Those who really believe California has a water shortage should spend five minutes standing in Old Sacramento, watching the Sacramento River.
Operators of the three major dams on the Sacramento and its tributaries – Shasta, Oroville and Folsom – have opened their gates widely, sending boiling torrents of water downstream. They must draw down reservoirs behind the dams to control anticipated runoff from one of the heaviest mountain snowpacks on record.
A week ago, Sacramento River flows hit 90,000 cubic feet per second, even with diversions into bypass channels. But on Friday, the flow was about 75,000 cfs, which meant that someone watching the river for five minutes at Old Sacramento would see nearly 170 million gallons of water – enough flow to fill an empty Folsom Lake in less than a week.
Let's put that in another context. The difference between California's having an adequate water supply and an inadequate supply is roughly 3 million acre-feet of water a year. That's the equivalent of just 20 days of current Sacramento River flow.
In a rational world, the extra flows in this and other high-water seasons would be diverted into what's called "off-stream storage," either into underground aquifers or into reservoirs such as San Luis Reservoir on the Pacheco Pass between Los Banos and Hollister.
However, San Luis, which holds more than 2 million acre-feet, is already full to the brim, and Southern California reservoirs are nearly full.
State water authorities have long called for more off-stream storage to capture high flows. For instance, had the proposed Sites reservoir in western Colusa County been built years ago, as it should have been, it would be absorbing another 2 million acre-feet of water for use in drought years and to stabilize flows on the Sacramento River.
If global warming has the widely predicted effect of reducing snowfall and increasing rain, off-stream storage will become even more critical. But Sites, like other aspects of California water policy, has been tied up in political stalemate for decades. It's not a conflict over water, but rather one of competing visions of how California should develop as it gains population in the 21st century.
Those who prefer high-density urban growth, rather than low-density suburbs, believe that restricting water supplies will help their cause. They don't, in other words, want Californians to have an abundant water supply for both agricultural and non-farm uses.
Jerry Brown – who championed water supply improvements during his first governorship – indicates that he will make them a priority if and when the budget crisis is resolved.
A good first step would be to assemble the Legislature in Old Sacramento and compel its members to watch a squandered opportunity flow to the sea.
Viewpoints: Water everywhere – but no place to store it
Our prayers were answered this year in California with abundant snow and rainfall. So far, we have received 150 percent of normal precipitation and the Sierra snowpack is almost 50 percent above normal. Our pleas to the federal government, however, continue.
In the midst of this deluge, the Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that agricultural water contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on the Central Valley's west side would receive only 65 percent of their contracted water supply – an increase of 15 percent from an earlier announcement. Before the mid-1990s, these farmers regularly received almost 100 percent of their contracted amount. Does this make any sense?
Recent storms have filled every reservoir in the state including San Luis, where water pumped from the Delta is stored. Water managers are releasing massive amounts from our main storage reservoirs because they must maintain a defined amount of empty space for flood control – it's still raining, plus a rapid snowmelt could overwhelm the system. They must release water, sending it through the Delta and out to the ocean even though rivers are nearing flood stage.
In recent days, more than 300,000 acre-feet of water is moving through the Delta and out to sea every day. Where has all the water gone? Over 4 million acre-feet has been taken away from farmers through environmental lawsuit settlements and legislation passed by Congress over the last two decades. Are the fish and the ecosystem in better shape? Not really, but there's another problem.
Even if the pumps in the Delta could run at 100 percent right now, there is nowhere to store this much water. California's outdated water system is straining to get floodwaters out to sea without causing major economic damage to Sacramento, the Delta and many smaller cities in harm's way.
Remember the water bond passed by the Legislature in 2009 and awaiting a decision of the voters in 2012? If we had the two new reservoirs the water bond would help finance – Sites and Temperance Flat – we would be able to capture and store up to 2 million acre-feet of additional water right now. Under the current conditions, it would take probably less than two weeks to fill those reservoirs, which would also relieve some of the pressure on the Delta levees now under so much pressure from dangerously high river levels.
We are talking about a lot of water. Two million acre-feet is about two-thirds the average amount of water delivered in an entire year to Southern California from the Delta. This new water would be used not only for cities and farms, but also to boost freshwater flows in the Delta in late summer and fall when the fish need it. Everyone wins.
There are two avenues we must pursue: build new storage and conveyance infrastructure, and persuade federal environmental regulators to make farming in the San Joaquin Valley a higher priority when doling out allocations. The winter of 2010-11 puts the lie to the claim made by those who wish to cut off water for farms in the name of fish protection. The truth can be seen as we watch the swollen rivers pour millions of acre-feet of water out to the Pacific Ocean. No one wins.
California farms provide more fresh and nutritious produce than any other state, but they are not the only source for the major grocery and restaurant chains. Without an adequate and reliable water supply for California farms, those major buyers can and will turn elsewhere – such as Mexico – for an economical and reliable supply of fresh produce. California should never allow that to happen. Without investing in our water infrastructure, however, we will not be able to prevent it.
Tom Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers, a trade association representing the growers, shippers and handlers of fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in California and Arizona.