Water infrastructure is a lot like the weather—everyone talks about it but nothing is ever done about it.
Consider that the vast majority of water projects serving California were in the planning stage 80 to 90 years ago and were built in 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Since then, there have been virtually no massive public projects and only a few smaller, privately-funded ones. The initial projects were planned for a California population that was expected to hit about 16 million people in 1960 and 20 million a decade later. Since the last major project was built, the population has more than doubled and is currently increasing at about 1 percent per year, which means more than 50 million people in the state by 2040.
Will there be enough water for both people and agriculture?
The short answer is no, but a survey of a number of well-informed observers are “cautiously optimistic” that the path toward mitigation may begin to take shape in Congress this year after years of neglect. In fact, “terribly neglectful” is the phrase Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority, ascribed to the past two generations of leaders regarding their action concerning California’s water needs.
The “Greatest Generation” has received lots of credit for the forward-thinking visionaries who fought a World War and then came back home to fund and build America’s future. Highways in disrepair, crumbling bridges, sinking canals and insufficient water storage are the result of a half century of alternative priorities. But there just may be light at the end of the tunnel.
Dennis Nuxoll, Western Growers vice president of federal government affairs, said there is a lot of discussion going on in the nation’s capital presently about both water issues and infrastructure. He said these discussions are creating “momentum” that just might result in a “water package” becoming part of the road and bridges infrastructure legislation currently given a fighting chance to succeed in this Congress. There has been bi-partisan support for an infrastructure bill since President Donald Trump came to office more than two years ago. For a variety of reasons, the administration moved infrastructure legislation to the back burner of its priority list. Since the new Congress convened in January, it has once again surfaced as at least one major area where the deeply-divided government might agree.
In the meantime, Nuxoll indicated that Congress is not quite as dysfunctional as it appears. In fact, Congress has, on a bi-partisan basis, been working on a “Drought Contingency Plan” that establishes protocols for the seven western states served by the Colorado River if Lake Mead and Lake Powell dip to specific low levels of capacity. Nuxoll said this action, which includes full engagement of 14 U.S. senators representing both parties, has combined with other water issues to create the momentum in the water arena.
Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on this rare congressional collaboration, more than 100 organizations representing western agriculture and water interests recently sent a letter to both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate urging the legislative bodies “to use any infrastructure package to help address severe hydrological conditions in the West.”
The letter identifies the broad needs of the West in several areas including water conservation, water storage and forest management, as well as help in creating “flexibility under existing environmental laws and regulations…”
Nuxoll expressed optimism that an infrastructure bill including water could get passed and signed into law this year. Several western water experts also expressed varying degrees of optimism and also weighed in on the severity of the water issues facing the western states, and what the best solutions might be to address water shortage issues.
Scott Petersen, water policy director for the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority said he was “cautiously optimistic,” noting that he might be “more hopeful than optimistic” that legislation would be considered and passed. He did allow that there appears to be more consensus about the need to invest in water infrastructure now than in many years.
“There is widespread recognition that there is a need,” he said, noting that it has been 16 years since the Metropolitan Water District finished the Diamond Valley Reservoir in Southern California, the last major water storage facility constructed in the Golden State. “California’s water system is absolutely at a breaking point.”
He said the California legislation passed in 2014 to address groundwater overdraft—the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—could result in the fallowing of as much as 500,000 to one million acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley if additional surface supplies of water are not accessed. He said this will have a “devastating impact” on the economy in the affected areas, and that concept appears to have widespread acceptance, citing a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Petersen said there has been “encouraging dialogue” among many stakeholders, including between traditional foes such as business leaders and environmental activists to attempt to minimize the local impacts of potential land fallowing. Local stakeholders must develop sustainability plans by 2020 and implement them over the next several years to achieve groundwater sustainability by 2040.
The timetable is helping to fuel these discussions and Petersen is hopeful that rational minds will prevail and action will occur before the point of no return. He listed several different major projects on expanding existing or constructing new water storage reservoirs and improving water conveyance infrastructure that could help the effort, including the enlarging of San Luis Reservoir, the raising of Shasta Dam, constructing Pacheco Reservoir, expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir and updating flood control manuals and operations criteria of several others, including New Melones, Oroville, Folsom, and Friant. He added that there are also state and local projects that can be part of the solution, including expanding partnerships between wildlife refuges and agricultural water districts like those served by the Authority and increasing local groundwater storage.
Phillips of the Friant Water Authority also seemingly subscribes to the theory that something will get done because it has to. He said the devastating economic impact to California if roughly a third of the irrigated land in the southern San Joaquin Valley has to be fallowed is unfathomable. “It will be an absolute train wreck,” he said, if action is not taken very soon.
Some land has already been fallowed and he said beginning next year there will have to be permanent fallowing if additional water sources aren’t developed to recharge the overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley. Phillips is also optimistic that action will occur largely because it seems so logical to him…and he can point to specific projects that can help mitigate the problem.
Solving the problem, he said, requires a multi-thronged approach, including the development of new storage capacity (Temperance Flats and Sites), expanding others (Shasta Dam) and, just as importantly, greatly increasing the conveyance capacity in the state. For example, he said the Friant-Kern Canal is designed to deliver one million acre feet (AF) of water annually to 15,000 farms through a 152-mile, gravity-powered system. The overdrafting issue has caused land subsistence and created 25 to 30 miles of canal that are 12 feet below where it was when built. To rebuild that portion of the canal so it once again can flow at full capacity is about a $300 million fix. Phillips said that would result in an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water, which is about 8 percent of the estimated 2.5 million AF shortfall that the state annually has.
Phillips is optimistic that any federal water infrastructure bill would include funding for this project because it makes economic sense. As a point of reference, he said enlarging Shasta Dam (another necessity in his view) is estimated to cost about $1.3 billion and will yield additional storage of about 80,000 AF of water.
Phillips believes the critical element of solving California’s water problem is a more robust conveyance system. He noted that during this year’s especially wet winter 10 million acre feet of usable water went out to the ocean because the conveyance capacity did not exist to deliver it to recharging basins nor was their sufficient capacity to store it. He noted that in a majority of years, California winter produces less water than the state needs but in about four years out of 15, an excess is produced and there needs to be a way to capture it. He said this spring and summer, more water will be lost to sea as the tremendous snowpack will melt and will again overwhelm the conveyance and storage capacity.
Friant and others have developed a San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint addressing what needs to be done to make up the 2.5 million AF shortfall. Phillips said it is a reasonable plan with both short term solutions that can capture one million AF over the next five years, as well as the development of longer term projects that will come on line over the next 15-20 years.
He believes it is doable and is optimistic it will get done. He even believes the funding is realistic. Besides the potential, and need, for federal funds, Phillips said there are non-contract water users that are willing to pay to create additional water sources as long as they get access to that water. He said the key is to get these areas organized so that they can establish coalitions or districts to fund these projects.
Brent Walthall, assistant general manager for the Kern County Water Authority (KCWA), also has somewhat of an optimistic view that some action will occur this year where none has happened in many years. But he directed his attention to California’s Delta and the need to create a through-Delta conveyance system. KCWA, and the many water districts it serves, count on the water produced in the northern half of the state, and Walthall said this is year 13 in the discussions to start the through-Delta project. “I do expect a decision before the end of 2019,” he said.
Former Governor Jerry Brown advocated a two-tunnel project while new Governor Gavin Newsom favors a one-tunnel approach. Walthall said that while more water could be delivered with the two tunnels, the one-tunnel proposal has the advantage of higher probability of being approved, and it will certainly be completed more quickly, though he would not hazard a guess as to the completion date. He said regulators are currently determining how much of the research and environmental reports completed for the two-tunnel project translate to the smaller option.
Walthall said, just like the Friant-Kern Canal, the California Aqueduct also needs significant repairs to make it more efficient. He said it is a big project and it will require that users be the source of funding. Frankly, he said some KCWA water districts will be able to fund the project and be able to use the additional water created while for others, the increased cost just won’t pencil out.
Dan Keppen, executive director of Family Farm Alliance, headquartered in Klamath Falls, OR, had a broader view of the infrastructure debate as he represents growers in all 17 western states. Like the others, he does believe that there is reason for optimism that water infrastructure projects will be included in the broader infrastructure legislation if it succeeds. However, he believes the window for success is relatively short because of the already-started campaigning to become president in 2020. A plethora of Democrats are in the race and President Trump has already begun his re-election bid. “If it doesn’t get done (passing of infrastructure legislation) by the August (2019) recess, I don’t think it will happen,” he predicted, noting that neither party will want to give the other a victory as 2020 approaches.
But unlike the others, Keppen does not see decades of inaction on the water front. While it is true there have been no big dams built in decades, he said there have been several bills passed on the federal level showing that Congress does have an appetite to address water issues. He said Water Resource Development Acts were passed in both 2016 and 2018 that did include provisions for flood control for both the Klamath Basin and Missouri River. And he said a very important change was legislated in 2018 to the criteria the Army Corp of Engineers can use when approving flood control projects. He said more weight can be given in rural areas and this has opened up funding sources for projects benefiting agriculture. He also noted that there are some smaller projects that are in the works in various western regions including the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Northwest.
Keppen said the latest Farm Bill also contains provisions in the conservation area that allows farms more leeway on their own land and the ability to apply for federal dollars to help cover the cost of private projects.
In light of the difficulty in passing sweeping bills, Keppen said these incremental advances are important and extremely relevant to the ag community. He agreed with WG’s Nuxoll that the dialogue that ensued while working with 14 U.S. senators on the Drought Contingency Plan has created momentum that could morph into action. “I do think there is an opportunity,” Keppen said. “There is a lot more work to be done, but I do think it is a possibility that we can come together on this.”