Testimony lists public benefits of water storage
By Christine Souza
With no end in sight to the multiyear drought affecting California, state officials have begun the steps to develop water infrastructure projects that could be funded by Proposition 1, the $7.1 billion water bond approved by voters last November. At a legislative hearing last week, leaders of state water and natural-resource agencies, and representatives of agricultural, water and environmental organizations, discussed the status of that work.
Proposition 1 represents an investment in improving the state's water quality, supply and infrastructure, and specified that $2.7 billion be spent on the public benefits related to improved water supply and reliability.
The California Water Commission will rank storage projects and determine which qualify for bond funds. The oversight hearing by the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife focused on how that process will be carried out.
"This bond presents us with a pretty large chunk of money, and it may not come around again for a long time, so we ought to be looking at the big opportunities rather than the small opportunities going forward," said Chris Scheuring, environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Scheuring testified before the committee as part of a panel that also featured representatives from the California Water Foundation, Association of California Water Agencies, Community Water Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Given the state's worsening supply and demand situation for water because of the four-year drought, Scheuring said that rather than taking an incremental approach to water infrastructure with small projects, "we need big, forward, visionary projects."
The four most feasible and well-known storage projects include building Sites Reservoir in western Colusa County, expanding the reservoir at Shasta, expanding Los Vaqueros in the East Bay, and creating a reservoir at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River.
"We would urge the Water Commission and others going forward, as we decide how to spend this bond money, to take a very hard look at the projects already on the table and that are already in advanced stages of planning," Scheuring said. "The studies that I have heard indicate that these projects can provide a tremendous public benefit in their operation."
He pointed out that for some time, environmental groups have been skeptical of the public benefits of aboveground storage projects, but he said the larger surface storage projects that have been proposed have a number of public benefits aside from water delivery to farms and cities.
"Water behind the dam has a number of different potential public benefits including ecosystem restoration, water quality, flood control, recreation and, ultimately, a diminishing reliance on groundwater resources," Scheuring said. "We think the big projects that have already been identified and have had a fair amount of feasibility study undertaken should probably be first in line."
For example, he noted that the proposed Sites Reservoir could benefit fish in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.
"For my money, the fish don't care where the flows come from. It is far better to build forward with this bond money to provide those ecosystem benefits than to pursue policies that result in the retirement of water rights to protect fisheries," Scheuring said.
In his testimony to the committee, state Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird said the several years of drought in California have "revealed fundamental weaknesses in our system."
Agency panelists agreed that storage is part of the solution but, Laird said, the bond offers the opportunity to use an integrated approach.
"There is no silver bullet. You cannot build a reservoir and fix California's problems. It really is about moving forward in a very comprehensive way," he said. "We want to make smart investments and good investments."
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, described Proposition 1 as a framework for implementing the California Water Action Plan and said projects described in the plan have public benefits.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, emphasized that his constituents in the Central Valley, where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, would like to see surface storage water projects—and within a relatively short time frame.
"In 1863, we set out to build a railroad from Iowa to San Francisco and in 1869 we were done. It is awfully hard to go home and tell folks that we can't build a couple of reservoirs before 2024," Gray said.
Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, reminded the committee that the $2.7 billion of Proposition 1 funding was dedicated to storage.
"We have four sites that have been identified in the bond," Dodd said. "We are going to need a lot of infrastructure in this state of California and I too am very, very concerned about the fact that, if we get to the end and we don't have one of these big reservoirs done or two of them done, people are going to say, 'You guys just blew that money.' People voted for water storage."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.