The Wall Street Journal
California Faces Lost Decades in Solving Drought
As the state grapples with drought it confronts the decades of inaction by state and federal officials in expanding its water system
December 24, 2015
By Jim Carlton and Alejandro Lazo
SHASTA LAKE, California—One of the seemingly easiest ways to expand California’s water supply would be to raise the height of the 602-foot Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet, adding the equivalent of another reservoir to the drought-stricken state.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has been studying the idea to some degree since 1980. But regulatory delays and pushback from critics—including a Native-American tribe that has performed war dances at the dam—prevented it from happening.
Raising the dam, which is a fairly common procedure though not on this magnitude, would cost about $1.3 billion. Getting the project funded through Congress and other sources, however, would be a challenge.
The hurdles in expanding the Shasta Dam underscore a broader problem in the nation’s most populous state as it grapples with a devastating four-year drought: state and federal officials haven’t significantly upgraded California’s water infrastructure in decades.
Building water projects amid divisions among residents in Northern California, where most of the water can be found, and Southern California, where most residents live, is a challenge. There are about 1,400 dams under state and federal control in California and roughly 1,300 reservoirs, officials said.
Since the last major state or federal dam was completed in 1979, California’s population has grown to 39 million people from 23 million.
“We’ve added millions of people and yet we’re operating on a 1960s infrastructure for the entire state,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents.
The heyday of large-scale projects to move water to farms and urban areas in California ended during the tenure of Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in the 1960s, and little has taken place since his son, current Gov. Jerry Brown, first led the state in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The Democratic governor championed a $7.5 billion bond measure passed by California voters last year that includes $2.7 billion for water storage projects.
Mr. Brown has staked his political capital on a $15.5 billion plan to build twin, 30-mile-long tunnels beneath the San Joaquin Delta in the center of the state to bypass crumbling levees and an ecologically sensitive area, and move water more reliably to the parched south.
“The total project is absolutely crucial to maintain our economic strength, not only in Northern California but throughout the whole state,” Mr. Brown said in a recent interview.
But that plan has divided farmers, environmentalists and Democratic politicians, and opponents have put a measure on the November 2016 ballot to require approval from California voters.
A drought-relief bill introduced this summer by Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer would have authorized $600 million for dam projects in the Golden State, which could include Shasta. It followed a bill by Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from the agricultural Central Valley, that would help streamline approvals for such projects. As Congress wound down its legislative year, a compromise bill hadn’t been produced.
Critics argue that new or expanded dams are a waste of money, and a threat to fish and other wildlife. They contend conservation efforts already have yielded significant water savings.
Among other issues, opponents contend that building new dams doesn’t make economic sense, saying more water can be stored under ground for less money and through conservation.
“Where are we going to get the best bang for our buck?” asked Tom Stokely, an analyst at the California Water Impact Network, an environmental group based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “You’re not going to get that with new dams.”
Dam supporters, however, say above-ground facilities can store water much faster and that conservation alone can’t meet future demand. They say new dams can capture water in wet years that existing reservoirs can’t, something that will become even more necessary as climate change affects precipitation patterns.
The new dams are being proposed in places farther downstream than the existing reservoirs, so they would capture more rain. The current dams were designed mainly to capture melting snow, and that is why most of the big reservoirs are nestled at the base of mountains.
“We will have more water come down as rain, as compared to snow, and so that will mean these reservoirs will fill up and we won’t have a place to store the water,” said Ajay Goyal,chief of infrastructure investigations for the state’s Department of Water Resources.
Mr. Brown has been working on plans to move more water though the San Joaquin Delta since his first gubernatorial tenure, when he pushed for a peripheral canal. State voters shot down that idea in a 1982 referendum.
The current tunnel plan seeks to transport water beneath an area where the presence of endangered fish often forces pumping to be curtailed, severely restricting water shipments. State officials argue a tunnel only would change how much water is being diverted from the delta by 5% to 10%, and would buffer water supplies in the low-lying region from a potential rise in sea levels due to climate change.
Opponents say rerouting fresh water would allow seawater to infiltrate the delta and destroy fisheries, farms and communities.
“The tunnels are an immediate death to the delta,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla,executive director of Restore the Delta, a coalition of 30,000 farmers, fishermen and other opponents.
The governor called those arguments “propaganda,” and warned that the earthen levees that line many of the delta tributaries could fail to due to sea level rise or a severe storm, cutting off a significant part of California’s water supply for months. “It will cost hundreds of billions, a total catastrophe,” Mr. Brown said. If tunnel opponents succeed, “it will be a very dark day for millions of people in California.”
New state and federal dam projects have been stymied as well. Completed in 1945 on the Sacramento River, the base of the Shasta Dam was designed to hold water up to 200 feet higher than it does now, said Michelle Denning, a regional planning officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, mid-Pacific region.
After a 1976-1977 drought shriveled Shasta Lake, the bureau began looking at expanding the dam. It settled on a plan to raise it a modest 18.5 feet, which would increase Shasta Lake’s 4.6 million-acre-foot capacity by 13%.
Even at that sharply reduced size, the project has been delayed for years in part because of changing environmental regulations for salmon and other endangered species, Ms. Denning said. Bureau of Reclamation officials believe salmon would benefit from a raised dam because much of the new water would be set aside to keep their habitat downstream of the dam at an ideal cold temperature.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, disagreed in preliminary comments in a November 2014 environmental review, saying that raising the dam “does not provide any benefit” to salmon downstream. Officials believe there would be adverse impacts to the salmon, including additional losses of habitat for spawning, by further restricting high water flows.
The issue is paramount to the 125-member Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose traditional homeland largely was flooded in 1948 when Shasta Lake first filled. If the dam is elevated, the tribe will lose much of the rest of its most important property, said Chief Caleen Sisk,who led a war dance in opposition last November.
“We feel the dam is a weapon of mass destruction,” said Ms. Sisk, standing on a bank of the McCloud River which has been used for generations as a puberty ceremony for the tribe’s girls.