A dusty destination?

Public Policy Institute of California suggests the state’s bread basket will suffer without an innovative approach to water

California’s complex and increasingly vulnerable water grid needs a dramatic overhaul to mitigate the effects of wildfires and to protect vital food-growing capacities.

That’s the conclusion of a new Public Policy Institute of California analysis. Unveiled last month in downtown Sacramento, the report highlighted “the critically over-drafted water basins” in the Central Valley.

Ellen Hanak, the director of the PPIC’s Water Policy Center and a seasoned agriculture researcher, said the best models indicate that warming temperatures will continue to affect California’s shrinking snowpack. Winter seasons are forecast to be more rainy than snowy, with precipitation arriving in shorter, less predictable spurts.

More erratic weather patterns also mean that the state will be dealing with increased droughts and floods. Coastal sea level rise is another major consideration, as it could directly affect the so-called “Line X” in California’s Delta—the point where saltwater pushes east into the freshwater estuary. That could impact farming operations.

“Modernizing the [water] grid means fixing what’s broken and making the smart plays on new infrastructure investment,” Hanak said. “And getting more water into the ground, so we have more surface reservoirs to manage the floods.”

To accomplish this, PPIC recommends state and local officials begin emphasizing more regional water portfolios. It’s also calling for more action to connect water and land-use planning.

During her presentation, Hanak said that parts of Central California are already so overdrafted that they may need to get out of agriculture production altogether or run the risk of causing dust and pest issues for nearby farming areas. Issues with soil degradation have become a major global concern: In 2014, the Food and Agricultural Organization warned the United Nations that, if current farming practices aren’t changed, the world’s topsoil will fail to produce any harvests at all within 60 years.