Our state’s system of reservoirs and canals was at one time designed to provide a reliable water supply for California homes, businesses, and farms for three or more dry years. Just two years ago, following a slightly above average wet winter, that system was at full capacity. Now, almost every single reservoir is currently below 50% capacity*, with several in the 10%-26% percent level, and even the experts are alarmed.
The sad truth is that California has allowed trillions of gallons of precipitation to run into the Pacific Ocean during these last two years. Now, water districts and cities throughout our state are beginning to implement mandatory water rationing measures.
So what happened?
California has failed to adequately prepare and provide the state with a functioning water supply system that can grow with our population. If it were managed properly, California receives enough rain and snow to serve its 40 million residents and 4 million acres of farmland for several years. The problem is inadequate infrastructure and a regulatory system that requires a huge amount of water to run straight to the ocean, so we aren’t able to capture what we need to make it through the dry times.
The loss of available water also has significant impacts on our ability to generate power. According to the California Energy Commission, in 2019, water provided 19% of California’s power. Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir, dropped so low this August that the Edward Hyatt Power Plant was forced to go offline for the first time since it opened in 1967. Oroville’s power plant, when at full capacity, can generate enough electricity to power up to 800,000 homes. When combined with the fact that a significant portion of our power now comes from intermittent wind and solar, our ongoing energy crisis is only exacerbated by this lack of captured water.
In the last 25 years, California voters have approved over $27 billion in water resource bonds. Yet, within that same timeframe, the state has not built significant new water storage or conveyance systems that would help our statewide water supply. This lack of action, despite voter-approved funding, has led to a state of perpetual drought. California’s cities and farms are pushed to undergo substantial water rationing, and farmers are forced to pull nut and fruit trees from the ground, leaving thousands of acres fallowed.
Voter approved bonds:
- 1996 – Proposition 204: Safe, Clean, Reliable Water Supply Act; $995 million
- 2000 – Proposition 13: Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, and Flood Protection Act; $1.97 billion
- 2000 – Proposition 12: Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Act, $2.10 billion
- 2002 – Proposition 40: California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002; $2.60 billion
- 2006 – Proposition 1E: Disaster Preparedness and Flood Protection Bond Act; $3.44 billion
- 2006 – Proposition 84: Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act; $5.38 billion
- 2014 – Proposition 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act; $7.12 billion
- 2018 – Proposition 68: California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All Act; $4.1 billion
Proposition 1, approved in 2014, was supposed to provide $2.7 billion for water storage, yet seven years later, much of this money remains unspent as projects that were first proposed in the 1980’s, such as the Sites Reservoir, are tied up in a bureaucratic permitting process and conducting further studies. Had this project already been built, it would have provided the state with 1 million acre feet more water to get through this challenging drought year, but unfortunately, not a shovel of dirt has been turned.
The Governor has the authority to expedite this and other projects that are currently on the drawing board. He needs to. We can’t continue to conserve our way out of droughts. We need new, additional supply and conveyance to re-plumb our state.
Hopefully, we receive the precipitation that we need this winter, and if we don’t, expect significant mandatory rationing and land fallowing next year while the Governor continues to blame climate change. It will be a challenge for Californians to get through.
It didn’t have to be this way. California’s failure to prepare is clearly evident. Regardless of whether the Governor is right that climate change is causing changes in our precipitation patterns or not, we must immediately get to work preparing for this future by improving our water system.
At one time in our history, California’s water system was state of the art, and admired around the world. It drove an economic engine that allowed our state to thrive and grow, bringing prosperity never before seen on earth. Sadly, the neglect shown over the last 40 years threatens to end this “Golden” era. Hopefully, the Governor will at some point step up and act. Our future growth, economic well-being and quality of life depend on it.