Folsom Lake, Calif. Flickr/sjrankin

As government leaders in California wend their way through the management of the state's historic drought, real discussions about how the state should adapt to water scarcity are taking place. And if history is a guide, the decisions made in the Golden State will have their impact in other places where water scarcity is becoming the norm.

Make no mistake: California is moving forward into uncharted territory. Traditional engineered solutions, such as the California Aqueduct that channels water from the wetter regions in the north to the arid south, are being challenged by a host of factors beyond the drought, including environmental regulations and the capacity of the systems themselves. Such water-transfer projects made it possible for the drier Southland to grow and become the most populous region of the state. But government and private-sector leaders are rapidly realizing that other approaches will be needed to fulfill future statewide agriculture, business and residential water needs.

The envisioned 21st-century decentralized water-supply system would rely less on moving large amounts of water over long distances and more on improved efficiency, stormwater capture and greater water reuse. While still in their infancies, successes from various early stage projects are highlighting the potential to transform water management by maximizing use of local and regional water resources.

For example, as reported in the most recent issue of FutureStructure, sister publication to Government Technology, the Orange County Water District's Groundwater Replenishment System has become a worldwide model of how to augment a local water supply. After a three-step treatment process, water from a wastewater-treatment plant is piped into district wells where it recharges the groundwater supply. Since opening in 2008, the system has produced more than 130 billion gallons of high-quality water.

Similarly, the San Diego County Water Authority is moving forward to augment and diversify its water supply by building a desalination plant at Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. The facility is expected to eventually generate as much as 10 percent of the county's potable water.

A recent issue brief from the National Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute, The Untapped Potential of California's Water Supply, provides an analysis of the potential for expansion of these types of projects. "We know that traditional water solutions have failed to solve California's water problems," says the institute's president, Peter Gleick. "The good news is that there are broad, cost-effective, environmentally sound options that work and that can help us during the current drought and far into the future." A key finding is that strategies outlined in the report could produce new supplies and demand reductions amounting to as much as 14 million acre-feet per year — more water than is used in all of California's cities.

Creating these savings will require more than new technology and hard infrastructure. There are many "soft" infrastructure issues to be addressed, including policies, regulations and governance structures. In analyzing water governance, for example, the California Center for Sustainable Communities found that more than 100 governmental entities oversee the Los Angeles region's water systems and that their jurisdictional boundaries don't necessarily coincide with political or geographic boundaries.

The center's analysis includes a set of maps and charts to aid in visualizing both water flows and governance structures. Maps like these, if generated for the entire state, might one day serve as a valuable view of what water is available in California, where it is flowing and who manages it — a key part of a statewide water management system.

Such a system already exists for electricity, run by the California Independent Systems Operator. Located in Folsom near Sacramento, the ISO runs a futuristic control center that monitors electricity supply and demand in five-minute increments to ensure that the grid stays up and power is available when and where needed. Though such a water-monitoring system may never come to pass, the ISO system does provide a conceptual framework for how water will need to be managed across the state.

Scientists forecast a long-term trend of a drier future for California. It's been said that people don't respond to trends, but they do respond to events — such as droughts. Sensing this, state leaders are seeing the current drought as an opportunity to gain public support and financing for the new 21st-century water system and have put a $7.5 billion bond measure on the fall ballot. The bond includes $2.7 billion for dam building and water storage but also provides $800 million for cleaning up groundwater, $200 million for capturing stormwater and $700 million for water recycling.

Of course, success for California will take more than passing and implementing a single bond measure. It will be achieved over the long-term by putting a water-management program in place that citizens will embrace and continue to fund. That said, public-sector leaders will earn legitimacy for future actions by getting things done right, and right now.

This column was originally published by Governing.