GUEST ARTICLE: Why the Sacramento region’s watershed is ‘super,’ and a buffer against climate change

Guest article written by Jeff Harris, a council member for the city of Sacramento and Bruce Houdesheldt, vice mayor of the city of Roseville. Both are board members of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.

The words “climate change” conjure up a variety of worries for each of us, and rightly so. But here in the Sacramento region, we’re working hard to shrink those worries by making the most of our watershed.

How is that possible? Because the Sacramento metro area is blessed to occupy a unique watershed. It is so unique, in fact, that we’ve coined a special term for it: We call it our Supershed.

The Sacramento region’s Supershed encompasses the American River watershed and portions of the Bear River and Cosumnes River watersheds. It extends from the Sierra Nevada crest, at nearly 8,000 feet, to the depths of the downstream groundwater basin, where a reservoir of fresh water-bearing soils extends 2,000 feet below our feet. A Supershed goes beyond a watershed in that it includes all of our water resources—from the lakes and rivers above ground to the groundwater below.

Thanks to this geography, the Sacramento region may be the only major metro area in California fortunate enough to obtain all its water from within its own watershed. Virtually every other metro area in the state depends on water imported from some other region.

This is an important distinction, because it endows leaders and thinkers in the Sacramento region with the ability to directly manage all their waters, as well as all the lands this water flows over, with a nature-based solution. As a result, we are uniquely positioned to manage our natural resources in cooperation with our State and Federal partners—to manage the droughts, fires and floods increasingly occurring as a result of climate change.

The watershed is also the place hundreds of thousands of residents in the region flock to for fun. Whether it’s hiking, fishing, hunting or skiing, the millions of acres that provide our drinking water also offer us solace from the stresses of our time.

For all these reasons, it isn’t just an American River watershed, Bear River watershed, or Cosumnes River watershed. It’s our Supershed.

Recognizing this, however, brings the responsibility to act. And there are many actions planned in the Supershed to adapt and prepare for the disasters likely to occur as a result of climate change. Many of these actions are coordinated by the Regional Water Authority, which represents water providers serving 2 million people throughout the Sacramento region. Other local agencies assist with reducing fire risk in our remote headwaters forests, which help capture runoff and protect water quality, scenery and habitat. Other partners help to strengthen levees surrounding Sacramento, which face increasing risk from stronger, wetter storms.

A vital project to protect our water resources under a changing climate is a regional Water Bank. The goal of the Water Bank is to maximize coordination between our rivers and underground reservoir. This will allow us to meet urban water demand using groundwater in dry times, when fish and other wildlife depend on river flow. It will also improve the region’s resilience to drought and flood.

Taking this approach makes particular sense because there is enough space in our underground reservoir to hold twice the amount of water in Folsom Reservoir. This is opportunity is one we must not pass up. We are already banking water on a small scale. But with additional pump and pipeline facilities, we can bank additional water to serve more than 200,000 households for a year.

Our goal is to build out the Water Bank by 2030, at a cost of about $300 million. That may sound expensive, but it’s significantly cheaper and far more environmentally friendly than a disastrous drought or attempting to build a new surface water reservoir.

To do so will require State and Federal help to build the Water Bank, so we are pleased to see that the new Administration plans to advance the previously-planned major infrastructure funding package soon. Tapping these funds would not only ensure our future water supply, but also provide badly needed jobs.

We all must do our part to prevent climate change by minimizing greenhouse gas emissions in our daily activities. But we also have a duty to embrace measures—like the Water Bank—that will help us adapt, live and thrive in a changing climate. That’s because the climate is already changing. And it will continue to change in the years ahead, even if the best possible actions are taken to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Some regions of the world may become inhospitable due to climate change, whether from coastal flooding, extreme temperatures or water depletion. We don’t believe any of those fates are inevitable in the Sacramento region—if we manage our Supershed responsibly.

Our goal with the Water Bank, and all the Supershed projects, is to ensure the Sacramento region remains an attractive place to live—even as climate change takes hold. In the future, people and businesses will choose to put down roots in communities that have proactively made decisions about climate adaptation to ensure a viable future. We want them to choose the Sacramento region, where we are privileged to live in the watershed that serves us so well.

Jeff Harris is a council member for the city of Sacramento, and Bruce Houdesheldt is vice mayor of the city of Roseville. Both are board members of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.

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