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Store more water while restoring the Delta

California is facing a water crisis for many reasons, including aging infrastructure, climate-change impacts, a growing population and new challenges to meeting ecological water needs.

Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a comprehensive water plan to deal with these and many other issues facing our state’s water system. His $9 billion plan, introduced in a special session of the Legislature, would fund vital investments in new surface and groundwater storage, better conveyance to move water where it’s needed, water-saving conservation projects and environmental protection.

This year’s record dry conditions in many parts of the state underscore how important it is to make sure we have a safe, reliable water supply.

A major concern is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which supplies water to 25 million Californians and millions of acres of Central Valley farms. Once among the most productive estuaries in the world, today’s Delta is facing unprecedented threats to its ecosystem from factors such as invasive species, pesticide runoff and water operations. A federal judge recently ordered the state and federal water projects to reduce water deliveries out of the Delta by up to 37 percent to protect a threatened fish called the Delta smelt. This will severely limit the amount of water going to the Bay Area, Central Valley farmers and Southern California.

Seismic risk, rising sea levels from climate change and the presence of invasive species in the Delta are further evidence of a system that is wholly unsustainable. A single earthquake or large winter storm could collapse Delta levees, halting water flow to much of our state, inundating homes and freeways, and making drinking water too salty to use.

California’s population is expected to jump from 37 million to 49 million by 2030, increasing water demand as it grows. Meanwhile, climate change will lead to higher temperatures, a decreased Sierra snowpack and higher peak river flows and flood threats. Without a comprehensive fix to restore the Delta that responds to changing conditions and improved conveyance systems to provide reliable water supplies, California’s future water needs cannot be met.

History should teach us that inaction has a high price. In today’s dollars the 1976-77 drought would have cost the state $6.5 billion dollars. This year, local water agencies are calling for mandatory and voluntary conservation measures to stretch their water supplies. Conservation is vital, but the governor’s plan also provides additional flexibility and tools to handle drought, flooding and environmental risks that are built into California’s water supply system.

Three new surface storage facilities will provide additional water for families, farms, industry and fish. With more storage, we can significantly improve the flexibility of our water management systems to meet future needs and cope with uncertainty and variability. These multiple-benefit projects provide and store water that will be used to help ecosystems, fish and wildlife. They also improve flood protection, flexibility to respond to climate change impacts, recreation, and an emergency water supply.

The proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County would have an annual yield of 640,000 acre feet of water per year for urban, environmental and agricultural needs, including much needed flood protection. Cold water fish habitat would be greatly improved, yielding benefits to the environment and economy.

Similarly, the Los Vaqueros Expansion Project in Contra Costa County and Temperance Flat Reservoir Project in Fresno County would augment water supplies by capturing peak flows from increased winter runoff, enhance recreational opportunities, operation of fisheries, and mitigate for environmental requirements. What makes these new surface storage projects “state-of-the art” is the operational flexibility of each project that can address so many different conditions and needs, from drought and flood, to environmental, urban and agricultural water supply. These projects are not the dams of the past.

The governor’s plan also recognizes that habitat restoration, conservation projects and groundwater development are important pieces to California’s water future. While $5.6 billion is dedicated to new water storage projects, another $1.9 billion is earmarked for Delta restoration and $1 billion for conservation grants and regional water projects for the entire state. Local agencies and governments will have the flexibility to work together and develop integrated water plans that are cost effective and meet local needs. Unlike other water plans that have been proposed in the Legislature, the governor’s takes a statewide approach, focusing investments in all areas of water management and recognizing the benefits for all Californians.

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