Adapting the Water System to Climate Change

By Kacey Bills, MPP 2014
Source: CBS/SF Bay Area

Source: CBS/SF Bay Area

California’s current drought is not a result of one year of below average rainfall. It is the result of four years of dry conditions. The current water crisis is not an unexpected disaster. It was completely predictable. As climate change affects weather patterns, California is in for more dry years. To avoid prolonging the current crisis and to prevent a worse one in the future, California must incorporate climate change adaptation into all aspects of water management.

In a welcome move, climate change preparedness is now taken into consideration when the state awards funding for water projects in California. On Thursday, April 3rd 2014, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) released a draft proposal for the expenditure of $200 million in drought relief funds throughout the state. DWR hopes to provide a streamlined and expedited system for non-profits and local government agencies to receive funding for drought relief and preparedness projects.[1] The proposal lays out statewide priorities, including climate change response actions, and describes what types of projects could meet that target and receive funding. The inclusion of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies as a statewide priority is a progressive action for lawmakers.

The current drought has raised awareness of the effects of climate change on the water supply in California. In Governor Brown’s State of the State speech, he addressed actions to strengthen our current water system, and said, “It’s a tall order, but it is what we must do to get through this drought and prepare for the next.[2]” Preparing for the next drought is every Californian’s responsibility. Incremental preparations for climate change must be integrated into our current water strategy.

Climate change should be planned for because scientists predict we will have more extreme weather fluctuations in the future. The Earth’s average temperature is rising, which increases the speed of the water cycle through increased water evaporation. The increase in evaporation makes more water available for precipitation, but leaves typically dryer areas with parched land. Some areas are likely to see increased rainfall and flooding, while other will have an increased risk of drought conditions.[3] Preparing our water system to handle the extreme fluctuations in weather is vital to the success of California.

Reactionary water planning is more expensive than acting proactively. The current drought relief package consists of $677 million of California funds, of which $200 million is distributed by DWR. A portion of that package will go toward direct aid to farmers and communities without drinking water. The majority of the sum, $549 million, will go toward grants for regional water projects.[4] Lawmakers are also debating the size of a water bond initiative that will be on the November ballot. That figure is currently at $11 billion.[5] California typically spends $30 billion on water management annually.[6]By the end of 2014, California will likely have spent additional funds on the water crisis that is equivalent to roughly 40% of the annual budget. Additional relief fund costs, loss of livelihood for farmers and laborers, and increased food costs, are all economic consequences of drought. Adopting climate change preparedness methods into all facets of water management and planning could help to reduce those impacts during the next drought.

Incremental actions that account for a changing climate will reduce the burdens of a drought emergency. Everyone shares the responsibility to plan for a future including climate change. By adopting a philosophy of adaptation, we can tailor our response to climate change as the impacts become more known. An incremental action that all residents can take is installing a greywater caption program to recycle household wastewater for landscaping. Greywater Action is a non-profit that is teaching do-it-yourself home grey water systems. A basic greywater caption program that takes water from the laundry to landscaping requires no inspection or permit, and can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.[7]

DWR has done Californians a great service by incorporating climate change into grant awards. It is important to sustain that commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation over the long term.

[1] The Natural Resources Agency, Department of Water Resources, Division of Integrated Regional Water Management. (2014). 2014 Drought Solicitation Integrated Water Management Program Funded by Proposition 84 (p. 102).
[2] York, A. (2014, January 22). Gov. Jerry Brown urges frugality in State of State speech. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-brown-speech-20140123,0,4158471.story
[3] US EPA, C. C. D. (n.d.). Drought. Reports & Assessments, Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/weather-climate/drought.html
[4] Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. – Newsroom. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18432
[5] Jon Schuppe. (2014, April 9). Emergency Drought Relief Begins to Flow, But Solutions Will Cost California Much More. NBC Bay Area.
[6] Hanak, E., Gray, B., Lund, J., Mitchell, D., Chappelle, C., Fahlund, A., … Nachbaur, J. (2014). Paying for Water in California. Retrieved from http://www.webmail.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_314EHR.pdf
[7] Use of Graywater Catching On as Drought Continues | KQED. (n.d.). The California Report. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.californiareport.org/archive/R201404090850/b
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