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October 27, 2023  |  Written by Kelly M. Doyle

Draft California Water Plan Update 2023: A Brief Overview

Every five years, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) prepares the California Water Plan, a statutorily mandated strategic plan to guide the management and control of the state’s water resources. The main purpose of the 2023 California Water Plan (2023 Water Plan) is to outline the status and trends of California’s water supplies, water-dependent natural resources, and agricultural, urban, and environmental water demands while also reflecting the current legislative and administrative priorities for water resources. Ultimately, the 2023 Water Plan will serve as a planning and policy roadmap that will guide DWR in the proceeding five-year period.

On September 20, 2023, DWR released a Public Review Draft of the 2023 Water Plan (Draft 2023 Plan), allowing members of the public to review and provide comments to the Draft 2023 Plan within a 30-day comment period, ending October 19, 2023.

Draft 2023 Plan Builds Upon Newsom Administration Policies and Priorities

Two of the Newsom administration’s water initiatives, the Water Resilience Portfolio (WRP) and the Water Supply Strategy (WSS), are folded into the Draft 2023 Plan with many of the priorities and policies outlined in those initiatives mirrored by DWR. Both the WRP and WSS were adopted as a response to climate change impacts on California’s water supply and identify billions of dollars of investment for climate change resilience programs. DWR explicitly states its intent to advance both initiatives in the Draft 2023 Plan, which includes developing new water supplies, expanding water storage, reducing demand, and improving forecasting, data, and management, including water rights modernization.

Building on the Newsom administration’s water initiatives, DWR encourages the state and federal governments to provide local water agencies with the tools necessary to facilitate these priorities, including streamlined permitting processes, expedited project funding, and technical assistance for project identification. The Draft 2023 Plan also encourages the implementation of an enhanced Integrated Regional Water Management Program (IRWMP) that funds climate vulnerability and risk assessments at the watershed scale.

However, pursuant to Water Code section 10005, subdivision (b), nothing in the 2023 Water Plan constitutes either the approval or prohibition for the construction of specific projects or for financial assistance by the state without further legislative action. Though the Draft 2023 Plan endorses many of the current administration’s water policy objectives, it does not grant DWR any additional authority beyond what is provided by the Legislature. While it is unclear how the Legislature uses the 2023 Water Plan, the statute is clear that the Legislature has the final say in the approval of any projects or plans discussed by DWR and anything discussed in the 2023 Water Plan not already codified in statute must go through the legislative process.

Draft 2023 California Water Plan Overarching Themes

The Draft 2023 Plan identifies three intersecting and interdependent themes that will further guide the enactment of future policies and programs by DWR in the proceeding five-year period:

  • Addressing Climate Urgency: DWR states that California’s changing climate will exacerbate challenges for California’s statewide and interregional surface water storage and conveyance infrastructure and groundwater management. To understand these climate change impacts, DWR utilized the Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) model to stress test water systems in the Central Valley. DWR’s goal is to expand the use of the WEAP model by the time the next update is due in 2028 to evaluate the state’s seven other hydrologic regions to continue to formulate climate adaptation strategies.
    Additionally, the Draft 2023 Plan provides an outline of climate resilience efforts that will be prioritized by DWR in the coming years. The focus of such efforts is organized into three major categories:

    • Climate resilience planning;
    • Taking action on resilience; and,
    • Accelerating implementation of resilience programs and projects.
  • Strengthening Watershed Resilience: DWR notes that the intended outcome of the final 2023 Water Plan is to make California’s watersheds and backbone infrastructure more resilient and sustainable. Backbone infrastructure is divided into two categories: built and natural backbone infrastructure. Built backbone infrastructure is human constructed water infrastructure such as dams and aqueducts. Natural backbone infrastructure includes watersheds such as the Delta and the Colorado River Basin.
    To achieve resiliency, the Draft 2023 Plan emphasizes the importance of robust watershed-specific climate vulnerability analyses and adaptation plans followed by investments in solutions to encourage resiliency. The Draft 2023 Plan encourages expanded roles for regional and watershed scale initiatives, especially those that establish networks of local agencies, tribal governments, and non-profit organizations.
    The Draft 2023 Plan identifies a series of objectives and actions DWR will prioritize over the proceeding five years to strengthen watershed resilience. These objectives include but are not limited to the following:

    • Modernizing built backbone conveyance systems by repairing aging or damaged infrastructure to facilitate groundwater recharge, wildfire protection, and system flexibility;
    • Implementing deficient dam repair or removal projects;
    • Expanding State Water Project (SWP) storage and conveyance capacity by working with federal and local partners to help regulate water supplies and capture more water during wet periods;
    • Improving availability of data analysis by making key improvements to the SWP Delivery Capability Report;
    • Continuing to reduce water demand in all sectors by encouraging urban and agricultural water use efficiency efforts;
    • Expanding and accelerating ecosystem restoration by prioritizing nature-based solutions to protect natural communities;
    • Managing aquifers as natural infrastructure and recognizing aquifer replenishment and remediation actions as a public benefit eligible for state financial assistance; and,
    • Incentivizing land use changes on subsided lands in the Delta to re-saturate the land and reduce the risk of further subsidence.
  • Achieving Equity: The Draft 2023 Plan notes that equity in water resource management is to be a permanent pillar of proceeding Water Plan Updates and equity goals will continue to be measured and expanded for the foreseeable future. Two important programs added to future Water Plan Updates include:
    • An environmental justice and equity advisory group will be established to inform all future Water Plan Updates; and,
    • For all future Water Plan Updates, DWR will survey all local water agencies on their efforts to advance environmental justice and equity goals in their districts. Such efforts include engaging community members to co-create water management solutions, expanding access for diverse voices to be involved in the decision-making process, creating advisory committees, supporting resources for populations most affected by climate change, and low-income rate assistance programs.

For more information or with questions, please contact:

Somach Simmons & Dunn provides the information in its Environmental Law & Policy Alerts and on its website for informational purposes only. This general information is not a substitute for legal advice, and users should consult with legal counsel for specific advice. In addition, using this information or sending electronic mail to Somach Simmons & Dunn or its attorneys does not create an attorney-client relationship with Somach Simmons & Dunn.


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