Jun 14, 2014

Water Shortages are a Choice

Auburn Dam Council Regional Water Storage Forum

June 13, 2014


We are gathered here to talk about water storage amidst one of the worst droughts in California’s recorded history.  If we can’t make progress now on this issue, when will we?

The fact of the matter is that droughts are nature’s fault, and have plagued us since the beginning of time.  But water shortages are OUR fault.  We live in one of the most water-rich regions of the country – yet we have not built a major reservoir in this state since 1979.  Meanwhile, the population has nearly doubled.  The sad, simple fact is that we will NEVER solve our water problems until we start building new dams once again.  And we will NEVER build new dams until we completely overhaul the radical environmental laws that have prevented construction for more than 30 years.

In fact, until the drought captured the attention of the people, both the Brown Administration in Sacramento and the Obama administration in Washington were pushing to destroy perfectly good existing dams, including four hydroelectric facilities on the Klamath River. 

As recently as 2010, politicians were seriously proposing tearing down the Hetch Hetchy Dam that is the principal water source for San Francisco.  (Now, I admit there is a certain poetic justice in that – but let us not lose sight of the fact that it is completely crazy!)

Opposition from the green left has even stalled our efforts to raise the spillway at the Exchequer dam in the Central Sierra by ten lousy feet in order to add 70,000 acre feet of water storage at Lake McClure.

Everyone thinks that the Colorado River is the mother lode of all water in the Western United States, but the Colorado is a junior sister to the mighty Sacramento River system.  The difference is that we store 70 million acre feet of water on the Colorado and only 10 million acre feet on the Sacramento.  Most of the rest is lost to the Pacific Ocean.

While President Obama proposes fighting the drought by spending another billion dollars on climate change, Governor Brown proposes $14 billion for cross-delta tunnels that will produce exactly zero additional water storage and exactly zero additional hydro-electricity.

Yet for roughly $7 billion we could complete the Shasta Dam to its design elevation of 800 feet, adding nine million acre feet of additional water storage to the Sacramento River system, nearly doubling its capacity.  Not to mention adding 1,300 megawatts of clean, cheap hydroelectricity – enough for roughly 1 ½ million homes.

The fact is there is no shortage of water in wet years to assure abundance in dry ones and there is no shortage of suitable dam sites.  Nor do we suffer from a shortage of resources to build new dams.  The great water projects of the past didn’t put taxpayers on the hook: they were built with bonds repaid not by taxpayers but by the beneficiaries of the water and power. 

The fundamental problem is that we face a chronic shortage of political will to site these needed dams and we face a  superabundance of unreasonable and unrealistic laws and regulations that have prevented us from adding desperately needed storage over the span of an entire generation.

For example,    the little town of Foresthill receives its water from the Sugar Pine reservoir that was built with an 18 foot spillway, but no spillway gate.  They didn’t need the extra capacity at the time; they do now.  So they went shopping, and found that installing a spillway gate would cost $2 million.  But that’s not the cost of the project.  To it, they have to add at least a million dollars for environmental studies and at least $2 million for environmental mitigation – so a $2 million project that was within reach of this little town became a $5 million cost-prohibitive boondoggle.

We can raise Shasta by 200 feet the moment we summon the political will to do so and thus add nine million acre feet of additional storage and 1300 megawatts of new clean hydroelectricity.  And yet, for more than 20 years and God knows how many millions of dollars, we are still studying whether to raise it not the 200 feet it was designed for -- but all of 18 ½ feet. 

Meanwhile, dams at Temperance Flat, Sites and Auburn continue to be studied to death or simply ignored. 

Dr. Johnson once wrote that “When a man is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his attention remarkably.”

Perhaps the drought is having that effect on public opinion.

Earlier this year, the House passed legislation to authorize new dam construction, and replace rigid environmental requirements with common-sense alternatives like adding fish hatcheries and controlling non-native predators that are the principle cause of decline of protected species in the Delta.   It languishes in the Senate.

We will soon act on legislation that I have authored to streamline the permitting process for new dam construction and legislation by Chairman Doc Hastings to set up a revolving fund to jump-start dam financing.

Although the Senate has refused to pass the comprehensive House bill, it has sent us a stop-gap measure that at least gives us the material to begin serious discussions on reconciling the differences between the two houses – discussions that I expect to begin in earnest next week.

The nub of the problem comes down to this.  A few months ago, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on this subject in Fresno –ground zero in the fight to produce more water for our state.  Every expert who testified told us that we cannot solve our water problems until we reform the Endangered Species Act.

That doesn’t mean repealing it, but certainly we should be able to agree on commonsense reforms, like allowing hatchery fish to meet species counts, promoting non-native predator control, and allowing warm water fisheries to replace cold ones in hot regions like the San Joaquin Valley.

What about desalinization, I’m often asked.  Desalinization makes sense in arid regions like the Middle East or on desert islands like Aruba.  But it is extremely energy intensive and expensive – upwards of $3,000 per acre foot of water.  It makes sense in California only if you don’t mind seeing your water bills triple.

Fortunately, we don’t live in an arid wasteland – we live in one of the most water-rich regions of America – and before we embark on breathtakingly expensive projects like de-salinization, we should first take advantage of our existing resources that cost a fraction of that expense.

So I say again, we will not solve our long-term water shortage without additional dams and we will not build additional dams until we reform our environmental laws. 

Droughts are inevitable – water shortages are a choice.  They are a choice we have made by adopting these laws, and they are a choice we can unmake by changing these laws.

Meanwhile it ought to be self-evident that in this extreme drought – for which we have failed to prepare by adding more storage – at least we need to be very careful about how we manage the dwindling water that is remaining behind our dams.

This drought has devastated more than a half-million acres of the most fertile farmland in America.  In communities like Sacramento, “water police” go from door to door to enforce conservation measures.  There’s even a mobile “app” to report neighbors to city authorities so they can be fined for wasting water. 

With the Sierra snowpack now gone, there is no more water coming until the next rains.  We are going to desperately need what little water remains behind our dams this summer.  Authorities have warned some towns like Folsom – home of Folsom Lake – to expect daily rationing of 50 gallons per person, a 60 percent cut from their normal household usage. 

Yet last month, the Bureau of Reclamation drained Folsom Lake, New Melones, and other reservoirs on the American and Stanislaus rivers of more than 70,000 acre feet of water – enough to meet the annual needs of a city of half a million people – all for the comfort and convenience of the fish.

Government officials who are entrusted with the careful management of our water squandered it in less than three weeks in order to nudge steelhead trout toward the Pacific Ocean (where they have tended to swim for millions of years without our helpful advice); and to keep the river at just the right temperature for the fish by flushing out the colder water stored in our reservoirs.

These water releases are so enormous they are called “pulse flows.”  They generate such swift currents that local officials issue safety advisories warning the public to exercise extreme caution when on or near the rivers. 

In January, pictures of a near-empty Folsom Lake on the American River made national news.  Yet on April 21st, the Bureau of Reclamation more than tripled water releases from the dams on the American River from 500 cubic feet per second to more than 1,500 cubic feet per second for three days – sending more than 7,000 acre feet of water toward the ocean.  Elevated releases of as much as 2,000 cubic feet per second have continued since then for “temperature control.”

On April 14th, a 16-day pulse flow drained nearly 63,000 acre feet of water from dams on the Stanislaus River.

Unrealistic laws like the Endangered Species Act administered by ideologically driven officials have now crossed from good intentions to dangerous policy, and the folly cries out for fundamental reforms. 

One of the ironies is that before we built the dams, in a drought like this the rivers dried up AND THERE WERE NO FISH.  There is nothing more damaging to a riparian habitat than a flood or a drought, and before we tamed this cycle by building dams, species often went extinct under the harsh rules set by Mother Nature.

An administration that has never been shy about asserting executive powers has the authority to stop these releases through provisions in the Endangered Species Act that allow a committee of officials to suspend them.  It has failed to do so.

The result is that while homeowners desiccate their lawns and gardens and clog their showerheads with flow restrictors to save a few extra gallons of water, their government thought nothing of wasting 23 billion gallons to lower river water temperatures by a few degrees in late April. 

The frivolous and extravagant water releases from our dams last month mock the sacrifices that our citizens make every day to stretch supplies in this crisis.  In turn, they undermine the government’s credibility and moral authority to call for stringent conservation and hardship by the people. 

So I repeat this simple truth: California’s chronic water shortages won’t be solved without additional storage.  Despite an abundance of suitable and affordable sites, opposition from environmentalists and the laws they have wrought have delayed these projects indefinitely and made them prohibitively costly. 

Perhaps, at least, the public can draw from this tragic waste a lesson in how unreasonable our environmental laws and regulations have become, and just how out of touch are the policy makers responsible for them.

California is at a cross-roads and it is time to choose between two very different visions of water policy.

One is the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages, higher and higher electricity and water prices, massive taxpayer subsidies to politically well-connected and favored industries, and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water and every watt of electricity in their bleak and dimly lit homes.

The other is a vision of abundance, a new era of clean, cheap and plentiful hydro-electricity; great new reservoirs to store water in wet years to assure abundance in dry ones; a future in which families can enjoy the prosperity that abundant water and electricity provide, and the quality of life that comes from that prosperity.  It is a society whose children can look forward to a green lawn, a backyard garden, a family swimming pool, affordable air-conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, brightly lit homes and cities and abundant and affordable groceries from America’s agricultural cornucopia.

That is the vision that the Auburn Dam Council has kept alive all these years – and a future I am certain that most of us here today will live to see because of all you have done, are doing and will do to see that future is secured.

Tom McClintock
Tom`s Blog