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Commentary: Water bond funds must focus on surface storage

Issue Date: June 28, 2017
By Danny Merkley
Danny Merkley
Heavy precipitation this past winter filled San Luis Reservoir and most other California surface water storage facilities. Money from the Proposition 1 water bond could help create additional surface storage, which would allow the state to capture more of the water that’s available in future wet years.
Photo/Dave Kranz

Passage of the water bond, Proposition 1, marked an important step in upgrading California's outdated water infrastructure—and we're about to reach a milestone in the process of investing the money voters approved in 2014.

In about six weeks, proponents of water storage projects face the application deadline for the portion of the bond devoted to new storage. The Ag Alert® Storing for the Future series has profiled several of those projects.

Of the $7.545 billion contained in the water bond, $2.7 billion will be invested for public benefits associated with new water storage projects that improve the operation of our state's water system and improve ecosystems and water quality. Though the bond represents merely a down payment, it marks the first significant investment in California's aging water infrastructure in nearly a half century.

With predictions of a reduced Sierra snowpack in most years, flashier storm systems, government environmental policies that demand ever more water for the ecosystem and with increased population, new storage is essential to capture water the way we receive it today, for human and environmental uses during dry periods.

The water bond required the California Water Commission to develop regulations and methods for quantifying and managing public benefits associated with water storage projects. It feels like it is taking forever, but the commission has been moving forward to fulfill a complex Water Storage Investment Program Implementation Plan.

Under the plan, projects will be reviewed for their contribution to improving the operation of the statewide water system, how cost-effective they are and the net benefit they provide to the ecosystem and water quality.

Farm Bureau has actively participated in this process and continues to strongly advocate for projects that provide the greatest public benefit to the ecosystem, fishery health and to farmers and ranchers.

Early in the process, the commission convened a Stakeholder Advisory Group of some 30 representatives, including state, federal and local agencies; agricultural organizations; environmental groups; and tribal and disadvantaged communities. The group has now finished its role in the process, and Farm Bureau was an active member.

Projects eligible for bond funding must provide measurable improvements to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem or its tributaries. Such projects include:

  • Surface storage projects identified by the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Program, with the exception of projects prohibited by the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act;
  • Groundwater storage and contamination prevention or remediation projects;
  • Conjunctive use and reoperation projects;
  • Local and regional surface storage projects.

The eligible projects include larger storage facilities preferred by agricultural representatives, who stress that chances to fund these sorts of projects are rare, and now is the time to take advantage of the opportunity. Larger surface storage projects can also capture flashier storm systems and benefit groundwater recharge.

Some environmental advocates prefer groundwater storage projects, suggesting they are more efficient without the effect of evaporation and more environmentally friendly than surface water projects. They miss the fact that when we receive flashier storm systems, those gully washers cannot be forced through the soil profile for underground storage, whereas large excess flows can be diverted to a surface reservoir.

Here's a comparison I like to use: Close the drain in your kitchen sink, fill your coffee pot with water and dump it quickly into your kitchen sink. You have captured the water in your kitchen sink reservoir. Now, fill your coffee pot with water again and instead dump it quickly into your coffee filter filled with coffee grounds. Water has to percolate through the filter slowly. If you put the water in too fast, it floods and goes to waste.

It takes time to move water to underground storage. On the other hand, strategically located surface storage can hold large volumes of water for later, slow release to good groundwater recharge and groundwater storage locations.

As the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act becomes more fully implemented in coming years, new, large surface storage projects are key to capturing excess surface water runoff during the rainy season and releasing that water later for groundwater recharge. Surface storage also relieves pressure on groundwater pumping by providing additional water supplies for environmental and human uses.

The Water Commission solicited initial proposals a year and a half ago, to identify possible new water storage projects. It opened the formal application period for the Water Storage Investment Program on March 14, with applications due by Aug. 14.

After commission staff reviews the applications, they will all be available for public review by December. In January, the commission staff will release draft public-benefit ratios for eligible projects. Applicants may appeal before the commission finalizes project ratios next March.

The commission will consider projects one by one late next spring, and determine which projects will receive bond funding.

Farm Bureau will remain actively involved, and press to keep the funding process moving as efficiently as possible. After all, how much better prepared would California be for the next drought had we been able to capture last winter's excess flows in new surface storage facilities?

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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