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Climate and Environment

California Will Lose 10% Of Its Water Supply By 2040. Here’s How The State Plans To Adapt

A man in a white hardhat and neon safety vest points to a machine that puts wastewater through reverse osmosis to purify it.
Mehul Patel, operations director for Orange County's Groundwater Replenishment System, the world's largest plant that recycles wastewater for drinking.
(Erin Stone
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California is set to lose 10% of its total water supply in the next 20 years – to put that into context, that’s more water than the state’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, can hold at capacity.

Scientists say the loss is a direct result of how we’re heating up the planet by burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, cutting down forests for farming and manufacturing, and relying on gas-guzzling trucks, planes and cars.

On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom released a plan for how the state will adapt to the changes and bolster future water supplies. Newsom spoke at a press briefing from the city of Antioch in northern California, where a desalination plant is being built to treat salty surface water.

“We've been consistently in this scarcity mindset that it's about reduction, and people feel like they've done enough,” Newsom said. “We've got to move away from that mindset ... because there's a lot more abundance out there if we're more creative in terms of how we approach things.”

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The plan lays out how the state will use $8 billion in surplus dollars — $5.2 billion invested in the 2021-22 budget and an additional $2.8 billion in next year’s budget — to recycle more wastewater, build more seawater and freshwater desalination plants, capture more stormwater, and boost conservation efforts.

Overall, the plan could generate enough water for more than 8 million households by 2040, officials said.

“The previous drought and this drought in particular have very much intensified our understanding about how warm and dry conditions are accelerating in California — not just in California, but really the entire western United States,” said Karla Nemeth, the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources.

Environmental group Food and Water Watch released a statement saying the plan relies too heavily on desalination and controversial water conveyance projects. They also disparaged the plan for not addressing how the state's biggest water users — the agriculture and oil industries — will curtail water use.

“The toxic cycles of industrial agriculture and fossil fuel extraction use massive amounts of water that could otherwise go to public uses, kneecapping any attempt at meaningful water conservation," said Food and Water Watch California Organizing Manager Tomás Rebecchi in a written statement released by the group. 

Where Our Water Comes From Now

Most of California’s current water supplies come from snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. If global emissions aren’t significantly stemmed this decade, more than half of that snowpack could dry up by the end of the century, according to CDWR.

California’s other main water supply, the Colorado River, is being stretched thin by overuse and a 22-year megadrought — the worst since at least 800 A.D. Scientists and water managers alike have been alarmed by the increasing speed and severity of these conditions.

Newsom said the plan confronts the reality of how global greenhouse gas emissions are leading to an overall drying of the West — what scientists call “aridification.” As the climate warms, water in the landscape evaporates more, leading to even less water for streams and rivers.

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But while the state can set these goals and provide funding, water projects are carried out at the local level.

“What's crucial is our partnership with local water districts and municipalities to get these kinds of projects in the ground,” said Nemeth.

Our Recycled Water Future

The largest investments in the plan are doubling down on water recycling projects, particularly in urban areas.

Southern California cities have already invested more than anywhere else in the state in water recycling. L.A. currently dumps about 230 million gallons of highly treated wastewater into the ocean every day. The city plans to treat all of that to drinkable standards by 2035. If realized, it would provide 40% of the city’s water, replacing the amount that’s currently imported from northern California and the Colorado River.

Orange County is home to the world’s largest wastewater recycling plant. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million customers in the Southland, is in the process of establishing a regional water recycling project to help alleviate stress on the Colorado River.

Desalination of both seawater and brackish groundwater will also play a bigger role in California's water future, according to the plan. The state already has 37 desalination plants — 14 for seawater and 23 for brackish groundwater.

Many environmentalists and environmental justice groups say desalination should only be a last resort because it is the most energy-intensive, expensive water purification option, and it can be harmful to marine life. But the impacts — and adoption — can vary significantly depending on the project.

For example, while a huge desalination plant proposed in Huntington Beach was recently rejected, a smaller plant proposed in Doheny has faced almost no resistance. (You can read more about the differences between the two projects here.)

But California’s own strict environmental regulations are making it harder for such projects to keep up with the alarming pace of the climate crisis, said Newsom.

“In so many ways the world we invented is, from an environmental perspective, now getting in the way of moving these projects forward,” he said.

His plan calls for streamlining the permit process and exempting some projects, such as habitat restoration initiatives, from California Environmental Quality Act review.

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Updated August 11, 2022 at 5:25 PM PDT
This story was updated to include the response from environmental group Food and Water Watch.
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