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Executive Summary for September 24th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Sep. 24, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Lobbying for a New Dam

Pressure is mounting in certain circles to claim a portion of Proposition 1 funds for new water storage. At a meeting in Chico, organizers seemed to assume the audience was ready to go out and lobby for the Sites Reservoir project, proposed for construction in Colusa County, and one of three leading contenders for state money to fund a new reservoir.

Attendees were asked to write letters, go to meetings and tell their friends that people in Northern California strongly support the idea of a new water storage.

“We need to speak in a loud voice,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who was speaking in a loud voice.

This was at a meeting billed as a “public forum” to help educate citizens about the project. It wasn’t supposed to be a meeting of the faithful. Understandably, the hard sell didn’t go over so well.

Several of the questions from the audience included critiques of water transfers, questions about evaporation and concerns about who would own the water if a new reservoir is built.

Outside the meeting hall, people held signs criticizing two of the panelists at the meeting for being former employees of Westlands Water District near Fresno.

Those two panelists were Thad Bettner, general manager of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and former deputy general manager for resources at Westlands; and Jim Wilson, recently hired as general manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority and former deputy general manager for special projects at Westlands.

Some residents of the area fear a key reason for the sites project is to transfer North State water to the San Joaquin Valley, where it could be enjoyed by powerful water interests like Westlands, the nation’s largest irrigation district.

In fact, that is exactly how Sites is designed to operate. An off-stream reservoir, it would be filled by water pumped out of the Sacramento River during times of surplus, such as heavy storms or floods. That water would then be released later from Sites back into the river, and diverted out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to water users in the south. As some observers of the project have noted, the water will simply go to the highest bidder, like all water in California.

None of this makes Sites Reservoir an inherently bad project. But rather than a lobbying success, the meeting ought to be a wakeup call for the project’s supporters: There is no reason to assume Californians are ready to support the project simply because they live near it. A stronger case needs to be made that there’s something genuinely valuable in it for the north state.

Sea Level Rise: Not Just a Flooding Problem

New estimates of sea level rise in the Bay Area and California got a lot of attention recently. The focus was primarily on threats to coastal infrastructure from inundation, and potential unravelling of huge investments in wetland habitat restoration.

Little attention was paid to the threat to drinking water resources, which is significant.

Circle of Blue fills that void with a look at saltwater intrusion to coastal freshwater aquifers from sea level rise, a long-standing and growing concern.

“Saltwater intrusion is the biggest untold water story in the world today,” Ron Duncan, interim general manager of Soquel Creek Water District, told Circle of Blue. “It’s a silent problem. It’s easy to ignore politically, but it can spoil the water source for future generations.”

It’s been an ongoing problem in certain parts of the California coast. In fact, it’s one reason Orange County launched the state’s largest sewage recycling project some years ago. The treated sewage is injected into groundwater wells for two purposes: to return it to the drinking water system, and to repel saltwater contamination of those wells.

But as the sea level rises, problems are increasing. As Circle of Blue notes, earlier this year the California Department of Water Resources designated groundwater basins in Soquel, the Pajaro Valley and the Salinas Valley as “critical” because of saltwater intrusion. In Monterey County, the saltwater boundary, at its farthest reach, has traveled more than six miles inland, largely because of groundwater pumping.

These water agencies are struggling now to deal with sea level rise and saltwater contamination of their freshwater wells. With an additional three feet of sea level rise expected over the next 80 years (under current estimates), this is certain to become a much more prominent water supply problem.

Top image: An artist’s rendering of the proposed Sites Reservoir project in Colusa County. (California Department of Water Resources)

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