Mike Dunbar

Is water wasted if we’ve got nowhere to keep it?

At Folsom Dam, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started releasing Folsom Lake water from the spillway at the top of the dam on March 7, 2016. Spokesman Shane Hunt said water would be released at around 8,000 cubic feet per second, nearly doubling the volume from the previous weekend. It marks the swiftest water releases since December 2012, when the reservoir released 9,000 cubic feet per second.
At Folsom Dam, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started releasing Folsom Lake water from the spillway at the top of the dam on March 7, 2016. Spokesman Shane Hunt said water would be released at around 8,000 cubic feet per second, nearly doubling the volume from the previous weekend. It marks the swiftest water releases since December 2012, when the reservoir released 9,000 cubic feet per second. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Tired of playing the water-saving game – shorter showers, browner grass, dirtier cars? Me, too. So let’s join those playing the “wasted-water” game. Instead of bragging about how much we’ve saved, we can shout about how much is going to waste.

State Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird told a San Francisco group that if we just had the California WaterFix (Is In) tunnels, we could have captured 486,000 additional acre-feet of water this spring.

Several water district managers have decried 600,000 acre-feet flowing to the ocean instead of into reservoirs.

South Valley politicians have railed about “losing” 70 percent of the rainfall to the ocean – as if sending any water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a crime.

Here’s a question for all of them: If you had captured 486,000 or 600,000 or even 2 million acre-feet of water, where would you put it? North state reservoirs are nearing capacity. It would be impossible to get it into reservoirs along the Sierra rim. There is some storage remaining south of the Delta, but not nearly enough for all the water supposedly being wasted.

Despite having approved a $7.5 billion bond to build additional storage in 2014, California can’t store one drop more today than it could two years ago or even 10. Yes, it takes time to develop good facilities for storage – above or below ground – but we haven’t done anything. Until we do, there’s no place to put all that “wasted” water. And is the water wasted if it’s flushing the Delta and scouring the river bottoms?

We’ll waste no more words on that.

Water or weapons?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein met with members of the Modesto, Fresno and Sacramento Bee editorial boards last week to talk about her 184-page drought relief bill.

“The assault weapons (ban) was easier to do than this is,” she said.

There’s a competing, deeply flawed bill in the House. If legislators don’t settle on one, then nothing gets done. With drought likely to be a far more frequent condition for California, this is an important battle to win.

“Climate change is real,” Feinstein said. “I grew up in this state and we never saw funnel clouds; these tremendous wildfires – these are very real problems.”

Her solution is common sense: Spend $600 million for storage, $200 million for recycling and $100 million for desalination – all augmenting local and state funds. That might raise Shasta Dam 18 feet, build Sites Reservoir and fund dozens of urban recycling projects. The key, Feinstein said, is “to maximize the water we have.”

Naturally, we couldn’t agree more. But her legislative focus on the Stanislaus River is troubling. Water writer Matt Weiser pointed out that “a portion of Feinstein’s bill directs federal agencies to maximize water extractions from the Stanislaus River. … This could result in violating water rights priorities.”

First, you can’t maximize what doesn’t exist. The river’s New Melones Reservoir has been slow to fill, largely because of weather patterns but also because the Bureau of Reclamation is releasing about 80 percent of what flows in. Friday, the reservoir was only a quarter full at 617,000 acre-feet – barely enough to cover supplies guaranteed to the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

Feinstein insisted farmers here wouldn’t be hurt. “The governing phrase is that it is a ‘possible process,’ ” she said. “If you can’t do it, don’t do it. We’re working with the Bureau of Reclamation, (Rep. Jeff) Denham’s office and the local water districts. … We worked out this compromise language; it just says to identify a quantity of water. It doesn’t say what to do with it.”

But if the water’s not there? “If you can’t do it, then don’t do it.”

Piling on

A lot of valley farmers don’t trust the State Water Resources Control Board or its chairwoman, Felicia Marcus. The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority – Modesto, Turlock, South San Joaquin and Merced irrigation districts and the city of San Francisco – has joined a group dominated by Westlands Water District demanding Marcus and member Tam Doduc not hear rights cases involved in the California WaterFix (Is In).

As a political ploy, we get it. We just don’t agree. Marcus was once regional director of the National Resources Defense Council, which sued to force restoration of the San Joaquin River and is among those fighting to leave more water in the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. If more water stays in the rivers and flows to the Delta, then the governor’s WaterFix (Is In) tunnels can send more of it south. If they aren’t built, then it’s our water that gets pumped south. Either way, we lose.

Despite her résumé, Marcus has shown more understanding and compassion for farmers than any of those she has left behind in the environmental movement. There’s even less reason to remove Doduc, a career state government worker and civil engineer. To work out any kind of protection for our region’s water, it’s better to have someone on the board who at least listens. Marcus does.

Mike Dunbar is editor of the Opinion pages; reach him at 209-578-2325 or mdunbar@modbee.com

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