The drought is our wake-up call that California's water supply system is out of balance.
Even in the face of this drought, conservation efforts have not taken hold. We are talking about it, but we are failing to act.
A focused water bond is key to any solution. The billions of dollars that would be raised by a bond could give California greater flexibility for managing water, and provide a sustainable path to meet future needs for people and nature.
Action-forcing events are just ahead.
If the Legislature fails to act in the next few weeks, the $11.13 billion water bond will go before the voters in November. Legislators already have postponed this bond twice, for good reason. It fails the test of providing a meaningful foundation for necessary water policy reforms. Voters almost certainly would reject it. If that were to happen, we all would lose. Efforts to manage our water and prepare for droughts to come could be set back years.
But in recent weeks, there have been some encouraging signs.
Gov. Jerry Brown has stepped in to change California's dubious distinction as the only Western state to not have meaningful monitoring and management of groundwater. None too soon, as a recent study has shown excessive groundwater depletion could lead to increased seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, and others are seeking to move forward with a meaningful bond.
Brown's Water Action Plan provides the framework for an effective water bond, which would fund investments in drinking water systems and storage, including replenishing our groundwater basins, Delta restoration and watershed protection.
In the face of increasing wildfire threats, a bond also could help provide protection for watersheds in the Sierra Nevada that hold 65 percent of California's drinking water.
To succeed with voters, a bond must pass several critical tests. It must come with policy changes that place a greater emphasis on conservation, water use efficiency and regulation of water use with greater transparency, and help meet the needs of natural systems - our streams, rivers and wetlands that our fish and wildlife depend on for survival.
Second, a bond must prioritize delivery of safe drinking water for all Californians. It must drive wider water management reforms, including monitoring and management of groundwater and surface water, and investment in local and regional alternative supplies. Water recycling must be increased, as must desalination, so California reduces its reliance on the Delta as a water supply source.
To address ongoing environmental impacts, a bond must include money for watershed restoration and protection. Restoration projects on the Klamath River, San Joaquin River, the Pacific Flyway and Salton Sea are especially critical. A bond also must include strong accountability mechanisms.
Water storage is part of the solution. That could include reservoirs. But there must be enough discretion to evaluate the benefits of all storage projects openly, and direct funding to projects that deliver the best return on the public's investment.
To meet the test of providing wider statewide public benefit, storage projects outside the Delta watershed should be eligible for funding. The storage equation should require new operating principles for existing reservoirs and ensure that any new storage should be designed around groundwater recharge as our first priority.
Farmers are drilling wells deeper than ever, chasing depleted groundwater reserves. Between 2011 and 2013, the Central Valley basin lost 16.2 million acre-feet of water, roughly the capacity of the seven largest reservoirs in the state - from Shasta at the top of the Sacramento River to Exchequer Reservoir on the Merced River.
Preliminary studies on the impacts of this year's drought predict depletion of roughly an additional 5 million acre-feet of groundwater, more than the full capacity of Lake Shasta, putting our groundwater levels at historic lows.
We Californians are on the verge of a full-blown water crisis. But nature already faces disaster. Fish, birds and other wildlife don't have the ability to dig deep into the ground for water.
In the Sacramento, American and Klamath rivers and their tributaries, salmon eggs are exposed due to lack of water; an entire spawning season may be lost.
Much farther to the north, habitat conditions are robust. That may mean a huge population of migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway will begin arriving in California this fall, only to find drastically depleted wetland conditions. That will put birds at risk of die-off from botulism and avian cholera.
There is no shortage of reasons for action. But in order to succeed, combatants from all sides of the political spectrum and regions will need to work together to build a bond that voters can support.
California's strategy cannot simply be betting that an El Niño will bring more rain. A water bond is an important part of moving us from our current trajectory of full-blown water disaster. We all need water. That includes the wildlife that rely on us for solutions.
Jay Ziegler is the director of policy for the Nature Conservancy, and a participant in the discussions on the water bond with the objective of achieving sustainable water management.