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GRASS VALLEY, Calif. March 9, 2017 – On his campaign web page, LaMalfa states “Building new storage projects is a win on every level. We gain more water for our communities, agriculture and the environment while creating good paying jobs. Storage is something we need every year, either for flood protection or drought relief.” This statement is somewhat misleading as it leaves out of few key pieces of information.
First, you need to have water before you can store it. A recent UC Davis study analyzed all of the water rights the State has already allocated and found that 10 times more water has been locked up in rights in the Sacramento River watershed than flows through in an average water year. That means no one is going to get “more” water until all of those previous rights have been satisfied and that will only happen in very wet years.
Second, you need a place to put new storage projects. There are only four undammed rivers left in the State and over 1400 dams big enough to be inspected for safety reasons, according to a KQED survey. Many rivers function as complex networks of reservoirs, hydropower facilities, and diversions to drinking water and irrigation supply systems and often have multiple interconnections so water can move back and forth between natural watershed boundaries and even uphill when hydropower managers use power at night to generate hydropower during the day (you can see the Yuba-Bear Flow Schematic online). The density of this infrastructure leaves little room for new surface storage.
Third, there are costs to taxpayers and water agency ratepayers that go hand in hand with surface storage that Mr. LaMalfa does not talk about. The proposed off-stream Sites Reservoir is slated to cost about $4 billion, half of which has been funded by State taxpayers and half of which is supposed to be funded by local water agency ratepayers. Before the latest drought, the local agencies were not willing to pony up the money. In addition, there are fairly large long-term financial impacts downstream of all these dams that stem from environmental changes. The story of declining commercial fish populations is well known, but the whole ocean ecosystem depends on organic material flowing from watersheds out to the ocean. Shoreline erosion and levee failure risks are also increasing in the Delta and San Francisco Bay because the sediment that used to flow to the ocean has been trapped behind dams. Warmer river water in and below reservoirs is related to algal blooms that release neurotoxins in water many people use as a source of drinking water. These toxins cannot be removed by conventional treatment systems, meaning that water agency ratepayers may end up paying more for treatment in addition to construction costs. These algae blooms were historically held in check by free flowing rivers that scoured out the system during high flows. In short, water flowing to the ocean is not wasted, it’s what we need.
Fourth, there are alternatives to surface reservoirs for both storage and flood control. Lake Shasta, the biggest reservoir in the State, holds about 4.5 million acre-feet of water. The groundwater basin in the San Joaquin Valley is being overdrafted at a rate of about 2 million acre-feet per year. That means there is more storage capacity in one groundwater basin than in the biggest reservoir. Aquifer storage and recovery projects are very common and have proven cost-effective in Southern California. Additional benefits to groundwater recharge include limiting the land subsidence that is threatening public and private infrastructure in many areas of the Valley. Restoring and using natural river floodplain is also more cost effective than trying to build more dams. The farmed land in the Yolo Bypass demonstrates that agriculture and flood control can co-exist.
LaMalfa has promised to hold public meetings to discuss policy issues with constituents in Nevada County and he should address these facts about surface storage in that forum.
Kim Taylor, Grass Valley CA