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

May 7, 2015 | 11:27 am
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

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.


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.


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.