After three dry years, California and the nation are understandably focused on the immediate problems associated with water shortages. As stewards of the source of one-third of the waters that flow from the mountains to the valleys and through the Delta, Mountain Counties Water Resources Association takes a longer view and holds that investment in the watersheds of the Sierra is critical to restoring and maintaining the health of the forestlands that protect the water and the infrastructure that stores, treats and carries water downstream.
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As the majority of the Sierra is in U.S. National Forests, it is essential that California work with federal land managers to enhance water storage options in response to climate change and extended drought. Climate research and modeling suggests drier winters and increased frequency of early spring deluges in the Sierra. Existing storage facilities built 50-60 years ago are no longer able to cope with today’s conditions, such as receding snowpack and changing rain and snow patterns.
The increasing incidence of major wildland fires in the Sierra Nevada cause significant water supply and water quality problems in waters flowing downstream and into the Delta. Soil sediment in the form of mud and rocks drops into streams and rivers, reducing their carrying capacity and reducing the storage capacity of California’s reservoirs. This, in turn, reduces the cold water pools necessary for some species of fish. Run-off accelerates. Large volumes of fast-moving waters create flooding downstream, putting further pressure on the levee system in the Delta. These conditions may affect the survival rates of threatened and endangered aquatic species.
The connection to the Sierra watershed and its economic value continues to go unrecognized. The Sierra runoff is critical to the state’s economy. Increasing the natural storage capacity in the state’s largest natural winter reservoir, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, along with increasing surface and groundwater storage, will enhance long-term water supply, and improve resiliency to provide water for municipalities, agriculture, hydropower generation, the environment, recreation, California’s economy and overall quality of life.
While the state’s focus is on ecological restoration and conveyance through the Delta, state policy makers must acknowledge that the Sierra is the missing element or link that is essential to increase water supply and improve water quality if California is to achieve and sustain the state’s co-equal goals of water reliability and restoration in and through the state’s water conveyance hub: the Delta. Ignoring this critical element or investing minimal funding in a water bond is shortsighted if California’s statewide water system is to be reliable in the long term. The Sierra region’s funding allocations should be more proportionate with the Sierra’s water yield.
There is no silver bullet solution and Californians should not continue to fight over the same glass of water. Increasing water supply reliability and improving water quality for all of California will require difficult decisions by the governor and Legislature. It will require a comprehensive statewide water systems approach rather than strategies entrenched in special interests and heavily demographic politics.
We must all work with a broad statewide view to implement a resilient “water portfolio” if we are to make California’s economy sustainable and provide a good quality of life for future generations. The components of such a portfolio should include the following goals: increase the water carrying capacity in the watersheds; increase surface water supply and storage statewide starting at the crest of the Sierra; reduce demand by increased water efficiency practices; optimize recycling opportunities, groundwater banking and desalination; and advance the stewardship of not only the Sierra, but across all the watersheds in the state.
Providing reliable water supply to serve California’s diverse population, economy and environment is easier said than done, but we won’t get there unless leaders and citizens alike agree to set aside differences and commit to getting the job done now and for the State’s future.
John Kingsbury is executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association.