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California Should Give Prop. 1 Money to Groundwater Storage Projects

The California Water Commission will determine which water storage projects get $2.7 billion in funding. They should seriously consider those that help California expand underground storage, writes Ceres’s Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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The Santa Ana River feeds adjacent groundwater recharge basins at the cross street of E Lincoln Ave in Anaheim, California, February 26, 2015. The state is reviewing applications for new water storage projects, half of which involve groundwater projects.Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

Three years ago, during the height of the drought when water was top of mind, California voters overwhelmingly approved a $7.5 billion water bond, known as Proposition 1, to help the state better manage the precious resource.

Of its many purposes, $2.7 billion of the bond money was earmarked to improve water storage infrastructure. So after its passage, water utilities and other stakeholders got busy preparing proposals for a slice of the storage pie. By the state’s deadline in mid-August 2017, a dozen storage proposals had landed at the California Water Commission, which will decide how the money is allocated.

Commissioners met October 18 and vetted the 12 completed proposals, voting that 11 of them met the eligibility requirements to be considered for funding. It’ll be many more months before commissioners “score” the proposals and decide which ones get some funding and how much. But the requested amounts add up to more than double the earmarked storage sum, so there will be competition.

When the bond was developed and the California Water Commission decided eligibility criteria for the storage funding proposals, many of us concerned about sustainability and the environment feared that long-planned surface water reservoir projects would win all the funding. I am surprised and pleased that two projects are focused on groundwater storage and four projects propose “conjunctive use” infrastructure that will serve both to replenish groundwater basins and maintain adequate surface water flows. Conjunctive use, as defined by the Prop. 1 regulations, involves both underground and surface storage facilities in ways that add efficiency to each.

That is good news. The Commission should give serious consideration to projects that include groundwater replenishment in their proposals since the state cannot rely solely on surface reservoirs, which are predicted to have diminishing storage efficiency in a warming California. Reservoirs also can have other environmental implications.

Hydrologists studying California’s situation agree that replenishing groundwater basins is a good bet for long-term water security – and sorely needed. During the drought years when California pumped groundwater for 60 percent of its water supplies, most groundwater basins depleted to dangerously low levels. The future – and smart implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) – compels us to restore water to these aquifers. Even in normal years, California relies on groundwater for 40 percent of its water, so to allow aquifers to be squeezed dry without efforts to replenish them would be foolhardy.

In addition to helping restore groundwater, some of the proposals submitted maintain that they would benefit agriculture or habitat and wildlife. And several would make use of innovations in water recycling.

Here are some of the project concepts I found encouraging, in that they would provide for water needs both now and in the future, building resilience.

  • A project in the farmlands of south Sacramento County involves recycling water for use in irrigating agricultural fields, which in turn would reduce farmers’ needs for pumping groundwater and allow the aquifer to replenish from its depleted condition. Among its unique features, the south Sacramento County groundwater storage project would use recycled water to provide about 50,000 acre-feet of water a year to area farms, providing irrigation for 16,000 acres of crops south of Sacramento.
  • For Kern County, which lies above one of the most stressed groundwater basins of the state, the Irvine Ranch Water District has proposed a water capture and banking process, with applicants forecasting they can store in aquifers up to 100,000 acre-feet of water by capturing water during rainy seasons, letting it remain on agricultural fields in the winter and slowly infiltrate into the San Joaquin Valley Groundwater Basin.
  • In San Bernardino County, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency has worked with the Nature Conservancy to develop an environmental water bank within its Chino Basin groundwater bank. This project involves recycling wastewater for use in the region and then leaving a like amount of water at the top of the State Water Project in Lake Oroville. This water can then be used to enhance environmental flows and protect water quality in the Feather River. This project outlines a “water exchange” encouraging local water supply development and dedicating water to meet multiple needs. A unique element of this project is that both the water that would be developed in the Chino Basin and the dedication of water for environmental purposes behind Lake Oroville would be provided with 100 percent reliability – actually creating “new water” within the system.
  • “Pure Water San Diego” is a water recycling project that aims to supply one-third of San Diego’s water needs. That would eventually be about 83 million gallons per day of recycled high-quality drinking water, stored in the city’s Miramar Reservoir.
  • In the area of the damaged Oroville Dam, there’s a proposal for a “modest” re-operation of Lake Oroville and San Luis reservoirs to take some pressure off the State Water Project by moving water south of the Delta and storing that water in a groundwater basin in the Antelope Valley in Southern California. The Willow Springs Water Bank Conjunctive Use Project would reserve water for State Water Project contractors and enhance environmental flows.

Ceres and nine of its company partners, including Driscoll’s and Fetzer Vineyards, engaged with the Commission and policymakers when the bond’s implementation was being charted to urge that smart groundwater-recharge projects be considered on equal footing as surface reservoir projects. Ceres is glad stakeholders came to the table with groundwater storage projects and that commissioners deemed them eligible for consideration. Ceres is also pleased to see innovations in recycling and other technologies in several of the proposals.

Wise, insightful and careful use of the Prop. 1 Water Storage Investment Program funds can go a long way to shoring up future water security. We are glad the California Water Commission sees fit to consider both groundwater recharge and surface reservoir projects as well as smart water recycling projects. Hopefully, this is a sign of changing thinking around what is “storage” and how our state can better manage our connected groundwater and surface water supplies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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