California Forum

Don’t be rushed in awarding water storage billions, California. Let’s take our time

The proposed Sites reservoir and dam, which will flood this land west of Maxwell, Calif., is among the projects vying for $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 bond money for water storage.
The proposed Sites reservoir and dam, which will flood this land west of Maxwell, Calif., is among the projects vying for $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 bond money for water storage. rpench@sacbee.com

In 2014, California voters overwhelmingly approved a $7.5 billion bond measure for water supply infrastructure and critical watershed protection and restoration. Since its passage, Proposition 1 – officially known as the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act – has benefited tens of millions of Californians.

It has enhanced safe drinking water supplies and provided for water recycling and groundwater clean-up. It also has brought urgent aid to communities with inadequate water supplies during the historic drought that ended last year.

Given the size of this investment – $2.7 billion – the commission should take time to make sure it gets it right.

Recently, however, debate has roiled over a key section that allocated $2.7 billion to the California Water Commission for water storage improvements and drought preparedness.

Critics ask whether the commission is racing fast enough to spend Proposition 1 money on big-ticket water storage projects. Eleven applications for a total of $5.8 billion have been submitted for review to the commission. Not one of the proponents was satisfied with their initial “public benefit” ratio scores.

Proposition 1 mandated a new and innovative approach to water storage: to only pay for the public benefits associated with a water storage project. Eligible benefits for funding include ecosystem restoration, flood control, emergency response, recreation, water quality improvements, and enhancing state water system operations.

This mandate embodies a new approach to water storage that will better prepare us all for future drought and make our water system more resilient in the face of climate change. Yet this voter-approved and landmark mandate has stirred consternation – and some undue criticism – as the commission has provided its initial public benefit scores for the eleven water storage projects.

Backers of some projects complain the commission is withholding funding or simply not moving on improvements aggressively enough.

In fact, these rankings were only preliminary. Some proponents provided additional information to the commission in response to staff feedback, and the revised public benefit scores, released on Friday, reflect more of the promise of the projects. The point of the public benefit analysis is to ensure an open, public and competitive process. That process must include a robust technical review of each project and remain safe from external pressure that may seek to tilt the scales.

Given the size of this investment – $2.7 billion – the commission should take time to make sure it gets it right.

For example, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District’s South County Ag Project is under consideration. It’s a water recycling and groundwater storage project that provides a range of benefits to the ecosystem.

These include enhancement of riparian forests and wetlands, instream flow for salmon, and recovery of groundwater levels in the region. These benefits build on significant public and private investment at the Cosumnes River Preserve and the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, both within the Delta.

Also under consideration, though dramatically different, is the Sites Reservoir near Maxwell in Colusa County. The Sites project seeks to create California’s seventh largest reservoir. It would be an off-stream reservoir, which means it doesn’t require a dam on a stream or river.

While there will certainly be adverse impacts from building a major reservoir, there is also significant potential upside in the ability to manage a significant block of the water stored for the environment.

Both of these projects received a much lower score than the proponents expected. And the bond requires that at least half of the costs of any new water supply created by a storage project be paid for by those who stand to economically benefit from it. So those who stand to gain from the projects – water districts, cities, farms, and ranches – may have to pay more.

But the commission shouldn’t let itself be rushed through this final phase of deliberation. All these projects deserve careful and thorough consideration.

If the commission stays its course in carrying out voters’ mandate to make sound investments in water storage and drought preparation, average Californians and the state’s ecosystem will benefit in an enduring, sustainable manner that gives our water system more of what it needs to confront climate change.

Maurice Hall is the associate vice president, ecosystems-water for the Environmental Defense Fund. Reach him at mhall@edf.org.

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