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Commentary: What would a ‘resilient’ water system look like?

Issue Date: March 24, 2021
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
The 21st century California water system will build on the existing 20th century system but may also look very different.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

In the California water world, "resilient" is the new buzzword and everybody is trying to be it. But what is a "resilient" water system and how do we get one?

The state of California completed an elaborate process last year to answer that question. Thinking inspiring thoughts on a supremely important topic—"visioning," as it's called—is not a bad way to work up some resolve to actually do something, and that's half the battle. But the other, much bigger half is actually doing those things, and that is kind of where we are with the California Water Resiliency Portfolio.

As was well known to the giants who built the 20th century system we've been relying on for many years, to solve big, you have to dream big. California faces daunting water challenges—so another question we might ask is whether we are actually dreaming big enough.

What, though, if we come at this another way and ask, "What is a resilient, 21st century California water system not?" Maybe by describing what it is not, we can arrive closer at knowing what it might be.

Let's start with the thought that a resilient, 21st century system necessarily builds on the once glorious, now aging 20th century one we have, but also may look quite different than that old system.

Much of that has to do with a lot that has changed—and will likely continue to change. What has changed? Pretty much everything.

For example, things are much more complex and expensive, and there also seems to be a lot less money available, not to mention political will and unity of purpose. That means, in part, the 21st century, resilient system we are going to build needs to be smarter, leaner, more pragmatic, more incremental, integrative and modular, and more tailored to the unique needs of each very different part of the state, while at the same time ultimately fitting together as one.

Other big changes: Society and societal attitudes have changed, population has grown, the economy has changed, ecosystems have declined and laws have evolved, bringing significant new, formerly overlooked demands to the table. Accordingly, as we figure out how to continue meeting the essential needs of cities and farms, we need also to figure out how we effectively balance those needs with the needs of rivers and fish and of the communities that have historically lacked access to water.

Moreover, for a huge swath of agriculture in particular, the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 shook the world to its foundations, charting a 20-year path for a phased but monumental ratcheting down of reliance on groundwater.

Faced with all this, more people are arriving at the same conclusion: In large part, a resilient water system will involve better stewarding of our forests and watersheds, figuring out how to take better advantage of wet times in preparation for the inevitable dry ones. It will include new ways to capture and store flood flows and move that water more efficiently underground—whenever possible, creating "multi-benefit" results such as flood risk reduction and enhanced ecological function, both aquatic and terrestrial.

Building a just and equitable, resilient, 21st century water system that strives to serve all of California's important needs cannot mean indifferently writing off, shutting down and phasing out vast sectors of existing demand. It cannot mean glibly ushering out what's considered to be the "old" and showing in the "new," and it cannot mean turning our backs on hard-hit and vulnerable regional economies and communities. Rather, it must secure a vibrant future for all of California.

Our vision of a resilient California water system can also accommodate the image of the majestic salmon fighting its way up a stream—but, to fulfill that vision as best it can, it must address the true complexity of challenges. It must recognize this same California as a state of 40 million or more people, and a place uniquely suited to be an engine of domestic and world food production.

As we brace for what's likely to be a long, hot, dry summer, it's not a bad time to ask ourselves what it would look like to have a resilient, 21st century water system that can work for all. Answering that question will take creativity, good will, discipline and sustained common purpose. Happily, we are Californians: We've got this. Now, let's get going!

(Justin Fredrickson is an environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau. He may be reached at

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

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