We Can Lead Them To Water, But Will the Democratic-Controlled Legislature Drink?

This January has been one of the driest on record in California. Some believe this dry spell may be a snapshot of what’s to come, a worrisome development for a state that relies on winter rain and snow for its water. This scenario becomes even more troublesome when we consider that, although policymakers have been taking steps to fix the state’s roads and levees, one critical infrastructure need has continued to be neglected – water systems.

There is little doubt that California’s water system needs immediate attention. The threats to California’s water supply, the state’s lifeblood in many ways, are not mere possibilities. Many reports confirm that in the coming decades California’s water supply will only become scarcer. The California Water Plan estimates water use may rise by as much as four million acre-feet (MAF) by 2030. To put that in perspective, an acre-foot of water is enough to supply two households for one year, and an acre-foot is approximately 13 times the amount of water that is held in an average size swimming pool. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found California’s water needs may jump as much as 40% in the next 25 years. And, based on our current water storage capacity, Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) projections show that California’s average annual water supply will be short 2.4 million acre-feet and significantly worse in drought years.

Democrats have proposed a water supply plan that focuses on increased underground water storage, shoring up crumbling levees, overhauling water-related bureaucracy, and increasing conservation. Even though all of these are important aspects of alleviating pressure on the state’s water supply, they do not go far enough. They cannot serve as an alternative to surface storage. California cannot depend on only groundwater storage, conservation, and rainfall to take care of all its water needs. If we want to solve the state’s water problems for long-term, we have to look at above-ground storage. Groundwater storage and surface storage are critically interlinked.

Surface storage capacity is needed to trap excess flows for storage underground, while groundwater facilities help maximize the usefulness of dams and provide additional resources during dry years. Given California’s growth and anticipated changes in hydrology, a comprehensive water plan absolutely must include both groundwater and surface storage.

While groundwater supplies have grown in recent years, construction of surface storage has ground to a halt, putting California’s water future in jeopardy. Constructing additional surface structures, like dams, will provide benefits far beyond just increasing water supply and will help us achieve a variety of necessary goals, including improving system flexibility and river management, enhancing flood protection, and ensuring that we have the ability to protect ourselves from droughts during critically dry years.

Lawmakers can take advantage of existing opportunities to remedy some of California’s foreseeable water supply crunch. Six years ago, the CalFed Record of Decision identified five major dam projects that could provide significant new surface water to California. Two of the projects – Temperance Flat in Fresno County and Sites Reservoir in Colusa County – hold the greatest promise for receiving final approval, as both projects are expected to complete environmental assessments in the next couple of years. Approving these projects would be a major step towards meeting our future water supply needs and would become the first major surface storage projects the state has built in 30 years.

In addition to building new reservoirs, California can use its existing water supplies more efficiently by improving regional conveyance infrastructure. Moving water to and through the existing system is a major part of the success of any water storage project–above or below ground. Improving our conveyance infrastructure is necessary to optimize the water programs we already have in place, like groundwater banking, water transfers, and water recycling. We also must make sure Proposition 1E levee funds are spent efficiently to reinforce existing water systems. Not only are levees crucial for flood protection, but they are a critical part of the state’s water-conveyance system, transporting water to residents through out the state, including Southern California.

The goal of securing a reliable, high-quality water supply for California should be a top priority for policymakers. Governor Schwarzenegger, Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have come up with a bipartisan plan to alleviate a future water supply crisis through a combination of actions, including the creation of new surface storage.

However, like the saying goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” By bringing a proposal to the table that will increase the state’s water supply, Republicans have led the Democratic-controlled legislature to an opportunity that will improve the water outlook for future generations. While we can’t make the entire Capitol support it, given the current supply shortage and the multiple water-related benefits stemming from surface storage, it would be hard to understand why they wouldn’t want to come together and take immediate action to improve all of California’s water systems.

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