Over the last five years, California has experienced increasingly dramatic water extremes. Our state has experienced its driest year on record (2013-14), second-driest (2014-15), second-wettest (2015-16) and wettest (2016-17). Last year was another dry year, but this year is shaping up to be even wetter than the record surpassed in 2017.
Storms blasting Northern California this week have dumped as much as 20 inches of rain in parts of the North Bay, flooding roads, stranding at least 1,800 people, and cutting off access to the low-lying communities of Guerneville and Monte Rio along the Russian River.
These extreme swings come at a grave cost – 102 million trees died in California during the 2011-17 drought, and subsequent storms and mudslides around the state killed 21 people in 2018 and cost our communities $227 million.
Dozens of atmospheric rivers hit California during the winter of 2016-17, causing flooding in San Jose that submerged hundreds of homes and leading to major spillway damage at Oroville Dam that prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream.
The shifting demands from dry summers to extremely wet winters are also placing a burden on California’s already fragile water infrastructure system. More intense droughts and reduced snowpack limit surface water flows, causing greater reliance on groundwater pumping.
Rain water from extreme winter storms fall too fast to recharge aquifers, overfill our reservoirs, and cause structural damage to our infrastructure as well as homes and commercial buildings. We must adapt our water-management systems to these changing conditions, and ensure we maintain a safe, reliable supply of water for our communities and ecosystems – whether we are in a rainy season or a drought.
More than 90% of California wetlands, which naturally absorb floodwaters and filter out pollution, have been lost to development. Statewide, 127 of our 515 groundwater basins – the state’s “water savings account” for dry periods – are currently overdrafted. We’re pumping water out faster than we can replenish it.
Local, regional, and state agencies need to work together to achieve resilience in the face of decreased snowpack, increased flood risks, and a growing population. This requires upgrading infrastructure and modifying management practices, while also protecting natural ecosystems.
Local Actions to Support a Resilient Water Future
- Include a Water Element in the General Plan and/or integrate sustainable water use concepts into relevant General Plan elements.
- Update codes and ordinances to support water sustainability.
- Choose water- and energy-efficient options for capital improvements.
- Adopt a water waste ordinance and penalties.
- Provide incentives for water conservation and water-use efficiency.
- Provide financial support for low-income residents to reduce water use.
City of Malibu Case Study: Graywater Is Green
The City of Malibu is encouraging developers and homeowners to reduce their water use through graywater reuse. Minimum standards for residential graywater reuse systems were approved by the California Building Standards Commission in 2007, updating Chapter 16A of the California Plumbing Code.
Malibu’s General Plan now includes a graywater policy, stating “New development shall include a separate graywater treatment system where feasible” (Policy 3.123). The City created a “Graywater Handbook” with guidelines, resources and techniques to help homeowners and developers integrate graywater systems into their projects. The City provides free DIY classes and workshops in addition to at-home consultations and a $100 discount on graywater parts.
California’s natural resources – our “green infrastructure” – have been depleted as a result of human development. Many of our state’s rivers lack sufficient flow to keep important wildlife species alive and flush out pollutants. Our overgrown forests are more susceptible to disease and wildfire, posing a significant environmental and public safety threat, while also reducing absorption potential, which limits the supply of water downstream.
Local governments can protect and restore affected habitat and waterways in their jurisdiction to ensure a safe, reliable supply of drinking water and a flourishing environment for future generations. Enacting policies to protect existing lands and implementing local restoration projects will help ensure future resilience.
Local Actions to Support Watershed Restoration
- Protect existing open space.
- Adopt an urban habitat ordinance to protect important areas.
- Use natural “green infrastructure” systems for stormwater and wastewater treatment.
- Incentivize habitat-friendly landscapes.
- Penalizing stormwater polluters.
- Restore lost habitat in public spaces.
Irvine Ranch Water District Case Study: Using Nature to Do the Work
Natural treatment systems are a unique way to promote wetland restoration, mitigate the effects of urban runoff, create community assets, and cut costs. The San Diego Creek Watershed Natural Treatment System, developed by the Irvine Ranch Water District, is a watershed-based approach to solving regional water quality problems.
The system establishes man-made wetlands throughout the San Diego Creek Watershed that use natural plants and soil to remove pollutants from urban runoff – especially from chemical lawn treatments that wash off people’s yards.
The system removes 126,000 lbs. of nitrogen and 21,000 lbs. of phosphorus from runoff each year and reduces fecal coliform levels by more than 25%.
The system has been well received because it “uses existing public lands and natural processes to clean the creek water instead of expensive man-made structures like treatment plants,” notes Project Manager Norris Brandt.
The established wetlands also provide wildlife habitat and open space, and costs significantly less than building traditional “grey” wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.
Our natural cycle of wet winters and dry summers will become more challenging in the face of climate change, as dry periods become longer and more severe, and rainfall comes in fewer but heavier storms. The natural snowpack storage that feeds the rivers our water system relies on will be significantly diminished in coming years.
Desalination is a costly option and only feasible in some areas. An over-reliance on groundwater is unsustainable. To increase reliability, we must take advantage of all available options: (a) diversify our statewide water supply portfolio; (b) improve local self-reliance; and (c) reduce overall water demand through conservation and efficiency.
Local governments play an instrumental role in improving statewide water supply reliability. Acting as a bridge between state and regional officials and the public, cities and counties can reduce water demand in their communities and develop local water supplies.
Local Actions to Support Water-Supply Reliability
- Capture and treat stormwater for use.
- Reuse graywater.
- Recycle wastewater for purple pipe or direct potable reuse.
- Pass local water conservation ordinances to penalize water wasters.
- Construct desalination plants where appropriate.
- Actively recharge groundwater aquifers.
Fresno County Case Study: Game-Changing Partnerships
The Water-Energy Community Action Network (WE CAN), a partnership between Fresno County and the Local Government Commission funded through the California Climate Investments program, reduced local water use and greenhouse gas emissions through landscape upgrades. WE CAN provided turf replacement and irrigation efficiency rebates for single- and multi-family homes, institutional properties and commercial properties throughout Fresno County.
The WE CAN team partnered with Habitat for Humanity, local landscapers and job-development organizations to offer direct install services to residents who couldn’t afford the upfront costs of a rebate program. WE CAN also prepared local landscapers and gardeners to respond to the growing demand for water-efficient landscaping by providing Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) certification courses.
WE CAN provided:
- 2,810 drought-tolerant landscape and/or irrigation upgrades.
- 290,000 square feet of turf removal and replaced with water-efficient California-friendly landscapes (more than five football fields’ worth).
- More than 3 billion gallons of water savings (150 million gallons annually for the next 20 years – enough water for 18,000 families, or the entire city of Folsom).
- 660 metric tons of CO2 emissions reductions (equivalent to eliminating emissions from 88 households or taking 143 cars off the road).
A safe, reliable water supply and a healthy environment are equally important to every community’s prosperity and quality of life. California’s ecosystem has a finite amount of water. But demand for that water has steadily increased as our state’s population and economy has grown.
Every Californian has a responsibility to use water wisely and protect the ecosystems upon which our water supply depends; and local governments will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable water future for all.