California Water – The Great Remodeling Project

Jay R. Lund, Director, Center for Watershed Sciences, and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UC Davis

Some historical remodeling in Paris

People periodically remodel their homes.  A household might need a new room for children or an ailing grandparent, want a bigger kitchen, replace a leaky roof, or want more room to entertain.  California’s water system is now undergoing remodeling.  The infrastructure and institutions of California’s water system were mostly built decades ago for a California that has largely long past.  The original design served an economy and society dominated by agriculture, water-intensive industries (originally mining), and explosive urban growth.  Then, California needed to subdue and reshape its great hydrologic diversity, droughts, and floods.  The successful infrastructure of this era is now decaying and often fits poorly with today’s objectives, similar to how a starter home chafes on a growing family.

California’s water remodel is needed to better serve the changing economy, especially agriculture’s declining economic share and its growing economic value.  The remodel also must serve a passionate and popular interest in environmental quality and sustaining native species.  California’s often feuding family has grown larger, older, and increasingly diverse in its environmental, economic, and quality-of-life expectations.  Today’s system based on a legacy of large reservoirs, canals, pipelines, unlimited groundwater pumping, and fragmented and dated environmental protections is increasingly inconvenient.

Like any remodeling project, remodeling California’s water involves controversy.  Each family member wants something different – and California is a larger, more complex family than in the last remodel.  The kids resist changes to their rooms, and don’t see the world changing.  The parents often disagree on fundamental direction and needs, even while agreeing on the need for change.  Architectural and operational permitting is more complex and uncertain and family fragmentation is much greater than most home remodels, but we must all live within California’s overall water structure.  California’s water remodeling project is prolonged by requirements that each sub-contractor and room in this large home be funded separately by different family members, and the two general contractors in charge (state and federal governments) often disappear for years at a time to work on other jobs.  Earlier remodels of California’s water system, such as Sacramento Valley’s flood bypasses, the Hetch Hetchy and Los Angeles water systems, the Central Valley Project, and the State Water Project were also controversial, protracted, and expensive.

Today, we look toward continued, but modified, use of reservoirs, canals, and perhaps a tunnel or two, more integrated management of groundwater, more efficient water use in all sectors, water markets to increase flexibility and ease adjustments, and new means to reuse water and capture stormwater.  New views of infrastructure and operations needed for ecosystems, water supply, flood control, hydropower, and recreation challenge old conceptions (on all sides) and risk refighting ancient battles involving many in California’s water community.  The structure of our water house is changing, and even those seeing the value and need for change are concerned or fearful about its direction and details.

Systems need to adapt to changes in society, economy, and environment

Like most home remodeling projects, remodeling California’s water systems will take more time and money than anyone hoped, change our water home in fundamental ways, and impose a period of family strife.  More work will be done by local residents, perhaps imperfectly, after frustration with sub-contractors and general contractors.  But in the end, after the dust settles and bills come under control, most residents will be glad the remodeling was done, even though they will forever grumble about its details and cost.  And like household remodeling, in a few decades, it will be time to remodel again.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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