The Question of Our Era: What is Water Storage?
For many decades, when people in California wanted to store water, the answer was simple: Build a dam. As a result, the state has lots of reservoirs – thousands in fact, large and small.
California has so many water storage reservoirs, it has used up all the economically viable places to build them. All the narrow slot canyons downstream of big watersheds are already dammed up.
In a few other cases, existing dams are proving no longer viable, either because they cannot be easily modified with fish ladders, or because they have filled up with sediment. San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River falls into the latter category, and is now being torn down, after years of debate and delay, so the river can be restored.
So the future of water storage will be different, and that’s what the California Water Commission is wrestling with. In a series of meetings now underway, the commission is taking public comment on how it should disburse $2.7 billion created by Proposition 1, the water-bond measure approved by California voters in 2014.
The proposition includes unique language that allows the money to be spent only on the “public benefits” offered by new water storage projects. That means the benefits must go not to the water users alone. There must be something in it for the public at large or for the environment. This could include additional water supply to enhance fishery resources, or elements of a project that improve habitat or flood control.
It means looking at water storage in a whole new way.
The rules also require the commission to look at more than reservoirs. Funded projects could include groundwater banking systems and so-called “conjunctive use” projects. This could be as simple as a pipeline, say, that connects two water utilities together so they can share water supplies. Or a system that links a reservoir with a groundwater aquifer so they can be used as a single storage system.
In short, when the commission starts doling out money, it is very likely that a lot of the money won’t be spent on dams.
The Water Beneath Our Feet: How Little We Know
As the state ponders investing more in groundwater management, we are reminded just how little we know about that water supply in California. Due to a lack of regulation, even well owners and operators know very little about the larger aquifer from which they pump water.
This is true even in the Sacramento Valley, arguably the richest and most reliable groundwater basin in California. As the drought continues, many well-owners in this soggy region are seeing water levels drop sharply, and some wells have even dried up.
South of Orland, water levels have dropped up to 112 feet in the last 10 years, including declines of up to 50 feet from 2013-14, according to monitoring wells operated by the state’s Department of Water Resources.
“We’ve put in a lot of orchards in the past decade, and that is all groundwater supply,” Thad Bettner, general manager of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat newspaper. “The question is, where is that water ultimately coming from that’s paying for that new demand.”
New legislation adopted last year requires well owners to maintain their groundwater at “sustainable” levels, meaning it is not being pumped out faster than it is refilled naturally. But these rules don’t kick in for 25 years.
Getting Misty About Water Conservation
We can look at this as an example of how far California has come on water conservation: In the wealthy playgrounds of Palm Springs, citizens are heckling restaurants that use misting systems to keep patrons cool on blazing-hot outdoor patios.
In the daily 110-degree heat of Palm Springs, “the misters are the difference between staying open and not staying open,” one restaurant owner says.
The Desert Sun newspaper tells us that Las Casuelas Terraza restaurant in Palm Canyon pumps about 640 gallons of water a day through its 80-or-so misting nozzles. That’s about the same amount of water a family of four consumes in the same region to meet daily needs.
Compare that to a golf course in the area, which uses about 1 million gallons of water per day, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Yet one restaurant owner says staff members have been yelled at “five or so times” by passing motorists critical of the misters for wasting water.
Some restaurateurs have responded by turning on misters only when customers ask, or by capping a fraction of the misting heads to reduce water consumption.
After successfully beating the governor’s 25 percent conservation mandate in June, after a year of falling short, it seems Californians really are thinking seriously about how we should use water.
Top Phot: In this June 1, 2006 file photo is the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in Carmel Valley, Calif. The largest dam removal project in California history is now underway to remove the dam, which was built in 1921 on an earthquake fault and because the reservoir behind it is 95 percent packed with mud. Courtesy of Associated Press