State Hopes to Match the Worst


Despite the heavy rainfall that the region experienced over the weekend, the water situation that the state continues to face is dire.

Precipitation, snow pack, and reservoir levels across California are scraping historic lows. A growing population, not to mention the possibility of drought extending into the next few years, could put the state’s water infrastructure at risk.

“Droughts in California are a part of life, and will continue to be so,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. “We need to learn how to better cope with them.”

It was this sobering message that members of the MWD and Glendale Water & Power delivered to the public at a panel discussion last Thursday.

Rainfall levels this rainy season have been especially low, noted Kightlinger.

“1977 was our driest year in recorded history,” he said. “The series of storms earlier this year have only gotten us close to those levels. We’re hoping to get back to our worst year ever and tie that. That’s our best case scenario.”

The toll taken by the drought is already being felt acutely in some parts of the state. The Central Valley will be hit very hard with up to one-million acres of agriculture being scrapped in order to conserve as much water as possible. California is the nation’s leader in agricultural production. The industry alone makes up 80% of all water usage in the state.

Among the effects that will echo outside of the farming industry will be price spikes for certain fruits and vegetables. The massive scaling back of agricultural production will also affect the Central Valley very seriously. Dust storms, projected 30% to 50% unemployment rate in the region, and dislocation of residents are among the problems it will face.

In Southern California, MWD is seeking to stretch its reserves for as long as it can. The agency is already asking its customers to cut water consumption by 20%.

On this point, MWD representatives said the agency has met with success.

Despite a customer base that has grown from 14 million to nearly 20 million people since the 1990s, the MWD has been able to cut imported water demand from 2.5 million acre feet to 2 million acre feet – a drop of 20%. The agency has spent heavily to curtail demand, with $20 million spent annually on conservation rebates, and another $60 million spent on water recycling and ground water clean-up.

The agency has also invested robustly in water storage programs, over $4 billion in the past several years. The centerpiece of these projects is the Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir in Riverside County, the largest reservoir in the state, holding up to 800,000 acre feet of water.

If the possibility of a prolonged drought spanning years becomes a reality, Kightlinger said that the MWD’s reserves could keep the region flush for up to “several years.”

Aside from the risk posed by a continued drought, there is the risk of the water supply from up north, upon which Southern California vitally depends, being compromised. It’s a situation that Councilmember Laura Friedman, who serves on the GWP board, likened to being “California’s Katrina.”

Experts have said that in a major earthquake, the system of levees and aqueducts that helps ensure a steady supply of water to Southern California could fail catastrophically. Water supplies from up north could be halted for upwards of three years or more.

The problem, noted Richard Atwater, executive director of the Southern California Water Committee, goes beyond the levees and aqueducts.

“Our entire system is dependent on 1960s infrastructure,” he said. “We need to upgrade.”

Another challenge being faced is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, commonly known as the Bay Delta Region. The region is the lifeblood of not only the statewide water supply, but also of countless animal species that make the region its home.

Currently, the state’s two most important water delivery systems are located in the Delta: the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), and the California State Water Project (SWP). The CVP and SWP together distribute water to over 25 million people throughout the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California.

“From the north Delta to the Mexican border, Delta-conveyed water supports farms and ranches that are a source of financial stability for the state and produce much of the nation’s domestically grown fresh produce,” reads the state’s Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) webpage on the region.

Environmental concerns in the region have made moving water difficult.

Water had formerly been moved from the Delta at night during the depth of winter in order to save on costs and electricity usage. Now water can only be moved during the hottest summer months when endangered fish species retreat from the Delta. This requires pumping water 24 hours a day in order to make full use of those windows of time when fish aren’t there. It’s a method that also puts a colossal strain on the state’s electrical grid, when electric customers seeking air conditioned relief from the heat are already taxing it.

The panel touted a proposal, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which would not only improve water delivery from the Delta to Southern California, but also restore 150,000 acres of the region’s ecosystem over a span of 50 years.

A grid of tunnels would be utilized to transport water. It would also be a relief on the state’s energy grid as the water will be transported solely by force of gravity.

“It’s better for us, it’s better for the fish,” said Kightlinger about the BDCP. “This isn’t about more water; it’s about efficiency.”

Cost estimates for the BDCP currently stand around $15 billion. The cost, according to the panel, will be spread among Californians who receive their share of the Delta’s water. They estimate that the cost will come to an added $5 a month to household water bills, which wouldn’t be implemented until approximately a decade from now.

Pointing to improvements recently made in the infrastructure of the state’s educational and correctional facilities, Atwater noted that it was crucial to do the same with the state’s water infrastructure.

“We have to build these systems every 30 years,” he said.

The panel said that the supporters of the revamp have until the first quarter of next year to line up the funding and political support for such a massive project.

The panel admitted that the task before the project’s supporters will be a long and hard one. Northern California has historically bitterly fought proposals from the south to improve access to its coveted water supplies.

But the challenges, Friedman noted, need to be faced together.

Interruption of water supplies to Southern California would have “devastating” effects on the statewide economy, which would ripple across the nation.

“We have to think as one state,” she said. “Because though the water comes from up north, the money comes from the south.”

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