Back and Forward: Ellen Hanak

Director of the Water Policy Center on California water management

Back Q&A Feb 12, 2018

Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California offers her insight into California water management. For more from Hanak, check out “Where the Water Grows” in our February issue. Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll email you when it’s available online.

What’s the biggest change in California water policy in the past year?

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California’s water sector is increasingly focused on the need to improve management of our water system and variable supplies to weather an increasingly variable climate. That’s why dam safety and water storage rose to the top of the list in 2017. After the Oroville Dam spillway crisis, the state came out with a framework on how to improve dam safety, but more needs to be done to ensure our dams and related infrastructure are able to handle bigger floods. There’s also a growing effort to modernize storage, and a lot of interest in groundwater recharge as part of that. Since last year was really wet, there was a big focus on how best to use surface water to recharge groundwater and what that looks like over the long term.

photo: courtesy

What do you foresee as the biggest change on the horizon in the year to come?

California needs a comprehensive approach to addressing its safe drinking water problem, which affects several hundred small, rural water systems and schools — along with some residents who rely on domestic wells. The first challenge is to fill information gaps on how big a problem we have — right now we don’t know precisely how many people are affected by serious, ongoing water quality violations, for example. We need to improve our accounting of water quality problems to help scope solutions, prioritize actions and track progress.

Better data would also help build momentum for action. Treating water pollution can be expensive, and many small, poor communities lack the resources to address the problem. The state has been taking steps to resolve this problem, but more needs to be done to create a sustainable funding source for safe drinking water in affected communities. One thing to watch is a current legislative proposal to levy surcharges on agricultural chemicals and urban water bills to create a revenue stream for pollution mitigation efforts. In his recently proposed budget for next year, Governor Jerry Brown has signaled that getting to a funding solution is a priority for his administration’s last year in office.

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