By Dave Puglia, Western Growers President/CEO
I recently wrote of the rhetorical shift in California water policy from “water supply reliability” to “water resiliency.” With more than 88 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought and many of our reservoirs hitting historic lows just two years after being completely full, we see what that really means.
California State Senator Jim Nielsen spoke plain truth in a recent Sacramento Bee op-ed: “The state has failed to invest appropriately in large, statewide surface-water storage and conveyance, leaving California ill-prepared for drought conditions and jeopardizing its environmental and fiscal health.”
Ironically, the embrace of “resiliency” has so far served to rob our water infrastructure of the very capabilities needed to maximize flexibility, i.e., resiliency. In recasting water priorities, we now have a system that has been rendered incapable of serving the needs of cities, agriculture or rivers and habitat.
So far this year, the consequences of California water policy realignment have manifested themselves in dangerous emergency curtailment orders for the most senior water rights holders in the Russian River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds, after a zero percent allocation for Central Valley Project (CVP) farms and five percent from the State Water Project (SWP). And, of course, another dry winter would be catastrophic.
In stark terms, the current drought has broken our state’s water system. But this is not because our system lacks resiliency. Our water infrastructure was designed to sustain our needs for more than two years of severe drought. Following a drought from 1928 to 1934, CVP and SWP engineers designed reservoirs like Shasta and Oroville to provide long-term carryover storage with capacity several times the typical annual yield.
Fast forward to our current reality: From October 2018 to September 2019, the year prior to the beginning of our current drought, 27.5 million acre-feet, or 82.6 percent of all water that flowed into the Delta, continued out to sea. Certainly, a good portion was necessary to prevent saltwater intrusion but what would we give to have just a portion of that water back now?
Which takes us back to Senator Nielsen’s op-ed. He is one of many to ask the obvious question: What is happening with the water storage money approved by voters in 2014?
With Prop. 1, California voters understood that they were putting a $2.7 billion down payment on tangible water storage projects, and one that was often cited, Sites Reservoir, even seemed acceptable to many environmental groups. This proposed Sacramento Valley facility would provide flexibility in water storage and delivery for farms and cities, groundwater recharge and as an offset to keep more cold water behind Shasta Dam for fish regulatory requirements.
Seven years later, not a single shovel has hit the ground. Even though Sites Reservoir was authorized for Prop. 1 funding by the California Water Commission, the regulators whittled down the amount being sought and it has remained at the starting line as proponents seek to make up for the shortfall.
To date, of the $2.7 billion approved by voters in Prop. 1 for water storage, only $150 million has been authorized.
Growing up in Sacramento, we frequently saw cars with bumper stickers that exclaimed, “Build it, Dam it!” in reference to the proposed Auburn Dam on the American River. Environmental activists used every tactic thinkable to block both Auburn Dam and New Melones Dam. Auburn Dam, which was also hampered by escalating costs due to earthquake safety concerns, was never built. New Melones went forward, and its 1980 completion marks the state’s last major surface storage addition.
No one has (yet) chained themselves to rocks in the area where Sites Reservoir would be, as opponents of Auburn and New Melones did back in the day. They don’t need to; having created a Kafkaesque regulatory process and a sophisticated “see you in court” business model, environmental activist groups keep racking up wins that play well with their donors and translate to losses for cities and farms that need reliable water.
Western water needs would get a big boost if the U.S. Senate-approved infrastructure bill clears the House of Representatives. We worked hard with partners throughout the West to obtain more than $8 billion to repair our dams and canals and build new storage and conveyance facilities, among other water projects.
But as the Sites Reservoir nonsense illustrates, money is only part of the equation. Until voters expect better than worsening water shortages and demand something more concrete and additive than “resilience” as a salve for mitigating the harms of declining resources, California will consign its people to economic and social distress.