Commentary by Jim Wundermanm president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, and Charles Wilson, executive director and CEO of the Southern California Water Coalition
Spring in California is a time for enjoying fresh wildflower blossoms and old baseball rivalries. However, in recent years spring has become a time for lamenting California’s vanishing snowpack and depleted reservoirs as the state drifts farther into drought. The Sierra snowpack—source of half the state’s water supply—was just 25% its average size as of April 14, marking three consecutive dry winters and plunging the entire state into a severe drought.
That’s why the Bay Area Council, the Southern California Water Coalition, the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, and a statewide coalition of businesses and water managers are putting aside old rivalries to urge Gov. Newsom and the Legislature to commit $6.5 billion from this year’s $23 billion budget surplus to strengthening California’s drought resilience.
$1.76 billion for recycled water
$1 billion for regional resilience projects like groundwater, stormwater, desalination, and conveyance systems
$860 million to repair aging dams
$645 million to bolster Proposition 1 storage projects
$585 million to repair damaged aqueducts
$500 million for clean drinking water
$500 million for urban flood protection
$300 million for sea level rise resilience
$55 million for data and innovation
$50 million for land repurposing
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories recently estimated warming temperatures will reduce the Sierra snowpack to effectively zero most years beginning in the 2040s. Water imported from the Colorado River will be negatively impacted by climate change as well. To adapt, California must increase water storage and efficiency, and embrace drought resilient supplies like recycled and desalinated water. We’ll need better data, more innovation, and more water for our environment, too. Old dams and aqueducts will need to be repaired, and low-lying infrastructure safeguarded from flood waters when intensified storms drop a season’s worth of rain over just a few days.
These upgrades cannot be implemented without significant support from the state General Fund.
California currently relies on water ratepayers to pay for most water infrastructure improvements, with the state and federal governments providing a combined 15% of all water sector spending. Yet water rates have skyrocketed over the past decade as local and regional agencies across the state have undertaken expensive repairs to aging pipes and aqueducts. Water rates in San Diego have increased 60%, rates in Los Angeles increased 87%, in San Jose 93%, and in San Francisco 141%. The high costs have left more Californians struggling to keep up. We’re approaching the point—if we haven’t already crossed it—where ratepayers will be unable to absorb further rate increases.
The bipartisan federal infrastructure bill provides about $3.5 billion for clean drinking water improvements, but California is unlikely to see that level of federal investment for another generation. The $5.2 billion approved by Governor Newsom in 2021 for water and drought resilience was historic, but our needs are enormous. A recent WateReuse survey indicates that the state currently has more than $10 billion in recycling projects alone awaiting funding.
Support for water infrastructure from the state General Fund has historically played a major role in supporting California’s economic development. Water bonds passed by voters over the past two decades have enabled the state to become much more water efficient, essentially doubling economic output while reducing total water use.
Today, flush with an historic budget surplus, state leaders have an opportunity to strengthen California’s drought resilience for the next generation. Furthermore, tapping into this surplus is a less expensive, more progressive way to fund water infrastructure than either state bonds or water ratepayer funds alone.
As the start of baseball season reminds us, California is a big state with its fair share of old regional rivalries, especially when it comes to water. Yet with climate change threatening every water system in the state, the time for finding common ground is now.
Charles Wilson is the executive director and CEO of the Southern California Water Coalition. Jim Wunderman is the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.