Ian James , The Desert Sun12:24 p.m. PT March 9, 2017
California’s water regulators are looking to strengthen their focus on climate change, adopting policies aimed at helping the state prepare for more severe floods, more extreme droughts and shrinking snowpack.
The State Water Resources Control Board approved a resolution this week outlining plans for what it calls a “comprehensive response” to climate change. In the document, the board says given the seriousness of global warming’s impacts on California, “our response to climate change must be comprehensive and integrated” into all of the agency’s work.
The plan lays out a list of commitments and policies, in many cases specifying dates for the staff to produce reports or collect new data in areas from drinking water regulation to water quality protection.
“It commits the entire organization at every level to make climate a component of everything that they do,” said Frances Spivy-Weber, the board’s vice chair. She said the changes will have concrete effects within the agency and will make climate change a critical consideration in all of its water planning efforts.
“We’re not talking about just one action here such as conservation or recycled water,” Spivy-Weber said. “We’re talking about our data collection. We’re talking about the water quality permits that are at the regional level. We’re talking about financing. We’re talking about admin decisions.”
The new initiative builds on other steps by state officials to dramatically cut emissions of planet-warming pollution and prepare for the impacts of a hotter climate on water supplies. The focus on considering climate change in all of the State Water Board’s programs provides yet another example of just how radically California’s policies differ from those of the Trump administration, which is proposing to boost fossil-fuel development and roll back environmental regulations aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
While lawmakers in Sacramento have been strategizing ways of achieving deeper cuts in air pollution, new Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” this week that he doesn’t think carbon dioxide is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see” – a position that contradicts the agency’s established policy and the research of climate scientists.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in contrast, has for years been advocating aggressive steps toward clean energy and preparing California for a hotter future.
The state’s Water Action Plan, which was released in January 2014, lays out a list of broad goals including making conservation a “California way of life,” preparing better for dry periods, increasing flood protection and expanding the state’s water storage capacity, both in reservoirs and underground in aquifers.
In describing the scope of California’s water challenges, the 2014 plan outlined strategies for climate adaptation and acknowledged that the state’s water system is “inadequate to handle the additional pressures of future population growth and climate change.”
In the new resolution approved Tuesday, the State Water Board instructed its staff to coordinate with California’s nine regional water quality boards to collect annual data on how much recycled water is used, and to begin producing estimates of how much stormwater is captured and used statewide.
The agency’s water quality division is tasked with developing recommendations by July 2018 on how to reduce the vulnerability of water infrastructure to flooding and sea-level rise. And the board’s drinking water division will start including assessments of climate change vulnerability in its surveys of communities’ water systems.
Other directives focus on providing financial support to protect water systems deemed vulnerable to climate change, restoring and protecting ecosystems and considering ways of reducing the amounts of methane that are released from landfills and dairies.
The plan, which does not involve additional funding, also requires the board’s staff to use up-to-date climate models and data to guide decisions rather than relying solely on historical data.
During more than a decade on the board, Spivy-Weber has advocated various strategies for adapting to the added strains the warming climate will place on water supplies. Spivy-Weber, who is stepping down and retiring this month, has said she’s optimistic that “climate adaptation definitely is achievable with conservation and a portfolio of water supplies.”
For local water districts, she said, the new directives “will affect them eventually if there is a need to add climate considerations into permits, or if water rights are starting to be in some ways encumbered by changes in climate.”
After five years of severe drought, heavy rains and snowfall have brought flooding and dramatically boosted the levels of California’s reservoirs. As of this week, snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada measured the snowpack at 179 percent of average.
In many farming areas in the San Joaquin Valley, though, groundwater has been severely depleted and overpumping remains chronic – a central focus of the state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will require local agencies to develop plans for combating overdraft.
Water researchers have said California and other western states will need to take a variety of steps to anticipate the emerging changes in the region’s hydrology.
“Climate change is making a bad situation worse in California. The state is already chronically water short as it struggles to maintain agricultural productivity,” said Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.
“With the expected changes in the extremes of flooding and drought, as well as decreases in precipitation and snowfall, water managers will have their hands full,” Famiglietti said. “It is essential that climate change is accounted for in long-range water planning.”
With the drought easing, Brown and the state’s top water managers have sought to pivot to long-term conservation strategies while building on the water-savings that Californians have achieved during the past two years.
The water board announced this week that cities and towns across California reduced water use 20.5 percent in January as compared to the same month in 2013, which the state is using as a baseline. Californians have cut back by a cumulative 22.5 percent since state officials began tracking monthly conservation in June 2015.
Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Board, said conservation will remain important “in light of the greater extremes we can expect with climate change and increasingly weird weather.”
The flooding this winter has also drawn more attention to California’s aging dams and other water infrastructure. Last month, Brown proposed spending $437 million on flood control and emergency response efforts, partially to pay for repairs to the damaged spillways of Oroville Dam. That funding would address only a fraction of the $187 billion that state officials estimate California needs to spend on water and transportation infrastructure in the long term.
Spivy-Weber said the dramatic swing from severe drought to one of the wettest winters on record shows how California is confronting more extreme weather as a result of climate change, and the state faces “significant challenges to improve the resiliency of our water systems, from our dams to our groundwater basins.”
She said the State Water Board’s new commitments are key steps in California’s “continuing leadership on climate change.