WASHINGTON —The White House on Tuesday unveiled several billion dollars’ worth of corporate commitments to water research and development during a high-level summit.

Pegged to World Water Day, the summit was intended to draw attention to specific state and corporate pledges as well as new Obama administration initiatives prompted in part by Western states’ drought and the Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal.

The corporate promises include a commitment by GE to invest $500 million over the next decade on water and reuse technologies, and a pledge by San Francisco-based Ultra Capital to invest $1.5 billion in decentralized “water management solutions.”

“It’s an investment opportunity that has the potential for great returns,” enthused Ali Zaidi, associate director for natural resources at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

The roughly four-hour summit, convened in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, also allowed administration officials to tout their 20-page drought resilience action plan.

The plan includes calls for better data collection and improved coordination among government agencies. It also suggested specific projects, such as a new prize for water innovations and initiating a study of “the broad implications of a prolonged drought in California.”

“We need to start looking ahead and investing in our water infrastructure,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton. “We need to conserve, capture and recycle water as well as fund infrastructure repair.”

Other officials attending the summit included Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Felicia Marcus, chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board. Private-section attendees included Cynthia Koehler, executive director of the San Francisco-based Waternow Alliance, and Peter H. Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.

The discussions centered far more on tech-related 21st century investments than on farmers’ familiar complaints that their water supplies are limited by regulations that protect endangered species protections or inflexible bureaucrats.

“In California, as we’re struggling with drought and water scarcity, data has enabled us to find solutions,” said Joya Banerjee, a senior program officer with the San Francisco-based S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

Banerjee used the summit to announce Project Water Data, which she described as an effort to “modernize our data systems.” In a similar vein, the administration unveiled an improved new “national water model” for forecasting river flows.

The San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts that have been pressing hard in recent years for new rules and more water deliveries did not appear to be represented, and at least one Valley lawmaker declined to attend.

“I find it extremely disappointing that California’s San Joaquin Valley is not at the forefront of discussions, after four years of drought,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said in a House floor speech Tuesday, adding, “We need short-term solutions now.”

Bureau of Reclamation report issued Tuesday suggests, moreover, that climate change will aggravate the Valley’s problems, with predicted impacts, including reduced reservoir storage and irrigation deliveries.

Costa and California’s House Republicans, who were also conspicuously absent Tuesday, back an ambitious water bill currently stuck on Capitol Hill. A Senate version, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Feb. 10, is still being assessed by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, according to Boxer’s staff.

While it’s loomed large among Valley lawmakers, the California water bill was effectively ignored by summit participants Tuesday. Instead, the summit illuminated a number of new, forward-looking undertakings that include:

-- Establishment of a new water center at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for using satellites and airborne observations to aid water planning.

-- A commitment by the city of Los Angeles to capture an additional 12 billion gallons of stormwater a year by 2025, more than doubling the current amount.

-- Three universities in Southern California are forming a consortium to work on ocean desalination.

This article appeared on the McClatchy website March 22. 


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