A flexible, reliable water supply is essential to California’s economy and to the job creation and job security goals of California’s working families. Reliability and flexibility in our water supply has become elusive in drought-prone California, thanks in large part to a changing climate and an obsolete water storage system that was designed to utilize a steady and massive Sierra snowpack. It’s well past time to make critical investments in water infrastructure — particularly water storage — to sustain us through future droughts and help us adapt to our new normal, one which includes extended droughts, diminished snowpack, warmer winter storms and a need for a more flexible water storage portfolio.
When it rains in California, it pours. But when it doesn’t, California’s drought years can have a devastating impact on the state. California’s water experts are looking for ways to better store water during rainy years like 2019 so the state can have it during years when the rain and snow inevitably dry up. “The reality is our system was built for a significant snowpack. It was modeled on a snowpack that probably is not as reliable and won’t be in the future,” Public Policy vice-chairman Ed Manning said. Manning is one of the leaders on water police for this year’s Capitol-to-Capitol program, pushing lawmakers for more funding and better solutions for water storage.
The San Diego County Water Authority today praised Gov. Gavin Newsom for taking a proactive, far-sighted approach to water supply planning for California, and pledged to help the governor advance his portfolio strategy for water security in the face of a changing climate.
In a letter to Newsom, Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer thanked the governor for the “wisdom and leadership” shown last week with the issuance of Executive Order N-10-19 and invited the governor to tour San Diego County’s cutting-edge water facilities.
Newsom’s order directed his administration to “identify and assess a suite of complementary actions to ensure safe and resilient water supplies, flood protection and healthy waterways for the state’s communities, economy and environment.” Newsom then directed state agencies to scrap Brown Administration plans for a $18 billion two-tunnel system for moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta in favor of a one-tunnel system.
“We congratulate you on Executive Order N-10-19 and stand ready to support you and work with other stakeholders to ensure its success,” Madaffer wrote to Newsom. “If state and federal dollars are prioritized to support local, integrated planning solutions, we will realize the State’s 2009 promise to reduce demand on the Bay-Delta.”
Portfolio Planning For Water Security
The Water Authority has a long history of both portfolio planning for the region’s water security and supporting a portfolio approach to address mounting environmental and water supply challenges in the Bay-Delta, the hub of the State Water Project.
“Almost two decades ago, the Water Authority’s Board of Directors chose to take affirmative steps to change what had been an ‘end-of-the-pipeline’ mentality, when our agency relied greatly on water imported from the Bay-Delta,” Madaffer said. “In other words, we embraced then the intent of Executive Order N-10-19, and believe our experience is proof that it can be done.”
In 2013, the Water Authority joined several Southern and Northern California water districts, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation groups in proposing a Portfolio Alternative for the Bay-Delta. That proposal included a single tunnel, increasing water storage south of the Bay-Delta, and significant investments in local and regional water supplies.
That approach didn’t gain enough support in the Brown administration, but it aligns closely with Gov. Newsom’s executive order.
The portfolio approach also aligns with what history has shown to be a highly successful strategy in San Diego County, which relied almost entirely on water supplies controlled by external interests in 1991.
“After suffering the devastating impacts of drought and water shortages that year, our community got to work, determined to gain local control over the cost and reliability of our water,” Madaffer said. “Since then, the Water Authority and its member agencies have invested over $2 billion in local projects.”
Those investments include:
- The nation’s largest agricultural water conservation and transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District
- The first new dam in the county in more than 50 years at Olivenhain Reservoir
- The nation’s largest seawater desalination plant, producing up to 56,000 acre-feet of water annually
- The raising of San Vicente Dam, more than doubling its capacity
- Water-use efficiency programs that have helped reduce per capita potable water use by more than 40 percent in San Diego County
“Every dollar of investment the Water Authority has made represents a commensurate reduction of take on the Bay-Delta,” said Madaffer’s letter.
He noted that the Water Authority and its member agencies are still at work, with more local projects on the drawing board, including a Pure Water potable reuse program being developed by the City of San Diego and the East County Advanced Water Purification Project.
“We are also continuing to plan for the future, with an upcoming study that will explore water, conveyance, storage, treatment and energy opportunities with strategic partners in Imperial Valley, Mexico and across the Southwest,” Madaffer said. “This initiative is the next generation of the Water Authority’s evolution, and the ‘poster child’ for your Portfolio Alternative.”
The Water Authority is looking at new integrated solutions such as a storage account in Lake Mead that would help raise water levels in the drought-stressed reservoir and avoid formal shortage conditions that could hamper water deliveries across the Southwest. The Water Authority also is supporting a Salton Sea action plan that will protect both the environment and public health; binational opportunities with Mexico; and clean energy generation.
Think California should build a lot more dams to catch these deluges? Forget it. Yes, the next severe drought is inevitable. And after California dries out and becomes parched again, we’ll wish we’d saved more of the current torrents. Instead, the precious water is washing out to sea. There’s one dam being planned north of Sacramento in Colusa County that makes sense: Sites. There are also some dam expansion projects that could work. But California is already dammed to the brim. Every river worth damming has been. And some that weren’t worth it were dammed anyway.
The storms hitting California in February have left their mark on California’s largest and most important water reserve. Shasta Lake jumped 39 feet in elevation since February 1 and as of Tuesday it was at 85 percent of capacity and only 25 feet from its crest. Amid a wet winter, dramatic lake level rises have been common this year. Folsom Lake east of Sacramento rose 30 feet in January, while Lake Oroville shot up 75 feet in February.
Storm water has been rampaging down the Sacramento River, carrying ripped out docks, uprooted trees and homeowners’ backyards, hellbent for the Golden Gate. But very little of this precious water can be saved. Environmental restrictions limit the amount of water that can be pumped into southbound aqueducts. That’s because the pumps are deadly for fish, particularly young salmon trying to reach the ocean.
After a three-year battle to keep their underground job site from flooding, the construction crew at Lake Mead is ready to let the water win. Sometime late next week, workers plan to shut off the pumps keeping the water out and allow it to fill the cavern they have carefully excavated more than 500 feet beneath the shore. The move will mark the latest milestone for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s low-lake-level pumping station, a $650 million safety net for a community that draws 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead.
Voters will decide Tuesday whether California borrows nearly $9 billion for water infrastructure projects in the state where its scarcity often pits city dwellers, farmers, anglers and environmentalists against one another. Proposition 3 would devote the money to storage and dam repairs, watershed and fisheries improvements, and habitat protection and restoration. It is the largest water bond proposed since California’s nonpartisan legislative analyst began keeping track in 1970.
For the first time in decades California may see construction of new water storage. The legislation would pay for new water storage projects as part of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. It now goes to President Trump to sign it into law after the U.S. Senate approved the measure yesterday. The legislation provides financing for water projects throughout the western U.S. including new reservoirs, below ground storage, and desalination projects.
Sites Reservoir, the largest new water storage proposal in California, recently won a commitment of $816 million in state funds to help with construction. It promises to deliver enough water every year, on average, to serve one million homes. But regulatory realities looming in the background may mean the project has substantially less water at its disposal.