New Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, is looking at bringing back several water-storage projects that were left out of the final bonds package. If Villines has no luck in the Legislature–and Democrats have given little support to many of these projects–he is willing to go directly to voters with a June 2008 ballot initiative.
“California’s water policy has not been approached from a statewide perspective since the State Water Project was developed,” Villines said. “Our focus should include water storage, both surface and ground, conveyance, conservation and quality.”
The GOP wish list includes up to five projects that were laid out in an August 2000 report by the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. These include new reservoirs on the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, expansion of existing dams at Shasta and Los Vaqueros, and a Delta water-storage project.
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, also is looking at water legislation. The chair of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife said that she is not ready to discuss details, but is known to be an advocate of conservation and groundwater storage.
Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, already has said he will bring back his low-flow toilet bill, which Wolk said she will support. AB 2496 would have moved the state from a 1.6 gallon standard to 1.3 gallons, but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. If implemented, Laird’s plan could save the state an estimated 25,000 acre feet of water a year.
“It wasn’t a huge amount of water,” said Spreck Rosekrans, a senior analyst on water issue for Environmental Defense. “But it seemed like a no-brainer.”
The five water-storage projects would bring the state an estimated 4.4 million acre feet a year in new water for agricultural and urban use. An acre foot (AF) is just over 325,853 gallons.
They would also cost at least $5 billion. The state would not be responsible for all of this money; the federal government, local water districts and users also would foot much of the bill. However, any kind of multibillion-dollar bond measure may be a hard sell to voters, who just approved the $43 billion bond package.
This included the $4.1 billion flood-control bond. Voters also approved Proposition 84, which will provide $5.4 billion in state bond funds for clean drinking water and water-conservancy programs.
Neither includes money for major new water-storage projects, though Proposition 84 does include $65 million for feasibility studies for several projects, including storage projects. But the bill was written by environmentalists, who generally favor conservation over new dams because of concerns about fisheries and habitat. Meanwhile, efforts to put these projects into the Measure 1E flood bond came to naught.
Schwarzenegger later referred to the negotiations as “Holy War.” Villines has long been an champion for new water-storage projects, and was also a leading critic of the bonds. Behind the scenes, some people said the outcome of the bond negotiations played at least a small role in Villines ouster of previous Republican Assembly Leader George Plescia, R-San Diego.
Part of the reason the project didn’t make it in is that feasibility studies and environmental reviews weren’t complete, said Steve Roberts, manager of surface-storage investigations for the California Department of Water Resources. The Department also must look at issues like whether federal, state and local governments are willing to pay for the projects and how much they would provide in flood protection and hydroelectric power.
“We’re trying to get the studies done on these projects so proponents can kick the tires and see if they want to buy them,” Roberts said. “It takes time.”
However, some of these projects may never get Democratic support.
“What we’re doing is looking at the entire issue, both storage and water supply,” Wolk said. “If you look at these projects, they’re not all real or feasible.”
Roberts said the state is currently in the midst of a multiyear effort to develop a more flexible water-management system as part of the CALFED Bay Delta Program through the storage studies. CALFED is looking at a variety of water-management options, including conservation, recycling, conveyance, groundwater storage and surface-water storage, he said. Conservation projects and groundwater storage come in at the top of the priority list because they are the cheapest way to reduce demand, Roberts added.
Villines said that he also supports increasing groundwater storage. The state has an estimated potential to add 9 million AF to existing aquifers, according to a report from the Senate Republican Office of Policy. This is about twice the amount in the five surface projects, at a lower cost because they would entail for less construction.
“Right now, the cost of steel and concrete is going through the roof because of China and India and all the construction going on there,” Roberts said.
Increasing groundwater storage also fits better with environmentalists views. Environmental Defense’s Rosekrans said that groundwater storage has been the hot-growth area for the past decade because it involves a lower environmental impact than dams.
Then why the emphasis on surface storage? Because these projects are popular in many areas.
“I think folks who aren’t in the water business tend to trust what they can see,” Rosekrans said.
Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at