Water Bond Blunders: It’s Time for California to Stop Looking to the Past and Start Planning for the Future

, climate scientist | May 7, 2015, 11:27 am EDT
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For decades, California has been known as an economic and environmental leader. Now, in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record, California needs to start applying some of that innovation and leadership to our water challenges.

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This post is the last in a series on Climate-Water Disconnects, which profile key climate change planning failures related to water infrastructure.

What has made California a leader? It’s not doing what others are doing, or even doing it slightly better, but rather finding ways to fundamentally rethink and transform systems, harnessing information and science to build a better future.

Similarly, it’s time for California to start designing the water system of the future, which will need to work under a much wider range of conditions (as both droughts and floods increase) and allow us to adapt to a massive shift in surface water availability as we lose snowpack, which has historically provided our largest natural water reservoir. Importantly, considering any new system requires that we ask new questions and consider new tools. And yet state water planning continues to be stuck in the past – relying on out-dated information, rehashing old debates, and proffering stale solutions.

This blog is the last of a series on Climate-Water Disconnects, which has profiled key climate change planning failures related to water infrastructure. From rebuilding the San Francisco Bay Bridge without considering climate change to antiquated reservoir rules that dump water during droughts, the series has demonstrated that while the science is clear that the future will be different that the past, water management has not changed sufficiently in response.

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California has a variety of water “storage” options throughout the landscape. Image: California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply

New conditions require new questions

California voters essentially agreed that a water system overhaul was needed last year when they approved Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond. Unfortunately, the public meetings held by the California Water Commission about how to spend the bond funds reveal a planning process that is deeply stuck in the past.

On May 4, the California Water Commission met again with stakeholders to discuss how to allocate $2.7 billion for new water infrastructure that is included in the water bond. The commission must decide which water projects will provide the most public benefit.

Defining public benefit is, undeniably, a difficult task. However, one thing is fairly straightforward: if a project doesn’t work, it’s not going to provide much benefit to anyone. And while the money will be spent on projects with long lifespans (for instance, the average lifetime of a dam is 50 years), the California Water Commission is not explicitly considering whether proposed water projects would work under future conditions, which climate science tells us will be quite different than in the past. Previous posts have described the climate science, which projects that droughts will intensify throughout the Western U.S., leading to “megadroughts” in the future.

Instead, many of the water projects that are currently being considered for funding were designed many decades ago using past conditions and past data as a guide. In fact, the California Water Commission is considering projects included in a document that is now 15 years old (the CalFed Record of Decision).

We have learned a lot in the past 15 years, and while some of these projects may still make sense, it is important that we ask new questions, specifically:

  • How will these projects work in both drier and wetter conditions?
  • How will the projects be connected to each other to improve the ability to manage surface and groundwater together?
  • How will the water rights structure and allocation systems ensure that water is actually available to be stored or moved by these projects?

These questions are critical for the expenditure of public dollars, and yet, the California Water Commission isn’t asking them.

A blast from the past

What’s wrong with just doing what we’ve always done? There are some important lessons to learn from this prolonged drought, including taking a look at how our current water infrastructure has fared. The surface water reservoirs built in California during the 20th century were designed for a climate with extensive snowpack and frequent wet periods. These same water systems are proving less useful during the current drought.

Many of California’s reservoirs currently stand more than half empty and, with almost no snowpack, levels are likely to plummet by the end of this summer. We know that this drought is a bellwether of future conditions, and that this year’s record low snow may be close to normal by the end of the century.

But, it’s not just droughts that we have to contend with, it’s also flooding. Here again, it is important to look at how our current system has fared under flood conditions. During floods, our system currently tries to get rid of the water. Dams release most of the water in storage to ensure that they are not overtopped, but denuded floodplains and incised or channelized river beds aren’t able to slow down floodwaters to allow the water to sink into the ground. In cities, the use of downspouts, gutters, and sewer systems force floodwaters to run off the urban landscape quickly without a chance to infiltrate groundwater aquifers.

Looking to the future

While there are many climate-water disconnects, there are also many opportunities for connection. The California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply and others have been doing the hard work of thinking through how to bring greater connectivity to California’s water system. Their most recent report applies this connective thinking to the Kings River Basin in the San Joaquin Valley, and provides some useful recommendations to the state.

With less snowpack, it will be increasingly important to maximize the use of water retention opportunities throughout the landscape, including soils, floodplains, and groundwater aquifers – which can hold much more water than surface water reservoirs alone. Of course, that is only if we can effectively slow and sink water into the ground where and when it is available. Therefore, all types of infrastructure are needed, but they must be connected in ways that allow them to work in a variety of future climate conditions.

Even more importantly, social processes and institutional structures must change as well, and these social innovations are actually the most striking aspect of the Kings River Basin. Back in the 20th century, irrigators in the area asked the State Water Board to help them to rationalize the water rights in the basin, establishing the first Watermaster in California:

“A public approach to administering water rights, management and operations gained increasing appeal on the Kings River. Various water diversion schedules were proposed. In that spirit…Kings River asked the California Water Commission to provide an impartial engineer to determine the river’s flows, diversions, canal capacities and historical uses. All were needed before a comprehensive entitlement schedule could be prepared. Late in 1917, Charles L. Kaupke, a state water engineer, arrived in Fresno and went to work gathering data…When the 1919 season turned up dry, users unanimously requested Kaupke be assigned to act as Watermaster and arbitrate diversion issues.” — Excerpted from The Kings River Handbook

Kaupke acted as the Watermaster until 1956. Over that time irrigators agreed to a rational water rights allocation system, which also enabled the storing of water behind Pine Flat Dam, overseen by the Kings River Conservation District. Today, the Kings River Conservation District continues to play a lead role in water management, bringing together cities, water districts, and diverse stakeholders to plan for integrated water management through a collaborative process known as the Kings Basin Water Authority.

California is known throughout the nation, and indeed the world, as a leader – an economic leader and an environmental leader. It’s time for California to become a water leader as well. It won’t happen through short-term fixes and band-aid measures. It will only happen if we begin to approach water management in a fundamentally different manner, one that recognizes that our water system is changing and seeks to develop real solutions that prepare us for the future.

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  • Desmaris

    Indeed; there is no question that they DO know how to make it rain.

    A number of commercial companies offer weather modification services centered on cloud seeding, which is no longer considered a fringe science – conversely; it is a mainstream tool to improve rain precipitation and snow pack augmentation.
    New technology and research have produced reliable results that make cloud
    seeding a dependable and affordable water supply practice for many regions.
    One such organization is “Weather Modification, Inc.” They boast “nearly a half-century of successful programs!”

    Doubt the veracity of my claim that they can make it rain?
    – The State of Wyoming isn’t taking drought laying down! They’ve been utilizing
    cloud seeding for snow pack augmentation since 2005.
    – In Germany, civic engagement societies regularly maintain aircraft for cloud seeding to protect agricultural wine growing areas in the Districts Rosenheim,
    Miesbach, Traunstein (all in southern Bavaria, Germany); and District Kufstein
    in Tyrol, Austria. Another society for cloud seeding operates in the district of
    Villingen-Schwenningen so they don’t lose their crops.
    These are just a few examples – there are many other countries and states
    in America that have used cloud seeding services successfully.

    So, you have to ask yourself: why don’t the shot-callers take advantage of this
    technology that the government has been dumping money into developing since about 1947? This is the fifth dry year that has occurred on Governor Brown’s watch – and he does nothing, even though there IS a solution readily available. The man is useless, and is not earning the salary we’re paying him – he should be fired for his reprehensible non-action regarding this drought – his version of “taking action” was simply to “declare drought conditions.” Why are the “Powers That Be” allowing species to go extinct; allowing crops to go bad; turning off water supplies in some areas, and collectively causing the people grave concern – when the technology IS readily available to alleviate the drought?
    I was participating in a forum this past week in which three of the other participants

    who reside in California, told similar tales about the water source problems they were encountering growing their own small gardens. Listen to this: one woman said

    that in her town, each home’s water use is restricted to a certain maximum amount

    per month. The first month she exceeded her home’s allotted amount, she was fined for exceeding her allowed amount of water; in addition to having to pay an addition to her standard water bill for the “extra” water she’d used. She expressed that her usage wasn’t really that excessive. She exceeded her allotment twice more, and they turned off her water. The second woman said her city sent out notices that they were not allowed to grow gardens in their yards at all. The third woman said

    that her city had what she referred to as “water police” who patrol neighborhoods and basically trespass on everyone’s private property, looking to find gardens growing; which are not permitted. When the water police encounter a garden, they’ll make the homeowner tear it out; as well as having to pay a stiff fine for “breaking the law” by growing a small garden they grow solely to feed themselves.

    In closing, I am of the belief that this “worst drought in history” in California is one that has been purposely engineered. It’s all about “control”. Drought will ultimately result in fewer crops that they will charge more money for; and if they persist in doing absolutely nothing about it, it will lead to loss of human life. It is an insidious method of population reduction, which the Powers That Be have blatantly stated is a desired goal of theirs. If it’s a drought, they can make it appear as though they were not the cause of it. This may sound somewhat “crazy” to some folks, but it sure ties in with a lot of other environmental things going on. Suggested reading for everyone: “The Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.”

    I propose that a bunch of us citizens unite and chip in to hire the services of a company like Weather Modification, Inc. so we can alleviate the drought, since the government isn’t going to. This article, “The Equation” illustrates their inclination to be ineffective. We should circumvent them and get it handled ourselves. Pull up the website of Weather Modification, Inc. and you’ll see for yourself – they CAN make it rain to alleviate the drought.

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  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for highlighting the need for our state to find new ways to think about our water needs. Figuring out ways to slow water down so it goes into underground aquifers, etc is but one solution. Cities can build cisterns to catch and store rain water for later use.

    Agriculture is a huge user of water in Calif. It must shift to using drip irrigation…..and quickly. It must also not be allowed to continue to draft water from underground aquifers that are already extremely low.

    Solar power can be used to treat sewage and thus ‘produce’ more water for landscaping, agriculture, etc. A company called Waterflex has developed a system to do this in the Central Valley. Water districts around the state should look into this.

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  • Denise

    Reducing irrigated agriculture, better water recycling and promoting policies to slaw climate change all must be implemented now. After spending the last 25 years in Australia, the driest habited continent on Earth, I have seen the results of extended drought… It isn’t pretty.