Water storage projects need critical analysis

One proposal to increase surface water storage is to build the Sites reservoir, in Colusa and Glenn counties.
One proposal to increase surface water storage is to build the Sites reservoir, in Colusa and Glenn counties. Sacramento Bee file

Hope springs eternal, unlike certain other assets. The California Water Commission was born in a long-ago era, in a hopeful attempt to filter some of the politics out of the state’s most important natural resource.

How that worked will soon be on display, as the agency’s nine commissioners take on the most contentious tasks of implementing the $7.5 billion water bond approved in November: retrofitting the state’s plumbing in a way that will store as much water as possible despite a historic drought.

Managing the ebb and flow of water from Northern California, where most of the precipitation falls, to the San Joaquin Valley and the Southland, where it doesn’t, has always been charged, politically, legally and emotionally.

Now the little-known state agency responsible for divvying up $2.7 billion for water storage projects should brace itself to be swept up in a high-profile tug of war. The hard-sell pitches are coming from two ideologically opposite camps.

On one side are the proponents of building dams or enlarging existing dams, so that surface water can be stored and moved as needed across the state. The wish list includes enlarging Shasta Dam, expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the Contra Costa Water District, or building Sites reservoir, west of the Sacramento River, in Colusa and Glenn counties, among others.

On the other side are those in favor of projects to store water underground, recharging groundwater basins that are rapidly being depleted or cleaning up contaminated aquifers in the Central Valley and the Los Angeles basin. Last year, groundwater made up more than 60 percent of the water used in the state.

Some are pushing the California Water Commission to act quickly, saying the problem has been studied for decades and the need for more storage is now. Others are pointing out that it would take years to construct dams or infrastructure to bank groundwater, and 50 percent of the cost would have to be locally matched.

The commission’s challenge will be to take a broad view of the state’s plumbing system and to develop a strategy for better integrating storage and water transfers into an efficient, statewide network. That must include independent analyses of which surface water and groundwater projects work best in California’s diverse geography and consideration of the impact of climate change on our water supply.

Beyond that, however, the challenge will be to maintain focus. The commission should take a cold and calculated view of which projects pencil out and which ones do not. Some projects will be best suited for Northern California, while others will have more impact in the Central Valley or Southern California.

It’s a daunting task made even more difficult with so much political pressure brought on the independent commission. Recently, 11 members of the Legislature sent a letter to the water commission to fund the construction of reservoirs at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River, and at Sites. In Washington, Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, introduced a bill to speed up feasibility studies for the Sites reservoir.

Thankfully, the water commission is not made up of elected politicians. The issue of storage is already highly politicized, proving to be the most contentious aspect of the water bond. The commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. They bring a wide range of knowledge and views about water issues to the monthly hearings, with expertise in agriculture, the environment, engineering and construction.

But the goals of this commission are a far cry from the original board, which was established in 1945, with Gov. Earl Warren appointing its first member. Back then the board was recommended flood control projects and beneficial uses of water.

With the creation of the Department of Water Resources in 1956, many of the commission’s functions were transferred to DWR as the board came under its purview. In the mid-1960s, the commission was responsible for getting federal money for flood control projects, inspecting the State Water Project and holding public hearings up and down the state.

In the late 1990s, terms of the commission members expired, no appointments were made, and it no longer had a quorum to hold meetings. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revived the commission in 2010, giving it new relevancy with the mission to build dams and help implement an $11.1 billion water bond. But that water bond stalled.

Now Gov. Jerry Brown is planning to appoint three new members, to replace those whose terms expired in January. His choices should be vetted quickly and approved by the Senate. Commission members have a lot of work in front of them as the next chapter of California’s water wars are waged in the first-floor auditorium at the Department of Water Resources on Ninth Street.

Proponents pulling for new dams will argue that with winter rain instead of snow, the state will need more surface water storage to handle runoff as the natural storage of the Sierra snowpack decreases.

Tugging in the opposite direction are those who say the state would get more bang for the buck by investing in groundwater storage. It would cost less than constructing or enlarging dams and the benefits would quickly pay off.

Even with the outlook for another year of severe drought, the commission doesn’t expect to spend huge chunks of money for storage projects until Dec. 15, 2016. Commission members say that’s an aggressive timetable, but they should still do everything they can to accelerate the process.

Given all that’s at stake, and all the hope that Californians placed in the water bond, the water commission needs to get it right.