Hundreds of Bakersfield agriculture, oil and political leaders came together March 7 to examine the challenges and opportunities associated with providing California residents and businesses with a secure, reliable supply of clean water.

Lest the wet winter create a sense of complacency around one of the state's most vital needs, specialists from various fields urged collective attention to the costly and increasingly complex problems that surround sourcing, storing and conveying water across the Golden State.

The deputy director of water engineering and technical services at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Andrew Linard, summed up the challenges ahead when he explained why it can be difficult to persuade ratepayers to accept higher bills that fund maintenance of their local water system.

"It's hard to invest in things today that you can push off until tomorrow," he said. "But (problems) can compound tomorrow."

Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh made a brief speech commending the audience inside the Rabobank Arena, saying the seven-hour annual event "should be the most important gathering of people."

"Let's keep looking for the ways that technology can help us," she said.

One such opportunity may have arrived in the form of desalination, said the executive director of advocacy organization Cal Desal, Paul Kelley.

Despite the need for new ways to dispose of brine and use less energy to remove salt from water, he said Southern California may have reached the "tipping point" at which the costs of desalinating ocean water roughly equal the value of clean water.

The technology may even pencil out for Kern County oil companies, Kelley said, assuming they can find a way to dispose of the brine left over after water is desalinated. He noted Texas' oil industry simply injects it into underground reservoirs more salty than the waste stream.

"You might want to try that in California," he said.

Water consultant David Gutierrez focused his speech on the need to shore up California's roughly 1,250 dams, half of which are more than 70 years old and not built to modern safety standards. Fixing them all could cost as much as $50 billion, he said.

While progress has been made in many cases, he said there remains no constant source of funding to protect dams from flooding, subsidence, earthquakes and climate change. Failure to address the situation, he warned, repeatedly resulted in loss of life during the 20th century.

CALmatters columnist Dan Walters offered hope that state and federal political dynamics appear to be "moving to a climax" for addressing needed improvements to California's water system.

He said there's "rumblings" of potential breakthroughs regarding how to fund needed repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal that supplies water to the Central Valley. He also said progress may be possible on talks aimed at reducing overdrafting of water along the Colorado River.

At the same time, he said, it's "a little troubling" that such discussions move independently when they ought to be related.

A final measure of optimism came from Kiel Weaver, principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. He said the Trump administration is trying to reduce regulatory redundancies and bring together agencies with shared water oversight.

Although substantial work lies ahead, he said, President Donald Trump appears committed to building infrastructure for delivering water to metropolitan areas.

"I can say this," Weaver said. "The man is determined to get stuff done."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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