January 2019

California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, will inherit a number of critical water challenges as he takes office on January 7. Water is always an important issue, but it is especially important as California continues its permanent struggle with competition for increasingly limited supplies. Not to mention, the potential impacts due to climate change.

So what is Newsom facing? 2018 ended as a drier than normal year after a long, hot, dry summer. Just a few months into the 2019 “water year” that starts in October, things continue to look pretty dry.  The January 3 snowpack survey confirmed we are already trailing behind the average precipitation amounts, with snowpack at just 80 percent of normal for this time of year. While this is a vast improvement from last year’s January measurement, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, at least 75 percent of California is currently experiencing at least moderate drought conditions.

There is additional concern for the two crown jewels of California’s water system where much of the water for 28 million residents and 3 million acres of prime farmland originates. Lake Shasta, the primary reservoir serving the federal Central Valley Project, is just half full and at only 80 percent of historical average for this time of the year. Lake Oroville, which supplies the State Water Project, is just 29 percent full and at only 47 percent of historical average. Oroville will continue to be held artificially low as repairs are made to the reservoir’s emergency spillway.

In addition, Newsom must navigate the ongoing Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update. Local politicians remain up in arms and are vowing to take state regulators to court over their decision to dedicate more water for fish, resulting in less water for Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley residents, farms and businesses. Adding to rural concerns, implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 will further limit groundwater pumping in many areas of the Valley, compounding the loss of surface water supplies.

Analyses increasingly suggest that additional water scarcity could greatly impact rural Central Valley farming communities by further exacerbating chronically high unemployment and adding to existing double-digit rates of poverty. Increasing water scarcity will only add to those challenges, particularly for the Valley’s communities of color that benefit from good-paying jobs in the food-production and processing sector. Newsom has recognized the economic disparity, but he must make the connection between water policy and these inequalities.

Finally, the many ongoing challenges facing Brown’s California WaterFix will be difficult for even the most experienced politician to navigate. While the plan remains mired in controversy and complex permitting issues, the need for improved Delta water conveyance and reliability of existing supplies remains dire.

There is opportunity in each of these challenges, but especially in the Voluntary Settlement Agreements announced last month. The bold commitments by the water user community and the state water and environmental agencies hold great promise for environmental and economic restoration. In order to realize these benefits, the new administration must provide the leadership to modernize project operations and apply the next generation of scientific thinking to change the way we have done business for decades.

Newsom’s campaign theme was “Courage for a Change.” He will need both courage and leadership to navigate water policy in the Golden State. The new governor and his team have their work cut out for them on water issues, but if the state enters another prolonged dry period those challenges will only increase. No one said being governor of California was easy. We are counting on him to tackle these water challenges head on.