Commentary: Past two winters underline need for water storage

Issue Date: April 18, 2018
By Chris Scheuring
Chris Scheuring
San Luis Reservoir stood at 102 percent of average storage when this photo was taken in mid-February. After a dry winter this year, water managers have reduced deliveries. Due to lack of storage space, much of the runoff from last year’s strong storms could not be captured, leaving the state more vulnerable to year-to-year precipitation changes.
Photo/Christine Souza

An epic water year: I'm talking about last year, of course. After a punishing, multi-year drought across California led to drastic cutbacks in water deliveries, widespread fallowing of agricultural land and extreme conservation measures in urban areas, our hydrology came roaring back in the winter of 2016-17 as storms refilled reservoirs and tested our flood control system with huge river flows.

That's why it now feels like "Groundhog Day"—if you've seen the Bill Murray movie—to find ourselves this year in the position of contemplating cutbacks. The 2017-18 winter was not a particularly good one, though we did have some help from the skies in March. Even so, both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project promise only partial deliveries, thanks to reservoir storage that remains largely in good shape, due to last winter's storms.

We are again living year to year— or paycheck to paycheck, if you will—and it leaves me thinking about prospects for new storage.

I'm in many respects a layperson, but it has long seemed evident that if California has an increasingly sporadic and "flashy" hydrology—the characteristic precipitation pattern of the American West, which is expected to become more pronounced in its cycles of wet and dry—then we need to prepare for future needs by putting a few more cups out there to capture what comes from the sky, when it comes.

Sailors call this "carrying more sail"—the idea that you have to catch what's available—a concept California voters understood in their passage of Proposition 1 in 2014. The bond measure provided for $2.7 billion to finance the public-benefit component of eligible water-storage projects.

Certain storage projects have been on the table for some time, including projects studied more than 20 years ago as part of the Cal-Fed process. These are not the projects of yore in terms of environmental impact—they are off-stream, or upstream from existing facilities, or expansions of existing facilities. In some cases, they are below-ground, a form of storage that may not fill as quickly as aboveground reservoirs do, but that has its own virtues in terms of available space and environmental impact. Eleven projects are vying for portions of that Proposition 1 money.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us before an appointed body, the California Water Commission. The commission must evaluate water-storage projects for disbursement of the public-benefit money allocated under Proposition 1, via applications that are held up against regulations the commission adopted.

But an initial review by staff of the water commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and State Water Resources Control Board concluded that three of 11 projects qualify for Proposition 1 funding, although none of the three projects qualifies for as much bond money as requested. In the staff's view, none had the full range of "public benefit" required.

The commission process has a long way to go. All but one of the 11 project applicants have since submitted appeals, and substantial supplemental information, with revised scores due out this week. From there, the water commission process allows scoring of additional components and consideration of potential adjustments, leading up to final funding of eligible projects by July.

The important thing now is to remind decision-makers of the strong mandate from California voters, who approved Proposition 1 by a two-thirds margin with the clear idea they were voting for new water storage.

Farm Bureau has certainly been at the forefront in advocating for new storage. We have been there every step of the way, participating actively in drafting Proposition 1, working for its passage and developing the regulations on public benefits.

We're also far from alone in our concerns about how the storage-funding process has proceeded. In just the past few days, an increasing number of voices have joined in encouraging the commission to move forward to fund storage, with editorials or opinion pieces from the Southern California News Group, Bakersfield Californian, Modesto Bee and state government columnist Dan Walters of CALmatters.

We recognize that no single storage project is going to be California's silver bullet. We live in a semi-arid state, and we are told that our hydrology will likely be more variable.

As the state's population grows toward 50 million people, and as our environmental sensibilities sharpen, we're going to need a full spectrum of solutions for our water problems. That includes a continued push on conservation and further increases in irrigation efficiency; new technologies in desalination and reuse; and better use of existing supplies to support multiple needs through conjunctive use. We also must adopt efficiency standards about how much, where and exactly how we use environmental water for maximum benefit.

Even if we do all these things right, though, it won't be enough if we don't enhance storage to capture more of the heavy rains we had in winters like we had a year ago.

What an epic water year we had. What a shame not to have been able to take full advantage of it.

(Chris Scheuring is managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

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