“By standing on the shoulders of those who came before, we can see even greater things to come.” Wilbur and Orville Wright, circa 1903
The Wright brothers are credited with successfully launching the Aerial Age. From the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N. C. on Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer made four flights, the best covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. This heavier-than-air, powered flying machine was the first to make a sustained, controlled flight with a pilot on board.
I have been asked to write about California water policy. So why have I started it with a reference to the Wright brothers legacy?
The answer is simple. As Californians seek to find answers to the vexing problems related to our water supply; criticism and negativity are rampant. I imagine the Wright brothers faced a lot of criticism and negativity as they attempted to bring their vision to life. California suffers from serious financial problems that now dominate every public policy discussion. The “can do” attitude that this great state was famous for has regrettably, but understandably, become “can’t do.” The Golden State desperately needs a vision for a more optimistic future. I can’t think of a better place to apply a large dose of optimism than to the ever-important water policy discussion.
Beginning in the 1880s, California earned a well-deserved reputation for constructing “world class” water storage and delivery projects. Local, state and federal projects such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct, San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Project, East Bay MUD’s Pardee Dam and Aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct, the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP), to name a few, were engineering marvels. All were designed to extract and store water in areas of sufficiency, then deliver that water to areas of growth and need.
The ensuing economic vitality and growth in California can be directly attributed to the development of a reliable water supply. California has been well served by many local, state and federal water projects that supply our thirsty state with water for our families, farms and factories. But the same water supply systems that were once widely celebrated by a majority of Californians have become the subject of much criticism and controversy.
In 1968, when the first water deliveries were made from the newly constructed State Water Project, there were signs that a new environmental consciousness was beginning to take shape in California. After nearly 100 years of building dams, canals and pipelines to meet the growing demands for a reliable water supply, concerns about water quality and environmental impacts began to emerge. With the benefit of hindsight we now realize that the 1960s marked the end of an era -- the era of water extraction.
The 1970s marked the beginning of the era of sustainability. Congress responded to concerns about the environment by passing several landmark environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the National Environment Policy Act that created the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Pollution Control Act Amendment, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, which became known as the Clean Water Act. These acts set a much more demanding threshold for water supply project designs and permits.
It should be no surprise that we now have a conflict with the water supply systems that were designed and built decades ago to extract and convey water that serve a society that views the environment as a finite resource worth protecting. The CVP and the SWP, California’s largest water projects, were not designed with the goal of ecosystem compatibility and enhancement. To further today’s difficulties, each system depends upon the environmentally sensitive San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to convey water to the export pumps located at the southern edge of the Delta.
Following decades of discussion and frustration over the conflict between water extraction and sustainability, the California Legislature took a bold step to reconcile California’s need for a reliable water supply with an equal emphasis on environmental values. The Delta Reform Act of 2009 clearly stated that water policy initiatives must place equal emphasis upon water supply reliability and ecosystem health. These coequal goals are now more than a wish or a suggestion. The coequal goals are now law and will become the foundation upon which a new era in water supply operations will be based.
Finding durable solutions to achieve the coequal goals begins with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the water conveyance system we now have: a system designed to extract and move water. Addressing the weaknesses of the current system can lead to a new vision for a modernized water system designed not only to provide a reliable water supply for California but sustain and enhance the Delta environment as well. That vision will require a comprehensive set of solutions and a significant investment in infrastructure improvements to provide the flexibility necessary to meet the coequal goals.
Let me be clear: there is enough water to meet the current and future needs for California’s economy and for the environment if it is managed properly. The solutions for tomorrow will look much different than the solutions of the past.
The success of the Wright brothers changed the way people all over the world view travel. These two bicycle shop operators overcame what must have seemed at that time insurmountable obstacles to accomplish the impossible. In a sense, the Wright brothers made bicycles fly. Certainly with all of our knowledge and ability, we too can achieve what seems impossible. Sustainable solutions to our water challenges are needed now. Reviving the California “can do” attitude is a good place to start.