“Water cops” Likely This Summer as Santa Clara County Misses Drought Goal by Large Margin

If you waste water in Santa Clara County, water cops could soon be on the way.

Since last summer, Santa Clara County residents have been asked to cut water use by 15% from 2019 levels to conserve as the state’s drought worsens. But they continue to miss that target — and by a growing amount.

In March, the county’s 2 million residents not only failed to conserve any water, but they increased use by 30% compared to March 2019, according to newly released data.

Now, faced with the alarming prospect of water shortages, the Santa Clara Valley Water District — a government agency and the county’s largest water provider — is proposing to hire water enforcement officials to issue fines of up to $500 for residents watering so much that it runs into the street or watering lawns too many times a week or wasting water in other ways.

Not all details have been worked out. The water district’s board is expected to discuss the enforcement plan Tuesday and vote on a detailed ordinance on May 24 at its meeting in San Jose. If the crackdown goes forward as expected, it will be the first time in the agency’s history it has taken such a step.

“These trends are alarming. We are in a serious drought emergency,” said Aaron Baker, a chief operating officer of the water district, on Monday. “We are looking to take additional actions to help us meet the goals.”

California has had three years in a row of below-normal rainfall. Overall, 95% of the state is now in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal report. That level is similar to 2014 when the state was in the depths of its last drought, an emergency that began in 2012 and finally ended in 2017 with heavy winter rains.

But this time, Santa Clara County is in a more severe predicament than many other parts of Northern California and the Bay Area. Federal dam regulators in 2020 ordered the district’s largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, drained for earthquake repairs. The $1.2 billion job, which involves constructing a huge new outlet tunnel and essentially tearing down and rebuilding the 235-foot high earthen dam, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns and is not scheduled to be finished until 2030.

On Monday, all 10 of the district’s reservoirs were just 24% full. The agency has also been told it will receive little water from state and federal suppliers. It has been spending millions to buy water from Central Valley farmers with senior water rights and also has been pumping groundwater to make up the difference.

But this year, water sales are more scarce. And district projections show that without more conservation, groundwater could drop to dangerously low levels next year in Santa Clara County if the drought continues into 2023. That could cause subsidence, a condition where the ground sinks in some places, potentially breaking roads, building foundations, water lines and gas lines.

“We are looking to end the year at adequate groundwater levels,” Baker said. “But if we are unable to meet the call for conservation, groundwater levels will be below our subsidence levels, and wells will go dry in South County.”

Since last June, when the district declared a drought emergency and asked residents to cut water use 15% from 2019 levels, through March, the total cumulative savings has been only 3%.

Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels -- missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District)
Water use in Santa Clara County increased 30% in March 2022 from March 2019 levels — missing a goal of 15% water conservation by a large amount. Cumulative water savings from June 2021 to March 2022 was just 3% compared with 2019 levels. (Source: Santa Clara Valley Water District) 

The water district has asked the public to water landscaping no more than 2 days a week. Most of the cities in Santa Clara County have passed local ordinances requiring that. But some, such as Milpitas and Sunnyvale, still allow 3 days a week. Several others — Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford University — have put no limits in place on weekly watering.

More significant, cities and private water companies that have limited watering to 2 days a week have not enforced the rules.

“Fines aren’t the only thing we need to be doing, but they are an important component of a drought strategy,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland non-profit that studies water issues.

“There are individuals who may not respond to conservation requests,” she said. “And if people are allowed to waste water, that makes other people feel like ‘I’m not going to save because that person isn’t.’ It creates a culture of ignoring the requests.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District already asks people to report if residents are watering lawns so much that water runs into the street or watering more than twice a week. They can call the district at 408-630-2000 or email [email protected] and the district sends a letter or puts out a door hanger asking the water waster to conserve. But until now, the district has not taken the additional step of issuing fines for repeat violators.

Data from the water district shows that many of the wealthiest areas are using the most water — much of it to water lawns during January, February and March, which were the driest three months to start any year in Northern California since 1849.

Click here to read the full article at the Mercury News

6 Million Southern Californians Face Unprecedented Order to Conserve Water

Unprecedented water restrictions are in store for about 6 million Southern Californians, a sign of deepening drought in counties that depend on water piped from the state’s parched reservoirs. 

The Metropolitan Water District’s board voted unanimously today to require six major water providers and the dozens of cities and local districts they supply to impose one of two options: limit residents to outdoor watering once a week or reduce total water use below a certain target.

The water providers must have plans to police their customers, and if they fail to impose the restrictions, they could face fines of $2,000 for every extra acre-foot of water that exceeds their monthly allocation limits, starting in June, according to Metropolitan.

The restrictions target parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely heavily on water from drought-stricken Northern California rivers transported south via the State Water Project.

“At this time, a third of our region, 6 million Southern Californians in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino counties, face a very real and immediate water stress challenge,” said Metropolitan Water District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “Today these areas rely on extremely limited supplies from Northern California. And there is not enough supply available to meet the normal demands in these areas.”

Cutting back outdoor watering to one day a week would be a big change for the arid, densely populated areas, where many people irrigate their lawns and gardens. 

Southern Californians have heard for decades about the dangers of drought, but per-person residential water use has increased in the past two years, despite the severe drought. Experts say conservation wavers in the region because restrictions are largely voluntary — and their water never seems to run out

“This is insane but not unexpected,” Peter Kraut, a council member from the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas told the Metropolitan board, which is composed of 38 city and local district officials. “I’m appalled that a change this drastic is happening in such a short period of time.”

“This plan will result not just in brown grass but in killing countless trees. The damage to our environment will take decades to repair,” Kraut added.

Today’s mandate is the first outdoor watering restriction imposed by the giant water-import agency, which supplies 19 million people in California. More stringent restrictions may come later, Metropolitan officials warned: The water providers must also prepare to ban all outdoor watering as early as September, if necessary, as California suffers one of its driest periods on record.

The six affected water suppliers are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District — all in Los Angeles County — and the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino County.

About 13 million other Southern Californians are unaffected by the order because they aren’t as dependent on water imported via the State Water Project. They receive imports from the Colorado River, which largely are sent to Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

Metropolitan has been working to increase the number of customers who can receive Colorado River water to reduce reliance on the hard-pressed state aqueduct. The Colorado River, however, also is facing extreme drought, and deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona are being cut back under an agreement signed by the states in December.

How much each agency must curtail customers’ water use under Metropolitan’s order depends on how much each relies on the state aqueduct compared to other sources, such as  groundwater or recycled sewage.

Water agencies are still figuring out the details. Some local water providers urged the board at today’s meeting to let them continue watering sports fields and parks more frequently so the turf doesn’t dry out.

Two of the six depend almost entirely on state aqueduct supplies — the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves 75,000 residents west of Los Angeles, and the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 19 agencies and cities in southeast Ventura County. 

Some communities served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District have other sources that may buffer the blow of the new mandate. Los Angeles DWP spokesperson Ellen Cheng did not respond to multiple inquiries about which parts of the city will be affected. 

Some of the affected agencies, such as Las Virgenes in Calabasas and nearby western Los Angeles County cities, already have cracked down on residents by imposing new escalating rates and penalties, with mixed success. Others, including Los Angeles DWP, which has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, have not added any new restrictions during the current drought.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

How Recent Rains Affected California’s Drought and Wildfire Season

Some good news on fire risk, but reservoirs didn’t see much new water

After the driest January, February and March in Northern California’s recorded history back to 1849, rains this past week finally brought some relief — and real benefits — across the Bay Area and other parts of the state.

But the wet weather was kind of like receiving wrinkle cream for your birthday, experts said Friday. Better than nothing. But not enough to celebrate.

Simply put, 2 to 3 inches of rain fell in the Santa Cruz Mountains, North Bay Hills and Big Sur over the past week. The Sierra Nevada received 1 to 3 feet of snow over the past week, depending on the location, the most since December.

That desperately needed moisture will delay fire season, experts say. It clears the air, boosts flows in streams for fish and wildlife, charges up the spring wildflower season and will reduce water consumption somewhat because people turn off lawn sprinklers when it is raining.

But California was heading into the third summer in a row of severe drought before the rain. And a few April showers — likely the last hydrologic hurrah until October — can’t make up for three years of major water shortages, experts noted.

“Any little bit is nice. But this is not going to make a significant difference in the drought,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources.

The issue is basic math.

San Francisco historically has averaged 1.6 inches of rain for the month of April. This month, through Friday morning, it had received 1.08 inches. And no more significant storms are forecast.

In other words, the April showers this year haven’t even brought most parts of the Bay Area up to average for a typical April. It just seems like a lot because it’s been so unusually dry since New Year’s Day.

“Compared to January, February and March, it has been a really rainy month,” said meteorologist Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services in Half Moon Bay. “Everyone has been craving rain.”

“We’ve had so little,” he added. “It’s much more noticeable than it would be normally. It has risen up in people’s consciousness. But it’s too little, too late.”

A closer look shows just how badly the Bay Area, and nearly all of California, remains in a serious rainfall deficit.

In the 34 months since July 1, 2019, San Francisco, used as a proxy for the Bay Area because it has the longest-running set of weather records of any city, has received 39.16 inches of rain. The historical average for that time period is 67.77 inches.

In other words, San Francisco has received just 58% of normal rainfall for nearly the past three years and has a deficit of 28.61 inches, even when the latest rain is included. Put in context, that deficit is more than an entire average year of rainfall for San Francisco, which is 22.89 inches.

Click here to read the full article at the Mercury News

Intractable Problems? Are We Running Out of Water?

To put this series in perspective, I started with my observations from my time in the Legislature, which, by the way, are now 16 to 29 years old. My speeches would usually start with the observation that, in California, our freeways are overcrowded, our schools are failing our children, our housing costs too much, and we are running out of gasoline, water, and electricity. You would think that, if those who are in charge in Sacramento were serious about solving these problems, they could at least fix one of them in 29 years. Yet…here we are…29 years later, with the exact same problems, the exact same complaints, and the exact same excuses for why the Democrat majority in the Legislature haven’t solved the problems.

And Californians keep electing them, despite their excuses. We do get the government we deserve, and things won’t change until we get rid of the majority, and replace them with those who have a better idea.

So, let’s talk water. California has one rainy season, usually November through March, and then seven months of almost perfect weather (if you live in San Diego, it is absolutely perfect). We just came off of a time when we had record rain in December, then record dry two months in January and February, usually our rainiest months. The challenge in California is to catch the rain when it falls, and then store it until the months when it doesn’t rain, and then transport that water from where it falls (mostly north of the delta) to where the farms and people are (mostly south of the delta). We have known about this challenge since early in the 1900’s. According to legend, Mark Twain once observed that in California “whiskey is for drinking, water is fighting over.” And we have been fighting over water for what seems like forever.

Let’s get one issue off the table. Our droughts are not caused by global warming or “climate change,” California’s water issues haven’t changed that much since 1870 (as Mark Twain’s observation demonstrates), and the weather, the rainy season, has been pretty much fixed for that entire time. I remember droughts in the mid-70’s, from 1988-92, the mid-2000’s, and the late 2010’s. It’s predictable, about every ten years or so, we are going to experience two to four years of water shortages.

Since we know that, what has the Democrat majority (a majority that has been there for all of the last 50 years, except for 2 years in 1970-72 and one year in 1996) in the Legislature done about it? Absolutely nothing.

The solutions are simple, build more storage and build a canal from just south of Sacramento to just south of Stockton, in short, more dams and the Peripheral Canal. These solutions won’t solve all the problems, we will still have droughts from time to time, but they will lessen the impact of those droughts by catching the water in times of plenty, storing it until we need it, then transporting it to the places that need it.

So why haven’t we done that? In short, really stupid environmental regulations and the environut organizations that are vested in the status quo. The Democrats in the Legislature are beholden to these groups, to the point that they have had, over the years, serious discussions about tearing down dams, instead of building them. They have consistently opposed any effort to transport water north of the delta, where the water is, to south of the delta, where most of the farms and people are. As a result, the state careens from drought to drought, and praying for enough rain to get through each year. The Democrats who control the Legislature would rather make the people of the State of California suffer with government enforced water controls and high priced water than stand up to these environut organizations.

I once carried a bill for a golf course located about one quarter mile from a sewage treatment plant. The golf course wanted to use the water from the sewage treatment plant to water their grass. Good conservation effort, right? Except that golf course was by far the largest water user in the water district in which it was located, constituting one half of the district’s income. In California, if you can find cheaper water from a nearby source that is outside the district in which you live, you have to get the water district’s consent to buy that water. In this case, the sewage treatment plant was not controlled by the water district, so the district agreed to allow the purchase, but only if the golf course reimbursed the district for its lost revenue. All of the sudden, a good idea that would have saved millions of gallons of potable water became so expensive that it didn’t make sense any more. Just another way that California discourages conservation, if the water district loses money from conservation efforts, they just use their monopoly power to increase their revenue, either through increased rates or required reimbursements.

Only one new dam in the last 50 years, laws that reward monopolistic water regulations, no efforts to get the water where it needs to go, and California citizens suffer.

It wouldn’t take much to relieve the suffering of California families from these policies that increase the price of their water, just like it wouldn’t take much to relieve the suffering that our Arrogant Lazy Authoritarian in Chief, Gavin Newsom and his minions in the Legislature inflict on California families through government laws and regulations that increase the cost of gasoline and housing, but, just like those who benefit from the regulations enforcing expensive gasoline and housing, those who benefit from the current system would lose their cushy “do-nothing” high paying jobs.

We elected those who continue to relentlessly inflict this pain and suffering on us. We deserve it as long as we put up with it.

This article first appeared in its entirety on the Flash Report

With No Respite From Drought, Officials Call Upon Californians To Conserve Water

The start of this year has been the driest in California’s history. With the severe drought now in a third year, the state faces depleted reservoirs, a meager snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and a worsening water shortage on the Colorado River.

Under sunny blue skies in Sacramento, where it hasn’t rained in two months, officials stood Thursday in front of a mulch-covered garden and appealed for Californians to save water.

“We’re asking all Californians to step up,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. That means reducing water usage immediately and also taking steps that will help conserve in the long run, he said, such as replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants, or switching to water-saving appliances.

“Our drought conditions are becoming more threatening with climate change,” Crowfoot said. Warmer winters are reducing the snowpack that accumulates in the Sierra Nevada, he said, and hotter temperatures in the spring and summer “mean that more of that snow absorbs into very dry soils or evaporates into the air.”

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%. Most areas of the state have fallen far short of that target.

The latest conservation figures for cities and towns across the state through December showed cumulative water savings of 7.5% compared with a year ago, and that’s “not going to be enough” in many communities, said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

The levels of many major reservoirs in California, from Lake Oroville to the San Luis Reservoir, remain far below average. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which feeds the state’s reservoirs, now stands at just 60% of average for this time of year.

Large water suppliers throughout the state have responded with drought measures including advertising campaigns that encourage conservation.

The state’s Save Our Water campaign, together with the State Water Contractors, released an animated video to spread the message. With the handwritten slogan “Doing your part” on a whiteboard, the video shares water-saving tips, such as installing drip irrigation systems, using a smart irrigation controller and taking five-minute showers.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has announced it is spending an additional $10.5 million to expand its advertising campaign calling for the public to conserve.

“Our reservoirs continue to decline, and so we are really in a critical time to move on our efforts to fortify our water supply,” Adel Hagekhalil, MWD’s general manager, told the district’s board this week.

In announcing the expanded advertising campaign, Hagekhalil said the less water Southern California uses now, “the longer we can stretch these stored supplies into the summer and fall, and next year, if needed.”

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

California Considers $500 Fines for Water Wasters as Drought Worsens, Conservation Lags

As California descends deeper into drought, officials are growing increasingly troubled by dwindling water supplies and the public’s lackluster response to calls for conservation, with residents in recent months falling short of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a voluntary 15% reduction in usage.

Now, as the West tips toward crisis, state water regulators are considering adopting emergency regulations that will prohibit certain actions in an attempt to curtail water waste and help conserve supplies.

If approved, the proposal could usher in a wave of water regulations that hearken back to previous droughts while underscoring the seriousness of the current one.

On Tuesday, Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and a lifeline for water in Los Angeles and the West — was at 1,065 feet, or about 34% of its capacity, a near-historic low. Much of California on the U.S. Drought Monitor map was painted in worrisome shades of red.

“These regulations are kind of no-brainers at this point,” said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at UC Davis. “They probably should have been done a little while ago.”

Among the activities that may be prohibited are washing vehicles with hoses that do not have shut-off nozzles; hosing down sidewalks, driveways or patios “except in cases where health and safety are at risk”; watering landscapes in a manner that causes excessive runoff; and watering lawns within 48 hours after measurable rainfall.

For many, the measures feel like déjà vu as California again faces the prospect of dwindling water supplies.

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

Drought Has Big Impacts on California Agriculture

IN SUMMARY: California’s serious and prolonged drought is having serious and prolonged impacts on California’s agricultural industry, the nation’s largest.

As California experiences a second year of drought, with no end in sight, the effects on California’s largest-in-the-nation agricultural industry are profound and perhaps permanent.

State and federal water agencies have cut deliveries to some farmers to zero while others, thanks to water rights dating back more than a century, still have access to water.

Farmers are reacting to shortages in three, often intertwined ways — suspending cultivation of some fields or ripping up orchards for lack of water, drilling new wells to tap into diminishing aquifers, and buying water from those who have it.

All three have major economic impacts. They are driving some farmers, particularly small family operations, out of business altogether, accelerating the shift to large-scale agribusiness corporations with the financial resources to cope, changing the kinds of crops that can be profitably grown, and supercharging the semi-secretive market for buying and selling water.

Get a veteran journalist’s take on what’s going on in California with a weekly round-up of Dan’s column every Friday.

By happenstance, all of these trends are occurring just as the state begins to implement a 2014 law aimed at limiting the amount of water that farmers can pump from underground aquifers.

A couple weeks ago, the state Department of Water Resources announced that it had rejected as inadequate the underground water management plans of four San Joaquin Valley agencies, including the huge Westlands Water District, indicating that the state will be aggressive in enforcing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“We’re not going to accept a plan to do a plan,” Paul Gosselin, deputy director for the California Department of Water Resources, Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, told the Sacramento Bee. “We’re looking for very concrete, measurable changes to address these deficiencies.”

If anything, however, farmers are drilling more wells to cope with the current drought, the Bee also reported.

“I could work seven days a week if I wanted to,” Fresno County well driller Wesley Harmon told the Bee. “In my area, everybody’s pumping. You can’t blame the farmers. They’re trying to make a living, they’re trying to grow food for everybody.”

The drought is obviously one motive for drilling hundreds of new wells that must go ever-deeper as the water tables drop from overpumping, sometimes leading to the collapse of land above. But another is that farmers know a crackdown is coming and are doing what they can before it arrives.

The Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that full implementation of the groundwater sustainability act could force 750,000 acres of California farmland out of production, or “fallowed.”

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters.org

Are Water Rights Sufficient to Protect Water Users?


Drought water crops“The judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes in Elimra, New York in 1907.

That quote exemplifies the reason that five irrigation districts on tributaries to the San Joaquin River as well as the city of San Francisco filed lawsuits recently against the State Water Resources Control Board. They are defending their water rights. 

In December, ahead of the Water Board hearing, Governor Brown and Governor-elect Newsom both asked the Water Board to hold off and let the districts, the State, and the federal government finalize the voluntary agreements. But that didn’t happen and the problem is now in Governor Newsom’s lap as his Water Board will likely have to turn its attention to defending its decision in court.

“We file suit not because we prefer conflict over collaboration. On the contrary, we continue to encourage and participate in settlement discussions on our rivers, and support science on the Stanislaus. But we also have an indisputable responsibility to reserve our legal rights and protect our ag and urban customers,” said Peter Rietkerk, General Manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID).

Unfortunately, sometimes, the courts are your only recourse.

The State Water Board’s decision on December 12, 2018 doubles the amount of water the State will take away from farms growing food, the parks and sporting fields where our children play, and even the water we drink from our taps at home and bubbling out of drinking fountains at schools. And if flow requirements can be imposed on the San Joaquin River they can be imposed anywhere.

The sad thing is there was an alternative available, but the Board has so far rejected it. Farmers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, irrigation districts, the Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Reclamation, worked collaboratively at the behest of both Governors Brown and Newsom, to propose a voluntary plan designed to quickly accomplish more for fish and the environment without the drastic harm water users expect from the water cuts.

Under these proposals farms and cities would still give up billions of gallons of water to the river during times that science tells us that it’s needed, as well as implement projects that improve habitat for fish, reduce predators and enhance ecosystems far beyond what the Board’s water-only plan could achieve. The voluntary proposals, expected to produce more salmon than the plan adopted by the State Water Board with less harm to the economy, would have been a win for all – farms, fish and folks.

“Our voluntary agreement will ensure water security and reliability, includes environmental improvements, enhances fish populations far beyond what is projected in the state’s current plan and most importantly, guarantees timely implementation,” said Modesto Irrigation District Board Vice President John Mensinger. “Their (the Board’s) plan threatens not only Central Valley ag and urban water users, but also the water supply of more than two million people living in the Bay Area.”

There is still an opportunity for the Water Board to adopt a voluntary path toward ecosystem restoration and faster solutions to restore dwindling salmon populations. The question is, will they do it or will former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes words be put to the test again?

Executive Director, California Farm Water Coalition.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California State Board Votes to Restrict Water to Farmers


Drought water cropsCalifornia’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) voted Wednesday to approve the Bay-Delta plan, which will re-allocate water from farms and cities to the environment in an effort to restore dwindling fish numbers.

The plan will require tributary rivers within the San Joaquin watershed to maintain an average water level of 40% of “unimpeded flow” — that is, the flow that would exist without human activity — during the spring season.

The result is that less water — “billions of gallons,” according to the Fresno Bee — will be available to the farming communities of the Central Valley, as well as to San Francisco and its suburbs, which rely on water from the area.

Last month, outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the SWRCB to delay its vote by a month to allow time for local water authorities to reach voluntary settlement agreements (VSAs) as an alternative to the new plan. In the interim, several local irrigation districts did, in fact, commit to investing in conservation and environmental projects that would theoretically help restore fish populations without giving up quite so much water.

But as the Bee reports, the SWRCB — all of whose members were appointed by Brown, and who are thought to be partial to environmental groups — passed the plan anyway “to put pressure on a group of holdout water agencies.”

The Trump administration has promised to take legal action to block the plan, which may be moot as a result. Some environmental groups have criticized the Bay-Delta plan for not going far enough.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion


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The megapolis on California’s southern coast stretches from Ventura County on the northern end, through Los Angeles County, Orange County, down to San Diego County on the border with Mexico. It also includes the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Altogether these six counties have a population of 20.5 million residents. According to the California Department of Water Resources, urban users consume 3.7 million acre feet of water per year, and the remaining agricultural users in this region consume an additional 700,000 acre feet.

Much of this water is imported. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in these Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

California’s Plumbing System
The major interbasin systems of water conveyance, commonly known as aqueducts

California’s Overall Water Supplies Must Increase

Californians have already made tremendous strides conserving water, and the potential savings from more stringent conservation mandates may not yield significant additional savings. Population growth is likely to offset whatever remaining savings that may be achievable via additional conservation.

Meanwhile, the state mandated water requirements for California’s ecosystems continue to increase. The California State Water Board is finalizing “frameworks” that will increase the minimum amount of flow required to be maintained in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers order to better protect fish habitat and reduce salinity in the Delta. And, of course, these rivers, along with the Owens and Colorado rivers, are susceptible to droughts which periodically put severe strain on water users in California.

At about the same time, in 2015, California’s legislature began regulating groundwater withdrawals. This measure, while long overdue, puts additional pressure on urban and agricultural users.

California’s water requirements for healthy ecosystems, a robust and growing farm economy, as well as a growing urban population, are set to exceed available supply. Conservation cannot return enough water to the system to fix the problem.

How Can Water Supplies Increase?

In Southern California, runoff capture is an option that appears to have great potential. Despite its arid climate and perennial low rainfall, nearly every year a few storm systems bring torrential rains to the South Coast, inundating the landscape. Until the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic culvert starting in 1938, it would routinely flood, with the overflow filling huge aquifers beneath the city. Those aquifers remain, although many are contaminated and require mitigation. Runoff harvesting for aquifer storage represents one tremendous opportunity for Southern Californians to increase their supply of water.

The other possibilities are sewage recycling and desalination. In both cases, Southern California already boasts some of the most advanced plants in the world. The potential for these two technologies to deliver massive quantities of potable water, over a million acre feet per year each, is now predicated more on political and financial considerations than technological challenges.

Recycling Waste Water

Orange County leads the United States in recycling waste water. The Orange County Sanitation District treats 145,000 acre feet per year (130 million gallons per day – “MGD”), sending all of it to the Orange County Water District’s “Ground Water Replenishment System” plant for advanced treatment. The GWRS plant is the biggest of its kind in the world. After being treated to potable standards, 124,000 acre feet per year (110 million GPD), or 85 percent of the waste water, is then injected into aquifers to be stored and pumped back up and reused by residents as potable water. The remainder, containing no toxins and with fewer total dissolved solids than seawater, is discharged harmlessly into the ocean.

Currently the combined water districts in California’s Southland discharge about 1.5 million acre feet (1.3 billion GPD) of treated wastewater each year into the Pacific Ocean. Only a small percentage of this discharge is the treated brine from recycled water. But by using the advanced treatment methods as are employed in Orange County, 85% of wastewater can be recycled to potable standards. This means that merely through water reuse, there is the potential to recycle up to another 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Needless to say, implementing a solution at this scale would require major challenges to be overcome. Currently California’s water districts are only permitted to engage in “indirect potable reuse,” which means the recycled water must be stored in an aquifer or a reservoir prior to being processed as drinking water and entering the water supply. By 2023, it is expected the California Water Board will have completed regulations governing “direct potable reuse,” which would allow recycled water to be immediately returned to the water supply without the intermediate step of being stored in an aquifer or reservoir. In the meantime, it is unlikely that there are enough uncontaminated aquifers or available reservoirs to store the amount of recycled water that could be produced.

Desalinating Seawater

The other source of new water for Southern California, desalination, is already realized in an operating plant, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County. This plant produces 56,000 acre feet per year (50 MGD) of fresh water by processing twice that amount of seawater. It is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is co-located with the Encina Power Station, a facility that uses far more seawater per year, roughly ten times as much, for its cooling systems. The Carlsbad facility diverts a portion of that water for desalination treatment, then returns the saltier “brine” to the much larger outflow of cooling water at the power plant.

Objections to desalination are many, but none of them are insurmountable. The desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, for example, will not have the benefit of being co-located with a power plant that consumes far more seawater for its cooling system. Instead, this proposed plant – which will have the same capacity as the Carlsbad plant – will use a large array of “wet filters” situated about 1,500 feet offshore, on the seabed about 40 feet below the surface, to gently intake seawater that can be pumped back to the plant without disrupting marine life. The outgoing brine containing 6 percent salt (compared to 3% in seawater) will be discharged under pressure from an underwater pipe extending about 1,800 feet offshore. By discharging the brine under pressure, it will be instantly disbursed and immediately dissipated in the powerful California current.

While desalination is considered to be energy intensive, a careful comparison of the energy cost to desalinate seawater reveals an interesting fact. It takes a roughly equivalent amount of electricity to power the pumps on the California aqueduct, where six pumping stations lift the water repeatedly as it flows from north to south. To guarantee the water flows south, the California aqueduct is sloped downward by roughly one foot per mile of length, meaning pump stations are essential. The big lift, of course, is over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the only way to import water into the Los Angeles basin.

Barriers to Implementation – Permitting & Lawsuits

The technological barriers to large scale implementation of water recycling and desalination, while significant, are not the primary impediments. Permitting and financing are far bigger challenges. Moreover, financing costs for these mega projects become more prohibitive because of the difficulties in permitting.

The process necessary to construct the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is illustrative of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get construction permits. The contractor has been involved in the permitting process for 16 years already, and despite significant progress to-date, still expects approval, if it comes, to take another 2-3 years.

One of the problems with permitting most infrastructure in California is that several agencies are involved. These agencies can actually have conflicting requirements. Applicants also end up having to answer the same questions over and over, because the agencies don’t share information. And over the course of decades or more, the regulations change, meaning the applicant has to start the process over again. Compounding the difficulties for applicants are endless rounds of litigation, primarily from well-funded environmentalist organizations. The failure to-date of California’s lawmakers to reform CEQA make these lawsuits potentially endless.

Barriers to Implementation – Financing

Even if permitting were streamlined, and all technical challenges were overcome, it would be a mistake to be glib about financing costs. Based on the actual total cost for the Carlsbad desalination plant, just under $1.0 billion for a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year, the capital costs to desalinate a million acre feet of seawater would be a daunting $18.0 billion. On the other hand, with permitting reforms, such as creating a one-stop ombudsman agency to adjudicate conflicting regulations and exercise real clout among the dozens of agencies with a stake in the permitting process, billions could be shaved off that total. Similarly, CEQA reforms could shave additional billions off the total. How much could be saved?

The Sorek desalination plant, commissioned in Israel in 2015, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 185,000 acre feet of water per year. Compared to Carlsbad, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. While there’s undoubtedly more to this story, it is also undeniable that other developed nations are able to deploy large scale desalination plants at far lower costs than here in California.

Financing costs for water recycling, while still staggering, are (at least in California) not comparable to those for desalination. The GWRS water recycling plant in Orange County was built at a capital cost of $905 million – $481 million was the initial cost, the first expansion cost $142 million, and the final expansion cost $282 million. This equates to a capital cost of $7,300 per acre foot of annual yield. If that price were to apply for new facilities to be constructed elsewhere in the southland, one million acre feet of recycling capacity could be built for $7.3 billion. Until there is direct potable reuse, however, it would be necessary to add to that cost the expense of either constructing storage reservoirs, or decontaminating aquifers for underground storage.

It’s anybody’s guess, but with reasonable reforms to contain costs, and taking into account additional investments in aquifer mitigation, a budget to make California’s Southland water independent might look like this:

  • 1.0 million acre feet from water recycling – $7.5 billion
  • 1.0 million acre feet from desalination – $15.0 billion
  • 0.5 million acre feet from runoff capture and aquifer mitigation – $7.5 billion

Total – $30 billion.
How much again is that bullet train? Water abundance in California vs. high speed rail

While runoff capture, water recycling, and desalination have the potential to make Southern California’s coastal megapolis water independent, it will take extraordinary political will and innovative financing to make it happen. The first step is for California’s voters and policymakers alike to recognize that conservation is not enough, that water supplies must be increased. Once the political will is established, it will be necessary to streamline the regulatory process, so cities, water agencies, and private contractors can pursue supply oriented solutions, at realistic prices, with a reasonable certainty that their applications will be approved.

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Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared on the website of the California Policy Center.