July 26, 2018

Water has played a very significant role in California’s development. Visionary leaders built local water systems to bring water from mountain watersheds to booming metropolitan centers like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Rapid population growth and economic commerce following World War II necessitated additional water supplies to feed and clothe a rapidly growing population and fuel the state’s expanding business and agricultural base.

Our elected leaders responded with significant water supply and delivery projects, such as the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) in the 1930s, and the State Water Project (SWP) in the 1960s. Local water district and community leaders also built thousands of local water supply and delivery systems to accommodate our rapidly growing population. The great Central Valley emerged as the supermarket for the nation, growing hundreds of staples and specialty crops to feed all of us.

These historical efforts did not come easily. Water issues were as divisive then as they can be today. The statewide votes approving the CVP and SWP were very close. State leaders such as Governor Pat Brown, worked tirelessly to confront the challenges water development faced. Balancing competing and conflicting interests and working for the common good of the entire state have always been the keys to our success. As a result of hard work and strong leadership, we have a water supply system that has allowed the state to become the fifth largest economy in the world and provide a high quality of life for Californians—something many now take for granted.

However, that water system built by our visionary forefathers is now significantly strained. Increasing competition for limited supplies has led to unfortunate conflicts between fish and human needs, as the current system reaches its limits. By many measures our water system is broken and cannot continue to meet the needs of the state’s residents, businesses, farmers, and environment. The bottom line is that the next Governor of California will have to deal with complex water issues and will need to show the same dedication and leadership, rising to these challenges as our early leaders did. 

Complex political decisions are getting harder to make but are increasingly necessary, as California grapples with this next chapter in its history. While the state has clearly made noteworthy progress on water issues under Governor Jerry Brown, the current efforts can best be characterized as a lot going on but not a great deal happening. Multiple wide-ranging planning processes are occurring, but have finish lines that seem more like a mirage. Additionally, these many planning processes lack needed coordination. Our water system remains broken and overtaxed, while scientific reports explaining the problems and proposing solutions collect dust on bookshelves. Economically damaging outflow requirements continue to expand, while sadly doing little—if any good—for the endangered fish they are intended to recover.

The next Governor must demonstrate leadership, a sense of urgency, and ability to address these emerging realities. As in the past, securing a safe and clean, sufficient, and reliable water supply will not come easily. Keeping the Golden State on track will require another Governor working for the common good of all Californians.