Mark Drew

Mark Drew

Years of drought in California has made one thing abundantly clear: we can’t make it rain or snow. But we do have the opportunity to manage water well once it hits the ground.

The legislature took an important, progressive first step in this past legislative session. In signing AB 2480 into law, Gov. Jerry Brown fundamentally shifted the way our state approaches storing and moving water, a shift that is vital in this era of climate change.

AB 2480 recognized an essential truth: the natural water storage systems found throughout the Sierra Nevada are just as critical to our state’s water security as are dams, tunnels and aqueducts. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated our systems are for moving water to serve agriculture and urban users if there is no water available to move.

This legislation put “green infrastructure” — healthy watersheds — on par with “hard infrastructure” like dams when it comes to financial investment and policy priorities around water. Under AB 2480, state agencies and regulators will now invest time and resources into restoring and preserving natural areas like Sierra Nevada forests and meadows, which are our first line of defense against drought.

These areas have for millennia served as a natural storage system for the precipitation that falls primarily in this mountain range before slowly making its way to the ocean during warmer months.

Focusing on the Sierra Nevada for this legislation is logical, as approximately 60 percent of California’s developed water flows from these mountain peaks. Everyone from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to almond farmers in Modesto to apartment dwellers in downtown Los Angeles counts on this water.

Bakersfield in particular will benefit from the legislation, as both urban dwellers and surrounding agricultural communities get their water directly from water that flows through Sierra Nevada meadows.

These past five years of drought have tuned Californians into the reality of where our water comes from. Finding ways to maintain snowpack and encourage a slow melt, even as our climate warms, must be a top priority for the state if we hope to increase water security for all Californians.

Most people now understand that California’s vast system of dams and aqueducts provides clean water to more than 25 million residents, not to mention irrigation water for the rich farmland of the Central Valley.

Keeping that water flowing requires an investment in scientific research to guide state policies around everything from forest management regulations to groundwater management practices, to ensuring adequate in-stream flows for environmental purposes throughout the Sierra.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, people were focused on conquering nature and redirecting natural processes to serve the needs of humanity. But as the effects of climate change take hold, it’s becoming clearer that the best way forward is to leverage and support these natural processes instead of working against them.

Working with nature instead of against it has the significant side benefit of supporting the recovery and survival of our state’s native plants and wildlife, fish included. Indeed, restoring source waters and critical ecosystems such as Sierra meadows has been shown to improve water quality and supplies to users downstream, while also improving habitat for wildlife.

And when native and threatened species rebound to self-sustaining levels, science helps regulators set terms for water extraction that increase the reliability of water supplies for people while ensuring the survival of fish and wildlife.

As a new law, AB 2480 expands the idea of protecting and restoring our state’s source waters to the entire Sierra Nevada, prompting state regulators to recognize the value of protecting and enhancing natural processes where the majority of California’s water originates.

Given our growing body of scientific knowledge and limited public dollars, AB 2480 sets the state on a sensible path toward improved water quality and increased water security for the decades and centuries to come.

Mark Drew is the Sierra Headwaters Director of California Trout, which advocates for healthy fish, water and people in California.