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The Virtual River - Fueling California's Economic Growth with Water

Barry Nelson

Posted February 3, 2009

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Yesterday, the Senate began debating a recovery package to strengthen the nation's economy.  During this discussion, the Senate should look to water as a key area for investment - across the nation, and especially in California.    

Water is one of the fuels that drives California's economy. While the nation's economy and the state's budget deficit are dominating headlines, a perfect storm is facing our water systems. Fortunately, smart water solutions can also deliver economic benefits and should be included in federal and state stimulus packages.

There are many signs that our water systems are in trouble.  A federal court and federal regulators have ordered reduced pumping from the collapsing San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.  Southern California's drought stricken Colorado River supply may be showing the early signs of climate change. Northern California's rivers are in trouble, leading to the first ever closure of our salmon fishery in 2008 - at a cost of $250 million and thousands of jobs. 

Hundreds of waterways, including San Francisco, Santa Monica and San Diego Bays are listed by the state as "impaired," by urban runoff and other sources of pollution. Across California, groundwater contamination has closed more than 4,000 wells, showing how water quality problems can threaten our water supply. Water quality problems make people sick, impair ecosystems and weaken coastal economies.

During the Great Depression, the construction of massive dams was part of a heroic economic stimulus program. These dams have helped California meet its water needs, but at great cost to our environment. Today, business leaders and environmentalists agree that new dams are not the best water solutions. For example, the Southern California Leadership Council said earlier this year that new traditional dams "offer Southern California little in the way of water reliability and if and when deliverable would be one of most expensive and energy intensive options." What we need are new solutions for the 21st century.

One such new idea is what we call the "virtual river," which consists of the combined water supply potential of conservation, water recycling, improved groundwater management and urban stormwater capture. These proven tools can provide more water than we have ever exported from the Bay-Delta, which was the largest single source of water for California in the late 20th century. The virtual river can be California's largest source of water for the 21st. There is a consensus among the Department of Water Resources, business leaders, environmentalists and urban water agency leaders that these tools offer the greatest potential water supply.  On California water issues, such a consensus is not easy to come by. 

But the virtual river is more than just a source of supply. It represents a superior solution to water quality and other environmental problems as well. By greening our cities, capturing runoff, cleaning up groundwater and recycling wastewater, we can turn polluted water into a valuable resource. And by providing alternative supplies, these tools can help restore salmon runs and the ailing Bay-Delta.

Other factors suggest that investments in the virtual river would be an appropriate part of an economic stimulus package. These tools offer the quickest and most cost-effective water supply available. Conservation, for example, can produce water at ten percent of the cost of water from new dams. And unlike the Colorado River and Sierra snowpack, climate change will not reduce the amount of water we receive from tools like conservation and recycling.

The House-passed economic recovery package includes $6 billion for clean water infrastructure and $2 billion for drinking water infrastructure upgrades, rehabilitation, and repair, including grant funding for a number of elements of the virtual river, such as water efficiency and use of green infrastructure to re-use stormwater and to recharge groundwater supplies.  The Senate is expected to consider an amendment that would increase clean and safe water funding from $6 billion to $13 billion, 15% of which would be reserved for water efficiency, green infrastructure, or other environmentally innovative projects.  NRDC has been working hard with both wastewater and drinking water agencies to increase this funding

Federal stimulus funds, however, should only be the beginning of this effort.  Once California resolves its current budget crisis, funds from a water bond approved by California voters two years ago are also available to invest in these solutions. Governor Schwarzenegger, the legislature, local governments and water leaders can also work together to maximize the benefits of these investments, by writing building codes that encourage the capture of stormwater and reuse of recycled wastewater, launching groundwater clean-up efforts, and passing legislation to implement the Governor's call for a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use by 2020. 

California is leading the world by showing how investments in energy efficiency can prepare our economy to be a world leader in the coming century.  Smart investments in water solutions can do the same - providing abundant clean water while strengthening our economy and environment.

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