Environment & Science

PPIC calls for broad reforms in managing California's water

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A new book from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California argues that piecemeal solutions to the state's water system are killing fish, lowering water quality and raising the risk of catastrophic floods.

The institute's Ellen Hanak equates failures in the state's water system with death by a thousand cuts. "One of California's key problems is that we've got a very fragmented system with hundreds of local and regional agencies, separately managing water supply, water quality, floods and habitat," she says. "This leads to confusion and it leads to missed opportunities."

Hanak and her co-authors from UC Riverside, UC Davis, the UC Hastings Law School and Stanford say this contributes to inadequate restoration efforts for endangered species, like Coho Salmon and Delta Smelt. Instead of targeting one fish at a time, they recommend that agencies focus their efforts on entire regions. "We really need to move away from this historical approach of desperate actions to preserve single species. We have to instead work to improve broad ecosystem functions," Hanak says. "This means focusing on multiple species and multiple causes of ecosystem decline."

Cities should cut water use by 30 percent, they say. But they don't urge tighter restrictions on farms – agricultural use represents four-fifths of the state's total.

Co-author Jay Lund, a UC Davis environmental engineer, says higher prices for water would compel growers to cut their water use. "For most of CA agriculture, the way you really make real water available is to fallow land," Lund says. "And this is something that's very difficult to do efficiently by regulatory means and it's better done by market means."

The report surfaces as the state capitol debates fixes to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water system – and before California voters weigh in this November on a long-delayed $11 billion water bond and reform package.