DWR’s entrenched definition of “sustainability” of California water supplies

In the 2018 California Water Plan Update, the California Department of Water Resources defined sustainability as follows:

“Sustainability of California’s water systems means meeting current needs — expressed by water stakeholders as public health and safety, healthy economy, ecosystem vitality, and opportunities for enriching experiences — without compromising the needs of future generations.” (p. 20.)

The 2018 California Water Plan Update also proposed the use of “sustainability outlook indicators,” to reflect the societal values of “public health and safety, healthy economy, ecosystem vitality, and opportunities for enriching experiences.” In May of 2019, DWR defined a set of “sustainability outlook indicators” for developing desired outcomes for water management in the state.  The “sustainability outlook indicators” are referenced on page 116 of the Draft Water Resilience Portfolio‘s “Inventory and Assessment of California Water.” 

For surface water supplies, DWR’s indicators of a “healthy economy” and “reliable water supplies” only included delivery reliability of the State Water Project, Central Valley Project, and Colorado River Aqueduct systems. (p. 37, reproduced below.)

DWR reliability

These “sustainability outlook indicators” for surface water were narrow and show an entrenched culture at DWR. The indicators did not consider any alternative surface water supplies, which would not only provide a more drought-resistant local water supply portfolio, but also have significantly less environmental impact, and less embedded energy use than shipping water long distances.

The energy intensity chart below is from Professor Robert Wilkinson’s presentation to the Water Commission’s Water Portfolio Listening Session:


Clearly importing water to Southern California from the State Water Project and the Colorado River has a much higher embedded energy use than any water supply alternative except ocean desalination.  The Department of Water Resources’  “sustainability outlook indicators” for a healthy economy thus completely failed to consider the greenhouse gas footprint of the State Water Project, Central Valley Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct.  These indicators were not suitable for developing desired outcomes for state water management in an age of climate change.

DWR’s sustainability outlook indicators for “reliable water supplies” were also contradicted by development of regional and local water supplies in Southern California. Metropolitan Water District recently projected that if future local water supply projects in the region are fully implemented by 2040, average demand for imported water would be less than 1.2 million acre feet per year.

MWD supplies

Full implementation of these local projects and projected conservation in Southern California would not only be consistent with the mandates of the Delta Reform Act to reduce reliance on the Delta, it would result in less vulnerability to droughts, and significantly less embedded energy use and GHG emissions.

California needs water management for the 21st Century.

This post was updated on April 29, 2022.


One thought on “DWR’s entrenched definition of “sustainability” of California water supplies

  1. Thanks for this. It’s never been clear to me whether the energy intensity figures for water supplies are gross or net – e.g. when water is pumped over a mountain range with turbines at the bottom on the far side recovering some of the energy expended. I’ve thought it’s a net figure that takes energy recovery into account, but I’d love to see a citation that clarifies this.

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