After a 35-year stalemate stalled new California water storage projects, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders agreed in 2014 to include $2.7 billion for such needs as part of Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond approved in a landslide by voters later that year.
The then-raging drought persuaded Democrats to go along with major water storage creation plans after blocking new projects since California completed its last dam in 1979. Many Republicans saw the opposition as a back-door way for environmentalists to squeeze state farmers to limit agricultural pollution and protect native species, and to slow growth in urban areas.
Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council scoffed at these claims. They say encouraging water conservation is always a good goal in an arid state, and argue that state and federal laws that protect threatened species need to be fully followed.
This sharp disagreement reflects how water politics have long been fraught in the Golden State. And now that the California Water Commission must choose which of 12 qualified proposed projects to fund with the $2.7 billion kitty, officials’ decisions are sure to be buffeted once again by regional interests (Northern vs. Southern California), economic interests (farmers vs. developers) and environmentalists’ interests. With the 12 projects estimated to cost about $13.1 billion – $10 billion-plus more than what is available – some key water stakeholders are sure to end up unhappy. Some districts will be forced to seek all or nearly all funding from other sources, starting with their customers.
Greens quick to start push for preferred project
The 12 projects were unveiled last week. The water commission must make its final decision by June 2018.
Environmentalists wasted no time identifying their favorite project: The Contra Costa Water District’s proposal to increase the storage capacity at its Los Vaqueros reservoir by more than 70 percent – going from 160,000 acre-feet to 275,000 acre-feet. Contra Costa officials say the additional capacity could meet the yearly needs of 1.4 million people.
But that isn’t why the $914 million project already has the strong support of several environmental groups – including the Planning and Conservation League, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. It’s because a chunk of the water would go to threatened Central Valley wetland refuges to shore up their fragile ecosystems, long a goal of state greens.
To boost the case for the proposal, Contra Costa water officials have lined up the formal support – and promises of funding help – from 12 other Bay Area water districts, which see the additional storage as “drought insurance.”
The most costly proposed projects are to build a $5 billion dam in Colusa County and a $3 billion dam in Fresno County.
Most of the projects proposed for Southern California are less ambitious. The exception is from the city of San Diego, which is asking for the water commission to help cover the $1.2 billion cost of a plant to recycle wastewater with advanced technology that makes it fully safe to mix with conventional water supplies. Officials believe the plant can supply one-third of city needs by 2035.
The project won final approval at San Diego City Hall in 2014, two weeks after Proposition 1 passed.