Sustainable Use of Water: California Water Success Stories

Sustainable Use of Water: California Water Success Stories

Published: January 1999

Authors: Peter H. Gleick and Arlene K. Wong

Pages: 25

Sustainable Use of Water: California Water Success Stories


The intense political and legal battles that have characterized California water policy throughout the 20th century have not ended—nor are they likely to end in the near future. But unexpectedly, with little fanfare or attention, California is moving toward more sustainable water management and use. In 1995, the Pacific Institute published California Water 2020: A Sustainable Vision, which presented a positive vision of where California water resources could be in the year 2020 and a detailed analysis of how to get there using existing and proven economic incentives, efficient water technologies, and innovative governmental and non-governmental management practices. That analysis offered compelling support for the argument that alternative approaches to water planning and use can be— and have been—very successful.

As a follow-up to the 1995 report, the Pacific Institute now offers Sustainable Use of Water: California Success Stories: 28 successful, informative, and educational examples of collaborative water planning, effective institutional and governance structures, intelligent use of technology or economic incentives, and environmental protection and restoration in areas where deadlock and litigation used to be the norm.

These “success stories” identify, describe, and analyze examples of sustainable water policies and practices in the state and show water managers, policymakers, and the public how to move California toward more equitable and efficient water management and use. As we stated in our 1995 report, long term sustainable use of water does not require drastic advances in technology or heroic or extraordinary actions. Instead it requires an ethic of sustainability and the will to continue expanding positive trends that are already underway. These “success stories” offer lessons for the rest of us—lessons about what works and why, and how we might begin to solve our other water problems.

The 28 success stories described here are the tip of the iceberg. In communities around the state, smart and committed individuals and groups are getting together to take water policy into their own hands. The result is a growing movement away from state or federally sponsored programs and policies and toward regional and local watershed and community actions, though several successful state and national activities are also described here. As a result, official state water policies now often lag behind— rather than define—the state-of-the-art. The official California Water Plan, for example, fails to acknowledge these many successful activities or to incorporate them into its projections for California’s water future. Integrating the lessons learned from these success stories into long-term policy and planning could lead to a very different California—one where efficient, equitable, and sustainable water uses are the norm, rather than the dream.

In compiling these 28 stories, several common themes and factors for success became clear. We describe these lessons and offer some common-sense recommendations for others interested in emulating the successes described here.

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