California’s Mega Water Wasters

It’s illegal to serve drinking water in a California restaurant unless the customer asks for it. Billboards sponsored by the state urge residents to put a bucket in their shower to capture water for their gardens. These symbolic pittances, along with escalating restrictions on water use by farmers and households that are anything but trivial, are the products of a deeply flawed mentality governing water policy in California. 

At the same time as government bureaucrats commit to ongoing water rationing, ferocious winter storms lash the state with hundreds of millions of acre-feet of precipitation. If this storm runoff were captured and stored, there would never be water scarcity again. But instead, it merely causes flooding and havoc, then runs into the vast Pacific Ocean. This is the story of California’s mega water wasters, one of the most delusional, self-righteous, destructive cults in the history of civilization.

In California, when it rains, it pours. So far in 2023, up and down the state, rain and snow are pouring down, one storm after another. Rainfall totals in the San Francisco Bay Area are an astonishing 600 percent of normal for this time of year. In almost every watershed throughout the state, total rainfall is well above normal, and in the Sierras, the all-important snowpack is now sitting at exactly 200 percent of normal.

With all this rain and snow, it might seem like California’s multiyear, devastating drought has come to a welcome and very wet end. But according to the experts, we can’t believe our lying eyes. When Politico reporters asked California’s state climatologist, Michael Anderson, if the drought was over, “in short, no,” was his answer. Anderson had just “had a conversation about that” with a UC San Diego water expert who had the temerity to suggest that California’s drought was over.

So, it’s raining and snowing like hell these days, with no end in sight, but we’re still in a drought. That’s the official line, and wavering is not allowed. 

As reported by News 1 in Los Angeles, “Despite storms, state reservoirs aren’t likely to return to normal levels this year.” From NBC News: “California has been hammered with rain. It may not be enough to reverse its drought.” From Bloomberg: “California Deluge Is Still Far Too Little to End Drought’s Grip.”

Why California’s Man-Made Drought Will Continue

Despite experts predicting for years that Californians would need to rely less on a diminishing snowpack and more on harvesting water from storm runoff, the state has done little to prepare. Even if that isn’t a permanent new reality, it’s happened often enough in recent years to warrant adaptive measures. But here we are, in 2023, and when the rain stops, and if the snow melts prematurely, Californians will likely face another year of drought restrictions.

California has massive reservoirs, sufficient to supply the state through drought years, but state water managers won’t allow them to fill up in January. If they do, runoff from spring storms and melting snow may go straight over the spillways, causing flooding downstream. The assumption had always been that these reservoirs should be left half-empty throughout the winter to protect communities downstream from flooding, and would not be allowed to fill until May or June as the snow finally melted and the probability of large new storms was lower.

Knowing when to stop releasing and start saving water in California’s reservoirs requires knowing if more late spring storms are coming, and whether or not an early heat wave will send the snowpack cascading out of the mountains prematurely. This is impossible to predict, so California’s water managers err on the side of caution, and year after year, they let the water out.

The problem is compounded by environmentalist-inspired regulations, perpetually expanding, to leave a minimum flow in the rivers to protect fish. The result during dry years is that farmers and urban water agencies downstream from these depleted reservoirs are not permitted to withdraw water because the flow is necessary for the ecosystems. Never mind that in the days before dams, anadromous fish species simply stayed in the ocean in the years when the rivers ran dry.

However valid concerns over flooding and aquatic habitats may be, there are known solutions. But they face the gauntlet of obligatory, protracted, biased studies, endless environmentalist litigation, legislative indecision, hostile government bureaucracies, and powerful business and financial interests that profit from water scarcity.

Missed Opportunities

If downstream flooding is a concern, as it should be, there are remedies. One fix is to construct new dams upstream from existing flood control dams. The lower dam could then be used as it always has been, mostly for flood control, and the upper dam could be allowed to fill. 

But in the face of relentless pressure from environmentalists, two major dams that might have fulfilled these criteria were never built. On the North Fork of the American River, the proposed Auburn Dam would have stored 2.3 million acre-feet of water and would have been upstream from the existing Folsom Reservoir, which could then have been used exclusively for flood control. Environmentalists declared filling the Auburn Canyon would be an ecological catastrophe, and the Auburn Dam project died.

Also killed by environmentalists was the Temperance Flat Reservoir, which would have been upstream from the existing Millerton Reservoir on the San Joaquin River. Temperance Flat, which could have been filled up by the torrential rains that have already blown through California this year would have stored another 1.3 million acre-feet.

Another way to reserve runoff without compromising flood controls is to build off-stream reservoirs. These are constructed in arid valleys with minimal runoff and no major rivers, but they are pumped full using water taken from California’s rivers and aqueducts during storms. Only one major off-stream reservoir exists in California, the massive San Luis Reservoir, with a capacity to hold 2 million acre-feet, even though dozens of promising locations were identified during the heyday of the California Water Project in the 1950s and ’60s.

As it is, a few major off-stream reservoirs are still being considered, but they’re not getting anywhere despite the will of the people. 

California’s voters in 2014 overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a water bond that would have funded the proposed Sites Project, an off-stream reservoir originally planned to hold 2 million-acre feet. But Sites remains tied up in litigation, endless planning, and only half-hearted and belated efforts by the state to secure matching federal funds. 

Meanwhile, other badly needed off-stream reservoir proposals are getting nowhere. The Pacheco Reservoir, which would provide essential backup storage for urban water agencies serving Silicon Valley, is tied up in environmentalist litigation and funding controversy. The Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir, designed to serve farmers in the upper San Joaquin Valley, is barely out of the concept stage, but the day it becomes anything more than a dream it is sure to end up with environmentalist lawsuits that will tie it up in knots.

Even if all these reservoirs were built and allowed to fill, how much of the subsequently released water would be untouchable and reserved exclusively for aquatic ecosystem health? It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the environmentalist mantra—and one never effectively challenged in California—goes something like this: “The more water you leave in the river, the better, and the only truly acceptable management strategy is to leave all the water in the river.” This is a recipe for perpetual water scarcity, and that’s exactly what we’ve got. 

Unless it rains all winter and well into the spring, and perhaps even if it does, millions of acres of farmland will be taken out of production, and urban residents will be required to kill their lawns and take short showers. The absurdity of this policy in action can be seen in how water is currently managed in the biggest hydraulic choke point in the state, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In just the first two weeks of this year, over 3 million acre-feet of fresh water have passed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and flowed into the San Francisco Bay, but of that, only 260,000 acre-feet has been diverted by the state and federal pumps into the aqueducts Californians depend on to deliver water to reservoirs in southern and central California. This is only two-thirds of their pumping capacity, which in any case is grossly inadequate and hasn’t been upgraded in over 50 years.

There is no rational justification for this. This volume of water has not swept through the Delta since the floods of 2017. Moving a much higher percentage of this much floodwater into southbound aqueducts and aquifers cannot possibly harm Delta ecosystems, when the remaining flow is still more water than the Delta and San Francisco Bay estuaries have seen in several years. Where is the hardware? Where is the will?

Why isn’t it possible, when levees throughout the Delta region are currently failing from flooding rivers, for existing infrastructure to be used to move desperately needed water south to badly depleted storage facilities?

Practical Solutions Encounter Endless Delays and Obstacles

The solutions to flooding and the solutions to drought have a compelling symmetry. If you solve one, you have probably also solved the other. California could have all the water it needs through smart investment in infrastructure. The system of dams and aqueducts built 50 years ago still holds up remarkably well, and upgrading and adding to those assets to meet 21st-century requirements is well within the technical and financial capacity of Californians. The problem is all political.

New and innovative proposals permitting more fresh water withdrawals from the Delta even during periods of reduced precipitation should be evaluated and fast-tracked. For example, the San Joaquin Valley Blueprintproposes to install perforated pipes into engineered channels with the Delta to divert additional tens of thousands of acre-feet per day without disrupting currents or harming fish populations.

Along with more surface storage, California’s capacious aquifers can store millions of acre-feet of runoff. While percolation basins permit slow recharge of groundwater, recently discovered underground flumes in the Central Valley could allow rapid water diversions into underground storage. It is estimated there are over 100 million acre-feet of available underground storage capacity in California’s Central Valley aquifers, and possibly much more.

Across California’s cities, a recent study by the Pacific Institute claims up to 3 million acre-feet of urban storm runoff can be harvested and treated every year, equaling nearly 50 percent of California’s total urban water demand.

Desalination plants, which could deliver hundreds of thousands of acre-feet each year to California’s arid coastal cities regardless of drought conditions, are perhaps the most fiercely opposed of any project by environmentalists. Despite successful installations from Israel to Australia and from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, only one major desalination plant ever got past the activists in California: the Carlsbad plant just north of San Diego.

There are plenty of ways to solve California’s new set of water challenges, and there is plenty of money to get it done. What is lacking is the will to legislate remedies to the many bureaucratic and litigious obstacles, so Californians can plan and complete these projects in years instead of decades.

California’s Animist Hoi Polloi and Their Enablers

If you want to characterize the mentality of California’s elites, it’s easy enough to encapsulate in a few phrases: “This land belongs to the wildlife, and humans are intruders.”

This is more than an ideology. It is the official state religion of California. It requires its practitioners to worship the earth and the animals, and place these creatures above themselves. It is the animist antithesis of Christianity, which enjoins humanity to worship God and to steward the earth.

This would explain why California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, with wolves reintroduced into California, is now considering petitions to reintroduce grizzly bears. It would explain why ranchers are prohibited from shooting coyotes that threaten their livestock. They can’t even kill wild boar, an introduced species of uncommon intelligence and destructiveness. By the time you get the permit, your calves are dead.

This animist religion is why, to return to the subject of water management in California, you can’t declare open season on striped bass, an alien predator that is killing far more salmon than altered river habitat. Enabled by sport fishing associations that want to keep the bass large and plentiful, water experts are designing contorted schemesto micromanage river flow and temperature in order to maximize the salmons’ chances against the bass.

Water for salmon, salmon for bass, trophy bass for anglers, a dustbowl for farmers, rationing for residents, and fully actualized animist activists. This is life in California under its chic green alternative religion. Animals are sacred, while humans are toxic and must be restricted and rationed.

To appreciate just how elitist and hypocritical this animist bias has become in California, consider the members of the California Coastal Commission. In May, commissioners voted unanimously to deny approval of a major new desalination plant in Southern California. One of the commissioners on this 12-member board has lived on a $35 million estate in Los Angeles’s tony Pacific Palisades. Sitting on over an acre of lush landscaping, this 11,000-square-foot home is part of a neighborhood sprinkled with the mansions of film executives and movie stars. Imagine how much water these households consume.

How can someone that fortunate, whose “water footprint” can’t possibly come anywhere close to the 42 gallons per person per day limit the state legislature has mandated to take effect by 2030, justify voting against a desalination plant that would have made life easier for hundreds of thousands of Californians? Here’s your answer:

According to the Coastal Commission’s voluminous report denying the desalination project: “The Regional Water Quality Control Board determined that Poseidon’s ongoing impacts to marine life would be equal to a loss of productivity from 423 acres of nearshore and estuarine waters.”

That’s the extent of it. A “loss of productivity” in an area of ocean less than one square mile in size. If you can’t do something that minimal in exchange for 56,000 acre-feet of guaranteed fresh water per year, you can’t do anything.

This antihuman religion and elitist hypocrisy infect thousands of influential Californians. But reforming the bureaucracies that are imposing water scarcity on millions of other Californians would require more than replacing the directors. Nearly every bureaucrat staffing these massive regulatory organizations is a product of a deep green, faith-based educational system that preached animism. Thoroughly indoctrinated, they care more about animals than they care about people.

Californians are squandering millions of acre-feet of storm runoff even as they face permanent water rationing. Until tens of millions of Californians stand up to the thousands of activist bureaucrats who wield power over their water and energy, and demand balanced policies that embrace abundance, nothing will change.

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Brontë Wittpenn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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