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Three Ways to Change How California Manages Water for the Environment

New research shows that three reforms could improve ecological conditions and reduce tensions over allocation of water, says Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center.

Written by Jeffrey Mount Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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State and federal leaders were joined by Sacramento Valley farmers and water providers along the banks of the Yolo Bypass to describe the successful experiment and deliver the first update on the California’s comprehensive Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy.John Chacon / California Department of Water Resources

It’s time for California to rethink how it manages water for the environment. Despite four decades of effort, many of the state’s freshwater-dependent native species are in decline. Controversy over water for the environment remains high. The latest drought left lasting impacts on already-stressed species and their ecosystems and highlighted the need for a change of course.

Our new research identifies shortcomings in current practices and lays out three reforms that could reduce conflict while improving freshwater ecosystems.

Better Accounting

The first critical problem area is water accounting. During the latest drought, state and federal agencies found their decision-making hampered by gaps in information on water availability and use as well as ecosystem conditions. This made it difficult to manage freshwater ecosystems in ways that would reduce drought impacts. Indeed, weaknesses in accounting and monitoring systems – and poor operational choices at Shasta Reservoir – pushed endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to the brink of extinction.

These management challenges were made more contentious by public perceptions about the uses of environmental water. The state lumps many things into the “environmental water” category, including flows required by regulations to maintain water quality for urban and agricultural uses. For example, during the drought, environmental water that flowed from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta into San Francisco Bay was widely criticized as “wasted to the sea.” Yet most of this environmental water was needed to prevent high salinity for those who use the Delta for their water supply.

A new approach to water accounting requires doing a better job of measuring and tracking water and ecosystem conditions – including making this information timely and transparent. It also involves clearly defining what purposes the various components of “environmental water” serve, and separates water that benefits both water users and the environment from water that is used solely to support ecosystems. Better accounting will make environmental water management more efficient and provide a common understanding of water use in policy debates.

Better Planning

Second, the drought revealed major weaknesses in how California plans for and responds to the environmental consequences of water scarcity. For example, urban water managers routinely conduct drought contingency planning and develop strategies for adapting to extended dry periods. No such planning exists for managing ecosystems. With a few notable exceptions, state and federal agencies responsible for protecting fish and wildlife react to rather than plan for severe drought. Ad hoc decision-making and lack of preparation for extended drought worsened conditions for California’s freshwater ecosystems and increased controversy over actions taken to manage the drought.

California needs to shift from simply reacting to drought to anticipating and mitigating its impacts on native species. This includes identifying measures to take prior to, during and after drought to protect and recover native species and their ecosystems. This can be achieved through the development of watershed ecosystem plans that set goals and objectives for environmental management and priorities for actions.

In addition, California needs to prepare contingency plans for actions every year, even in the face of uncertainty over how wet the winter and spring will be. A good model is an approach used in Victoria, Australia, where water managers vet their plans and priorities – including water use and restoration investments – for the coming water year with stakeholders. These annual “watering plans” are adapted to the year’s conditions as they unfold. By describing actions in advance, water users know what to expect and tensions are reduced. When coupled with good accounting, this approach provides assurances that environmental water allocations are being used efficiently.

Ecosystem Water Budgets

Third, although better planning and accounting will help, it is unlikely to be sufficient. California needs a new way to allocate water to protect ecosystems. The over-reliance on minimum flow and water quality standards – often set for individual species listed under state and federal endangered species acts – limits the capacity of water managers to adapt to drought and changing conditions.

A more nimble approach to ecosystem management would also provide reasonable assurances to all interests about allocation of ecosystem water. This can be accomplished by granting the environment a water budget that can be flexibly managed, much as urban and agricultural water-right holders do. These ecosystem water budgets (EWBs) would vary in wet and dry years, but could be stored in reservoirs or groundwater basins, and even traded.

The EWB would be administered by a trustee guided by the watershed plan and supported by good accounting systems. The trustee – working with other water users – could manage the water budget to maximize benefit for ecosystem functions and, where possible, reduce impacts on other water users. To create assurances, the amount of water allocated to the EWB would be fixed for a significant time period, although there would be ways to augment it through purchases or donations.

Management of freshwater ecosystems in California – particularly during drought – is not working well for anyone. Nibbling around the edges of this problem will lead to continued decline in native species and increasing conflict over water use. The three reforms recommended here – better accounting, better planning and ecosystem water budgets – would improve conditions and reduce tensions over allocation of water. These reforms will be vital in adapting California’s freshwater ecosystems to an increasingly warmer and variable climate.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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