California could lose 10% of its water. Gavin Newsom offers new drought, water blueprint

Predicting that California’s water supplies could drop 10% in the next 20 years, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a broad drought protection blueprint Thursday that relies on more reservoirs, recycling and other strategies.

As California suffers through a third year of severe drought, the governor warned of decades of water shortages in California’s future — and said California has to do more to bridge the gap. As the climate dries out, “we have a new sense of urgency to address this issue,” he said while visiting a desalination plant under construction in Antioch. “What we’re focusing on is creating more water … moving away from a scarcity mindset to one more of abundance.

Much of the blueprint depends on projects already underway, including the construction of Sites Reservoir near the Sacramento River and six other storage projects that have been earmarked for billions of dollars in funding from Proposition 1, the voter-approved 2014 water bond. Newsom said the state will assemble a “strike team to facilitate state permitting” and rush the projects toward completion. He said California needs to slash “absurd” red tape that can tie up big projects. “This paralysis of process is getting in the way of progress,” he said. The plan will “adapt our water supply to a hotter and drier future, which we know is coming,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, who accompanied Newsom to Antioch. “We have to create new water supplies through recycling and desalination.”

Most of these projects are years away. Sites, a massive new reservoir that would be built about an hour north of Sacramento, probably wouldn’t open until around 2030 at the earliest. Sites would draw water from the Sacramento River, and environmentalists believe it would exacerbate the ecological problems the river is facing. But Newsom’s administration believes California needs to improve storage — above and below ground — as climate change turns the state hotter and drier. The Sierra Nevada snowpack — which acts as a second set of reservoirs, capable of releasing water during the dry months — is already diminishing as rain replaces snowfall. That makes it more vital for California to capture and store precipitation when it does fall, the governor’s administration believes. During his visit to Antioch, Newsom applauded the city’s decision to move ahead with a $100 million desalination plant that will remove saltiness from water creeping into its water supply from the ocean. He said desalination must become “a significant part of our effort, our portfolio.”

Yet desalination is expensive and often controversial. Despite Newsom’s support, a major desalination plant in Orange County was shot down recently by the California Coastal Commission. Newsom also insisted that conservation can help California cope with drought. Even though the state has fallen short of his call for 15% in voluntary cutbacks in urban use, the conservation numbers have improved in recent months, reaching 7.6% in June. “We’re moving in the right direction,” Newsom said. But he repeated earlier warnings that he could order mandatory statewide cutbacks if conservation falters.