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With Billions on the Line, California Begins Vetting Water Projects

A dozen water storage proposals are officially in the running for state bond funds. The tricky task now becomes analyzing their claimed “public benefits,” a new requirement to receive taxpayer support.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Losvaqueros
The Contra Costa Water District is seeking $434 million in state bond funds to expand the Los Vaqueros Reservoir.Photo courtesy Contra Costa Water District

A dozen water storage projects in California are now officially in the running for a share of $2.7 billion in state bond funds. But experts are cautioning that taxpayers shouldn’t get their hopes up that these projects will solve chronic water shortages in the state.

The money comes from Proposition 1, a bond measure approved by state voters in 2014. The initiative allows bond money to be used only for the “public benefits” that come from new water storage projects, such as enhancing flows for fish habitat and improving flood control.

The projects also have to demonstrate some benefit to the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast and source of most of the state’s freshwater.

The California Water Commission, a formerly obscure agency, was empowered to parcel out the funds and has set up an elaborate process to determine eligibility. In August, it released a list of 12 projects that are in the running. They range from traditional monumental dams to so-called “conjunctive use” projects, which meld surface storage with groundwater recharge.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, cautioned that Californians may have unrealistic hopes for these projects. None is a cure-all for the state’s water problems.

“The public evidently had tremendous expectations for storage in approving this bond – largely unrealistic expectations,” Lund said. “It’s not like the 1950s or 60s when people thought you could solve all the water scarcity problems by building new storage. Today, the more storage you build, the less additional water you get out of that storage.”

That’s partly because all the good dam sites are already taken: There aren’t any narrow canyons left where a single small dam can store millions of acre-feet. Another reason is water rights: There just isn’t much water left to assign to new storage projects.

Proposition 1 was structured to ensure new water storage projects give something back to the environment instead of just taking, as they have for decades.

Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser at the Planning and Conservation League, said he is disappointed there aren’t more groundwater recharge projects in the mix.

Construction equipment is shown at Los Vaqueros Reservoir during the first expansion of the reservoir, completed in 2012. The Contra Costa Water District now plans to expand the reservoir again, and hopes to get $434 million in state bonds to help pay for it. (Photo Courtesy Contra Costa Water District)

“California’s history of overpumping our groundwater aquifers has had the unintended benefit of creating massive subsurface reservoirs available to store water,” said Minton, a former deputy director at the state Department of Water Resources. “Rather than subsidizing very marginal new above-ground storage, it makes much more sense to invest in groundwater storage projects.”

Half of the 12 projects are surface storage, most of which have already received a lot of media attention. Three of these are proposals to expand existing reservoirs: Los Vaqueros in Contra Costa County, Pacheco Reservoir in Santa Clara County and a proposal from the city of San Diego to expand its Miramar Reservoir to boost storage for a wastewater recycling project. Three are new reservoirs: Sites in Colusa County, Temperance Flat in Fresno County and Centennial in Nevada County.

The other six projects involve groundwater storage and have received comparatively little attention. Only one is purely a groundwater banking project: a proposal by Irvine Ranch Water District to store groundwater in Kern County.

The others are conjunctive use projects, meaning they integrate surface flow with groundwater storage. One example is a proposal from Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County to capture Kings River flood flows for groundwater recharge and to swap with State Water Project diversions from the Delta. Others are proposed by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, the nonprofit River Partners, Inland Empire Utilities District and the Southern California Water Bank Authority.

The 12 projects are requesting about $5.8 billion in state bond funds, or about double what’s available. A brief summary of all 12 projects can be found on the Water Commission’s website.

“We’re happy to be at a point that we actually have tangible projects that are applying for funding,” said Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the Water Commission. “Now the hard work of technical review is getting started.”

A full technical review is under way on the 12 projects. The main goal is to assign each a “public benefit ratio,” Orrock said. This is a tool to weigh the total cost of each project against the public benefits it provides.

Portions of this analysis will be handled by different state agencies. If a project claims to offer flood-control benefits, the Department of Water Resources will analyze that claim. If it claims to aid fish habitat, the Department of Fish and Wildlife will be asked to do that review.

These reviews will be completed by mid-December, then compiled for the commission to review at its meeting in March. At that meeting, the commission will determine which projects are eligible for further consideration.

The staff will then conduct another review of the finalists and schedule separate hearings on each project. At a meeting in June, the commission will rank the projects and make a final decision about how much funding each project is eligible to receive.

Even then, there are more hoops for each project to jump through. They must complete their environmental impact studies and get the balance of their funding in place.

If those goals are met, the commission would then dole out funding as construction targets are met – not in advance, Orrock said.

“It’s not a beauty pageant. It’s an investment program,” he said. “What it comes down to now is who is going to provide the most realizable public benefits to the taxpayers of California for justifying our investment in those projects.”

Lund said accurately determining the public benefits of each project will not be easy. It amounts to a complicated accounting analysis of a sort that’s never been done before.

He expects there will be “tremendously creative accounting” by project backers seeking to maximize their public benefit claims.

“I will be curious to see how the commission wades through all that,” Lund said. “I think they’ll try to do a good job on it, but it’s going to be difficult.”

He also is disappointed there aren’t more groundwater storage projects proposed. He had hoped to see projects, for example, that include conservation measures that might create a new water supply, which could then be used to recharge groundwater.

But he said those projects are more difficult to pull off because they require more partners and more negotiations.

These days, new water storage projects – whether surface or groundwater – also require lots of other puzzle pieces to make them work. In the case of groundwater, there may not be water available near an aquifer that’s suitable for recharge. So new conveyance infrastructure – canals or pipelines – may be required.

Some may even require changes in environmental regulations, such as to make use of water designated for environmental purposes as part of a new reservoir.

“It’s not just about building new storage,” Lund said. “There’s a whole raft of other things we need to do to rejigger California water to make it more modern to meet the uses we have – now and in future.”

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