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New Technologies and Responsible Management Can Solve California’s Water Crisis

The US’ most populous, California, is short on water. But it doesn’t have to be. Watershed management and below-ground water storage can increase the state’s ability to hold rain and meltwater. Meanwhile, water recycling and solar technology can help California make better use of the water it has.
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Lake

Picturesque Barney Lake surrounded by steep mountain ridge with a small snow patches near Mammoth Lakes, California © Michael Vi / shutterstock.com

January 02, 2024 04:49 EDT
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Despite historic rainfalls last winter, California could be back into drought conditions before we know it. If we are not careful, we could end up like South Africa.

In 2018, Cape Town’s reservoirs were dangerously low. Although authorities severely limited water usage, the city barely avoided “Day Zero.” This would have meant shutting off water to private homes, forcing residents to queue for water rations. Why such a water shortage? South Africa’s water system is crumbling. The system loses 70 million liters of water each day due to leaks.

Like South Africa’s, California’s water infrastructure is outdated and in need of repair. California’s reservoirs are largely full now, but there is  only enough water for the state to make it through one dry year. To avoid an outcome like Cape Town’s, California needs to start using new technology and smart public policy to ensure the state has enough water.

Managing California’s watersheds

Watershed management will be key to ensuring water from rainfall and snowmelt finds its way to reservoirs, lakes and rivers. Restoring meadows and forests impacted by pollution, development and wildfires will allow for slower release of rainwater and snowmelt. This increases the environment’s ability to hold water.

California’s Sierra Nevada mountains hold a lot of fresh water in their snowpack. The Sierra Nevada Watershed provides drinking water to two-thirds of the state’s population, but the snowpack is under threat from rising temperatures. The state has was lucky this summer, receiving relatively cool temperatures that left the snow intact. Because California’s watersheds are degraded, they are not able to withstand a great amount of meltwater, so higher temperatures could have caused catastrophic flooding. At the same time, billions of gallons of badly needed fresh water would have been lost.

We may not be so lucky next year, so we need to act quickly. Nonprofits like the Sierra Nevada Conservancy provide grants for watershed management projects including fire mitigation and land conservation. The state should follow their lead and invest in similar restorations now.

In addition, new, strategically-placed reservoirs like the proposed Alder Creek Reservoir could be game-changers. This proposal would see the reservoir located in higher elevation to better catch snowpack melt and upstream so water would not have to ever be released to prevent risks of flooding.

California should also invest more in below-ground water storage. Previous projects have seen substantial results. In 2016, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti broke ground on the largest underground reservoir in the western US, called the Headworks Reservoir. Since completion, it has stored over 110 million gallons of water for LA and helped the city meet state quality levels.

In January 2023, LA received heavy winter rains. The Headworks Reservoir and the newly expanded Tujunga Spreading Grounds rose to the occasion and helped to capture the stormwaters. In fact, the Tujunga Spreading Grounds can capture enough water to supply 64,000 households per year.

Below-ground water storage contributes immensely to our elastic water supply. Its ability to adapt with the constant ebb and flow of water supply makes it a vital solution to the state’s water scarcity.

Using our water resources more efficiently

Along with capturing more water, we can leverage new technologies to make more efficient use of the water that we have.

Advanced water recycling, or direct potable reuse (DPR), could save enough water for 2 million Californian households. Currently, wastewater is treated and then dumped into the rivers and ocean — 400 gallons a day in Los Angeles County alone. As climate change alters rain and snowmelt patterns, this water becomes less likely to find its way back to reservoirs and aquifers. With DPR, wastewater is highly treated and purified to meet drinking water standards before being introduced directly into public water systems.

Recycled water from a DPR system is considered the cleanest drinking water available. Texas, Arizona, and Colorado are already using DPR systems in drought-stricken cities. The State Water Resources Control Board should do the same in California especially in areas hardest hit by drought.

New technologies can also help us efficiently transport water. Using renewable power, we can move water across the state at low cost.

We can also integrate solar panels with aqueducts. A recent study conducted at the University of California, Merced, found that the shade provided by solar panels reduces evaporation by up to 90% annually. California has 4,000 miles of open canals. Researchers estimate that putting solar panels over them could save enough water for 2 million people annually. In addition, the clean power generated by these solar panel networks would also help to power water filtration, maintenance and the movement of water throughout the state. We should seize the opportunity to save energy, money, and water using low-cost solar technology. 

Seeing full reservoirs, flowing rivers, and historic snowpacks feels miraculous after years of drought. But this miracle will turn out to be a mirage unless we update existing watershed management, expand below-ground water storage, support advanced recycling and integrate renewable energy into infrastructure. With a little effort and foresight, California can continue to be not only the Golden State, but a green one as well.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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