California’s Water Plan, building a shared vision for the future


The California Water Plan is the state’s strategic plan for sustainably managing and developing water resources for current and future generations. The water plan is much more than a document as it provides a forum for elected officials, agencies, California Native American tribes, resource managers, businesses, academia, stakeholders and the public to collaboratively develop findings and recommendations that inform decisions about water policies, actions and investments. The California Water Plan is a key tool for strengthening these partnerships.

Perhaps most importantly, Update 2018 (the 12th in a series of such plans since 1957) prioritises supporting local and regional efforts to build water supply resilience across California. This approach recognises that different regions of the state face different challenges and opportunities, yet all benefit from co-ordinated state support. In April 2019, Governor Newsom signed an executive order calling for state agencies to work together to form a comprehensive strategy for building climate-resilient water systems through the 21st century. Update 2018 is timely as most of the content in the plan can inform this work.A shared vision for California’s water future

Update 2018 presents a vision where all Californians benefit from such desirable conditions as reduced flood risk, more reliable water supplies, reduced groundwater depletion, and greater habitat and species resiliency – all for a more sustainable future. Planning and policy priorities will have a mutual understanding of resource limitations, management deficiencies and shared intent, with a focus on sustainability and actions that result in greater public health and safety; healthy economy; ecosystem vitality; and cultural, spiritual, recreational and aesthetic experiences.

In this vision, investments result in intended outcomes through the application of adaptive management by first focusing and agreeing on the end in mind, then recommending and implementing actions. Learning and adaptation cycles strengthen decision making, maximise return on investment and support proactive management.

Operational definition of sustainability

Update 2018 provides an operational definition of sustainability. Sustainability of California’s water systems means meeting current needs – expressed by water stakeholders as public health and safety, a healthy economy, ecosystem vitality, and opportunities for enriching experiences – without compromising the needs of future generations. This definition is further carried into the Sustainability Outlook, which is a tool or method for tracking local, regional and state actions and investments to assist in guiding investment and policy changes.

Challenges to sustainability facing California

Update 2018 documents the critical challenges that significantly affect California’s ability to manage water resources for sustainability. These include challenges from flood, access to safe clean water and sanitation, declining ecosystems, groundwater overdraft, forest health and wildfires, and the additional strain on all these challenges due to climate change.

Many of these critical challenges have been known for some time. It is more the systemic and institutional challenges that hamper the ability to address these critical challenges. Early investment in resolving the systemic and institutional challenges will pay the largest dividend for California. These systemic challenges fall into several categories:

  • fragmented and non-coordinated initiatives and governance

  • inconsistent and confliction regulations

  • insufficient capacity for data-driven decision making

  • insufficient and unstable funding

  • inadequate performance tracking of state and local investment.

Recommended actions

This plan recommends significant additional investment in infrastructure and ecosystem improvements to overcome challenges to sustainability. It also recommends actions to resolve systemic and institutional issues that contribute to many of California’s water challenges and the ability to resolve them. These actions are organised around the following six goals:

  1. 1.improve integrated river basin management

  2. 2.strengthen resiliency and operational flexibility of existing and future infrastructure

  3. 3.restore critical ecosystem functions

  4. 4.empower California’s under-represented or vulnerable communities

  5. 5.improve inter-agency alignment and address persistent regulatory challenges

  6. 6.support real-time decision making, adaptive management and long-term planning.

These actions will require a USD 90.2 billion investment over 50 years. Of this, USD 77.8 billion is for financial and technical assistance to regional and local entities, USD 9.7 billion for state-managed water infrastructure, and USD 2.7 billion (less than 3%) to resolve systemic and institutional challenges.

Sustainable water management requires alignment and integration among water sectors

The Sustainability Outlook was developed as part of Update 2018 to provide a well-organised and consistent approach for tracking local, regional, and state actions and investments. It is an evolving method of informing the strategic planning and prioritisation of water management actions. This method, or tool, involves evaluating status and trends of conditions within a river basin or region, setting intended outcomes consistent with societal values, and determining whether actual outcomes are consistent with intended outcomes. Through progressive application of the Sustainability Outlook, decision makers should be able to identify needed analytical tools and data gaps, build capacity to take decisions and set priorities, and describe how individual and collective actions have affected the management of water resources for sustainability. The Sustainability Outlook was informed by stakeholder input and initial pilot projects, as described in The Sustainability Outlook: A Summary.

Building on the success of integrated regional water management

California has for many years invested in integrated regional water management (same as the more common integrated water resource management with an emphasis on regional level engagement) and has witnessed many successes as a result. As recommended, most of the work must continue to happen at regional and local scales. Regional agencies and organisations have extensive knowledge of their river basins and communities. To advance regional sustainability, the state government commits to supporting regional water agencies and organisations, and augmenting state investment in regional infrastructure and ecosystems. Approximately 86% of the recommended state funding (approximately USD 78 billion) is to assist and empower local and regional managers to plan, fund, implement and report on their accomplishments.

Over the long term, implementing Update 2018 will strengthen adaptive planning and management through increasingly robust data, knowledge and guidance for effective state policy, priority investments and financing options.

Sources: Contribution by Lewis Moeller, peer -reviewer, California Department of Water Resources (United States).

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