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Californians tackle long-term water management as drought enters 5th year


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Californians tackle long-term water management as drought enters 5th year

By John Glynn

California is in the fifth year of a record-breaking drought that has called for extreme measures. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January 2015 and imposed strict conservation measures statewide. Last April, Brown issued an executive order that required cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent for the remainder of the year. That order was extended in January for another eight months, despite January having seen above-average precipitation.

Experts lead the panel discussion “Water and Drought” during the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego.

Still, with a growing population and a drought that experts fear could extend 10-15 years, California faces a new normal of tight water resources. Water law experts examined the state’s current water-management practices and plans for the future during a 90-minute panel discussion, “Water and the Drought,” on Feb. 4 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego. The event was sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law.

Panelists included co-moderators Elizabeth Clark, senior counsel with Allen Matkins in San Francisco, and Heather Riley, environmental land use attorney in Allen Matkins’ San Diego office; Meena Westford, special projects manager at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California;  Carolyn Angius, California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research; and Michael Kiparsky, associated director for the  University of California Berkeley’s Wheeler Institute for Water Law.

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The panelists pointed out that from a California perspective there are many opportunities and challenges in maintaining a sustainable water resource. Those challenges include balancing legal requirements of managing water, “whether surface water and ground water, protecting water in wildlife habitats or protecting water to be used by humans,” Clark said. “California has had a long history of dealing with water and moving water throughout the state.”

Angius said the governor’s Office of Planning and Research already has an action plan that covers the next few years. It developed and adopted Water Action Plan 2.0 in 2014 and updated it this year. Many of the recommendations it makes were the result of information gleaned from workshops held across the state and involve cooperation of local, regional and state agencies.

But she said litigation “holds up the development of a lot of good projects and keep them from going forward.”

Westford’s presentation focused on the historical and conservation side of water management. She said the drought has forced Metropolitan, the nation’s largest wholesaler of water, to plan for the future by doing such things as diversifying its water supply portfolio, adding storage facilities and investing in programs to educate customers on conservation measures, such as using recycled water and rethinking how they flush, among other things.

Angius said she has seen the “perception of residents change” toward recycled water as more and more state water agencies open recycled water "fill stations," which allow customers to collect treated wastewater in containers for free.

The academic community is also doing its part. Kiparsky said Cal-Berkeley’s Wheeler Institute for Water Law is doing research, spurred by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which provides a framework for sustainable management of groundwater supplies by local authorities with a limited role for state intervention. “The question is: What can we do to help bring California’s water laws into the 21st century?” he said.

Riley said it is going to take a team effort by all the stakeholders to deal with the drought problem going forward.

“Having worked throughout the state, Northern California is very different from Southern California and it’s very different from the Central Valley,” Riley said. “So while the state can take the lead on figuring out the best things that work at the statewide level, they can’t work in everybody’s homes and in everybody’s regions. It’s important that we look long-term. The last time there was a big drought people started taking steps in that direction, probably for the first time. So now that we’re in another sustained drought, people already have the wherewithal to be planning.

“Planning for 2020 and beyond is critical because California does not have enough water, so we have to be able to figure out where we are going to get water from. We heard here today that there are no new sources of water from outside the state. Nobody is going to sell us water so it’s critical that California plans for the future at all levels. If not, we’re going to be in a much worse situation than we are today.”