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California's Trouble: Rising Seas, Floods and Drought in Forecast

Decreasing snowpack, changing rainfall patterns, increased risk of flooding and sea level rise are in store.
 
 
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California has a big water problem -- and global warming will only make that problem bigger. Three-quarters of our precipitation falls in the winter, almost all in the northern half of the state, although most of the population and a great deal of the agriculture are in the south. The current system of capturing and transferring water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the areas of greatest demand is unsustainable, and climate change will only exacerbate the crisis.

According to the state's Climate Action Team, global warming is likely to play out in California's water system in two major ways: a smaller snowpack will reduce our ready water supply, and wilder weather will heighten the risk of floods.

The Sierra snowpack has historically served as a natural reservoir, storing precipitation that falls as snow during the winter and releasing it slowly as it melts in the spring. With rising temperatures, more precipitation will instead fall as rain. The climate team predicts that the snowpack will be reduced by ten to forty percent by mid-century and from seventy to ninety percent by 2100, greatly reducing natural water storage.

An overlapping challenge will take place in the Delta, where even though overall flow in the Sacramento River is expected to decrease by about twenty percent by the 2050s, changing rainfall patterns will increase the risk of flooding. Severe storms are likely to damage already-compromised Delta levees and infrastructure.

Similarly, sea level is predicted to rise by 22 to 55 inches -- or even more -- by the year 2100. Rising sea levels will erode Delta levees and increase saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay, threatening the quality of water exports as well as of the Delta's water itself.

Yet as the human population continues to grow, especially in the drier southern region, where is the water going to come from to serve not only California's people but its agriculture, fish, and wildlife? And how can the state maintain control over its water supply in an era of climate change? While this gloomy conundrum has received attention lately, there is no agreement on what to do about it -- not strange, considering the state's always-fractious history of water management.

The solution proposed by California's Department of Water Resources, and supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is to build more surface storage -- management-speak for more dams and reservoirs. During high winter flows, reservoirs store water that would otherwise be "lost" to the hungry sea. But water storage has always been a juggling act; managers need to keep reservoirs relatively empty during the wet season so that they have enough capacity to store water and reduce downstream flooding, while still keeping enough water available during the dry summer and fall. Managers are pretty good at guessing when to switch from releasing to storing water, but as the climate changes huge storms will become more frequent, leading to more flooding.

One of the three reservoirs the department has proposed building would be fifteen miles west of the Sacramento River, at a location called Sites in the Antelope Valley. Sites was part of the governor's nine-billion-dollar water bond proposal, which was rejected by the legislature last year. But building Sites, as well as its sister reservoirs, could still be put before voters as a ballot initiative.

The state is pitching the Sites reservoir as a tool to save fish and wildlife from global warming and to restore the Delta's delicate ecosystem. Migratory fish need higher flows, and maintaining a heavy water flow counteracts saltwater intrusion. According to Steve Roberts, manager of the department's surface storage investigations, the existing system is ill-equipped to address environmental needs. Sites would provide water managers with flexibility and "more knobs to turn" to meet both water supply and environmental obligations.

But others say the situation is more complex. Peter Gleick, a water policy expert and president of the Pacific Institute, believes that a reservoir could indeed provide the flexibility the state seeks, but he's not convinced that Sites is the best solution. Gleick thinks that the state should first evaluate whether its existing system of reservoirs and aqueducts can be operated differently to address climate change impacts. "We shouldn't spend money we don't have on something that we're not sure we need," Gleick says. He believes cheaper means, such as water conservation and preventing more development in floodplains, are available to reduce vulnerability to extreme events.

Jonas Minton, who oversaw the Department of Water Resource's surface storage studies until 2004, is now a water policy advisor with the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League. Minton says that although $100 million has been spent studying surface storage over the last seven years, the state agency hasn't released a feasibility study because it hasn't liked the results. When the agency evaluated Sites for agriculture and urban water supply, the project didn't pencil out; high flow events are rare enough that it would be filled infrequently, so it's not cost-effective. Minton says it's like opening a very expensive savings account with no money to deposit.

Minton argues, in fact, that natural systems in the Sacramento River and Delta cannot spare water that would be stored in Sites. There is no "surplus" water except in extremely wet years -- and fish need these occasional high flows that move sediment, fell trees, and cleanse spawning gravel. Moreover, some people worry that the Sacramento River itself could be degraded, since the state has not identified a flow threshold above which water would be diverted from it.

In fact, instead of mitigating climate change, the reservoir could contribute to it. Although energy would be produced as water is released, since water must be pumped uphill to it, Sites would still end up consuming more energy than it makes. Nearly a fifth of California's electricity is already used to collect, store, and transport water. If conventional power is used, its generation would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; however, the department is considering using wind power to reduce this impact. Construction, as well as the decomposing of flooded vegetation, would also produce greenhouse gases.

Construction costs will weigh in at four to six billion dollars, with the state picking up about half the tab, and operation would be another ten to 21 million dollars per year. So far, no water contractor or urban water district has indicated a willingness to foot even a portion of the bill. In fact, since 2000, when the state instituted a policy that the "beneficiary pays" for water supply projects, no water user has expressed a willingness to finance construction of any state surface water storage projects. Instead, many water agencies are investing in alternatives that generate benefits more quickly and at lower cost.

But consider what could happen if Sites is sold to voters as a necessary environmental fix for a Delta in crisis. Ostensibly water contractors would fund part of the cost, and it's even possible that contractors might identify themselves once potential yield and costs are spelled out. But it's hard to work out details until such contractors toss their hats into the ring. The language of a proposition would likely skate over the fact that no contractors have yet appeared, money in hand. Says Gleick: "The taxpayers are asked to pay for it, but they won't know the benefits or the costs."

Mark Cowin, the Department of Water Resources' deputy director, thinks the process is not unusual. He explains that bond measures typically provide the framework and set conditions for use of general obligation bonds, while project details are defined later. Besides, the lead-time for reservoir planning, design, and construction is so long that the process has to be started well in advance of expected results. But Peter Gleick says there's no point in getting the process moving if, in the end, the project won't be useful: "That's like saying we should do the wrong thing right away."

Some water agencies, like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, still aren't sure what to think about Sites. The district represents a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that imports and sells water to eighteen million people over six counties. It is a likely candidate to buy water from the facility. But Timothy Brick, chairman of the district's board, says that his agency has not taken a position on Sites despite all the years that it has been studied because "the plans have not been completed and we don't have enough information to determine whether it's viable." The district wants to know whether the reservoir would enhance water supply reliability and improve conditions in the Delta. Brick says that although "proponents claim environmental benefits for Sites, we haven't seen information on those benefits. We need to know how much water could be available, and if that water could be transported to Southern California. From our perspective, the Delta is broken and requires substantial improvements. We need to be responsible stewards of the Delta and river systems."

This raises a tricky question: how will water stored at Sites be delivered to Southern California? Currently, the Delta is the hub of the state's water delivery system, but it's also the bottleneck: water exports through the Delta are constrained by water quality and endangered species concerns as well as frequent litigation. That's why some, including the governor, are pushing for a new conveyance facility -- the daughter of the peripheral canal that voters defeated in 1982 -- to divert Sacramento River water to Southern California farmers and cities, before that water ever reaches the Delta.

A peripheral canal would provide unconstrained delivery of any newly developed water, such as water stored at Sites, but would also raise other problems. Minton points out that the prospective routing of the canal overlaps with the Delta area most likely to be flooded by rising sea levels, in which case the canal could eventually be underwater. "Is this a good place to put expensive, public infrastructure?" he asks. Of course, the diversion of freshwater would also make the Delta saltier, modifying habitat and threatening Delta agriculture as well as drinking water in other areas.

The issue remains unresolved in the state legislature, where no water bills were passed in 2007. The Democrats want to separate the controversial issue of surface storage from other measures designed to restore the health of the Delta and to improve water supply reliability. On the other hand, the governor and Republican legislators prefer to bundle the issues together, which increases the chances of obtaining funding for reservoirs. The governor included a colorful pitch for reservoirs in his January State of the State address, saying, "Raging flood waters run wasted into the sea because they can't be captured. We must expand water storage. We must build new water delivery systems. We must fix the Delta and restore its ecosystem." Parties on both sides of the debate have indicated they may propose water bonds for the ballot, and some will support dam construction. Water managers fear that the window of opportunity for financing reservoirs is closing, especially now that the state faces a substantial deficit.

Yet there is plenty of opposition to reservoirs and a new canal. Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council compared the different potential yields and costs of alternative water sources. It concluded that methods like increasing conservation, urban water efficiency, water recycling, groundwater storage, groundwater cleanup, and conjunctive use (combining surface and ground water systems to optimize them) are comparable to -- or cheaper than -- the estimated $370 per acre-foot it will cost to store water at Sites. (An acre-foot of water is 43,560 cubic feet, roughly the amount of water used by two families of four for a year.)

The water yielded by these alternatives could also be much more abundant than the anticipated Sites yield of 100,000-400,000 acre-feet per year. Alternatives could be implemented more quickly than construction of Sites, and could reduce both reliance on the Delta and the risk of levee failures. Groundwater storage in Southern California (rather than a northern location like Sites) might be the best option to "back up" water supplies in that region should the existing Delta system fail. Besides, says Minton, since moving water around is so energy-intensive, conservation could help reduce the state's electricity demand and its attendant greenhouse gas emissions.

The Department of Water Resources' Steve Roberts would prefer to have more options -- the agency supports funding for a full array of water management tools including reservoirs. "It is my opinion that there is no 'silver bullet.' No one option can meet all of our needs," says Roberts. "[We need] a diverse 'portfolio' of investment choices so we can better manage our limited water supplies."

Minton likens the agency's uncritical belief in reservoir benefits to a religion that doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Besides, the agency is used to building dams. As Minton puts it, "If you've been doing something, you keep doing it. People tend to want monuments to their achievement. Politicians like to build major structures that you can put a brass plaque on."

The state's 2005 Water Plan indicates that water demand in California will increase through 2030. Although the Department of Water Resources predicts a modest decrease in agricultural water use, the agency anticipates that urban water use will increase by 1.5 to 5.8 million acre-feet per year. So where can that additional water come from?

Peter Gleick and his colleagues at the Pacific Institute published a 2005 study arguing that with very aggressive efforts, by 2030 human use of water in California could decline by as much as 20 percent from 2000 levels. This reduction could be accomplished using existing technologies while still supporting population growth, a healthy agricultural sector, and a vibrant economy, by making significant changes in how water is managed. The Pacific Institute advocates phasing out subsidies (for example, to corporate agriculture) to reflect the true costs of water, increasing the use of water-efficient technologies in urban systems and in agriculture, supporting water transfers that improve efficiency, including use of groundwater, and integrating water supply planning with land use planning.

Such a reduction could be costly and would likely not be popular with agricultural interests. But, Gleick argues, "Current water rights regimes in California, combined with inappropriate federal subsidies for water and certain crops, have locked in a higher level of waste and inefficiency than we can afford." He says that we need an evolution in personal values to transfer to a water-efficient future: "Conservation needs to be redefined. It needn't mean brown lawns, shorter showers, or mandatory rationing. It is about doing what we want but with less water." Gleick thinks that California needs to be a leader in water conservation and efficiency. "The reality is that the narrow interests that might benefit from new dams aren't willing to pay for them," he says. "Taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize continued wasteful water practices."

The California Chamber of Commerce has prepared versions of a water bond that could cost up to $12 billion, including over $3 billion for construction of new dams. The chamber says it will pursue a ballot initiative if the legislature fails to produce a water bond in time for the June statewide ballots. Minton says this is like "giving Imelda Marcos your credit card to shop for shoes." Meanwhile, State Senator Pro Tem Don Perata has indicated that he and Senator Michael Machado, whose district includes the Delta, may place another initiative on the November 2008 ballot to address water quality and reliability issues, without asking for funding for surface storage.

Conventional wisdom says that when two bond measures compete, neither passes. That comes with a cost: this divisive issue threatens to derail needed investment in Delta sustainability and flood and earthquake protection, increased water recycling and conservation, and groundwater cleanup and storage. If a solution to the state's water crisis is not found, water policy decisions will be made by courts responding to endangered species litigation, as additional species teeter on the brink of extinction.

Peter Gleick laments the lost opportunities. "The last ten years we have had relatively abundant water. This would have been a good time to develop rational policies for dry years," he says. "It's especially important that we not panic now and make bad decisions. Panic makes poor water policy."