Borrowing a page from the More Water Now campaign, which unsuccessfully attempted earlier this year to qualify a water funding initiative for the November 2022 ballot, Governor Newsom announced a new water supply strategy on August 11.
Perhaps with the presidency in mind, or perhaps because he really means it, Newsom’s remarks were surprisingly accommodating towards those of us who have been fighting for more water supply infrastructure.
For example, Newsom said “We have a renewed sense of urgency to address this issue head on, but we do so from a multiplicity of perspectives and ways. Not just from a scarcity mindset – so much of the water conversation in this state has been about conservation – but that is a relatively small component of the overall strategy we are introducing here today. What we are focusing on is creating more water, moving away from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance.”
This shift in emphasis, if it is genuine, cannot come a moment too soon. Over the past decade, total water diversions for cities, farms, and to maintain ecosystems totaled 75 million acre feet per year. Every primary source for all this water is imperiled.
California’s reservoirs, most of which are in-stream, cannot be used to store water from early season storms, such as the deluge that fell in December 2021. If early season storms are allowed to fill these reservoirs, should a late-season storm hit the state, there would be no reservoir capacity left to buffer the runoff and prevent flooding. But during droughts, when an adequate Sierra snowpack fails to develop in order to deliver snowmelt well into the summer months, and no late-season rainstorms inundate the state, summer arrives and the reservoirs are empty.
Groundwater pumping, averaging 18.7 million acre-feet per year, has withdrawn water faster than it can be replenished with percolating runoff. To restore aquifers as a sustainable source of water storage and supply, from now on total annual withdrawals are going to need to be less than the annual amount of natural recharge.
The water California imports via the Colorado Aqueduct, nearly 5 million acre-feet per year, depends on Colorado River runoff that is stored in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are both at lower levels than they’ve been since those massive reservoirs were first built and filled up.
This is a serious but manageable problem. Save more water in the reservoirs. Change the rules so farmers can sell to urban water agencies their water allocations during drought years without losing their permanent water rights. And build more water supply infrastructure.
Newsom’s just released water supply strategy describes how the projects he’s proposing will create “about 7 million acre feet” of new water per year, but analysis shows that’s not quite true.
The biggest part of Newsom’s new water strategy is to “expand storage above and below ground.” This accounts for 4 million acre feet out of the 7 million acre feet total. But this is misleading, as noted in the footnote on page 3 of the 16 page document, which reads, “Additional storage capacity does not equate to a similar volume of new water supply.”
Indeed it does not. Reservoirs are never completely emptied, and, especially in the case of in-stream reservoirs, they are rarely filled to capacity. As for below-ground storage in aquifers, they can only fill slowly through large spreading basins to capture floodwater in rural areas or via percolation ponds in urban areas, which means water can only be withdrawn from them at the rate water can be injected into them. The so-called “yield” of reservoirs and aquifers is usually, at best, only about one-third of their total storage capacity. These storage projects therefore will not contribute 4 million acre feet per year, but are more likely to add around 1.5 million acre feet.
Nonetheless, if Newsom can pull off these storage projects it will be a huge accomplishment. But how?
The centerpiece of these storage projects is the proposed Sites Reservoir, an off-stream colossus to be built in a dry valley west of the Sacramento River and north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Sites proposal has endured relentless attacks by environmentalists. To appease them, the design has already been downsized from 2 million acre feet of capacity to 1.5 million acre feet. Will Sites ever get built? What about the proposed Pacheco Reservoir, a desperately needed backup to Anderson Reservoir, essential to guarantee water security to the southern counties in the San Francisco Bay Area? Environmentalists have declared war on these projects, and in California, environmentalists always win.
Newsom’s plan also calls for a doubling of the state’s desalination capacity, adding another 84,000 acre feet per year. First of all, this is a pittance. And most of the existing desalination in California comes from just one source, the Carlsbad desalination plant, which delivers 55,000 acre feet of fresh water per year from the ocean just north of San Diego.
This past May, the California Coastal Commission denied approval to build a similar large plant—after making the contractor spend over 20 years and over $100 million on permit fees and engineering submittals. After this costly setback, it is unlikely any contractor will ever again apply to build a large scale desalination plant in California.
Despite its potential to be a game changer, desalination will never add more than a small fraction of the water California needs, and nothing Newsom’s doing is trying to change that.
Newsom, to his credit, expressed exasperation that environmentalist regulations have prevented as many good projects from getting built as bad ones. Does he mean it? Here’s what he said:
“The time to get these projects completed is ridiculous. Permits take years. One of the principles of this plan is to change our permitting, address the regulatory thickets to fast track these projects, and move things forward.”
The only other significant elements of Newsom’s plan are to increase urban wastewater recycling capacity, a relatively uncontroversial idea that could add a substantial 1.8 million acre feet to California’s annual water supply, and, no surprise here, another 500,000 acre feet of water savings per year via even more urban water conservation.
Altogether, Newsom’s water supply strategy will not add 7 million acre feet of annual new water. If every proposed storage facility is built, and the proposed water recycling and desalination projects are also all eventually completed, it will add about half that much.
It is premature to be cynical about this plan. But making it happen will require unprecedented compromises from California’s powerful environmentalist lobby. Here are some questions for Governor Newsom:
Are you prepared to demand revisions to the Coastal Act to fast track desalination plants at a scale that will actually make a meaningful contribution to California’s urban water supply?
Will you to fire your appointees to the Coastal Commission who vote against desalination plants?
How do you intend to revise CEQA so it can no longer be used to delay or completely derail water infrastructure proposals?
Recognizing that off-stream reservoirs are capable of storing flood water from early season storms, unlike in-stream reservoirs, are you going to use your executive authority to fund and fast-track construction of the proposed Sites Reservoir, Pacheco Reservoir, Los Padres Reservoir, and others?
Are you willing to use your executive authority to fund and fast-track the rehabilitation of the Anderson Reservoir, and the seismic retrofit and expansion of the San Luis Reservoir?
What do you intend to do to repair the California Aqueduct, the Delta Mendota Aqueduct, and the Friant-Kern Canal, in order to restore their full capacity to deliver water to agricultural and urban water agencies?
It will cost about $20 billion to build the capacity to recycle all of California’s urban wastewater. Are you ready to spend this money? Are you making sure the direct potable reuse standards will be complete early next year as promised, so cities can inject treated water right back into the water mains, and aren’t forced to build costly pipe systems to deliver treated water to aquifers?
Will you not only fight and win the battle to keep Diablo Canyon open, but also build new reactors, so Californians can have ample electric power for purposes that would include the power necessary to treat urban wastewater, desalinate seawater, and pump water to consumers?
When it comes to water supply strategy in California, these are just a few of the tough questions. We may hope Governor Newsom is prepared to go out on a limb to answer them all in the affirmative. It may even help him in his inevitable campaign for U.S. president. But so far, all we have are somewhat encouraging words and yet to be implemented half-measures.
This article originally appeared in the California Globe.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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