What’s Current? Issue #19 – Ways to Achieve Water Abundance

Thanksgiving is here again, and thankfully, California has already had one wave of storms hit the state. And thanks to last winter’s deluges, all of California’s major reservoirs are at storage levels well above historical averages. Our focus this week returns to water, and how important it is to achieve water abundance. The concept of abundance is compatible, and often synonymous, with resilience, sustainability, equity, and affordability. We need all of those things. Abundance makes them possible, and scarcity makes them impossible.

When observing California’s policymakers strive fitfully towards all of these values, which they often mistakenly claim are incompatible, it is important to resist becoming cynical. In the fractious, paralytic world of public policy, it can be tempting to give up, to take advantage of a situation, to think of ourselves rather than face the seeming futility of promoting the greater good, or to be captivated by easy solutions and simple answers. Forming coalitions and accepting compromises is hard. But it’s the only way forward.

Two well-established sources of perpetually updated information on California water policy are Maven’s Notebook and the California Water for Food and People Movement. Another indispensable source is WaterWrights by the tireless Don Wright.

Tulare Lake Subbasin State Board Workshop

This report, courtesy of Don Wright, provides insight into what farmers  — and by extension, anyone who does anything that involves so much as a scratch in the ground  — are up against with the bureaucracies in Sacramento. To announce a “workshop” for farmers in the Tulare Lake Subbasin who face “probation” because their “groundwater sustainability plan” still hasn’t been approved, the State Water Resources Control Board sent out a 176-page notice. One-hundred-and-seventy six pages. That was just the notice. Wright describes the origins of SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which became necessary to restore depleted aquifers. But Wright also explains how groundwater was depleted because of restrictions on water withdrawals from rivers, and how those restrictions were supposed to be mitigated by new investments in storage. To build new storage, voters approved Prop. 1 in 2014, and to-date, no significant construction has begun. This detailed report is worth reading in its entirety.

Bay Delta Plan Update

From Maven’s Notebook, a “deep dive” into the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, now being updated by the State Water Resources Control Board and accepting public comment. Here’s a public comment: At least three critical issues are ignored: (1) Not one word about how nonnative species such as striped bass prey on native salmon and how that might be mitigated (raise the limits on bass fishing?), (2) No mention of the primary cause of salt water intrusion into the Delta — it’s not sea level rise, it’s land subsidence, and most of all, (3) No acknowledgement that during storm events, even in dry years, there are millions more acre feet of water that can be safely withdrawn from the Delta, much less a discussion of proposals such as the San Joaquin County Blueprint which includes innovative, fish-friendly designs for high-volume transfer of Delta floodwaters into capacious aquifers for storage.

California Bureaucrats Embrace Water Rationing

Senate Bill 1157, which will limit residential indoor water use to 42 gallons per person per day, and require homeowners to justify a “water budget” for every residential yard, is intrusive, expensive, misguided and unnecessary. It will cost an estimated $7 billion to implement (not including overruns), and when fully in effect is projected to save 413,000 acre feet per year. This is nothing. Diversions for agriculture average 30 million acre feet (MAF) per year, more than four times the urban use, and diversions — captured rainfall that is released from reservoirs during the summer and fall — to maintain ecosystem health range between 20 MAF in dry years to over 60 MAF in wet years. A reduction of 413,000 acre-feet in urban water consumption represents barely more than one-half of 1 percent of the amount of water California diverts and manages even in its driest years. Even worse, SB 1157 takes away the incentive for water agencies to invest in water supply infrastructure. This legislation is a disaster and should be repealed.

Cost to rebuild Anderson Dam rises to $2.3 billion, tripling from two years ago

As the biggest storage reservoir west of the Mt. Hamilton Range, with a storage capacity of 90,000 acre feet, Anderson Reservoir pulls water from the aqueduct fed San Luis Reservoir to supply the Silicon Valley. It was drained in 2020 for seismic retrofits. Then came the scope enhancements, supply chain disruptions, and escalating costs for materials and labor. Originally estimated to cost $648 million, now ratepayers are looking at $2.3 billion. Construction won’t even start until 2026. This is an example of a project where the state and federal government must help pay, and, imagine this, spend more on actual construction and less on studies and feasibilities and planning and scoping and litigating.

Water districts gain access to new supply

Before the rain fell, and fell, and fell, starting about one year ago, the supply available to some water districts in Southern California was reduced by over 70 percent, triggering rationing, fines, and even installation of mechanical flow restrictors on the supply to wealthy residents who were indifferent to fines. This should never happen, but water is only fungible when the distribution network is comprehensive enough to allow urban water districts to access their water supply from multiple sources. Now, thanks to investments by the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, Las Virgenes Water District, which was one of the most severely afflicted during the recent drought, will have connectivity to water sources outside its local area. To further diversify its access to water, Las Virgenes is also investing in wastewater recycling and testing new desalination technologies. That’s what it takes!