As a result of California’s highly variable climate, the practice of storing water predates statehood. And for more than a century, storage projects in California have generated heated controversy. A century ago, John Muir led a famous and unsuccessful effort to stop the damming of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. Since then, the story of water storage in California has often been one of conflict – including landmark fights over the Auburn and New Melones dams.
Yet today, a new and very different generation of storage projects is producing surprisingly broad benefits for people and wildlife. Two proposed California projects, in particular, are garnering support from environmental and fisheries groups, which historically have often opposed traditional water storage projects.
The history of conflict over dams is understandable. Traditional dams killed rivers and blocked salmon migration. Despite repeated promises that the next project would be different, California’s biggest dams have left a long legacy of environmental damage, devastated salmon runs and lost jobs in fishing communities.
But with a warming climate making precipitation even more variable, storing more water can help meet the needs of farms, cities and wildlife. Many believe there is a better way to design storage projects. Today, that belief is being put to the test.
In 2014, the public passed Proposition 1, a bond that dedicated $2.7 billion to new water storage projects, with the requirement that projects must produce credible environmental benefits. These funds are currently being allocated by the California Water Commission, and the process has produced some innovative new approaches.
In Northern California, the Contra Costa Water District has proposed expanding its off-stream Los Vaqueros Reservoir, allowing it to store more water during times of abundance. Half of the project’s water would go to water users – primarily Bay Area cities – during dry times.
The other half of the water would be dedicated to Central Valley wetlands and wildlife. If funded, this project would provide the largest block of water for these wetlands in a quarter-century. Keeping these wetlands wet will help the largest migratory waterfowl population in the West, as well as tricolored blackbirds, the imperiled giant garter snake, Swainson’s hawks, migratory shorebirds and a wealth of other wildlife.
Contra Costa Water District worked closely with wetland advocates to design the Los Vaqueros expansion with wildlife in mind. As a result, wetlands advocates support Proposition 1 funding for the half of the project that would benefit the environment.
In Southern California, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency has proposed storing recycled wastewater underground and retrieving it for use when needed. Doing so would free up water Southern California users would otherwise get from Lake Oroville on the Feather River in Northern California. That conserved water would then be released to keep juvenile salmon alive in the spring of dry years. This benefit to salmon is why California’s salmon fishermen support funding for the Inland Empire project.
The lack of natural spring flows on Central Valley rivers – caused by old-fashioned dams – is a main reason why our salmon runs are declining. It’s also one reason why California’s $1.4 billion salmon fishing industry is in trouble. This year, because of low salmon counts, commercial fishers have lost half of the season they had just a few years ago.
Over the past month, fishers advocated for a spring pulse flow on the Feather River for juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon – to no avail. The Department of Water Resources said they didn’t have the water. The Inland Empire project would lock in a water supply to provide these flows for salmon in dry and critically dry years, when conditions for fish are at their worst. Because most of the salmon caught south of the Columbia River come from Sacramento Valley rivers, improving conditions in dry years is a big deal for California and Oregon salmon fishers.
This new recycled water supply would also be more resistant to climate change and future droughts – making it highly valuable to Southern Californians.
Both of these projects show creative approaches to storing water and sharing the benefits. Both were designed through innovative collaborations that turned competing stakeholders into partners. These projects show that storage projects can help wildlife, salmon and the fishing industry – and also communities, farms and the economy.
Don’t get us wrong. There are still old-fashioned dam proposals before the commission. So far, most of these projects haven’t demonstrated that they provide the environmental benefits required by law and haven’t shown that they qualify for these public storage funds. In contrast, innovative projects are passing the test.
We urge the commission to scrutinize all of the projects before it to ensure that only those providing real environmental benefits receive funding. If not enough projects qualify for funding to spend the full $2.7 billion – so be it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.