From the Right: Addressing the problem of drought

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Addressing the problem of drought

From the Right

By Don Schmitz

After years of miserable drought and prayers for rain, the “atmospheric river” delivered bountiful water to California, most of which flowed out to sea. Beyond frustrating, not just that it’s happening, but because it doesn’t have to. Ninety-eight million acre feet of water fell on California in three weeks, enough to meet the needs of 40 million people for 25 years! That is 32 trillion gallons. Ninety-five percent of that water flowed out to the Pacific. Ninety-five percent!

The political leadership in Sacramento and Washington are promising action, belatedly, but whine it’s “difficult.” Some lament that it’s prohibitively expensive to build more storage capacity, and therefore unrealistic. 

Fascinating: In 2014 voters passed Prop. 1, a $7.5 billion bond inclusive of water storage. Ten years later, the state might start construction on the Sites Reservoir next year, but it won’t open until 2030 at the earliest. That reservoir alone would have captured an additional 120,000 acre-feet in this month’s storms. After three years of purportedly the worst drought in history, they sat on their pencils, and did next to nothing.

Gov. Newsom acquiesces the “absurd” length of time it takes to permit and build water projects, a gross understatement. The $16 billion delta diversion tunnel is still stalled after decades of planning, permitting, and litigation. If in place, it could have moved an additional 188,000 acre-feet of water during the two weeks of storms into the water system. Similarly, Newsom, and those before him, have called for major desalination efforts, yet last year the California Coastal Commission denied permits, unanimously, for the large Poseidon desalination plant proposed in Huntington Beach, converting an old power plant with existing intakes, outfalls, and buildings — they just had to repurpose the facility. 

These new assets are supplements to the amazing water system our predecessors built for us. Originally planned in the 1970s to supply water to 27 million people, our population has ballooned to 40 million. We haven’t kept up with our infrastructure needs and haven’t built a major reservoir in the state since 1979. 

Would you be surprised to learn that during the drought, when farmers in the Central Valley had their water cut off, turning the most productive farmland in the world into a desert, that the floodgates are opened from the reservoirs releasing the precious water to the sea? This is done pursuant to court orders, as environmental organizations have sued the state over the delta smelt. This practice of releasing many acre-feet of water to revive them has been unsuccessful for 30 years. In fact, the smelt has not been found in the wild since 2015, when the CDFW survey captured only five. In 2021, cutting off the water to farmland cost California agriculture $1.2 billion and the loss of 8,700 jobs, mostly working poor Hispanics. Last year that number was $1.7 billion and 19,420 jobs, all while we drain our reservoirs out to the sea in our desiccated state. Even during the torrential rains this month, the delta pumps were limited to half their capacity to “protect” the smelt. More water was moving through the delta for two weeks than the gargantuan Columbia River in Oregon, 316,500 acre-feet per day, or 1.2 million gallons a second. That is enough to fill our Hetch Hetchy reservoir every 27 hours, but we let it go.

Five years ago, our reservoirs were brimming, enough to last the state for years without any rain. Oroville and Shasta reservoirs alone hold enough water to supply everyone in the state with water for two years. Sacramento has aggressively prioritized the extinct smelt over our farms and cities. When in 2020 federal authorities signed law changes to divert more water for farmers in the Central Valley, Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit to block them and keep the water flowing out to the ocean. Entire towns have no potable water. Teviston in the Central Valley ran completely dry in the triple digit heat of the summer in 2021, whereupon bottled water was delivered to families for basic needs. Here in California, not some poor third-world country, and not after a natural disaster, but rather a man-made one. That same year the governor proposed $5.1 billion for drought preparedness and infrastructure, more money on top of the bonds we taxpayers already gave them. Yet still, no substantial progress on capturing that life-giving water gushing from the sky. One hundred years ago, the visionaries that made modern California a farming garden paradise, along with vibrant cities, worked hard to create a water system the envy of the world. We have rested on their laurels, squandered opportunities to modernize our system to keep pace with our growth, and re-elected politicians who pandered to special interests while soothing us with platitudes.