Conversation needed on water, growth, drought (October 20, 2015)

California’s historic drought has raised the public’s attention of water to a new high. While citizens are doing their part to conserve water, folks in the water industry are huddling in working groups to address the current drought and develop solutions to ensure a reliable water supply for the future. But here in the desert, talk of the future begs questions regarding growth, land use, water supply, and choice. I’m glad because we need to be having these conversations as a community. We face many challenges in a changing California water world that brings new regulations that continue to define roles and responsibilities. We must also make some serious choices: Do we want to grow? If so, how do we grow? And who decides?

Growth in California is a process largely influenced by laws involving a variety of government agencies, businesses, private land owners, community groups, and citizens. In 2002, the approval of two key senate bills, 221 and 610, changed the development landscape. While land use entities such as cities and counties plan where and how to grow, water providers are responsible to ensure there is water to support the water demand that growth brings.

Prior to 2002, each group worked fairly independently of one another, however, these two bills now ensure coordination between local water supplies and land use decisions for specified large development projects. Now, water providers must provide water use and water availability data to land use people so they can use this information in their decision-making.

Some 55 years ago, the citizens of the Mojave Desert voted to form the Mojave Water Agency (MWA) to ensure local control of our future. So how does MWA fit in when it comes to growth?

The role of the MWA is to manage the region’s water resources to assure sustainability for the citizens of our region.

As one of 29 state water contractors, MWA has a contract with the state to purchase imported water when available to augment our local groundwater supplies. This water is used to recharge our groundwater supplies.

The agency is not a land use authority and doesn’t approve or deny proposed projects as defined by California law.

Some residents believe that the Mojave Water Agency has approved the Tapestry Project. The agency does not support or deny projects. These decisions are made by local authorities.

Among the agency’s responsibilities is the development of an Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP). Required by state law, the planning document must assess the reliability of a region’s water sources over a 20-year planning horizon, and must be updated every five years. The document includes future water demands and droughts, providing a picture of the long-term water supplies to meet existing and future needs.

This is accomplished by forecasting population, local groundwater supplies, and anticipated imported water supplies from the State Water Project, reclaimed water, and conservation water savings.

Currently, MWA is in the process of updating this important document and will be holding public meetings later this year to give citizens and interested parties the opportunity to participate.

Not every development project requires extensive reports; however, proposals for large residential subdivisions must include an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared by the lead agency, such as cities or counties. This report must address project impacts including, traffic circulation, air quality, water, and native habitat.

The regional UWMP data, prepared by MWA, provides a foundational source of information for water supply sections of local EIRs.

Additionally, SB610 requires that a Water Supply Assessment (WSA) is prepared by the retail water provider that will be providing water to the project.

Similar to the UWMP, the WSA must include both water demand and supply for the proposed project, as well as other likely forecasted water demands.

Data from the regional UWMP and local UWMPs developed by retail water providers is also used to develop this assessment.

Opportunity comes in many forms.

The current drought presents us with another opportunity to collectively determine our future. A historic look at the Mojave Desert’s past 100 years shows periods of drought and rain.

At MWA we’ve been planning for droughts, and thanks to our community we’ve collectively done a great job of managing our water resources in historic conditions.

If this drought continues, no doubt we will be challenged. The challenges our community faces in the future, both short and long-term, will be met by learning from experiences in this drought, and building on the water management assets and optimizing those assets to stretch existing supplies to meet future needs. This will require fine tuning on how we use our investment in imported water supplies, leveraging previous investments in water delivery facilities, using our groundwater basin more effectively for storage, expanding use of reclaimed wastewater, and continuing to adopt conservation as a way of life.

While we are all hoping and praying for successive El Nino winters to ease the pain of the current drought, let’s not lose this opportunity to discuss our region’s future and how we can continue to provide adequate water to support that vision which our community desires.

—Beverly Lowry is president of the Mojave Water Agency Board of Trustees.

Source: Daily Press