Regional water planning faces uncertain future


Issue Date: January 25, 2012
By Kate Campbell

With state bond funds nearly exhausted, regional water management groups face an uncertain future for planning and projects intended to address water needs in specific parts of the state.

During the past decade, Integrated Regional Water Management Planning groups have used a multi-dimensional planning approach to water planning. The regional water planning groups cover more than 80 percent of the state and address the water supply needs of nearly 100 percent of California's population. Supporters say the effort aims to bring everyone who holds a piece of the water supply puzzle together to create better long-term solutions.

Water specialists say that in the past, water entities maintained a narrow focus on particular service areas and functions, sometimes competing against each other to solve similar problems.

In 2002, the Legislature passed the Integrated Regional Water Management Act and since then, ballot Propositions 50 and 84 provided about $1.5 billion for planning and specific projects to improve regional water systems.

Those funds are nearly gone.

A water bond slated for the November state ballot includes about $1 billion for continued planning and projects—many of them small scale, but considered essential by regional planners.

"Unlike any effort before it, the (regional water management plan) in the Tulare Lake Basin portion of Kern County has brought together stakeholders from across the region to discuss water resource management," said Lauren Bauer, Kern County Water Agency water resources planner.

The Kern regional-planning participants include water agencies, community and government representatives, environmental groups, businesses, universities and a variety of other interested parties, she said. The group has worked for the past three years to inventory the region's water resources and infrastructure, and develop regional goals.

About 170 water-related projects have been identified, including expansion of groundwater banking facilities, improvements in water quality and supplies to rural and disadvantaged communities, installation of solar fields to power water delivery systems, restoration of local rivers and streams, and flood management.

"Each identified project is a step toward achieving one or more of our regional goals," Bauer said.

The current California Water Plan Update emphasizes "the need to act now to provide integrated, reliable, sustainable, and secure water resources and management systems for the economy, ecosystems, and human health."

The state plan describes regional water-management plans as a "sustainable, resilient infrastructure with high levels of regional involvement and coordination that provide the best way to deal with the challenges to come." State guidelines require integrated regional planning for groups to qualify for state funding for planning and construction projects.

In the Upper Kings Basin, David Orth said the regional planning effort in which his agency participates has spent about $30 million on planning and projects to improve supply reliability and water quality. That includes a well-rehabilitation project in the community of East Orosi and a meter installation project in a rural community near Fresno.

"We've made some progress in our region," Orth said. "The (regional) approach is intended as a leg in the state's water supply stool."

But, he said, continuation of the effort depends on the availability of bond funds.

"If the water bond on the ballot fails this fall, I expect the work of the Upper Kings Basin (regional water management plan) to continue. But others may struggle," he said.

In the Sacramento Valley, the counties of Butte, Colusa, Glenn and Tehama have worked together on resource management issues for about 10 years.

"Working together gives us better bang for the buck," said Vickie Newlin of the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation. "We're looking at the aquifer that underlies parts of the four counties."

Recently, Sutter and Shasta counties have joined the other four counties to form a larger resource planning group. The counties have formed an association with an 18-member board of directors, which includes representatives from agricultural companies and a number of farmers.

"Regional water management plans offer a good strategy for making incremental improvements to our water infrastructure in a highly collaborative, regional planning structure," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director, noting that many farmers are already involved in their role as irrigation district directors.

He encouraged farmers and ranchers to monitor the water management planning activities in their regions.

"Agriculture needs to help shape project selection through direct involvement because during the past 10 years, these regional projects have produced favorable results and hold promise for improvement in the future," Merkley said.

"Our members need to help ensure that's the case, even with uncertain funding," he said.

He suggested that farmers and ranchers check with local water agencies to learn more about what is being done through regional water plans, and how to help shape future actions to benefit agricultural water supplies.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.