California’s Drought – A Perfect Storm

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California’s Drought

Water conservation is vital now that California’s drought is entering the 4th year of a record drought, forcing agencies like the Santa Ana Water Planning Authority (SAWPA) to be creative in the way they face the challenges of reduced water supplies and future watershed sustainability. The integrated regional water management plan it calls “One Water One Watershed” or OWOW, brings businesses, environmental groups and citizens together to address the water-related needs and challenges of the region served by the Santa Ana River Watershed in a new collaborative way.

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As California continues to wait for much-needed rain, a regional water management agency is exploring ways to deal with a different kind of storm that has contributed to the effects of one of the worst droughts on record.

In the first online webcast of “The Randall Lewis Seminar Series,” hosted by Ron Loveridge, Director of the Center for Sustainable Suburban Development at UC Riverside, spoke with Celeste Cantu, general manager of the Santa Ana Water Planning Authority (SAWPA). Cantu, said a perfect storm of events is now challenging the state’s water supply and its future sustainability. Cantu characterized each of these events as one of the “six horsemen of the apocalypse.” The events, or challenges, include the state’s fiscal crisis; the drought-impacted Colorado River; the relationship of water to energy production; climate change, the endangered Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, and urban hardscaping caused by explosive development. All of these influences, when combined with the state’s lack of rain, have contributed to a dwindling supply of water in the region’s watersheds.

“There is no sign we’re coming out of the driest years in our recorded history,” Cantu said, “some have said perhaps the driest in over fifteen hundred years by studying petrified tree rings.”

Southern California is served by a number of watersheds, one of the largest of which is the Santa Ana River Watershed, which is overseen by SAWPA. It serves the population centers of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties as well as northern and central Orange County. In the webcast, Cantu said, “We’re very lucky in this watershed, unlike other watersheds in California, in that we have five sources of water. So when you look at risk management or you’re trying find a resilient way to operate, having five sources of water is a great luxury.” Cantu lists those sources as ground water, imported water from Northern California, imported Colorado River water, recycled water and rainwater.

Even with five sources of water, however, experts are concerned about the sustainability of the overall supply of the Santa Ana River Watershed if the drought now heading into its 4th year continues over a prolonged period. In her webcast, Cantu presents recent photographs taken at Lake Oroville, a major state reservoir in Northern California, showing a dry lake bottom. She also talked about the 14-year drought of the Colorado River. Lake Mead, the large western reservoir, which supplies Las Vegas with the water it receives from the river, has been reduced to 35 percent capacity, putting water officials there on alert.

To deal with the ongoing issues concerning water sustainability in the Santa Ana River Watershed, SAWPA has formed an integrated regional water management plan it calls “One Water One Watershed” or OWOW for short. “We’ve brought together more than just the water community. We’ve integrated the business community, the environmental community, rate-payers and a variety of other considerations.” Cantu went on to say that the objective is to come of with a “suite of options” in order to deal with water-related issues. As noted on the SAWPA website at, “Through collaborative strategic partnerships and building upon the successful watershed planning in the past, the next generation of integrated regional watershed planning is under development to solve problems on a regional scale, and give all water interests a voice in the planning process.”

In addition to customary appeals for water conservation and the need from improved land development that does not impact watersheds, Cantu says that new legislation in the form of a ballot measure known as Proposition 1 would give authority to local officials to take action and implement strategies with respect to the local watersheds serving their communities. If passed by voters in the November election, the legislation would provide funds for water recycling and the development of systems to capture storm run-off. Cantu agrees Proposition 1 is not a silver bullet solution.

“It’s expensive. Financing water projects through bonds are more expensive than financing through rate payers, but it is the tool that’s available to us, and California desperately needs it,” Cantu said.

Dwight Cromie

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