Are spring floods a missed opportunity?
HEATHER HACKING - Chico ER Staff Writer
From the banks of the Sacramento River any day recently, a person could throw a stick in the water and watch the powerful current swiftly move the object out of eyesight.
The river is lapping at the edge of River Road, which parallels that waterway. Creeks in the area have been eating into property owners' landscaping. Even irrigation ditches are brimming with water that continues to pelt down in April, following a March that's one of the wettest in recent history.
The elaborate system of water conveyance that provides water to California is pretty much full and huge amounts of water are dumping out through the Delta and into the ocean.
On a typical year, such as 2000, a total of about 22 million acre-feet of water might wash through the Delta and end up mixed with the salty ocean.
Arthur Hinojosa, chief of the hydrology branch of the Department of Water Resources, said about 8.4 million acre-feet exited the Delta in the past 30 days.
To put that into perspective, the maximum capacity of Shasta Lake is 4.55 million acre-feet and Lake Oroville can hold 3.5 million acre-feet.
One acre-foot is enough water to provide for one to two households for a year.
Big reservoirs such as Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville serve several purposes. Of course, they are big bathtubs to store water for the dry season. They also provide releases for the environment and serve as flood control.
Carefully coordinated releases have been increasing in recent weeks to make room in the reservoirs for future rains, runoff and eventually snow melt.
Wednesday afternoon, for example, Shasta Lake increased releases from 20,000 cubic feet per second to 40,000 cfs. That totals about 80,000 acre-feet of water a day.
As the state continues to talk about ways to meet growing water demands in the future, plans are being studied for how to capture more water flow, including a north-of-the-Delta storage facility called Sites Reservoir, near Maxwell in the Antelope Valley.
Proponents say this location is ideal because it could capture extra flow during high water times like this spring.
Saving for a dry day
"There's an awful lot of water in the system," said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Shasta Lake.
"Had Sites been there, this would have been a prime year to fill it up," he said.
He said two senators and a congressman held a press conference on the San Joaquin River last week and made the point that if there was more storage, there would not be breaches of levees occurring in that area due to pressure from heavy flows.
When it comes down to new surface storage, it's an economic issue to balance how much it is worth to build new reservoirs, said Steve Roberts, head of storage investigations for the Department of Water Resources.
"We believe there is a strong need for this kind of facility," Roberts said, and this year is a good illustration of how supply could be captured in a wet year.
Choosing where to store
There are currently several water storage projects being looked at, including raising the level of dams and building new storage. Sites is just one of these.
The state is trying to come up with projects that will have support from local water users. One of the difficulties is that because there are five surface storage projects being looked at at the same time, it's difficult to engage local water districts because the proposal isn't ready to be fine-tuned, he said.
Several years ago, the Northern California Water Association, with many other supportive groups, was leading the charge for Sites to get high consideration when the priorities were set for projects to be built. The group passed out bumper stickers that read "Sites Reservoir" and held special meetings.
But much of the momentum has stalled.
"There's no question a dry year could be right around the corner and we're going to be wishing we had that water," said David Guy, director of NCWA. To me that water is important for farms, cities, fish, birds — we're missing that opportunity for all the various purposes."
Funding was provided for a study of the Sites proposal, and those studies are still in the works.
When Gov. Schwarzenegger came out with his proposal for bonds to bolster levees and improve the state's water supply, interest in the five proposed water storage projects throughout the state was renewed. Yet, it's still a political reality that all five aren't likely to be funded simultaneously.
Roberts said planners need to look at the cost of a facility and see if it is worth the money over the long haul. It's easy to look at this year and say, why didn't we have storage to fill a reservoir? But what if a time of high water only happens every 10 years?
"Would that be enough to pay for the project?" he asked.
"That's what we need to look at when we do our studies," he said. "What's the right size of the project to make this thing economically feasible?"
Also, are people willing to pay for it? Part of the water plan specifically states that those who benefit from the projects need to help pay for them. But the lists of who benefits, and how much they benefit, have not been mapped out.
As for Sites, Roberts said the studies are about two years from being completed.
It's a slow and complicated process.
"When I walk away, I want to know I didn't build a dam that didn't need to be built."
The state came out with the California Water Plan Update 2005, which calls for a variety of solutions for future water needs. These include conservation, improved groundwater use, maintenance of existing infrastructure for efficiency, and several others.
Storage isn't just about providing more water to the state, he explained. Flood control and providing water for the environment are benefits as well. Storage also gives the state more flexibility, he said.
"When something happens in the Delta, like an emergency, we would have another safety valve. If the Delta breaks and salt runs through the Delta, we can use water to wash (away) the salt.
"If we had earlier snow melts, we would have another way of picking up that water."
The other projects being reviewed also have benefits. For example, storage in Central California could help to restore the San Joaquin River. The state is also looking to build up the Environmental Water Account. That might be aided by a project proposed in the Bay Area.
Not all agree
Building new infrastructure has its detractors. John Merz, of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, and many other environmentalists are concerned that if Sites is built, only agriculture or new development would benefit. He's concerned that if water from the Sacramento is siphoned off to Sites, it would be year-round, not just when there are heavy flows.
Additionally, times of high water are important to the health of the Bay Delta by bringing in sediment that provides nutrients, and even providing a source for ocean beaches.
"I've always objected to the concept of wasted water, unless you believe human beings are the only recipient of what is the lifeblood of the planet."
Staff writer Heather Hacking can be reached at 896-7758 or email@example.com.
"Copyrighted article reprinted with permission"