More dams or regulations to alleviate drought?

More dams or regulations to alleviate drought?


Camanche dam, wikimediaAmerican diplomat Dwight Morrow wrote, “Any party which takes credit for the rain must not be surprised if its opponents blame it for the drought.”

Likewise any policymakers that take credit for restoring rivers for fish and not building dams should not be surprised when they get blamed for water shortages and groundwater overdrafting.

On June 1 the Sacramento Bee ran an article by Matt Weiser and Jeremy B. White headlined, “Should California use taxpayer dollars to build more dams?” Effectively answering in the negative, they cited several experts saying new dams would yield little water for too high a cost.

Then on June 2 the Bee editorial page itself advocated, “It’s high time California Manages [sic] its underground water sources.”  The Bee saw groundwater regulation, not new water storage, as an urgently needed solution to the overdraft problem.

Groundwater has always bounced back

Groundwater overdrafting is not exactly a new phenomenon to California. Check out the following chart.

Groundwater storage, 1962-2002

The chart shows that, even in the more severe drought of 1977, groundwater levels bounced back. And notice how, in Central California, it is only the southerly Tulare Water Basin that is in long-term decline.

Unsurprisingly, an April 2014 study by the California Water Foundation found the Tulare Basin is where most of the land subsidence from the drought is occurring (see map page 21).

But the major groundwater loss prior to the drought was in the Central Valley and San Joaquin River BasinsThe Bee ran a photo  showing subsidence. But that is not necessarily just cause for adopting sweeping groundwater regulations in the entire Central Valley. 

On June 3, California Farmwater Coalition Spokeman Mike Wade responded to the Bee groundwater regulation editorial:

“In fact, the Valley Ag Water Coalition was actually the FIRST organization to propose language that would allow local government to impose fees on groundwater pumping to fund local improvements with dollars coming from groundwater pumping activities.”

So if local governments can handle the situation, is statewide groundwater regulation really urgently needed?

Moreover, State Sen. Fran Pavley’s proposed Senate Bill 1168 requiring local groundwater management plans sounds duplicative to Assembly Bill 3030 passed in 1992.

What do new dams really cost? 

Experts cited by the Bee said new dams would yield little new water at unjustifiable costs for minor benefits to fish, farms or cities. However, the sole focus on the total cost of newly developed water storage sources distorts what the overall blended system cost would be.

Older reservoirs provide cheap water because they were built so long ago that their capital costs have mostly been paid off or minimized by monetary inflation. The incremental cost of old and new water facilities is what water ratepayers feel in their water bills.

The reported $8.8 billion total cost of five proposed new dam projects can also be expressed as costing $3 per month for each California household.  As the Bay Delta Conservation Plan website explained about the cost of big water projects:

“When purchases are financed by debt, like mortgages or car payments, some are tempted to calculate the total cost of the purchase by simply adding up the stream of debt payments over the life of the loan. This is a mistaken way to think about capital costs. … If the interest rate used to discount the value of money available in the future is close to the interest rate on debt, then these two effects cancel out.” 

Groundwater loss and dam costs depend on where you sit

Overblown reports of groundwater depletion and land subsidence such as requiring groundwater regulation have not been put in historical context. New backup water storage is needed as no new dams have been built since 1973.

And nearly $20 billion spent on five water-conservation bonds since 2000 have yielded no new water storage. Bonds ultimately must be paid back with tax dollars. If that money had been spent the past 14 years on dams, there likely would be no state drought crisis.

The old solution that has worked in the past — building more dams — remains as a policy option.

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