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Editorial: Gavin Newsom’s plan for California water is a good one. Stay the course

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom greets President Trump at Beale Air Force Base north of Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2018.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown greeting President Trump as governor-elect in 2018, has released a water portfolio plan that doesn’t mention the effect that Trump’s reelection would have on managing the state’s water supplies.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new blueprint for California water policy offers a stay-the-course agenda for projects and policies intended to help cope with a warming climate and more volatile weather patterns that already are affecting the state’s irrigation, environmental and drinking water supplies. There are no moonshots and few surprises, and that’s fine; it will be challenging enough to ensure that all Californians are hooked up to safe and reliable water supplies to meet their needs for the coming decade and beyond.

The “Water Resilience Portfolio” released Tuesday is in essence a laundry list of projects already in development or at least in the discussion phase. For cities like Los Angeles, there’s an emphasis on recycling as a backup to and a partial replacement for water currently imported from the north. That’s as it should be. Much of Orange County has been drinking (and flushing, and showering with) recycled water for years without incident and without rebellion by residents, and the rest of Southern California should follow suit — although some state help will be needed to address lingering concerns over pharmaceuticals and other stubborn contaminants that aren’t currently filtered out of reused wastewater.

For agriculture, there is a focus on addressing overtapped groundwater supplies and following through on a 2014 law that ever-so-slowly begins to limit depletion of underground aquifers. Newsom’s blueprint doubles down on integrating floodplains into the state’s water system, so that fields that lie fallow during severe winters can be flooded not just to control raging rivers, but also to provide crucial habitat for spawning and migrating fish while simultaneously recharging the aquifers.

Left for another time or another document is a more thorough discussion of diversifying the San Joaquin Valley’s economy. California agriculture will continue to produce a good portion of the nation’s food and fiber, but growers will have to do it with less (or less predictable) water. And they will need state help to ramp up, or at least coordinate, new technologies to monitor atmospheric and soil conditions and use available water accordingly, with less waste and runoff. The region needs guidance — and perhaps a bit of a push — in turning inefficient fields with no groundwater into lucrative solar energy production.

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There’s another key issue that Newsom’s blueprint doesn’t address, nor should we expect it to, important as it is.

California’s water prospects became all the more complex when President Trump’s administration began inserting its anti-science policies on endangered species. November’s election will to a large extent determine the nature of the federal government’s role in the state’s water supply. Newsom would be wise to update his portfolio plan in just a few months, when we have a better sense about whether the feds will be a partner, or a lingering headache, in divvying up the state’s liquid assets.


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