Water and the California Dream

The following Commentary by Cordoba Corporation Managing Partner and Chief Financial Officer Maria Mehranian was published by the Pacific Council on International Policy on its website on January 26, 2018:

“As California goes, so goes the nation.”

Image of State Water Project faciilties included by Pacific Council on International Policy on its website with the commentary from Maria Mehranian.

This popular quote, attributed to Xavier Becerra, is applicable to so many unique aspects of the Golden State. Earthquake jokes aside, we are known as an epicenter of creativity and innovation. Such innovation and creativity, whether originating in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or at one of our major universities, often become the template or standard-bearer for the rest of the country, if not the rest of the world.

California’s diversity of resources, geography, people, and ideas means we have to think creatively to address important societal and policy issues. As we continue to grow and innovate in the 21st century, thought leaders and policy makers have realized that our next great effort here in California is water.

Our state’s water history has been indelibly marked by the constant tug-of-war between agricultural areas and urban population centers. William Mulholland, an immigrant from Northern Ireland who came to California with big ideas, built the Los Angeles Aqueduct to carry water from Owens Lake to Southern California. The ensuing “water wars” resulting from his efforts pitted farmers in the Owens Lake area against the city of Los Angeles. Different actors continue to argue over water and the process of transferring it from one part of the state to another, or from one use to another.

The lessons of the most recent drought have demonstrated that we need to be creative in looking for solutions to ensure we have adequate water supply and that such water is safe, clean, sustainable, and protected.

The lessons of the most recent drought have demonstrated that we need to be creative in looking for solutions to ensure we have adequate water supply and that such water is safe, clean, sustainable, and protected. Moreover, we have to be mindful of the potential, realized, and perceived effects of water being traded, reallocated, or transferred from one use or area to another.

We have to look for solutions that do not result in another series of water wars. California’s economic viability as the sixth largest economy in the world, as well as the viability of the diverse natural resources that characterize the state, necessitate balanced, diversified, and innovative solutions. I often emphasize when participating on water policy panels or discussing water issues with other thought leaders that there is no silver bullet solution that will resolve our water supply and water quality concerns here in California.

But among solutions that are compatible, coordinated, and innovative, traditional responses to enhance stormwater capture and increase groundwater supplies locally shouldn’t be forgotten. There are also important statewide solutions that will move water safely and sustainably to locations in need of additional supplies.

Locally, cities and counties need to focus on compatible solutions where local supplies can be preserved or expanded.

The state of California has proposed the “Water Fix” as a means to improve water availability statewide. The Water Fix project focuses on providing reliable, clean, and safe water to California’s businesses, residents, and farms through water infrastructure upgrades and innovations, while protecting the ecological and recreational resources of California’s Bay Delta. The project takes into consideration the possible effects of climate change and seismic concerns.

Water Fix has its critics and opponents, but it is designed to make the existing system more effective and efficient to ensure water supplies are imported where the need is greatest. However, Water Fix is only one tool in the toolkit to achieve water resilience here in California. Locally, cities and counties need to focus on compatible solutions where local supplies can be preserved or expanded.

Stormwater capture presents an excellent opportunity. Many agencies are implementing solutions to ensure for more stormwater capture such as the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP). During 2017, which was a heavy rainfall year for Southern California, the LADWP was able to capture over 10 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ water demand from local storms. The goal is to eventually have 25 percent of the city’s water supply come from the local groundwater basin. LADWP is exploring more options to use public property, parks, and its own property as well as finding additional open space resources, including private options, to capture more stormwater.

Improving water infrastructure through new technologies, whether at the macro scale or through more localized efforts, is a key component of our water future.

In Southern California, where I previously served as a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control as an appointee of Governor Jerry Brown, stormwater capture is a topic of great interest both from a policy perspective and from a regulatory compliance perspective. The Regional Board’s landmark Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit was established to enhance water quality protection standards. The cost to do so can be extensive, and not all agencies and cities are well funded to implement new stormwater capture technologies.

Recognizing the cost of such technologies as well as compliance with increased regulatory standards focused on ensuring clean water quality protections, the county of Los Angeles is currently developing a framework for the “Safe, Clean Water Program.” This program, which will establish a water resilience plan for Los Angeles County, is focused on implementing multi-benefit stormwater projects that will increase water supply, improve water quality, and provide for community enhancements such as the greening of schools, parks, and wetlands, along with increased public access to lakes, rivers, and streams. The plan is a way to augment existing supplies, both local or imported.

While stormwater capture innovations and the Water Fix project are critical elements for water resilience—in Southern California and throughout the state—we must not forget about other tools in our water toolbox that can contribute to our water future here in California.

Finding balance and relevant local and regional solutions, while looking at the overall state’s best interests, will be tricky, but it can be done.

Some solutions or combination of solutions will work more effectively or may be more geographically viable or politically acceptable in certain locations in the state as opposed to others. Recycled water and desalination technologies need to be part of this conversation. Improving water infrastructure through new technologies, whether at the macro scale through the Water Fix or through more localized efforts, is also a key component of our water future.

Finding balance and relevant local and regional solutions, while looking at the overall state’s best interests, will be tricky, but it can be done.

As noted earlier, there is no single silver bullet solution, nor is it prudent to put all of our eggs into a single basket with respect to water resilience. We need to ensure there are multiple available water options, resources, and infrastructure types in place to avoid disruptions or shortfalls in supply, as well as to protect water quality.

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Maria Mehranian is the managing partner and chief financial officer of Cordoba Corporation and a former board chair and member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.