In the coming weeks, the California Water Commission is set to announce its comparative ratings of proposed water storage investments, allocating up to $2.7 billion in taxpayer dollars that will shape the State’s future water storage strategy and help us through future droughts.
Most attention has been directed at surface storage projects such as Sites Reservoir and the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, which are widely expected to receive funding from Proposition 1. These kinds of surface storage projects are more effective if they are operated as part of an integrated storage and water management strategy.
At this moment, California is only beginning to come to terms with a groundwater overdraft crisis that has drained the very aquifers we have come to depend on for water supply.
In the bigger picture, the Water Commission has the opportunity to create a new paradigm for water storage that delivers more cost-effective storage and an ability to ensure there will be enough water for communities, business and public purposes –keeping our rivers alive with enough water for fish, wildlife and recreation for people.
That opportunity is to include groundwater storage in Proposition 1 allocations.
At this moment, California is only beginning to come to terms with a groundwater overdraft crisis that has drained the very aquifers we have come to depend on for water supply – especially across the San Joaquin Valley.
Various economic analyses have demonstrated that the costs of groundwater storage projects are substantially lower over time than the development of new dams for surface storage. Groundwater projects can also be completed much faster than surface storage projects at a fraction of the cost.
That is why both environmental organizations and businesses support groundwater storage as a way to secure California’s water resiliency. Lower cost – and the ability to manage water stored in groundwater basins more flexibly over time — are huge benefits. Groundwater storage projects can be managed in a way that specifically dedicates water to be left in streams for environmental flows – and to measure specific water allocations for environmental purposes.
Several proposed groundwater storage projects, including some of the highest scoring ones in the state’s process of allocating Proposition 1 funding, have been designed to leave water behind in already existing upstream reservoirs including Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville to benefit flows for fish and wildlife.
Two projects: the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District’s South County Ag Groundwater Project in the Cosumnes River Basin and the Chino Basin Water Bank in San Bernardino County, would store water in the ground and then dedicate and measure water provided to keep our rivers alive by protecting water for nature.
These groundwater storage projects represent a new direction in California water management that can be used in a complementary way with some 50 million acre-feet of existing water storage capacity in reservoirs operating today.
Ultimately, the Commission’s funding decisions should drive and shape more effective water conservation and water accounting strategies across California. In allocating funds for multiple projects, the CWC has the ability to help shape a flexible “block” of water assets that can be used to dynamically respond to environmental water needs across the state from the headwaters and tributaries to the Delta and at the same time meet the needs of communities and businesses.
To do that, the CWC must confront California’s overall water imbalance.
Simply put, we are using more water than we have available – both groundwater and surface water. The increased water supply uncertainties introduced by climate change – and the need to protect rivers and streams for wildlife and people underscore the importance of durable, integrated and less expensive groundwater storage projects as an essential part of a new storage paradigm.
Ed’s Note: Jay Ziegler is director of external affairs and policy for The Nature Conservancy. Kirsten James is director of California policy and partnership, Ceres.