Work Together to Make Progress on Water Policy


When it comes to California water policy, “the impulse in the state of California has been to throw money at water, hoping or wishing that something miraculous will occur, thus solving our current and future dilemmas related to supply,” said Phil Isenberg in a keynote speech on water policy delivered at The Almond Conference in December. Isenberg is a 50-year veteran of state politics and serves as chair of the Delta Stewardship Council.

Isenberg noted history has a way of repeating itself. He related the perspective of a Roman general who was tasked with being water master in Rome in the days of the Caesars. The general recorded that people were using water ineffectively and inefficiently, using water they didn’t pay for, and fighting over apportionment of existing supplies as opposed to competing uses. California has had very similar ongoing struggles over its water supply resources throughout the entirety of its history, Isenberg said.

Isenberg said he believes understanding the state’s current water challenges requires an understanding of some fundamental facts:

  • The majority of the water supply for the state is sourced from the north and northeastern half of the state.
  • There is an estimated 50 to 60% evaporation loss of all water supply yields.
  • Approximately 20 million acre feet (MAF) of supply occur in the North Coast region and are not able to be captured (at least no present plans or legislation exist to do so) for export south to meet the existing and growing needs of that portion of the state.

Due to changes in surface-water supply use and climatic unpredictability, Isenberg warned there will be increased attention focused on groundwater use, specifically on the dangers of subsidence as a result of over-draft throughout the almond-growing region. More attention will be paid to making gains in conservation, including landscape design and watering.

Financing of water projects looms large, said Isenberg. He noted presently, that 86% of the costs of projects are financed by local and regional entities, but with “fixes” continuing to prove very expensive, big question marks arise as to how these solutions will be financed and by whom. “Though the state asserts itself as a major player in and determiner of current and future progress, what role will public funds play in future projects?” he asked.

Looking to the future, Isenberg said that Delta conveyance must be addressed, and more emphasis placed on local/regional self-reliance and smart water projects, including smaller storage options that were taken off the table years ago.

He noted in summation that he is optimistic about the future, and that changes are happening, though seemingly slowly. Further progress can be made if Californians are “prudent and committed to a balanced/shared perspective on use, finally doing it together rather than in spite of each other.”

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