shasta dam

Water Projects Funding Must Emphasize Storage

Taylor Hillman Water

Water Projects
A variety of applications will likely be submitted to secure funding for water projects from the water bond that passed in 2014. Although diversifying California’s water portfolio may be a good philosophy, some water leaders say added storage must be a key component.

The California Water Commission is officially accepting applications for water projects that seek some of the funding from Proposition 1 that passed in 2014. The bill allocated funding for future water projects that would strengthen and update an old and ailing water infrastructure. “California’s surface-water infrastructure really hasn’t been upgraded since the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, depending on what project you are looking at,” California Water Alliance Executive Director Aubrey Bettencourt said. “The original water system, if you talk to some historians, they will tell you it was never completed.”

The system was originally designed for two users: cities and agriculture. Bettencourt said a third user was added during the 1970s. “That third straw, government-mandated environmental protection programs, has become the biggest user. It requires exactly 50 percent of the surface-water supply designated for these programs,” she said.

The last time the water system was upgraded, California’s population was approximately 25,000,000 people; it’s now almost 40,000,000. Bettencourt said the combination of an old system, a third surface-water user and an increase in population means there is a need for a “massive system upgrade.”

It has been 28 months since the water bond allocated money for water projects. The language in the bill stated applications for projects would not be accepted until over two years later, in December 2016. The recent call for applications is about three months behind that schedule, which Bettencourt says is bittersweet.

“We have known this for a very long time. We have seen this coming, and we know the level of upgrade we need to do,” Bettencourt said. “We passed a water bond back in 2014. But we also knew that part of that deal was that it was going to be almost three to four years before a shovel hit dirt … They are not even allowed to issue funding for those projects until December of 2017.”

Since the passage of the bill, many storage projects have been publicly discussed. Many believed during the recent drought period that water strains could have been eased slightly if the state was able to capture and store more water during years that saw above-average rain and snow. “We already know, because these are projects that have been in the works for almost 40 years, that there are a couple of major surface-water projects, including Sites Reservoir up in Sites Valley in the Sacramento area,” Bettencourt said. “There is also the Temperance Flat Reservoir, which would be a dam within a dam at Millerton Lake on the San Joaquin, which would increase the surface supply there exponentially as well. And then you’re also going to see proposals for raising Los Vaqueros Reservoir submitted.”

Other projects, besides additional water storage, can and likely will be submitted as well. Bettencourt said the language in the bill says the first priorities the commission must consider for projects is their ecosystem impact and their benefit specifically to the Delta well. Other projects could include water recycling, water capture and groundwater storage. Bettencourt said there could be a wide variety of proposals.

“Based on some of the letters I have seen going out over the last two years to the commission, even from food processors who are looking at the chunk of money to go toward water recycling projects to go on plants, there could be a lot of diversity in the projects that apply for funding,” Bettencourt said. She added that after the Oroville dam crisis, there is talk about that funding just going toward maintenance of existing facilities.

Bettencourt also agrees that recycling and conservation are good techniques for California to develop and practice, but she said in order to do that you have to have something to start with. “The cliché is diversify your water portfolio. You don’t want to be solely reliant on one source of water,” she said. “At the same time though, if you want to conserve and recycle, you have to have something to conserve and recycle. A key component of that by nature in California is our surface water and our snow melt. The only way to have that and capture that is to have storage that facilitates capturing and moving that water to places where it’s needed.”