Taking Back California – Part Five, Abundant Water

If energy powers modern civilization, then water gives it life. And in California, for at least the last 20 years, with escalating severity, life has been tough. There isn’t enough water to go around. But as with energy, the water shortages in California are largely the product of political choices. And as with energy, this presents an opportunity for politicians willing to present voters with alternatives.

California’s chronic water shortages aren’t happening because droughts have become more severe, although that is part of the cause. But the main reason there is water scarcity is because Californians have been relying on a water supply infrastructure that was largely completed more than 50 years ago, when the state’s population was half what it is today. Since then, investment in water infrastructure has been neglected at the same time as environmentalists have demanded increasing percentages of water remain in the rivers as “unimpaired flow.” In response, rationing has been the tool of choice to allocate what water supplies remain available for the state’s farms and cities.

When designing policy alternatives to rationing, the first thing to understand is that California’s cities don’t use very much water compared with other uses. On average, the state’s water supply systems divert 75 million acre feet of water from rivers and aquifers, and only around 10 percent of that is used for urban consumption. Moreover, residential water use only accounts for about 6.5 percent of total water diversions in California, or just around 5 million acre feet per year. And of that, 3 million acre feet of that is for interior water use, all of which could be recycled and reused. As for residential outdoor water use, a mere 2 million acre feet per year, this water percolates to help recharge urban aquifers and to irrigate urban landscaping, which helps absorb and filter runoff during storms.

New policies and more investment in water are required, not only because Californians have neglected to maintain and upgrade their water supply infrastructure, even as their population has doubled since the 1970s. Californians are also are going to need more water because they’re losing Colorado River water. For the last 20 years, 15 million acre feet per year was being taken out of Lake Powell and Lake Mead to be diverted to farms and cities in the Southwest—primarily Nevada, Arizona, and California—and on average, only 12 million acre feet a year was going back in thanks to a prolonged drought affecting the entire watershed. So those lakes are almost empty.

Californians also need more water supply infrastructure because the combination of droughts and continuously escalating requirements for water to be released from dams to maintain aquatic ecosystem health has led farmers to withdraw far more groundwater then is naturally replenished. Over the past several years, an estimated 16 million acre feet per year has been pumped out of California’s aquifers, leaving many of them dangerously depleted. Between droughts, the draining of Colorado River reservoirs, and depleted groundwater, Californians are going to have to find a source for millions of acre feet per year of new water; most estimates range around 5 million acre feet per year. Getting all of that via conservation will lead to urban water rationing and major reductions in irrigated farm acreage.

The good news is that California is uniquely positioned among the states in the American Southwest to get more water. The state has an 840 mile border with the Pacific Ocean so they can build desalination plants. Even in dry years, California is pummeled with so-called atmospheric rivers that hit the Sierras and dump tens of millions of acre feet onto the high-altitude snowpacks and down the rivers into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Californians have the potential to solve water scarcity for the entire Southwest if we properly harvest water in this state.

What is needed, just as with energy, is an all-of-the-above strategy to develop new water supplies. Conservation is not enough, mostly because the state has already taken most reasonable measures. California’s farmers have doubled their productivity per unit of water over the past 30 years while using the same total amount of water. They were using about 30 million acre feet per year back in the 90s, and they’re still only using 30 million acre feet.

The same impressive achievements in conservation have been made in California’s cities, where total water use per year has dropped from 9 million acre feet in the 1990s to 7.5 million acre feet today. The last time California’s urban water consumption was only 7.5 million acre feet was in 1989, when only 29 million people lived there. Today there are 39 million Californians. People have become extremely good at conserving water in California.

The question we should be asking is: how much does even more conservation cost in terms of money and consumer inconvenience when permanent new supplies of water are attainable and might actually cost less? How many people are truly satisfied with new washing machines that take an hour and a half to complete a wash cycle? This is inconvenient. After a long day at work, people want to get the wash done before 9 p.m. And why are we calling appliances like this the last mile of conservation for interior water use when we can recycle all of our interior water?

Where to Find Additional Millions of Acre Feet

There are three big solutions to delivering more water to Californians that sort of go together: more capacity to divert storm runoff from the Delta, more off-stream reservoirs, and more aquifer recharge. All three of these depend on harvesting water from atmospheric rivers; that’s when there’s so much rain coming down that the concern is no longer making sure ecosystems are getting an adequate pulse but rather that flooding needs to be controlled. It’s during these events that we could, if the capacity was there, harvest and store millions of additional acre feet per year, if not tens of millions of acre feet in very wet years.

Another large-scale possibility for more water supply is to recycle urban wastewater. Of the roughly 2 million acre feet per year of urban wastewater that is treated in California’s coastal cities, only about 25 percent of it so far is treated and reused. The rest is treated and discharged into the Pacific Ocean or the San Francisco Bay and its estuaries. Getting the rest of this wastewater treated and reused would not only deliver more than a million acre feet of new water to California’s coastal cities, but it would also solve the problem of nitrogen pollution, which even in treated water is currently being dumped into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. In both cases, but especially in the Bay and Delta, this nutrient-rich outfall has nurtured algae blooms that kill fish and create dead zones. Investing in wastewater reuse would increase California’s water supply, but it would also rescue these ecosystems.

Not mentioned yet is urban runoff harvesting. This is an interesting topic: right before the crucial vote to approve or deny the Huntington Beach desalination plant, the Pacific Institute, an environmentalist think tank, put out a study claiming that Californians can get up to 3 million acre feet a year from urban storm runoff.  The way they came up with that amount was by compiling data over several years to determine how many inches of rain falls in urban areas, and then by overlaying that data onto a geographic grid, they calculated the total acre feet of runoff in each metropolitan region in the average wet year and the average dry year.

The timing of this study may have been to convey the idea that if we need more water, desalination is not the easiest choice. But it failed to take into consideration the practical engineering challenge of harvesting water during a severe downpour. For example, in the Los Angeles Basin, you only have 30 miles from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Long Beach Channel and if you get 14 inches of rain in a single day, you can’t possibly get that torrent into storage. Most of it will go into the ocean. The study also ignored the necessity to not only harvest and store storm runoff but to then treat it to usable standards. Consider this excerpt from Los Angeles Waterkeeper, “LA’s water watchdog,”  describing exactly what happens during a major storm:

“In Los Angeles, our concretized LA River and all its tributaries turn into the city’s largest sewer, carrying pesticides and herbicides from our homes, oils, and grease from our roads, heavy metals and other toxins from Los Angeles’ businesses, and trash, bacteria, and other contaminants from local communities straight into our waterways.”

That’s quite a spew. In Orange County, runoff travels over less mileage of contaminated surfaces on its way to aquifer storage, and those contaminants are filtered as they percolate, diluted within the aquifer, then treated again when pumped up for use. Many of the aquifers in the Los Angeles Basin, on the other hand, are contaminated. To cope with this, the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power has begun groundwater remediation with the ultimate goal of relying on these massive aquifers to store millions of acre feet of imported water, recycled wastewater and storm runoff. In the meantime, long-standing efforts are now accelerating to “unpave” the city, especially upstream, where the runoff doesn’t hit as many surface contaminants.

Taking these mitigating factors into account, it is nonetheless reasonable to assume that at least an additional half-million acre feet of urban storm runoff can be harvested, stored, treated and used by California’s cities. There are all kinds of mid-scale projects already underway to accomplish this. For example, the Los Angeles River tributaries are now being supplemented with percolation basins to recharge aquifers. From existing plans, they expect these projects to harvest an additional 250,000 acre feet per year.

Desalination has already been proven successful in San Diego, where the Carlsbad plant produces 50,000 acre feet of fresh water per year. The plant that was proposed in Huntington Beach would have added another 50,000 acre feet to that total, but was rejected by the California Coastal Commission in 2022 in a 12-0 vote. This denial came after the contractor spent more than $100 million on engineering, permits, lobbying, public relations, and defending against litigation. Even Governor Newsom supported the project, although it isn’t clear he fought hard to sway members of the Coastal Commission.

California is the most expensive place in the world to build a desalination plant. The Carlsbad plant cost more than $1 billion, and adjusting for inflation, the proposed Huntington Beach plant was estimated to cost roughly the same amount. Other nations can build these plants for less than half the cost per unit of capacity. In this regard, desalination suffers the same financial uphill battle as nuclear power plants: construction costs are grossly inflated due to overregulation and litigation. Since the price of water and power is largely determined by the amount that recovery of construction costs add to the bills sent to consumers every month, desalination and nuclear solutions are derided by critics as too expensive. But that expense is mostly a political choice, not an engineering reality.

A Tremendous Opportunity to Increase California’s Water Supply

There is a proposal to get water out of the Delta that doesn’t require an underground tunnel, nor does it require allegedly destructive pumping into southbound aqueducts. A coalition of farmers, water agencies and cities in the San Joaquin Valley propose to cut a couple of channels into existing Delta Islands where the ground level is below the level of the water in the channels and bury perforated collection pipes under a gravel-filled infiltration bed on the bottom of the channels. They claim that this system can collect 15,000 acre feet per day from a 200 acre channel. This is a fish-friendly way to collect water because the channels are open at both ends and there are no pumps to trap the fish.

The potential of this innovation is best understood by considering how much so-called “uncaptured water” flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta every winter and spring. According to data compiled by the Public Policy Research Institute, the average amount of uncaptured water over the past 25 years has been in excess of 10 million acre feet per year. In the very wet winter of 2022-23, more than 25 million acre feet flowed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Just pulling another 20 or 30 percent of this excess water out using these fish-friendly diversion channels and storing it in the vast underground aquifers of the San Joaquin Valley would transform California’s water supply equilibrium.

Another argument in favor of this project is its estimated construction cost, which, at $5 billion, is by far the lowest capital cost per unit of new water supply. But there are additional projects to increase California’s supply of water that are urgently needed. Surface storage is required to provide enhanced flood control, hydroelectric power, the ability to release water into the rivers on demand, and, in some cases, to bring water storage closer to water consumers.

There are at least five reservoirs that have been planned for decades and ought to have been completed by now. Three of them are merely slow to come to fruition and grossly overpriced, thanks to years of litigation and countless demands for new engineering and environmental studies.

The Sites Reservoir, located in Colusa County, has been proposed and in the works for 70 years, and construction may finally begin in the next year or two. The Sites Reservoir is supposed to be a twin to the San Luis Reservoir, which provides up to 2 million acre feet of off-stream storage. This means it is mostly filled up not through natural runoff in its watershed but with water pumped in from the aqueducts south of the Delta. San Luis also stores electricity through so-called pump storage. Water is pumped from the aqueduct into the O’Neill Forebay and then during full sun, when surplus power is bursting out of our solar farms all over the state, they use that cheap electricity to pump the water into the San Luis reservoir. During peak demand, starting around 5 p.m., they release it and generate 450 megawatts for several hours. This is repeated daily.

Pump storage was originally intended for the Sites Reservoir project, but despite being a tremendous opportunity, the reservoir was downsized to 1.5 million acre feet of capacity and pump storage was not included in the final design.

To help California’s endangered salmon, you have to raise the Shasta Dam. Current plans, for which the engineering is complete, call for an 18-foot raise, adding 600,000 acre feet of capacity. Because Shasta is a deep water reservoir, more water behind the dam means more water is available to cool the Sacramento River whenever salmon are running and the temperature in the water rises higher than 70 degrees.

One project moving forward in the San Francisco Bay Area is the expansion of the Vaquero Reservoir, but the other project, the proposed Pacheco Reservoir in the south bay, will probably never get built despite being badly needed to offer water supply resiliency to the entire Silicon Valley region. Also badly needed south of the Delta is the Temperance Flat Reservoir, approved by voters in 2014 but all but killed by hostile bureaucrats and environmentalists. In the winter of 2022-23, and again in the winter of 2023-24, the Temperance Flat reservoir could have been filled, adding 1.3 million acre feet of storage.

One of the big arguments against Temperance Flat, raising the Shasta Dam, and all surface storage is that they will never fill up because climate change means we’re not going to have any rain anymore. The problem with that logic, of course, is that even if climate change concerns are completely valid, it means we have extreme weather where there may be years with tremendous rain but not much snow, as well as longer droughts. In both cases, having more storage capacity will be essential to maintaining water security.

The Energy and Financial Cost of Water Abundance

As shown in the next chart, it would only take 1.3 gigawatts of baseload electricity to operate this mix of projects to add 5 million acre feet to California’s annual water supply. This is important to understand because we hear as if it is beyond debate that if we produce more water, it’s going to break the energy bank.

We are told that 20 percent of the energy we use in California is for water but this is very misleading. The 20 percent number is roughly accurate, but according to the Public Utility Commission’s own data, 86 percent of that 20 percent is to heat water for residential and industrial use. But getting wholesale water for water operations—that’s the energy necessary for pumping, pre-treatment, and wastewater treatment—is only 14 percent of that 20 percent, which means only 2.8 percent of our total energy use in California is for water operations. In turn, as shown on the chart, this means our wholesale water supply could be greatly increased. Water for landscaping, for example, is not going to break the energy bank.

Greatly increasing the supply of water in California does not need to break the state financially either. The cost estimates on this chart show a mix of projects that would deliver 5 million acre feet per year for an investment of $100 billion. While that sounds like a lot, it is important to compare that estimate to what the state committed to spend back in 1957 when they came up with California’s first state water plan.

Back then, the projected total cost was $12 billion, which is $130 billion in today’s dollars. To put this in perspective, $12 billion was six times the state’s total General Fund budget in that year. If we spent $100 billion on water today—and we wouldn’t spend it in one year—that represents only one-third of our current General Fund budget. They were so serious about water 66 years ago in California that they were able to make a commitment 12 times greater than what it would cost us today to restore water abundance in this state.

Water scarcity is not being forced upon Californians by climate change. Like so many other fundamental challenges Californians must endure—energy scarcity, catastrophic wildfires, and unaffordable housing—the problem is mismanagement. Investment in water and energy infrastructure would increase the supply and lower the cost for energy and water. Investment in the timber industry would restore health to California’s forests at the same time as it would increase the supply and lower the cost for lumber. If all of this happened, the consequence would be a lower cost for three of the most essential variables affecting the price of home construction.

Scarcity of essentials in California is also not caused by a lack of financial wherewithal. Californians have chosen to spend taxpayer revenues on welfare and entitlements, a bureaucracy that could probably be cut in half without sacrificing services. In a different era, California’s state government invested orders of magnitude more funds in energy, water, and transportation infrastructure. In turn, that enabled the private sector to capitalize on low-cost inputs to create jobs that easily paid enough for employees to support families in an economy that had an affordable cost of living.

Ultimately, it is a political choice to impose scarcity on Californians that has created chronic water scarcity, along with scarcity of everything else essential to enabling working families to live with a decent quality of life. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to an environmentalist movement that has become a self-serving industry. But the environmentalist political machine, hiding behind armies of thoroughly indoctrinated activists, itself gives cover to business interests with products and services that depend on environmentalist mandates, to financial special interests that profit from scarcity and asset inflation, and to government bureaucrats that grow their organizations every time another environmentalist regulation has to be enforced.

Californians endure scarcity in order to benefit this powerful political coalition. Environmentalism is a necessary part of any healthy society when it is right-sized and balanced with the needs of people. But in California, it is something entirely else. It has become the tool through which working families are being driven into dependency, as more and more economic and political power is consolidated in the hands of government, corporations, and billionaires.

The solution to water scarcity is easy: build more water supply infrastructure. Fifty years ago, the state’s leadership implemented that solution, needing only a few years to plan and complete projects that today fail to materialize after decades of planning. Californians have not lost their ability to build, and build fast, and they have ample wealth to fund big projects. Those reasons do not explain the paralysis. To achieve water abundance in California, as well as abundance in all things, the real source of the problem must first be recognized.

This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *