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Gov. Newsom’s wise move on water policy

Orange County Register logo Orange County Register 8/17/2022 The Editorial Board, The Orange County Register
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks to the media after a tour of a Metropolitan Water District water recycling demonstration facility in Carson, CA. Tuesday, May 17, 2022. © Hans Gutknecht/The Orange County Register/TNS California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks to the media after a tour of a Metropolitan Water District water recycling demonstration facility in Carson, CA. Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Gubernatorial administrations since Arnold Schwarzenegger have prioritized the battle against climate change. We’ve taken issue with the costs and effectiveness of many of those policies, but our biggest beef has centered on the issue of resilience.

California can do little to change the entire Earth’s climate, but it can enable the state to adapt and become resilient in the face of warming conditions. That concept is particularly crucial when it comes to the availability of water, which is the lifeblood of our society — especially given our generally arid conditions.

Since its origins, California has experienced a succession of droughts and flood years. Previous generations built an amazing array of water infrastructure that helped California grow and prosper despite such unpredictable conditions — mainly through the dams and canals found in the state-run State Water Project and federally managed Central Valley Project.

Yet California hasn’t built significant water infrastructure in 50 years, when the state’s population was roughly half its current size. During the last serious drought, California muddled through by focusing mainly on conservation. But after the rains resumed, our leaders went on to other priorities and squandered years (and millions of acre-feet of water) of opportunity. Then drought conditions returned.

We’ve criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom for not rising to the water challenge. He has sometimes said the right things, but has lacked an overarching strategy. He supported a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, but didn’t exert enough political capital to get its approvals through the Coastal Commission. We’re fine with conservation, but fear a future of endless rationing.

So we’ve been frustrated with the administration given the enormity of the current drought, but his recently announced water plan has us optimistic. We agree with the prominent agriculture group, the Western Growers Association, which praised the plan as “bold and comprehensive” and “not just nibbling around the edges.”

It’s the first time in years a California governor has proposed a plan that calls for significant investments in water infrastructure. It’s also refreshing that an administration is focusing on resilience in the face of climate change. The governor’s plan finally puts flesh on the bones of his “Water Resilience Portfolio” executive order. The goal is to ensure plenty of water as drier weather diminishes water supplies.

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Newsom’s 16-page proposal calls for the creation of 4 million additional acre-feet of water storage, recycling and reuse of at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030 and the creation of desalination and storm-water-capture systems. Around 50% of the state’s water currently flows to the Pacific. An acre-foot can serve the annual water needs of one or two households.

The plan calls for additional conservation measures, but primarily is about creating abundance. Californians have indeed met most of the state’s increasingly stringent conservation targets — and they use much less water than they did in the 1990s — but conservation can only go so far because of the law of diminishing returns. We need to store, recycle and desalinate more water, and this plan pushes in that direction. It also calls for needed regulatory reforms.

We can pick nits over details and this editorial board will watch closely for follow through. But the proposal is a big step in the right direction. We applaud him for taking that step.

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