Does California Need More Surface Water Storage?
According to political debate and the popular press, the purpose of adding surface water storage reservoirs to California’s existing system is to provide water for urban growth and agricultural crops. But that viewpoint touches only the surface of a more complex policy and operations issue spelled out in the CALFED Record of Decision (ROD): the need to expand storage capacity to increase the existing system’s flexibility, improve water quality and provide water for fish, as well as meet the needs of a growing population.
Although the ROD was intended to provide the blueprint for a new approach to managing the Bay-Delta system, one piece continues to invite much debate among stakeholders three years after it was adopted – construction of new surface storage projects. With CALFED studies underway on five potential projects, the question of whether to add to the network of dams, reservoirs and canals that already crisscross the state has taken on powerful symbolic meaning to the California water triad: agricultural, environmental and urban water interests.
Agricultural water stakeholders are the biggest proponents of building new surface storage – voicing strong support for the new Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley or an additional reservoir on the San Joaquin River. In recent weeks, the agricultural community, backed by some members of Congress, seems more determined than ever that a surface project must be built to prove that the CALFED solution is implemented in a balanced manner.
“Within the Central Valley Project community, the CVPIA took 1.3 million acre-feet of water away, mostly from farmers within the San Joaquin Valley, as a result of pumping restrictions imposed by regulators to provide the 800,000 acre-feet of water dedicated to the environment [and other CVPIA measures],” said Robert Stackhouse, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association (CVPWA). “We see that 1.3 million acre-feet as needing to be made up. Unfortunately, the agricultural community continues to be seen as the reservoir that everyone is trying to tap to meet additional needs.”
Environmental groups, on the other hand, remain skeptical that any new surface water reservoirs are needed. To boost supplies, they first favor more groundwater banking, water use efficiency and water transfers, pushing hard to fund water conservation and recycling projects. For a new surface storage project to move forward, they say there must be strong evidence that it will not cause too much environmental damage; and that the “beneficiary pays” concept of CALFED is followed, with users, not the state or federal governments, financing the new project.
“The issue is not that under no circumstances could a new storage facility be expected, but there is a very high threshold,” said Gary Bobker, program director at The Bay Institute of San Francisco. “Dams have a much bigger environmental footprint than any other facility. They have site impacts and downstream impacts. We’re not building your father’s dams, true, but even with offstream storage, you’re moving it off the main stream, but you’re moving it onto a tributary, and you are destroying habitat.”
When it comes to the CALFED storage proposals, urban users say it is the flexibility of the system that is at stake – not building new reservoirs to satisfy new growth – and supplying water for things such as fish flows and to improve water quality.
“To get to the right public policy decision – do we need more surface storage – we need to get to the right debate. And we’re not having the right debate right now,” said Tim Quinn, vice president of State Water Project (SWP) issues for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD.) “Some people still talk like we need storage because the urban population is growing. The fact is that no major urban water supplier is counting on these CALFED surface storage projects to meet new demand. We’re still having the fight of old.”
Nowhere is that fight of old more evident than in Congress where Californians on both sides of the aisle have introduced competing CALFED authorization/funding bills amid the continuing debate over the role of new storage, with those elected officials who favor new storage citing the state’s expected population growth as the reason.
The continued congressional stalemate coincides with release of Water 2025, the Department of the Interior’s new blueprint aimed at predicting, preventing and alleviating water crises in the West. Water 2025 acknowledges that the region will have a difficult time meeting new water demands, but emphasizes that agricultural and urban water users need to conserve water, store water underground and transfer water rather than count on new surface storage – at least not new federally funded surface storage. “Water 2025 doesn’t say there will be no new storage,” Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said at the July 10 Water 2025 hearing in Sacramento. “But, there are not a lot of federal dollars for new storage. California and the locals may decide to fund new storage.”
Given California’s record budget deficit, the Water 2025 message has left the state’s water stakeholder community wondering how any of the surface storage projects identified in the CALFED ROD will be built. Local funding is not impossible; Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) and MWD both built new offstream reservoirs with no state or federal financing. But so far, no one has stepped up to the plate with an offer to foot the bill for a new Sites Reservoir or a larger Shasta Dam. And the one privately developed storage proposal, Delta Wetlands, is now studying with state and federal agencies whether to complete the project in public ownership.
“I think the key question will be, ‘Is anyone willing to pay for these new storage facilities’?” said Gerald Meral, president of the Planning and Conservation League Foundation and co-chair of the Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee’s (BDPAC) Water Supply Subcommittee. He added that he is “doubtful anyone wants to pay for any of that big storage.”
Quinn is more confident. “A meritorious project can get funded and will get built,” he said. Emphasizing that urban water users are firm believers that “beneficiaries should pay,” he said patience is needed in order to demonstrate that whatever project is chosen, that it can and will benefit public values such as the Environmental Water Account (EWA). “The public will help pay for a proposal,” he said. “It will not be all water user fees.”
The question of beneficiary pays and the different views among stakeholder groups over the value of storage rests in some part on the issue of establishing a baseline for how much water the state’s system should have for different uses. Many within the water community want new projects to be built to reinstate surface supplies allocated to the environment through the Endangered Species Act, CVP Improvement Act and the Bay-Delta Accord. Environmentalists want to go forward with today’s water supply as the baseline; viewing additional supplies as necessary for restoration – not mitigation, which could provide a stronger argument for the use of public funds from the state and/or federal governments.
Moving people away from their historic yes or no positions on new surface storage to an honest evaluation of the scientific and engineering pros and cons of five potential projects is the unenviable task facing CALFED, the state-federal-stakeholder consortium working to implement a collaborative vision for Delta environmental and water supply reliability improvements. The projects under study: raising Shasta Dam, creating in-Delta storage, expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir, constructing Sites Reservoir and expanding storage on the San Joaquin River system.
“The most difficult thing about evaluating these projects is that people think which one supplies the most water at the least cost is the most important factor,” said Mark Cowin. Cowin is chief of the Division of Planning and Local Assistance at the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and oversees CALFED’s water storage studies for the state. “But the value of a particular project may be beyond the formula of the most acre feet for the least cost to include such things as when can water be diverted into and released from the project, how it can improve water quality and what it can do to improve the flexibility of other water project operations.”
New surface storage aside, water users say the issue of conveyance is as important, if not more important, than the question of which, if any, CALFED project to build. Exporting water from the Delta is a major issue in the overall success of any new storage project – above or below ground. Moving water to and through the existing system may give one or more of these proposed projects an edge.
“All of these CALFED elements need to work in synergy,” said Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), and co-chair of BDPAC’s Water Supply Subcommittee. “In order for new surface storage to work to its optimum, you have to improve conveyance through the Delta and increase the [SWP's] Banks pumping capacity to 8,500 cubic feet per second. And unless you improve conveyance through the Delta and build additional storage you can’t optimize groundwater banking, water transfers and water recycling.”
This issue of Western Water explores the question of whether the state needs more surface storage, with a particular focus on the five proposed projects identified in the CALFED 2000 ROD and the politics and funding issues of these projects.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the September/October 2003 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
We just returned from our stakeholder Colorado River Symposium held at The Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M, site of the 1922 seven-state negotiations that resulted in the Colorado River Compact that divided the river between the Upper and Lower Basins. While we were holding these biennial symposium discussions, negotiations – hopefully final – simultaneously were being held to settle the Quantification Settlement Agreement (see In the News).
The spirit of the original Colorado River Compact negotiators cast a long shadow on the present negotiations. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs edited the original transcripts from the 27 negotiations in Washington, D.C., and Santa Fe, presided over by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The summarized discussions were then presented to participants in a docudrama in which current players on the Colorado River undertook the 1922 roles. The drama was our attempt to show current stakeholders that the negotiations of 1922 were every bit as difficult as today’s deal making on the river.
One thing the 1922 negotiators could not know about is global warming. Changing conditions in California’s climate will be the subject of a special Foundation-sponsored and organized Nov. 6 conference in Sacramento. See What’s New for more information. There’s even an on-line registration form!
Since our tours are so popular, I wanted to give you the chance to mark your calendars for next year’s dates also you can find more information regarding our tours on our Water Tours page.
WEF 2004 Water Tours Calendar
- March 24-26 Lower Colorado River Tour
- May 12-14 Central Valley Tour
- June 16-18 Bay-Delta Tour
- September 15-17 Northern California Tour
- October 6-8 Southern California Tour
In the News
Peace in Our Time on the Colorado River?
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) was the first of California’s four Colorado River agencies to sign the on-again, off-again Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA). MWD’s Board of Directors Sept. 23 vote sent a strong signal that the QSA was on its way to approval as this issue of Western Water went to press. Coachella Valley Water District followed suit Sept. 24 and San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) is expected to soon follow their lead, but still, uncertainties remained just below the surface.
Those uncertainties surround a dispute between Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the Department of the Interior (Interior) over future reviews by Interior of IID’s beneficial use of water. IID, which holds rights to 3.1 million acre-feet per year of Colorado River water, wants a guarantee as part of the QSA that the federal government will not again invoke the “beneficial use” rule to curtail IID’s allocation. In August, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Regional Office concluded a beneficial use determination process (a Part 417 proceeding) by reducing IID’s 2003 allocation to 2.8 million acre-feet, recommending IID farmers adopt more efficient irrigation practices.
IID officials held a public hearing on the proposed QSA Sept. 23. As reported in the Sept. 24 Imperial Valley Press, although the document has provisions related to IID’s reasonable and beneficial use of water, it does not contain language IID wanted that would have Interior lay aside the lawsuit IID filed when its water was reduced. Because of this, IID Board Member Stella Mendoza told the paper she would not support the QSA.
The dispute between IID and Interior surfaced just as the state Legislature sent Gov. Gray Davis a three-bill QSA package Sept. 11. A flurry of negotiations followed, including discussions among the California parties, federal government and other Colorado River Basin states at the Foundation’s Sept. 17-19 Colorado River Symposium, held in Santa Fe, N.M., site of the signing of the 1922 interstate compact that divided the river.
The four water districts involved in the QSA have until Oct. 12 to approve it. Several other parties, including California, six other states, and the federal government, also must sign the deal by that date.
Richard Katz, a member of the California State Water Resources Control Board and Davis’ chief negotiator on the QSA, said Davis will sign the three QSA bills. One, SB 317 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, allows for incidental take of endangered species in the Salton Sea region if IID agrees to transfer 1.6 million acre-feet from its Colorado River allocation over 15 years to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Part of that water, up to 200,000 acre-feet per year, would be transferred to SDCWA via MWD’s conveyance facilities. DWR would pay IID $175 per acre-foot for the water, but sell it to MWD for $250 per acre-foot, using the “profit” to pay for projects to improve the Salton Sea environment.
The Salton Sea became a sticking point in the last QSA, which was rejected by IID in December 2002 amid concerns the district could be held liable for environmental damage to the Sea. Another bill in the package, SB 277 by Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, creates a $300 million fund to restore the Salton Sea ecosystem. The third bill, SB 654 by Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, makes the state responsible for restoring the Salton Sea and creates a joint powers authority to oversee Salton Sea restoration.