Fixing California – Part three: Achieving water abundance

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
July 5, 2021

Fixing California – Part three: Achieving water abundance

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a nine-part series on how to fix California. Read the first article in the series here, and the second here.

As Californians face another drought, the official consensus response is more rationing. Buy washers that don’t work very well. Install more flow restrictors. Move down from a 50 gallon per person, per day limit for indoor water consumption to 40 gallons per person per day. For California’s farmers, recent legislation has not only lowered what percentage of river flow can be diverted to agriculture, but now also restricts groundwater pumping. The impact is regressive, with consequences ranging from petty and punitive to catastrophic and existential.

Wealthy homeowners pay the fines and water their lawns, while ordinary citizens are forced to obsess over every drop. Corporate farm operations navigate the countless regulatory agencies while family farmers are driven insolvent. And the worse it gets, the more the story stays the same: We have wasted water, destroyed ecosystems, and now we must embrace an era of limits. But this is a perilous path.

Maybe the consensus model of water management in California works for corporations that want to consolidate the agricultural industry. Maybe it benefits developers who want to build apartments with no yards, where the interiors are equipped with “water sipping” (lousy) appliances. Maybe the public utilities prefer a model where they don’t have to build new infrastructure because per capita consumption is driven down. Maybe the “smart growth” advocates for “infill” love the idea they can sell high density more easily because if everyone uses half as much water, twice as many households can occupy the same square mile of urban space. But as demand is ratcheted down closer and closer to supply, the system loses all resiliency.

The concept of abundance isn’t merely to preserve the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. Abundance also protects against downside risk. What if the next drought doesn’t last five years, but goes on for a few decades or more? There is historical precedent for that in California, regardless of current worries about climate change. What if there’s a terrorist attack, a cyberattack, a war, or another natural disaster and California’s water infrastructure suffers significant damage?

Abundance means redundancy, diversity, resiliency. The case for water abundance in California is compelling not merely so California’s residents can enjoy amenities that citizens of a developed, modern nation are entitled to expect. Water abundance also means Californians are better prepared for cataclysms.

This was well understood in the 1960s, when California’s pragmatic Governor Pat Brown, and his successor Ronald Reagan, presided over the construction of the California Water Project, which remains the most impressive system of water engineering ever built. But starting in the 1970s, when Jerry Brown (Pat’s son) first became governor of California, water infrastructure became less of a priority. For the last 40 years, apart from some investment in wastewater recycling, there has been no significant new project in California designed to increase the supply of water. Conservation, a commendable objective, bought Californians 40 years. In that time, the population has grown from 25 million to nearly 40 million, while the supply of fresh water for people and agriculture has remained fixed.

Coming up with projects to restore water abundance to California is relatively easy: Build a few more surface storage assets, most notably the proposed Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Upgrade and increase the capacity of existing surface storage, such as the San Luis and Shasta reservoirs. Complete the transition to total wastewater recycling to potable standards in all of California’s major urban areas, and supplement that, especially in Southern California, with additional coastline desalination plants. Repair existing aqueducts and upgrade the Delta levees—and voilà, you’re done.

Even at California prices, this entire assortment of major civil engineering projects could be accomplished for around $50 billion. With some of the work financed through revenue bonds, the entire debt burden on the average California household would be under $100 per year.

So why don’t we do it?

For one thing, special interests benefit from politically contrived scarcity and conservation mandates. And while these special interests exploit environmentalism, that doesn’t negate legitimate environmental concerns that can’t be ignored. Groundwater depletion has caused land subsidence. That’s the real reason for salt water intrusion into the Delta, far more of a factor than the relatively negligible impact of sea-level rise. Land subsidence has also damaged California’s aqueducts. And eventually depleted aquifers become so degraded they can no longer be recharged. Something had to be done.

Similarly, the health of aquatic ecosystems—California’s rivers and the Delta—are not only aesthetic and moral imperatives, but have a practical impact on commercial fisheries. Balancing the need to protect the environment with the needs of agricultural and urban consumers cannot be dismissed. But none of these considerations should preclude the commencement of new projects to increase California’s annual supply of water. Conservation is simply not enough.

And it is here where the role of California’s environmentalist lobby has been destructive.

Environmentalists and Other Obstructionists

Environmentalists in California, unfortunately, object to virtually every major project that would increase the supply of water. Desalination is relentlessly attacked, despite being in use throughout the world. Environmentalist litigation is the reason that desalination plants cost two to five times as much to construct in California as they do in other places, from Israel and Saudi Arabia to Singapore and Australia. As for surface storage, even off-stream reservoirs, such as the proposed Sites Reservoir that don’t impede the flow of any river, or those situated in-stream but upstream of existing dams, like the proposed Temperance Flat, or raising the height of the Shasta Dam, are anathema to environmentalists.

Objections to these projects are cases where environmentalists go too far. But they’re not alone. Libertarians and, more generally, anti-tax crusaders, are also unhelpful when it comes to the infrastructure that California badly needs. Even when projects are proposed that encounter fewer environmentalist objections, such as wastewater recycling, well-organized opponents who can’t accept any government spending on infrastructure dutifully join the fray. Both of these camps, the greens and the anti-tax gangs, have acquired influence that can only be countered by a broad revision in public attitudes.

Using general obligation bonds to finance water infrastructure socializes the cost of these amenities to all Californians. By financing half of a water project with general obligation bonds, the burden to the general public is reduced. For example, if half of a $50 billion water infrastructure budget were financed through general obligation bonds, the repayment burden on California’s 13 million households would only be $125 per year, and most of that would fall to the higher income groups for whom $125 means one less bottle of wine per year. But the benefit would accrue to all Californians. Because the other $25 billion in revenue bonds would be matched by general obligation bonds, the rates farmers would pay for water stored behind new dams would be cut nearly in half, as would the rates that urban households would pay for desalinated or recycled water.

This is a model for affordable abundant water in California. This is the achievement that has precedent in the water projects of the 1960s and could be realized in the 2020s if there were a change in attitude and a new consensus. This is the grand bargain that can inspire Californians to demand practical environmentalism and accept debt for worthy projects. This is a model to lower the cost of living.

By making California’s coastal cities independent of imported water, and by collecting millions of additional acre feet behind new dams during wet years to release during dry years, both farmers and California’s aquatic ecosystems have far more available water. Suddenly the tradeoffs between the needs of the environment and the agricultural industry become manageable.

Pragmatic solutions exist. Beyond a new resilience, abundance is possible. And optimism is the fuel to make it happen.

This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

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