Rebuttal to LA Times Criticism of the More Water Now Initiative

You can say this for Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Michael Hiltzik, he doesn’t conceal his biases. His description of our attempt to fund water projects to prevent a drought induced water supply crisis in California? He writes: “A majestically cynical ploy being foisted on taxpayers by some of the state’s premier water hogs,” one that is “costly and dishonest,” and will “wreak permanent damage to the state budget and force taxpayers to pay for ecologically destructive and grossly uneconomical dams, reservoirs and desalination plants.”

In his column, published December 2 in the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik presents the same arguments against spending on water infrastructure that have been heard over and over again. By doing this, Hiltzik provides a useful checklist against which to express the other side of the story.

First of all, are Californians confronting a drought emergency or not? On October 19, Governor Newsom declared the entire state of California to be in a drought emergency. On November 18, the San Jose Water Company, in response to “extreme drought,” imposed water rationing on over a million customers, with strict fines for violations. Back in August, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time in history. The Bureau is imposing mandatory cuts that will eventually affect urban and agricultural consumers in California that depend on water from the Colorado River.

When confronting water shortages this severe, with no end in sight, at what point does it become necessary to invest in “grossly uneconomical” water infrastructure? How much worse do things have to get? One must ask how California’s Water Projects, a sadly neglected engineering marvel, could have ever gotten built, if the mentality that grips today’s critics of water infrastructure investment had been present back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hiltzik asserts this initiative is “being foisted on taxpayers by some of the state’s premier water hogs,” that will “gift growers and dairy ranchers with millions of acre-feet of effectively free water.”

This will come as a surprise to those California farmers that were just notified by the California Department of Water Resources, that for the first time ever, they “won’t get a single drop from the network of waterways in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta other than what’s needed for health and safety.”

Hiltzik claims California’s farm sector has the potential to reduce its overall consumption of water by an additional 22 percent through “more efficient usage.” But to back that up, he cites a study concluded nearly eight years ago, before farmers completed massive investments in water efficiency to cope with the ongoing drought that didn’t end until 2017. California’s farmers now use some of the most water efficient techniques anywhere in the world.

The issue that journalists – and the voters they influence – have to confront honestly is simple: Are Californians prepared to deal with prolonged droughts by subjecting urban and agricultural users to mandatory water rationing? Do Californians believe that conservation alone can deliver an adequate supply of water to cities and farms, or should the state subsidize investments to upgrade and expand water infrastructure?

This is a bipartisan issue. Forcing the California State Legislature to prioritize investment in water infrastructure is not an ideological goal, it’s a pragmatic necessity. Water doesn’t flow Right or Left. With budget surpluses, spending two percent of the state general fund each year on water projects will not impose a new burden on taxpayers. The legitimate function of government is to subsidize public works in order to take pressure off ratepayers, wherever they are, so necessities like water are abundant and affordable.

Solving the Problem

With that in mind, the Water Infrastructure Funding Act is written to eliminate water scarcity in California. It allocates funding, roughly $4 billion per year, until five million acre feet of water is being produced annually by new water projects. To accomplish this goal, an all-of-the-above approach is taken when defining projects eligible for funding.

For example, additional conservation programs are funded to achieve up to 1.0 million acre feet of reduction in use. To achieve the remaining four million acre feet, the potential to reuse wastewater can likely recover another two million acre feet per year. Even environmentalists agree that wastewater reuse is necessary not only to reduce the amount of river water that has to be imported into California’s massive coastal cities, but also to end the discharge of nitrogen rich treated effluent into the ocean.

The cost to achieve the goal of total wastewater reuse flatly contradicts Hiltzik’s accusation that farmers stand to gain the most if this initiative is approved by voters. The cost to upgrade the water treatment plants serving Los Angeles County, combined with the cost to remediate the capacious aquifers in the Los Angeles Basin, easily exceeds $10 billion. Worthy projects like these require state funding.

To reach the ultimate goal of five million acre feet, along with conservation and reuse projects there are the more controversial solutions of reservoirs and desalination. But reservoirs, which will still have to be approved by the California Water Commission, can be off-stream. The proposed Sites Reservoir, if built to its original specifications, would not only yield a half-million acre feet of water per year, but would offer pump-storage to absorb surplus renewable electricity to be discharged every day during peak demand on California’s power grid.

Hiltzik expresses skepticism that new infrastructure can “squeeze an additional 5 million acre-feet out of the stones that are California water sources.” He’s wrong. Most of that five million acre feet can be achieved through conservation and wastewater recycling. But capturing runoff to store in off-stream reservoirs and underground aquifers can reliably deliver the rest, if the requisite infrastructure is built. This is well documented.

An authoritative study issued in 2017 by the Public Policy Research Institute describes so-called “uncaptured water,” which is the surplus runoff, often causing flooding, that occurs every time an atmospheric river hits the state. Quoting from the study, “benefits provided by uncaptured water are above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water.” (italics added). The study goes on to claim that uncaptured water flows through California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta “averaged 11.3 million acre feet [per year] over the 1980–2016 period.”

Surely it is possible to harvest 20 percent of this uncaptured water to store each year in off-stream reservoirs and underground aquifers.

Unsurprisingly, Hiltzik expresses concern about the initiative’s modifications to CEQA and the Coastal Act. But these changes don’t eliminate environmental review, they merely reduce the time required for project approval to a year or two instead of a decade or two. Virtually every water expert among the hundreds we spoke with, agreed that without some environmental regulatory relief, it would be extremely difficult to build new water infrastructure by the time Californians are going to need it.

Journalists – and the voters they influence – are invited to study the full text of the Water Infrastructure Funding Act and consider its inclusion of eligible projects that don’t directly increase California’s supply of water but nonetheless are absolutely essential to the well-being of Californians. Replacing the toxic lead pipes in the LAUSD public schools. Repairing and extending water mains to underserved communities. Restoring riparian habitats – with the accompanying benefit of recharging aquifers – in urban environments. Where are California’s cities and counties going to get this money, if the state doesn’t make it a spending priority?

Investing in infrastructure to guarantee abundant water in California would create tens of thousands of jobs. It would make housing more affordable since homebuilding permits depend on reliable water. It would keep food affordable. It would lower utility bills to consumers and make rationing unnecessary. It would create resilience against climate change and against civil disasters.

Back in 2012, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 685, making California the first state in the nation to legislatively recognize the human right to water. The Water Infrastructure Funding Act will put meaning to that legislation, benefiting people and the environment.

To learn more about the progress of this game changing initiative, visit the website

This article was originally published on the website of the More Water Now campaign.

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