRDC, was the need to develop a framework to prioritize actions to achieve environmental and water supply sustainability given limited funding resources. “All of the above” is simply not a financially feasible strategy or plan. Instead, the State and local agencies must make informed choices of how best to spend taxpayer monies. If not planned well, investments in expensive, energy intensive new supplies can come at the expense of more cost-effective strategies like water efficiency. For example, once San Diego invested in the billion-dollar Carlsbad desalination facility, they then had to set water rates to recover those costs and they had to assume a certain volume of water sales. This means that when customers in San Diego conserve water, the water utility can’t recover its fixed costs so there is no incentive for the utility to ask its customers to change out their lawns or install more efficient appliances. An “all of the above” approach can also lead to stranded assets.

Australia can serve as a cautionary tale. During their millennium drought many regions improved water efficiency, invested in stormwater capture and onsite reuse, increased recycled water, and built desalination facilities. According to a 2016 article in Urbanist, in Sydney, a $1.7 billion facility was completed and tested in 2010 but was shut down, unused, in 2012 as the drought had ended. The same article stated that, “the well-intentioned effort significantly raised the price of water to customers as the plant costs over $300,000 a day in availability payments to its investors—charges that will continue for 50 years whether it ever produces water or not.”

The state must ensure that taxpayer and rate payer dollars are being used effectively. Will we spend it on energy intensive desalination facilities along our coasts that make it more difficult to meet our climate change goals, or on new technologies to use and reuse water more efficiently? Will we dam more rivers to build new reservoirs, or will we invest in new supplies that provide multiple benefits like stormwater capture which can reduce pollution to our rivers and beaches while supplementing supplies, reduce heat island effect and provide green space in park poor neighborhoods; and reuse treated water that is currently being discharged along our coasts? 

And finally, when will each of these recommendations be achieved? Goals are laudable but need to be connected to actual deadlines that drive compliance. The climate crisis is here and we need to make investments now to ensure a water-resilient future.

As the state works to revise the Draft Plan, we’re counting on significant improvements in the areas outlined above. We remain hopeful that the Administration will take the time to get this right. If done properly, a portfolio approach could tie together state and local water actions so that California can significantly reduce reliance on the Delta and increase flows to benefit salmon and the environment, and even with reduced diversions from the Bay-Delta, improve water supply reliability by investments in sustainable local and regional water supplies.

For a more detailed response to the Draft Plan, you can read NRDC’s comment letter here.