Until there was $7.5 billion put on the table by voters, very few people knew of or cared about the California Water Commission. But the commission is suddenly very important as it tries to figure out how to allocate the Water Bond’s $2.7 billion for storage projects.
The nine members of little-known state agency – including Joe Del Bosque of Los Banos – should brace themselves for some substantial politicking. Hard-sell pitches will be coming their way from two ideologically opposite camps.
On one side are the dam builders. They want to build new dams or enlarge existing dams so surface water can be stored and moved as needed across the state through existing plumbing. They’ll talk about enlarging Shasta Dam, expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the Contra Costa County, building Sites reservoir northwest of Sacramento and building a dam on the San Joaquin at Temperance Flat east of Fresno.
On the other side are those in favor of storing more water underground, recharging groundwater basins being rapidly depleted or cleaning up contaminated aquifers in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. Almost everyone in the valley drinks groundwater, and last year our aquifers supplied more than 60 percent of the water we used statewide.
Some are pushing the California Water Commission to act quickly, saying the problem has been studied enough. Others are pointing out that it would take years to build dams or the infrastructure needed to bank groundwater.
The commission’s challenge will be to take a broad view and develop a strategy for integrating storage and water transfers into an efficient, statewide network. They must include in their analysis the impact of climate change on where and when the water will fall. We can no longer count on the snowpack holding the water for four to six months.
The task is daunting, made moreso by political pressure that will intensify. It’s already started. Eleven members of the Legislature sent a letter asking the water commission to fund the Temperance Flat and Sites reservoirs. In Washington, Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, introduced a bill to speed feasibility studies for Sites.
The commissioners, appointed by the governor, bring a wide range of knowledge and views about water issues to the monthly hearings. It includes expertise ranging from engineering to environmental activism, but only one farmer – Del Bosque.
Gov. Jerry Brown is planning to appoint three new members, to replace those whose terms expired in January. His choices should be vetted quickly and approved by the Senate. Commission members have a lot of work in front of them as the next chapter of California’s water wars get underway.
Proponents pulling for new dams will argue that with more winter rain and less snow, the state will need more surface water storage to handle runoff as the natural storage of the Sierra snowpack decreases. Tugging in the opposite direction are those who say the state must invest in groundwater storage. It would cost less than constructing or enlarging dams.
The commission doesn’t expect to start spending all that money until Dec. 15, 2016 – and that’s soon enough. Given all that’s at stake, the water commission needs to get it right.