California Has Millions of Acre-feet of Water Waiting to Be Built

As part of its May Revise rollout, the Newsom administration announced $5.1 billion for water infrastructure and drought response. While the announcement invests on funding better data collection, continuing the implementation of Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, and maintaining current water infrastructure, nothing in Newsom’s proposed funding will solve the real problem facing California: lack of sufficient water supply.

Steven Greenhut, author of the PRI book Winning the Water Wars, talked about Newsom’s proposed water spending on Valley Public Radio recently, saying “a lot of it is about information and conservation, and I’m not against any of these things…but my argument in my writing is we need to promote long-term policies of water abundance that put more water into the state’s giant plumbing system.”

Greenhut is right that many of Newsom’s proposals are necessary for safe drinking water, flood protection, and reliable water conveyance. Newsom also extended the drought emergency proclamation to 41 counties on May 10, which gives state regulators greater flexibility for reservoir releases, conservation, and voluntary water transfers.

But several of the proposals are questionable, such as hundreds of millions of dollars for studying solar panels over aqueducts.

History shows us that the state moves quickly when it necessary. The reconstruction of the Oroville spillways, a massive undertaking at the state’s largest reservoir in northern California, was completed in roughly two years.

If the state wanted to prepare for future droughts, Newsom should pursue with the same urgency the all but forgotten water storage expansion projects approved by the California Water Commission in recent years.

In 2018, the California Water Commission awarded Proposition 1 (2014) water bond funding to eight water storage projects. Prop. 1 gave the California Water Commission $2.7 billion for investments in new or existing reservoirs. Specifically, the money had to fund “public benefits” related to any water storage project that applied for funding.

The commission awarded various levels of funding to eight water storage projects that will collectively increase the total storage capacity by 4.3 million acre-feet.

Unfortunately, Californians will have to wait three more years until the first project is complete. The last of the eight projects may not be done until after 2030, depending on permitting. With the majority of California reservoirs sitting at or below half capacity, imagine what an extra million or two million acre-feet would have done to help California’s environment, agriculture, and cities.

The work on the eight water projects, if they are indeed all built, may be doing some of the most important work nobody seems to be talking about to ensure California has enough water for future generations and future droughts.

Yet case studies and lessons cannot replace the fact that California needs more water. The California Department of Water Resources said they expect to deliver five percent of requested water supplies in 2021. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said they won’t be delivering any of their contracted water for 2021.

With millions of acre-feet underfunded and waiting to be built, Newsom and his administration should put the construction of these water projects front in center in his water plan. Anything less threatens the stability of Californians and its delicate water infrastructure.

Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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