It’s a tantalizing pot of money, $2.7 billion for new dams and reservoirs approved by California voters during the worst of the drought.
But is the state willing to spend it?
The California Water Commission, the obscure state agency in charge of allocating the money, stunned the California water world recently by giving a decidedly lukewarm response to the 11 applications it received for funding. Farm irrigation districts and municipal water agencies applying for the money fear that the commission has raised the bar so high that few if any reservoir projects will qualify for the dollars.
“The thing that probably worries me the most is, we don’t want the babies thrown out with the bathwater by the California Water Commission,” said Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies.
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Water Commission leaders, however, say they’re prepared to spend the money. They simply need to see more and better information from the applicants about how the projects would provide “public benefits” – the hurdle that must be cleared before any dollars can flow.
“We’re anxious – the commission, every single commissioner is anxious to get this money out to the projects,” said Armando Quintero, chairman of the seven-member body.
The money would come from Proposition 1, a $7.5-billion bond measure approved by voters in 2014 to pay for water recycling, treatment and the like, including the nearly $3 billion set aside for reservoirs and other water-storage projects.
Backers of 11 different projects have come forward with applications for funding, including Sites Reservoir an hour north of Sacramento and Temperance Flat dam northeast of Fresno, two of the largest reservoirs proposed in California in decades. Smaller projects are seeking funding, too, including a groundwater “bank” proposed for south Sacramento County by the regional sanitation district.
The Water Commission is still six months away from making its decision, but controversy erupted at a commission meeting last month. Based on the staff analysis conducted so far, executive officer Joe Yun announced that none of the 11 projects would deliver as much public benefit as its backers claim, potentially reducing the amount of money they’d be eligible to receive. The commission said three of the projects don’t appear to deliver any public benefit at all, putting them in danger of being shut out of the funding completely.
The commission says it hasn’t rejected any proposals, and is giving project backers three weeks to revise their applications and provide greater detail about the public benefits their reservoirs or dams would bring to California’s overstressed water system. The commission on Thursday released detailed summations of how each of the projects stacks up.
Despite its efforts to assure applicants they’re still in the running, the commission’s declaration has set off waves of anxiety in California’s water world – and a series of denunciations by elected officials and politicos who support the projects.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Sacramento Valley Republican whose district encompasses the Sites Reservoir project, said the announcement left him with “visceral anger” and a sense that the Water Commission was thwarting the will of the voters.
“The people who had supported Prop. 1, who worked hard for Prop. 1 to pass it, now they’re feeling a little bit betrayed,” Nielsen said.
Former Rep. Doug Ose, a Sacramento-area Republican candidate for governor, took to Twitter to blast “these enviro minions” on the Water Commission. The commissioners are appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.
The controversy lies in the complicated system set up for allocating funds.
Under the rules of Proposition 1, officials said, the state can only pay for the elements of a project that would benefit the public at large. In other words, it won’t help build a reservoir simply so a local water agency can store its water there. But it will pay for enhanced flood control, recreation and – above all – ecosystem improvements to the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s overworked water delivery network.
Putting a dollar value on these public benefits isn’t so easy, though.
Look at Sites, a $5.1 billion reservoir that’s seeking nearly $1.7 billion of Proposition 1 money.
An “off-stream” project that would take water piped from the Sacramento River 14 miles away, Sites could store 1.8 million acre-feet of water for participating water agencies throughout the Sacramento Valley and as far away as Southern California. It would be California’s seventh-largest reservoir, and the largest built since New Melones opened on the Stanislaus River in 1979.
The water agencies promoting Sites say the reservoir would bring substantial public benefits by helping with flood control and making water available for wildlife refuges. It would also deliver crucial ecosystem benefits for California’s endangered Chinook salmon species by increasing the available pool of cold water in the Sacramento River system. During the drought, warm water killed off most of the juvenile salmon and reduced overall populations.
The Water Commission staff gave Sites credit for flood control and wildlife refuges. But the staff said it wasn’t persuaded by Sites’ claims about the value of the reservoir’s ecosystem enhancements. As a result, in the technical assessment released Thursday, the staff proposed knocking several hundred million dollars off Sites’ potential funding and told Sites’ backers to make a more compelling case.
That left Sites’ backers more than a little frustrated. They say they’re prepared to back up their claims to the Water Commission – but they worry about the hurdles involved in proving the dollar value of an improved fish population.
“Tell me what the dollar value is of a returning salmon with any accuracy,” said Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Project Authority.
His allies note that, unlike many big water projects, Sites has the backing of some environmental groups. Sites also is tentatively supported by the Brown administration, which mentions the reservoir favorably in the California Water Action Plan, the state’s official blueprint for water project.
“This should be a relatively easy one,” said Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who favors construction of Sites. “Yet the state of California is stepping on itself, preventing it from happening.”
Commission officials insisted they haven’t closed the door on funding Sites or any other project.
“We’re not knocking anybody off the table,” said Yun, the executive officer. “We have 11 applications. They’re all viable. This is solvable. We’re looking for information. They have three weeks to turn it around.”