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How Sad! No Amount of Rain or Snow Will Fix California’s Water Woes

GUEST COMMENTARY- It’s sad that for today’s Californians, no amount of rain or snow will be enough to end our state’s chronic water shortfall. Not only does existing lack of storage limit our ability to capture precipitation that falls in California, it also makes it impossible to correctly manage our water supply, now and in the future. 

 

Two thirds of California’s supply of fresh water, the primary source of water for the Central Valley and Southern California, is pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (photo above) and then transferred south via a series of canals and pipelines. There are strict regulations on how much water can be pumped. During dry years the amount allowed is reduced to a comparative trickle, imposing tough conservation measures on Southern California homes and industry and forcing Central Valley farmers to rely on declining groundwater sources just to survive. 

But even in this wet year, our hands are tied when it comes to making use of this abundant rain. River outflows into the Delta are now the highest we’ve seen in years, but the Delta pumps can’t run at full capacity because of regulations to protect the Delta Smelt, a fish species that’s nearly extinct despite decades of efforts and millions of dollars of lost jobs and productivity sacrificed to maintain it. 

Look no further than the state’s largest two reservoirs: Shasta Lake and Oroville. These reservoirs, which were near empty last summer, are nearly full again thanks to heavy March rains in Northern California. Water managers have recently taken action to release this water to make room for a record snowpack that will melt later this spring and summer. 

Much of this water could be stored in new reservoirs or shipped further south to where it’s needed. Instead, the vast majority of it is flowing into the ocean. An estimated 109,000 acre feet of water flow into the Delta each day. Only 4,000 acre feet are pumped south of the Delta to the Central Valley and Southern California. The rest flows into the ocean. It’s estimated that just one acre foot of water will supply a family of six with all the water it needs for a year. 

Equally futile and senseless regulations block innovations to channel our seasonal downpours and recharge our depleted aquifers. Recharging aquifers is akin to depositing money in the bank for hard times ahead. Instead, a host of regulations force billions of gallons of fresh water to flow out to the sea. 

California voters enthusiastically supported a ballot measure to store state revenues ironically named the “Rainy Day Fund.” It’s a shame we can’t do the same thing with actual rain. 

What can we do? It’s foolish to continue business as usual when it comes to our state’s water policy. California’s population has doubled since the 1960s, when our present water infrastructure was designed. The governor’s Department of Finance projects our state’s population growth will continue, reaching nearly 50 million people by 2050. Our water storage is inadequate now. What will it be like then? 

The people of California have done their part. They use less water today than ever before. Southern California uses about 25 percent less. Agriculture is also vastly more water efficient and has doubled farm production since the 1960s while using a bit less water. For Californians, water conservation is not a lofty goal but an accomplished reality. 

The simple truth is that a growing population comes with a growing need for more water. In an era when we’re told that climate change is going to reduce California’s rain and snowfall over time, it’s simply irresponsible to not start taking steps to ensure there will be water for all. 

One small step was taken in 2014, when voters passed the Proposition 1 Water Bond, a measure I helped negotiate and supported, providing $2.7 billion for surface water storage. This was the best deal that could be negotiated at the time and everyone knew we were not dedicating enough funds for water storage, and California would need far more. 

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process must be streamlined to expedite reviews and prevent lawsuits from holding up water projects. Overly burdensome CEQA regulations impedes construction of big and small storage projects alike. 

Efficiency doesn’t mean environmental sacrifice or stifling public input. After all, if CEQA exemptions and streamlined environmental reviews are appropriate for NFL stadiums and NBA arenas, they certainly are reasonable for projects delivering life-giving water.

It’s a sad state of affairs when abundant downpours of rain and snow can’t overcome short-sighted and bureaucratic restrictions. Only a few dreamers believe California can become some imaginary utopian state without the need to carefully manage and optimize our limited water supply. The welfare of millions of Californians literally hangs in the balance. Sacramento lawmakers must live in reality and dedicate budgetary resources the voters expect for water storage and conveyance – ensuring a life-sustaining water system that will meet state demands in future wet and dry years. 

(Senator Huff represents the 29th Senate District covering portions of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. Follow Senator Huff on Twitter @bobhuff99.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.