By Jay Lund.

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” (anonymous)

Water is always important for California, as a dry place with a boisterous economy and unique ecosystems. A growing globalized economy and society historically drive changes in California’s water management that rarely occur quickly or without controversy. Water policy in California has always been about making and resisting change.

California has done comparatively well. Its water system sustains the world’s 7th largest economy of 39 million people with some of the world’s most profitable agriculture in one of the world’s drier places. And California (barely) preserves more of its native ecosystems than most other regions globally with Mediterranean climates, where native ecosystems often have been simply eliminated. California’s successes have not been born from complacency, but from continuous striving and conflict.

California water faces major inevitable changes. These changes are driven by efforts to end groundwater depletion, by sea level rise, global warming and the loss of snowpack, accumulating salts and nitrate in groundwater, new invasive species, and continuing population growth and evolution of California’s globalized economy and agriculture.

The state must prepare for these changes to support a strong economy and a healthy environment, while easing transitions for vulnerable groups.

  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will export less water and have more open water. The Delta will remain California’s most central and difficult water problem. Some Delta islands and levees are financially unsustainable. With land subsidence, sea level rise, increasing seepage, and earthquakes, their agricultural value is limited and repair costs are high. Some of the most subsided lands in the central and western Delta will permanently flood without unrealistic levels of state subsidies. Delta outflow requirements already reduce water available for Delta water diversions. New flow requirements and climate changes seem likely to further reduce water diversions both upstream and within the Delta. Upstream users will continue to remove much more water than do Delta water exporters and in-Delta water users. Ending groundwater overdraft in the Central Valley will increase demands for water from the Delta.
  • The San Joaquin Valley will have less irrigated agricultural land. The Central Valley south of the Delta is a huge productive agricultural region that currently relies on water from the Delta imports, groundwater overdraft, and reduced outflows from the San Joaquin River. Reductions in those sources will decrease water available to this region by 2-5 million acre feet per year, requiring the fallowing of 500,000-2 million acres of this region’s 5 million irrigated acres. Some of this land will be retired due to salinization and urbanization. Continued shifts to higher value crops, especially orchards, will help maintain agricultural revenues and jobs, as they have during the drought.
  • Urban areas will use less water, reuse more wastewater, and capture more stormwater. Water supply risks and costs will drive cities to use less and capture more local water. These changes will improve water supply reliability and free some water for agriculture and environmental uses, at some cost. But not all actions are equally effective. Water conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture are all effective in coastal areas, which drain to the sea. Reducing landscape irrigation is more effective for inland conservation.
  • Some native species will become unsustainable in the wild despite protective efforts. A warmer climate, combined with continued water and land stress and the dilution of wild genetic stock by hatchery fish and invasive species, will make some native fish species unsustainable in the wild, despite concerted restoration efforts. The entire range of native plant and animal species in California faces similar risks. Not all can be expected to survive. This threat challenges our endangered species laws and their implementation and demands more attention to effective ecosystem management.
  • Groundwater in many agricultural areas will become more contaminated. Modern agriculture applies large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which enters groundwater as nitrate, a threat to drinking water. Despite improving fertilizer efficiency, farmers often cannot reduce nitrate discharges enough. Ending all nitrate pollution today would leave decades of past discharges flowing toward drinking water wells. This problem is not unique to California, and it is especially worrisome for small, poor, rural communities.
  • Water solutions and funding will become even more local and regional. As federal and state governments experience diminished funding and capability, local and regional agencies are more motivated to address and fund most water problems. Making state and federal regulations more efficient, effective, and supportive of both local and statewide interests in public health, the economy, and environmental protection is a major challenge.
  • Water will be managed more tightly and formally due to economic and environmental pressures. California’s 2014 groundwater legislation will lead many areas to form groundwater sustainability agencies, which will need to account for and manage groundwater, and all water, more tightly. Less cumbersome court, groundwater rights, and water accounting procedures are needed to support this process. In the end, all parties will be more secure in their rights, but the transition will reduce pumping and add costs in problem areas.

Most of these changes will be accompanied by prolonged angst, studies, controversies, and expense. The details of how each change is managed are worth many millions of dollars to individual stakeholder groups. Forward-looking actions can reduce the pain and improve the prospects for water supporting the kind of society, economy, and environment that Californians desire. As always, facing change and thoughtfully preparing for the inevitable will be better than wishfully thinking that California can avoid change.

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Originally posted at California Water Blog.

Jay Lund is director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.