Toward Safe and Reliable Drinking Water for All Californians

May 10, 2019 | Woods Institute for the Environment | Insights

Karly Chin

Newsha Ajami, Rob Jackson, Scott Fendorf & Chris Field

California struggles to deliver safe drinking water to millions of residents. The challenges – often complex issues at the interface of human, legislative, technical, and geological dimensions – resist easy answers. Stanford experts explored possible ways forward at a recent panel discussion in Sacramento.

“We’re tackling one of the most challenging but important issues of the 21st century,” said Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Director Chris Field, the event’s moderator.

Laying an effective foundation for water policy will require finding interconnected areas, according to keynote speaker Joaquin Esquivel, Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “It’s about democratizing and involving diverse perspectives, and Stanford is a platform to facilitate this framework,” said Esquivel.

Echoing Esquivel’s sentiment, Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program identified compartmentalization as a major problem with current regulations, which can lead to a lack of communication and drive inefficiency. Ajami pointed to the case of water recapture. It’s quite common for recaptured water to be disposed of instead of processed and recycled back into the system. Another example she highlighted is money allocation. Institutions often only focus on and fund their own specific mandates, resulting in poor coordination of resources and financial inefficiency across the larger system. While researchers and policymakers have recognized the handicaps of this fragmented system, they face difficulties when attempting to restructure regulations.

“Laws and regulations are not catching up to solutions we already have in place. To fix the process we need to revisit the laws,” said Ajami.

Preventative actions and groundwater monitoring were also recognized as critical steps in ensuring safe groundwater. Since potentially harmful contaminants exist naturally in the ground, careful monitoring remains key to maintaining safe levels. For example, arsenic only becomes a problem when companies overdraft and start pumping water from the deeper clay layers. Likewise, chromium begins to pose a risk when the water table fluctuates.

“Every aquifer has a contaminant lying in wait. The question is whether it will enter the water,” said Scott Fendorf, the Terry Huffington Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Underpinning the future of California drinking water is planning for the long-term and it’s key to consider environmental consequences of activities like wastewater injection and groundwater drilling, according to Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. He was also quick to note that equally as important are the policy questions, such as how these activities can be sustainably managed and financed into the next generation.

The panel agreed that in a future of rising environmental uncertainty, exploring the issue of drinking water management from multiple dimensions is critical.