For California water managers, establishing new traditions takes time

The California Water Commission sent ripples through the water world recently when it gave tepid “public benefit” scores to 11 water storage projects vying for taxpayer funding.

Project proponents were understandably frustrated, and many were openly critical of the Water Commission’s process for determining public benefits. After all, they’re vying for a big pot of public money – $2.7 billion that was set aside in 2014 with the passage of Proposition 1 – and their public benefit scores are a key factor in determining whether or not they get funded.

But let’s not be so critical. The Water Commission has been handed a difficult task, and is doing the right thing by carefully considering and scrutinizing each project. Here’s why.

Last year, we had more water than we could handle. Reservoirs were quite literally overflowing. This year appears to be the exact opposite with all signs pointing to another drought – a stark reminder that California’s water system needs to be resilient to drought, yet flexible enough to handle extreme weather events.

Water storage plays an important role in managing for this variability. During wet years we store surplus water for use during dry years. Traditionally, water storage was characterized by large dams and reservoirs used to supply water to farms and cities. California is home to 1,400 dams that sit on pretty much every major river in the state.

But four years ago, during one of the worst droughts in state history, California water managers recognized a need to change their approach to water storage. That year voters overwhelming passed Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond measure that, among other things, set aside critical funding for water storage projects.

However, there was one important caveat – funding can only be allocated to components of water storage projects that provide a “public benefit.” That includes things like recreation, flood control and ecosystem and water quality improvements.

With that requirement in place, water managers have had to think differently about their applications for funding. Water storage and supply goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Instead, equal weight must be given to other environmental and social goals.

While some of the projects now vying for funding include construction of more traditional storage projects – new or expanded surface storage reservoirs – there are a number of projects that are breaking new ground in water storage. Projects proposed by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency will recycle water and recharge groundwater aquifers. These projects received the highest public benefit scores from the Water Commission because, in addition to meeting water storage needs, they provide obvious environmental benefits.

With the announcement of public benefit scores last week, the Water Commission reached an important milestone for water storage in California. Not only are we one step closer to moving some projects forward, but the Water Commission has also made clear that California’s storage needs and priorities are changing. And with these changing priorities, we must look differently at how we evaluate the range of benefits that storage projects provide.

This is uncharted territory for the Water Commission, state agency staff and project proponents. As a result, the process has not been easy. The Water Commission has had to create a methodology for evaluating public benefits from scratch. This type of assessment has never been done before, so it’s not surprising that there have been some bumps along the road.

But the Water Commission is providing an important service that is protecting the public interest and preventing funding from going to projects that will only benefit select water users. Let’s not forget that taxpayers will be paying for these projects for the next 30 years.

Let’s also not forget that we’re in the early stages of the process. The Water Commission has encouraged proponents to revise their proposals and has given several months to listen to appeals and make a final determination for funding in July.

It’s time to embrace this challenge and advance projects that deliver the environmental benefits and water supply resilience that California needs.

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One Comment

  1. Thirsty in CA
    Posted February 23, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Give us our 2.7 billion dollars back. Come up with a plan that truly benefits all (including farmers as they are people too) and then ask for the money to execute your "fair and balanced" plan. Please do this before this money ends up somewhere else or is used to "asses and study" ourselves to death.

    California….. solving problems one century at a time. Texas…now there's a state that gets things done.