California Forum

Another View: Better water plan would yield billions of gallons a year

Eric Wesselman
Eric Wesselman

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial “California’s most pressing need: Water” (April 3), rightly states that Sen. Dianne Feinstein runs afoul of environmentalists and salmon fishermen with her water bill, S. 2533. And that’s before anti-environmentalists in the House of Representatives get their hands on it.

The senator would have more support from conservationists and others with a bill that moves the whole state forward. Instead, the legislation focuses on picking winners and losers in the state’s water wars.

The bill calls for spending hundreds of millions to expedite and fund new and destructive dams, and includes a mandate to “maximize water supplies” to increase water exports from the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It’s not exactly tunnel-neutral either because projects like Sites reservoir or enlarging Shasta Dam make sense only if there is capacity to move more water through the Delta.

We already have more than 1,400 dams in California and a vast network of canals and pumps. Building more would cost taxpayers billions and destroy rivers without providing much water.

The Public Policy Institute of California reported in 2015 that the top five dam projects pushed by proponents would cost roughly $9 billion, before cost overruns, to increase average annual water supply by about 134 billion gallons per year. It sounds like a lot, but that’s just 1 percent of annual farm and city use. Even with high-end yield assumptions, these projects still don’t get us a 2 percent increase because storage volume is not the same as the more relevant figure: water yield.

What are the better solutions?

We have advanced dozens of positive solutions available at Three would yield 539 billion gallons per year – four times what we’d get from new dams.

Let’s start with leaks. A 2010 study conducted for the California Public Utilities Commission estimated that 10 percent of urban water is lost to leaks and that 40 percent could be cost-effectively recovered through pressure management, leak repair and targeted pipe replacement. That amounts to 114 billion gallons per year.

We have widely available technology and expertise to identify system water losses and repair them. Last year state Sen. Lois Wolk moved this ball forward with Senate Bill 555, and Feinstein could take it much further.

Second, we can improve irrigation efficiency by using local climate and soil information to more accurately determine crop water requirements and irrigation scheduling. A 2009 report from the Pacific Institute titled “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future” found that improving irrigation scheduling in California can save more than 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year. Realizing just 15 percent of that potential would yield more than 165 billion gallons per year – more water than all of the proposed reservoirs combined.

We don’t have to choose between fish and farms. We need to invest in more efficient farming for healthy waterways and vibrant communities – especially since farms account for 80 percent of the water we use.

Third, we treat wastewater to be as clean as, or cleaner than, it was before we used it. Close to 500 billion gallons of this highly treated wastewater are dumped into the Pacific Ocean annually. A 2010 study by Heal the Ocean found that 260 billion gallons can be safely recycled and reused or stored in aquifers. Orange County is already recycling wastewater along with a few cities.

We would be happy to work with and support Feinstein in advancing modern, environmentally sustainable and economical solutions like these so we can meet our water needs without doing more harm to waterways and communities. If you support water legislation that truly prepares us for future drought and climate change instead of wasting taxpayer dollars, please give her a call.

Eric Wesselman is executive director of Friends of the River. Contact him at Jim Anderson is founder of Foundation Capital. Contact him at Dru Rivers is co-owner of Full Belly Farm. Contact her at