Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of California.
By Lori Pottinger.

The Central Coast has long been self-sufficient in water supply, but the drought has tested the region’s independent streak and helped foster growing cooperation among water agencies and interest groups.

“I would hope that we really start thinking regionally,” said US Rep. Sam Farr, who’s represented the Central Coast for more than 20 years. That was the biggest takeaway message from a wide-ranging panel discussion in Monterey this month, co-hosted by the PPIC Water Policy Center and water supplier California American Water.

The event brought together local experts to discuss the challenges of creating a more diverse water supply, resolving water problems, and protecting the environment.

Groundwater concerns have grown as four years of drought have increased the need for pumping, and saltwater intrusion is a persistent problem.

“In the Central Coast hydrologic region 85 percent of freshwater demand is met by groundwater—and that’s the largest fraction in the state,” said panelist Andrew Fisher, a hydrogeologist with the University of California, Santa Cruz. He noted that climate change will bring fewer but more intense storms, which will mean more runoff and less groundwater recharge. He said that we must put greater effort into recharging groundwater and understanding how much we’re using.

Panelist Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, discussed a local project to “push the saltwater back to sea” in the Salinas Valley aquifer. He noted that local farmers have been working hard to reduce water use and manage local aquifers more sustainably. Drip irrigation is now used on 60 percent of fields in the Salinas Valley, and another 12,000 acres are using recycled water and have been taken off groundwater pumping, he noted.

Moderator Paul Rogers, environment writer with the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor of the KQED Science Unit, noted that local residents already have some of the lowest water use rates in the state—about 70 gallons per person per day, compared to a statewide average of 97—yet still managed to conserve 29 percent after the mandate was put in place by the governor in April.

Monica Hunter, a board member of the Planning and Conservation League Foundation, noted that despite the area’s efforts to conserve, wells are going dry and small rural communities in the region are facing big water challenges. She noted the need for more data: “We really do not know the magnitude of these problems.”

The region is also rightly proud of its efforts to restore the Carmel River by removing the San Clemente Dam. “People from—I would say not just around California but around the nation—are looking to this region as a test case for removing a dam,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center.

Carmel mayor Jason Burnett closed the evening with observations about climate change, conservation, and creative solutions. Sometimes we need to rethink what we used to see as a liability, he said. “Something we discarded is now something we can turn into an asset. You heard talk about stormwater, you heard talk of wastewater and turning those into assets that we can use and use time and time again. We’re already doing that here on the Central Coast.”