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Shedding light on California’s water situation

Issues around water management continue to be widespread in California. Changes in climatic patterns are intensifying matters as water scarcity becomes more omnipresent and water demand grows state-wide. The many competing interests in water use in the state include farmers, fishers, urban populations and the environment. Shifting climatic patterns and population growth have dwindled water supplies and to date, no consensus has been reached on how best to move forward.

A news article in Science discusses how water scarcity and endangered species will keep growing unless politicians make “hard decisions” about priorities for water use in the California Bay Delta. The article summarises a report produced by the National Research Council. This Wikipedia article also provides a good overview of the water situation in California.

The central point for California’s water problems is the delta, the bottom of a watershed that drains 40% of California where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge east of San Francisco Bay. About 25 million people in California rely on the delta for their water supplies. With about 75% of its water located north of the delta and three-fourths of its demand coming from the south, California has to move water over vast distances and at a high cost. As Mike Taugher, Environmental Reporter for the Contra Costa Times states, “the delta is the switching yard where water is taken from the estuary and moved into canals, a process that also kills millions of fish a year and changes the hydrodynamics of the West Coast’s largest estuary.”

A report titled Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta published by the Public Policy Institute of California identifies several factors that pose significant threats to human use and ecological attributes in the Delta:

  • Subsidence of the agricultural lands on the Delta islands
  • Changing inflows of water to the Delta, which appear to increase flow variability and may skew flows more in the direction of earlier times in the water year in the future
  • Sea level rise that has been occurring over the last 6,000 years and may accelerate in the future
  • Earthquakes, which threaten the physical integrity of the entire Delta system

One committee member of the National Research Council panel named Henry J. Vaux Jr., professor emeritus of resource economics at the University of California, Riverside explains that “science is necessary to inform actions and proposals”. But at this state the science is relatively well developed. What is needed is societal and political considerations, which are “integral factors in determining the most appropriate policies toward managing the water resources in the delta and balancing the needs of all water users”.

Reflecting on California’s water troubles is instructive for British Columbia and Canada more broadly. BC is about to modernize its 1909 Water Act. It has proposed actions focused on water efficiency, groundwater monitoring and improving water governance arrangements.

While BC does not currently have the same layered complexity around water issues as California, it is valuable to pay close attention to the problems they have encountered, and the steps being taken to overcome them. Namely, how do you plan in a way that is inclusive and sensitive to multiple interests? How could governance arrangements accommodate this, especially to ensure that human and ecological water needs are more balanced?

Written by ACT researcher Timothy Shah

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