Creating Water Abundance in California

“And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.”
Ezekiel 47:9

Water is Life. For as long as there has been civilization, access to water has been an unyielding prerequisite. California is no exception. As its population grew, the state built one of the most remarkable systems of interbasin water transfers in the world. Every year, nearly 40 million acre feet of water is diverted from remote rivers and transported to magnificent coastal cities or used to irrigate rich farmland. But the whole system needs to be upgraded for the 21st century.

Here are some water projects that ought to be moving forward in California:

(1) Desalination at scale: There is only one major desalination plant in California, located just north of San Diego. At a total project cost of just over $1.0 billion, the Carlsbad Desalination Project went into operation in 2015 and desalinates 55 thousand acre feet of water per year. Desalination has the unique virtue of being an inexhaustible supply of fresh water. Every other water source, ultimately, depends on how much rain we get. In combination with wastewater recycling, building several more large desalination plants could enable California’s coastal cities to become nearly independent of imported water. Potential sites for their construction are already available.

New desalination plants could be co-located with existing natural gas power plants on the California coast, or co-locate with Diablo Canyon, or on the site of the former San Onofre nuclear power plant. These power plant sites have infrastructure already constructed that can be repurposed, reducing construction costs. Desalination construction costs about $20,000 per acre foot of annual capacity, which is grossly overpriced, thanks to gross overregulation and incessant litigation. Those excess costs are the result of political choices that the state legislature could fix. Desalination plants are getting built for one-fifth that amount in Israel today.

But even at inflated costs, having secure access to desalinated water would give urban water agencies negotiating leverage when purchasing imported water. And desalination plants can be designed to have a useful life that greatly exceeds the period of time needed to pay off the financing which represents about 70 percent of the annual cost for desalinated water.

The idea that desalination uses too much energy is a myth. It requires 400 megawatts of continuous power to desalinate 1 MAF per year of seawater. This is roughly equivalent to the cost to pump water from Northern California into the coastal cities of Southern California.

(2) Off-stream reservoirs: The virtue of an off-stream reservoir is that it will not block the flow of a natural river with a high dam. Instead, off-stream reservoirs are constructed in arid valleys and flood runoff is pumped into them during storm events. The water is then redirected to farms and cities as needed during the summer months. Here are three badly needed off-stream reservoirs:

The Pacheco Reservoir in Santa Clara County. This proposed reservoir – to be located in a remote valley that is watered by a small stream, but not a major river – will store water from the California Aqueduct for delivery to South SF Bay customers. At an estimated cost of $2.5 billion it will store 140,000 acre feet.

The Sites Reservoir north of the Delta. At an estimated cost of $4.0 billion, this off-stream reservoir will store 1.5 MAF, tapping storm runoff in the Sacramento River. In the proposal stage for decades, this reservoir has secured about half the funding needed for construction, but like all reservoir proposals, remains the target of vigorous opposition from environmentalists.

The Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir. This proposed off-stream reservoir will store 82,000 acre feet of water. It will collect water from the California Aqueduct. Estimated cost $500 million.

(3) Wastewater Recycling Projects: Construction of the proposed Carson water recycling plant in Los Angeles County needs to be fast-tracked, with immediate follow up to construct another one in order to recycle 100 percent of water imported into Los Angeles. At a projected cost of $3.4 billion, the Carson plant is currently planned to recycle 168,000 acre feet of water per year. This is just a fraction of the total available wastewater stream in the Los Angeles Basin.

The problem with treated wastewater, in the Santa Monica Bay and also in the San Francisco Bay, is primarily the negative impact excess nitrogen has on aquatic ecosystems. If all urban wastewater in California as recycled (if it isn’t already), that would add up to nearly 2 million acre feet per year to the water supply, as well as improve the health of aquatic ecosystems.

In Northern California, all of the wastewater recycling plants along the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta need to be upgraded. These urban areas cumulatively are probably contributing nearly one million acre feet per year of treated but nitrogen rich discharge into the San Francisco Bay. Upgrading these plants would not only proportionately reduce the amount of water these cities have to import from the State Water Project, Hetch Hetchy, and elsewhere, but, crucially, these upgrades would improve the water quality in the San Francisco Bay. This in turn would lessen the quantity of floodwater that must currently be allowed to flow through the bay to dilute and wash out the pollution coming from these treatment plants.

The estimated cost to upgrade all urban wastewater plants in California to reusable standards (either irrigation or indirect/direct potable reuse) is $20 billion. I expect the real number is higher. It must be done.

(4) Environmentally Friendly Delta Diversions to San Joaquin Valley Aquifers: An exciting new proposal, the “Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley” is a work-in-progress, authored by a coalition of San Joaquin Valley community leaders. The centerpiece of this proposal is to construct what are essentially gigantic French Drains within channels created inside Delta Islands. By drawing fresh water from perforated pipes situated beneath a gravel bed in these channels, flood water could be safely harvested from the Delta during periods of excess storm runoff. Preliminary plans for this system estimate the cost at $500 million per 200 acre facility. The estimated capacity for two of these facilities would be 2 million acre feet per year or more, at a cost of $1.0 billion.

The Blueprint also relies on construction of a central canal in the San Joaquin Valley to transport water from the harvesting arrays in the Delta to underground storage. Aquifer storage capacity in the San Joaquin Valley is conservatively estimated at 50 million acre feet. The projected cost for this canal, including connections to Friant-Kern, Delta Mendota, and California Aqueduct, as well as facilities to recharge and recover water from the aquifers, is $500 million.

These four projects have the potential to eliminate water scarcity in California forever. If Californians are destined to endure decade long droughts, where there is minimal snow and only a few big storms each year, these projects will ensure that sufficient water is harvested and stored to keep cities and farmland green.

These water projects aren’t the only desirable investments Californians should make to create water abundance. Also needed, for example, are facilities for harvesting urban storm runoff, and provisions to return some of this runoff to reservoir storage to maintain river flows. The Los Angeles River, for example, currently flows year round in the upper urban portion of the river, thanks to three wastewater treatment plants, which once upgraded, will no longer offer perennial outfall.

This evinces another crucial consideration; new water supply infrastructure, and water abundance, is also necessary to maintain ecosystem health. In barely two centuries, a civilization, now 40 million strong, has descended on what had been a nearly empty state. Massive civilization has a massive footprint, and nature in California will never be the same as it once was. Effectively nurturing the natural ecosystems of California requires recognizing they too require artificial, human inputs and human management. Against a backdrop of abundance, why shouldn’t desalinated water flow down a revitalized Los Angeles River? Why shouldn’t water stored in reservoirs guarantee perennial flows in the San Joaquin River?

It is possible to deliver 40 million acre feet per year to California’s cities and farms, while also diverting and releasing additional millions of acre feet every year to sustain flourishing aquatic ecosystems. Investing in water abundance, by upgrading California’s water infrastructure for the 21st century, can make this a reality.

This article originally appeared in Epoch Times.

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