Monday, May 20, 2024

Patchwork Fixes Can’t Hold Water Or Serve California


To weather extended and intensifying droughts we have experienced, and that we know are likely just around the bend again, we need to seriously bulk up our capacity to better handle the periodic abundance of intense rainfall, such as last month’s storms.

Updating infrastructure to capture and store excess flows is essential to long-term system resiliency. This can occur through wise land stewardship and regional projects along the way before fast-moving water gets to the bottom of the conveyance system. One major reality, though, is that the big events in California are so flashy, and generate such vast amounts of runoff in so short a time, that the enormous bathtub formed by mountains girding California’s Central Valley inevitably just funnels uncaptured flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the Pacific Ocean.

“Water Parking Lot”

Aging 1950s- and 1960s-era state and federal project pumps in the south Delta are capable of skimming off at least a fraction of this water and, in a reasonably good year, sending it south to a water parking lot of sorts: the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. From there, state and federal project water, stored from a handful of brief intense winter storms and spring snowmelt, can be later allocated to farmland in the south valley and to millions of residents in Southern California.

However, in recent years first-ever back-to-back zero or near-zero water allocations revealed that this system — built decades ago for another era — has become alarmingly unreliable, and such chronic water scarcity is no longer just a drought-year phenomenon. Seeking to address this problem, California has offered multiple iterations of a proposed Delta conveyance project. A 40-mile underground tunnel is conceived as a means to bypass biological and regulatory issues related to diverting Sacramento River water under or around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary. This project has faced environmental lawsuits, planning and permitting hurdles and opposition from water users and communities in the mostly agricultural delta, which relies on freshwater flowing downstream to push back saltwater from the San Francisco Bay.

Floodwaters overflow the Colusa Weir on the Sacramento River on Jan. 12. California’s water infrastructure was ill-equipped to capture abundant rainfall from the atmospheric river storms.

Though proposed to counteract significant current and future water-supply losses, the delta conveyance plan does not propose to add water above former historic levels of reliability. It also does not address serious emerging stresses on another major California water source: the Colorado River. Another project, the proposed Sites Reservoir, 100 miles north of Sacramento, could add about a half million acre-feet of new supply a year, but that project is years from completion. Desalination and recycled water are other options. Yet, even with all of that, California would still have a large and growing gap in its statewide water portfolio.

Meanwhile, the California State Water Resources Control Board aggressively continues to push mandated “unimpaired flows” for the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in an economically harmful policy that removes millions of acre-feet of water from agricultural use. And the staged rollout of California’s Sustainability Groundwater Management Act is putting a major squeeze on historically groundwater-supported agriculture.

Struggling to fill the enormous California water-supply hole is an emerging patchwork quilt of potential interconnected smaller-scale fixes. These include proposed regional groundwater projects and some intriguing new ideas on ways to safely and cost effectively capture excess delta flows to bank more wet-year supplies in the South Valley. Unfortunately, most such proposals are years away. And existing permitting processes for badly needed groundwater recharge are inefficient, expensive, uncertain and ill suited to capture excess flood flows on a scale needed when water is in abundance.

It leaves us, again, stuck in a zero-sum world, one major flood or drought away from the next major disaster or major missed opportunity for enhancing California’s water supply.

It’s no way to run the 5th largest economy in the world — or stock America’s produce aisles and sustain one of the world’s great food producing regions. The epic flooding this year, on the heels of the last three years of drought, should be an obvious wake-up call. This is what nature has in store for us, and so we need to work with it. We need to match our system to the boom-bust rhythm of California’s climate to secure our water resources. We need to be bold and envision possibilities instead of limits.

In the face of historic water-supply challenges, California  needs to get serious on a viable set of solutions for the entire state. Either that, or we continue our slide down the unproductive path of chronic water shortages, constant conflict and slow economic decline.

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