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Bay-Delta Climate Change Study Points to Virtual River as California's Only Sustainable Solution

Kelly Coplin

Posted November 7, 2011

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Last week USGS scientists and academic colleagues released an integrated assessment, the first of its kind, of how the Bay-Delta ecosystem will respond to climate change.

The authors echoed a concern that the environmental community has been repeating for years: that California water managers must incorporate climate change into water management plans.  That means planning for extraordinary variability in precipitation with less water available for capture and storage, more extreme flooding events, diminished snowpack, sea level rise, increased Bay-Delta salinity, increased water temperature, and decreased turbidity.

The authors point to investments in the virtual river as the only sustainable solution to the Bay-Delta’s increasingly unreliable water supplies:

Future strategies of water management will require adaptations such as aggressively increasing water-use efficiency, reducing surface water deliveries, capturing more runoff in surface storage or groundwater recharge, and implementing programs of integrated regional water management. 

Unfortunately, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is currently not addressing these and related alternative water supply investments.  As my colleague Barry Nelson recently wrote, solving the Delta’s stability and environmental problems necessitates a 21st century approach that is not narrowly focused on increasing the amount of water that we drain out of our freshwater systems.  Instead, we must focus on using and re-using our limited water resources more wisely.  This is particularly important in light of climate change, which makes the old approach of diverting ever more water from our rivers and streams even more unsustainable, and therefore less reliable.  Reducing California’s reliance on the Delta is the key to ensuring stable water supplies for water users.

Given a future of climate change, incorporating investments in water-use efficiency, green infrastructure, water recycling, better groundwater management, and improvements to Delta levee stability into Bay-Delta planning processes is the only responsible thing to do.

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