Paso Robles sunrise, photo by Kelly M. Grow/DWR

CA WATER COMMISSION: Preparing California’s Water System for Climate Extremes

In October 2019, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released the report, Priorities for California’s Water, which outlined California’s water management challenges and their top priorities for addressing those challenges.  Other reports from the PPIC have highlighted actions that would prepare California’s water systems and natural environment for the changing climate and drought.  At the May meeting of the California Water Commission, Alvar Escriva-Bou, a research fellow at PPIC’s Water Policy Center, gave a presentation on the PPIC’s findings and how they align with the actions of the draft water resilience portfolio.


California’s water management needs to adapt to the changing conditions, such as the effects of climate change, a growing population, mandated groundwater sustainability, new technologies, changing regulations, and changing relationships between state, federal, and local agencies.

The PPIC report, Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms, identified five climate pressures that have broad impacts on California’s water management:

Warming temperatures and an increase in the number of extreme temperature days: The higher temperatures directly reduce runoff by increasing evaporation.  Also air temperature affects water temperature and that will present challenges for the way we manage our freshwater ecosystems.

Shrinking snowpack:  The future snowpack will be significantly reduced.  The peak snowmelt is occurring earlier in the spring.  There are also ‘snow droughts’ which are periods of little and no snowpack.  These changes in snowpack will impact California water supplies as it is one of state’s major reservoirs.

Shorter wet seasons:  There will be also changes in seasonality of precipitation.  The average precipitation is predicted to be similar to what we have today, but by mid-century, winters are expected to become shorter and more intense and we will have less precipitation in late fall and early spring.

More volatile precipitation patterns:  So-called ‘whiplash events’ are increasing.  There are more extreme dry and extreme wet year in succession, such as the drought of 2012-2016 and the very wet 2017.

Rising seas:  Rising sea levels will challenge California’s water management, by not only by salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers, but also within the Delta where increasing salinity can impact water exports from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.


Addressing these issues requires an innovative and integrated portfolio of solutions,” said Alvar Escriva-Bou.  “We have an aging infrastructure that was designed with the hydrology that we don’t have any more.  We have these increasing extreme events that are also affecting our supplies and demand.

The report, Priorities for California’s Water, identified 5 priorities:

Priority 1: Modernize the water grid.

The PPIC defines the water grid as the combination of surface storage and conveyance infrastructure, as well as the groundwater basins.  Infrastructure needs to work efficiently together, especially now with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Addressing infrastructure weaknesses is essential for reducing the cost of future droughts and floods,” Mr. Escriva-Bou said.  “We have to prepare for changing conditions to enhance groundwater storage and to rethink the way that we operate infrastructure.”

Priority 2: Prepare for changing supply and demand.

State agencies should encourage and incentivize local water agencies to develop portfolios to manage supply and demand on the regional scale.  A regional scale reduces the risks as local agencies are more vulnerable.

Water needs to be better connected to land use planning; this is especially important under SGMA.

In the report we published last year, we predicted that at least 500,000 acres farmland might need to go out of production by 2040 with the passage of SGMA, so this, if land use planning is not taken into consideration, it can increase dust, pests, and weeds in the Valley,” he said.  “So it’s important to connect the way that we manage water and land.”

To prepare for changing supplies and demands, it is essential to add flexibility to the system,” he continued.  “Trading can add a lot of flexibility, so it’s important to make it easier to trade water as this can significantly reduce the costs of complying with SGMA, and also to help cities and the environment.”

Priority 3: Provide safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water.

The map on the left shows communities with drinking water systems that have water quality violations.  The map on the right shows the communities that are facing shortages; the blue dots are hotspots of water shortages during the drought and the red dots are water systems that applied for emergency help.

There are many communities, especially small communities, that are having problems with quality and quantity of water, so implementing cost effective solutions for safe drinking water in poor communities is essential,” said Mr. Escriva-Bou.  “We have to build drought resilience for these small water systems and domestic wells and to align state efforts on water quality and reliability and finally to collaborate on affordable solutions.”

Priority 4: Reduce wildfire risk in headwater forests.

We need to increase pace and scale of management on federal lands, he said.  Since reducing wildfire risk can be linked with water supplies, it’s important to define the multiple benefits and beneficiaries in order to pull together all the funding needed to address the issues.

More information on headwater forests is available in the recent PPIC report, The Benefits of Headwater Forest Management.

Priority 5: Improve the health of freshwater ecosystems.

The PPIC identified lack of planning as one of the main issues in the way we respond to drought.  We don’t have a good plan on how to do that and usually the environment is the first that suffers the most severe water cuts, he said.  Tools such as ecosystem water budgets can be more flexible in the timing and availability of water for the environment.  Changing supplies and demand needs to be anticipated and prepared for.

Watershed-wide solutions are key to improving resilience and managing for competing goals.   “All these issues come together in major watersheds and this is especially true in the Sacramento-San Joaquin basin that actually affects the Delta, one of the major hubs of water in California,” said Mr. Escriva-Bou.  “This is not just for benefits for the ecosystem but also water supplies for cities and farms.  We have to promote sustainable water management, and to support this shift, the state should promote broad based watershed planning.”

More information on conserving California’s freshwater ecosystems in the PPIC report, A Path Forward for California’s Freshwater Ecosystems.


Principle 1: Flexibility to manage increased volatility and build resilience.  This includes finding ways to ‘switch off’ some of the water demand, such as fallowing of row crops or landscapes in urban areas.  There should be a plan for the ecosystem.  “We know that there are many changes and especially climate change brings more and more volatility and more variability, so we have to be flexible to be able to adapt to increased droughts or more severe droughts but also for the floods that will come in wet years.”

Principle 2: Incentives to implement smarter, more flexible management.  Better incentives are needed to implement smarter and more flexible management.  The state should use a carrot strategy to provide economic and special incentives to do what needs to be done.  “It’s especially more important now under the SGMA to give the groundwater sustainability agencies the incentives to implement policies that are more important for their own users but also to adapt for this changing climate,” he said.

Principle 3: Alignment across agencies to make it easier to trade water, recharge aquifers, and restore ecosystems.  In the PPIC report, Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, the researchers noted that there are many agencies are somehow involved in water issues and land issues in the Valley, but there’s a significant lack of alignment across agencies.  “Alignment between local, state, and federal agencies with funding and also policies, addressing this is really important and would really help in adapting to this changing climate.”

Principle 4: Multiple-benefit approaches to broaden cooperation and leverage more sources of funding.  For example, there are many benefits and beneficiaries in reducing wildfire risk in the headwater forests.  “We can have less risk for wildlife and we can have more water supplies for downstream users, so addressing how to fund or how to get the multiple beneficiaries to work together is an important issue.”

He noted that the Water Storage Investment Program is a good example of pulling together benefits and beneficiaries and providing funding for public benefits while also bringing private funding to the table.  There’s also a lot of interest now in groundwater recharge and urban stormwater capture that are multiple-benefit projects with multiple beneficiaries that can help with funding.


Improving conveyance can help us adapt to water scarcity, now and in future, he said.

Especially for groundwater sustainability, there’s a need to assess bottlenecks and needs of water infrastructure for increasing recharge, especially where it’s most needed,” said Mr. Escriva-Bou.  “What we found is that there are places there is more water availability, especially in the northern part of the but the overdraft and the needs for groundwater recharge are more in the south in the Tulare Basin.”

He also noted the groundwater subsidence along the California Aqueduct and the Friant-Kern Canal that needs to be addressed.

Improving conveyance is also important to facilitate water trading and increase drought resilience.  “We need to move water more and more to provide cross-regional benefits,” he said.  “For example, Southern California is investing more and more in storing water in Valley aquifers for use when they need it most during droughts.”

Increasing recharge can also help reduce flood risk, so it’s important to look at how to coordinate flood operations for groundwater recharge and increase water supplies, he said.

But Mr. Escriva-Bou acknowledged the challenges, the first and most important one being funding. Usually infrastructure investments are quite expensive and operations and maintenance cost is an important issue as sometimes agencies struggle with high costs for operations and maintenance.

It’s also important to ease local concerns about moving water between basins, counties, and regions.  “We have counties that have been really concerned about water moving out of county boundaries,” he said.  “This is issue is understandable as everybody has to maintain their own constituents, but what we have seen is that moving water more freely across the Valley, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, is for the greater good.  In the report we published last year, we found that increasing trading and flexibility in operations can reduce the costs, economic crop losses, and job losses by 75%, if we compare that with business as usual where everybody keeps their water for their own use.”


One thing that we have seen is that collaboration is essential for lasting solutions for multi-benefit approaches,” Mr. Escriva-Bou said.  “We need to look more in a regional integrated manner.  California is a place where we manage water mostly in a local way.  Of course, we have the state and federal governance helping in more regional way, but helping agencies and advising agencies to be more integrated and collaborative with their neighbors and across basins is really important, so collaboration is essential for lasting solutions.”

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