The Golden State hasn’t built the storage to make use of winter rains.
by The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, January 17, 2023
California’s political leaders are obsessed with climate, so why don’t they prepare for droughts or deluges? The atmospheric rivers that are sweeping the parched Golden State should be a cause for relief, but they’ve instead given way to catastrophic floods and enormous water waste.
Scientists last fall forecast another warm and dry winter following three of California’s driest years on record. Yet storms this winter have already dropped tens of trillions of gallons of water across the state and more than a dozen feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Alas, little of the storm runoff is getting captured.
One problem is the state’s lack of investment in public works, especially storage and flood control. Drought has recurred throughout California history, punctuated by wet winters like this one. Two seven-year droughts that started in the late 1920s and 1940s spurred the construction of a massive system of canals, dams and reservoirs.
But few large water projects have been built since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s. Species protections for salmon and the three-inch smelt limit how much water can be pumped south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which receives runoff from rivers in the North and the Sierra mountains.
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The amount of water surging into the Delta on Friday could have filled a reservoir the size of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy almost every 24 hours. Instead, nearly 95% of the Delta’s storm water this year has flushed into the Pacific Ocean. Such waste occurs whenever there’s a deluge and is why some reservoirs south of the Delta remain low despite the storms.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to build massive tunnels under the Delta that can export more water to farmers in the fertile Central Valley and cities in Southern California. But environmentalists oppose this idea as they do expanding water storage.
More reservoirs are desperately needed in the North to capture melting snowpack that would otherwise drain into the Pacific or overflow river banks. Reservoirs store runoff and help prevent flooding. Most reservoirs in the North are now above historical average levels so they may have to release water this spring to avoid overflowing.
State voters have approved eight water bonds since 2000 that authorize some $27 billion in funding for various water projects, but little of the money has gone to storage or flood control. That’s because politicians buy off green support for water bonds by promising to spend a large share of their proceeds on ecosystem restoration.
Only $2.7 billion of a $7.5 billion water bond that voters approved in 2014 was allocated for storage. None of the seven storage projects selected by the state for funding has begun construction. Blame in part a government permitting morass. Most aren’t expected to be completed until the end of this decade, assuming they aren’t marooned by lawsuits.
Voters support water bond measures because they think the money will be spent on drought preparation. But it never is. Liberals use droughts and floods to campaign for water bonds that end up funding pet environmental causes. Rinse and repeat. Mr. Newsom last week floated another bond measure for water projects and wildfire mitigation.
If water projects are a political priority, why not finance them with general tax revenue as the state does climate programs like electric-vehicle subsidies? Perhaps because borrowing for water projects allows the government to spend more on other things. As a result, taxpayers wind up paying more for debt service.
Californians are also having to pay much more for water owing to restricted supply. Central Valley farmers and Southern Californians have been slammed by rising water rates. The Nasdaq Veles California Water Index, which tracks the spot price for water in the state, has more than quadrupled over the past three years.
Some local water districts have invested in desalination and wastewater reclamation, but these are expensive. The state is also paying farmers up to $2.5 million to leave fields fallow. About 531,000 acres were left unplanted last year. That’s one reason California’s Central Valley boasts five of the 10 metro areas with the highest unemployment rates in the country.
California’s problems never stay in California. Its profligate water policies are straining the overburdened Colorado River, which supplies six other states and California. Recent storms aren’t expected to bolster the Colorado, and federal officials are threatening to restrict supply for all seven states if they don’t reach an agreement to curb usage by the end of this month.
California has a dry climate long marked by drought. But its failure to plan for water storage and delivery during the wet periods is one more failure of the state’s government and its misguided political priorities.