Loss of local control a big issue in new water tax fight

Shower head water droughtThroughout his tenure as governor, Jerry Brown has consistently pursued new revenue for transportation, housing and water. The Legislature, whose default reaction to any problem is to raise taxes on middle-class Californians, has only been too happy to oblige. As a result, California drivers were hit last year with an annual $5 billion gas and car tax and property owners were burdened with a new tax on real estate recording documents to fund affordable housing. As if those tax hikes were not bad enough, now comes the third in a trifecta of tax insults: a new tax on water used by homes and businesses. That’s right, the Legislature is preparing to tax a public good that is essential to life, a precedent-setting tax that is unheard of anywhere else in the nation.

Supporters of the bill will argue that the tax is needed because roughly one million people (mostly in the Central Valley) don’t have access to consistently clean drinking water. This is a legitimate problem due to decades of neglecting basic infrastructure, contamination of water supplies and the failure to make access to water delivery the priority it deserves.

But raising taxes is the wrong solution to this problem. It is unconscionable that California, which has a record-high $130 billion General Fund budget with a $6 billion surplus, can’t provide clean drinking water to a million people using existing resources. Is this not the first role of government, providing a public good essential to life? Moreover, why should taxpayers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have to pay higher water bills for a problem that is mostly limited to groundwater contamination in the Central Valley?

Most Californians haven’t even heard of this proposed tax hike. But that’s only because the Legislature is going out of its way to keep it hidden. Originally introduced as Senate Bill 623, the bill failed to advance last year because of widespread opposition. Nearly all residential homeowners would pay a dollar a month if this tax went through. The tax works on a sliding scale based on meter size — heavy commercial and industrial water users could pay up to $10/month. Not content to just abandon the bill, the governor has now decided to drop this tax in a budget trailer bill. These bills, often dozens of pages long with multiple topics, is the perfect place to hide a tax. If the bill moves forward, taxpayer advocates will watch carefully to ensure that the two-thirds vote requirement for tax hikes is enforced. Because most budget bills only need a majority vote, a lawsuit will quickly follow if the higher threshold is not met.

Our concern is that the governor has become so obsessed playing the “hide the tax” game that he hasn’t bothered to look at other alternative funding sources to solve this problem. If using a $6 billion surplus is off the table, there’s an option to tap into federal funding which is available for precisely this purpose. Or there are billions of dollars of unspent bond funds, including the recently voter-approved Propositions 1 and 84 that can be used to provide clean drinking water. Bond dollars are perhaps the best vehicle to provide major infrastructure improvements needed in the Central Valley. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Allowing Markets To Allocate Water Can Stave Off “Day Zero” in California

Drought water cropsCape Town, South Africa, a city of 450,000 in a metropolitan area of 3.7 million, is experiencing a catastrophic drought. Capetonians have been dreading the arrival of July 9, or “Day Zero”— when taps in private homes will be switched off and residents will have to go to collection points for rationed allotments of water.

Some version of Day Zero could one day come to parts of California, where water woes continue to bedevil government officials and citizens. From 2011 to 2015, the state experienced the driest four-year period in recorded history (though geologic evidence indicates there have been worse droughts in the past). A robust rainy season in 2017 replenished many reservoirs, but the winter of 2018 has been dry. As of February 1, the snowpack, which provides much of the state’s water during the dry season, was only 21 percent of its normal size. The 2011–2015 drought led Governor Jerry Brown to mandate a 25 percent reduction in water use, but mandating it doesn’t mean that it will happen. Mandated reductions that require homeowners to spend money and time irrigating with non-potable water and replacing old toilets are unlikely to meet their targets, given the low nominal cost of water.

A number of remedies have been suggested, one of which is to allow markets, rather than politics, to allocate water. At a recent conference at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, scholars focused on the importance of market signals in getting people to change their behavior in the face of climate uncertainty. Economist Gary Libecap noted that when prices signal the real value of water, they encourage “agricultural users to switch to water-saving irrigation technologies or to water-saving crops.” (Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water consumption.) The same is true for urban users, who pay much more per unit of water than agricultural users.

In the absence of water markets, prices don’t reflect the full cost of using this precious resource, resulting in inefficient use. The best example: organic farming. Organic agriculture produces lower yields than traditional agriculture and uses disproportionately more inputs—especially low-cost, high-value water. Lower yields in organic farming mean less output per unit of water used.

Plant pathologist Steve Savage analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which measures productivity from most of the nation’s certified organic farms, and compared them with those at conventional farms, crop-by-crop and state-by-state. His findings are extraordinary: of the 68 crops surveyed, organic farms showed a “yield gap”—poorer performance—in 59. Many of the shortfalls were large: organic strawberries yielded 61 percent less than conventional farms; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less. “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land,” Savage concludes. “That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”

One reason that inefficient organic agriculture uses more water is that it excludes the cultivation of crop varieties crafted with molecular genetic-modification techniques—so-called GMOs—that can be made to withstand droughts and to be irrigable with brackish water. For example, more than a decade ago, Egyptian researchers showed that transferring a single gene from barley to wheat allows the wheat to grow with far less irrigation than conventional wheat; it can survive on meager rainfall alone. Similar genetic modification has created drought-tolerant corn varieties, and more such crops are in the works.

Genetically engineered crops also conserve water by allowing cultivation in salty soils. Fully one-third of irrigated land worldwide, including much of California, is unsuitable for growing crops; every year, nearly 500,000 acres of irrigated land are lost for cultivation due to salt accumulation. Scientists have enhanced the salt tolerance in crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola, and made them irrigable with brackish water, thus conserving fresh water for other uses. Another innovation: by making no-till cultivation possible, the genetic engineering of crops for herbicide tolerance helps trap soil moisture (and also releases less CO2into the atmosphere). Under drought conditions, this can mean the difference between a harvest and a crop failure.

The best solution to California’s water problems would be to encourage water markets and end water subsidies for farmers. A second-best approach is to tax the most egregious examples of waste—and organic products are at the top of the inefficiency list. Placing a tax on already outrageously priced, water-wasting organic products would lessen the demand for them and alleviate some of the pressure on California’s uncertain water supplies. And such a tax would be progressive, falling disproportionately on wealthy consumers. In short, reducing California’s organic agricultural production in favor of more efficient, modern techniques would deliver “more crop for the drop.”

Oroville Dam Spillway Cracking After $500 Million Repair

Oroville Dam 2The California Department of Water Resources acknowledged this week that many cracks have appeared in the new concrete of the Oroville Dam spillway, which cost over $500 million to repair.

The State of California is believed to have spent $100 million each month on Oroville Dam during February, March and April in a crisis effort to try to stabilize America’s tallest dam, which suffered a near collapse and forced the evacuation of 200,000 downstream residents earlier this year.

The Kiewit Corporation, which was issued a $275 million contract in April to repair both of Oroville Dam’s main and emergency spillways, poured a 1,700-foot cement top sheet and then roller-compacted and smoothed the spillway’s surfaces shortly before the November 1 contract deadline. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) inspected the work and certified the first phase of the massive repair job was completed on time.

But the Sacramento Bee reported that cracks were first detected in September “when the first phase was nearing completion.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has federal oversight over the California owned dam, instructed DWR on October 2 to investigate “cracking of the erosion resistant concrete” on the repaired spillway and to recommend any further steps necessary to address infrastructure risks.

The California Division of Dams wrote a letter to FERC on November 7 to reassure regulators that “the presence of hairline cracks was anticipated and is not expected to affect the integrity of the slabs.” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon added, “All concrete has this result in the placement. It’s just physics of how concrete works.”

But KQED reported that Robert Bea, a professor emeritus of civil engineering and founderof the highly respected UC Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, stated, “Cracking in high-strength reinforced concrete structures is never to be expected.” He added that when large volumes of water cascade down the spillway at speeds approaching 90 miles-per-hour, even small cracks could increase stresses on concrete.

The CCRM has issued several reports documenting that the state was aware of serious cracking in the Oroville Spillway as far back as a 1998 inspection report. DWR did try to patch some cracks and fill up visible voids. But CCRM dam experts stated that finding hollow areas is like trying to find a stud behind a wall by tapping it with a hammer.

Bea’s group is especially alarmed by green grass that has continued to grow on the dam’s abutments during the hot summer and fall. The lush green grass indicates there has been seepage through the dam face for about 50 years. CCRM does not accept DWR’s explanation that the seepage is not a risk, because it is just some “natural springs.” CCRM warns that any seepage through an earth-fill dam should be extremely worrisome.

This article was originally published by Brietbart.com/California

Multibillion-dollar water measures heading to state ballot

With a five-year drought and then a winter of floods having exposed the limits of California’s vast network of reservoirs, dams and canals, voters are likely to have the chance next year to decide whether to pay for major upgrades to the state’s waterworks.

Two multibillion-dollar bonds are expected to go before voters that promise to boost water supplies, offer flood protection and restore rivers and streams. One measure, sponsored by the Legislature, also would fund new parks and hiking trails. The second, a privately backed initiative, would go further to improve the infrastructure that moves water to cities and farms.

Regardless of whether state voters approve either measure, a handful of reservoirs will be built or expanded with billions of dollars from a previously approved water bond.

Supporters of the new initiatives say the need to upgrade the state’s water-storage system has been apparent for some time, and that with the near-failure of Oroville Dam last winter and drought-induced water shortages still fresh in voters’ minds, now is the time go to the public to fund long-term improvements. But with two measures likely to add a combined $14 billion-plus to the state’s bond debt, some skeptics say the would-be water overhaul is an overreach. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle

$17 billion Delta water tunnels project faces critical MWD vote

After 11 years of planning, a massive tunnels project touted as a solution to the state’s vulnerable water supply faces its biggest test  Tuesday.

The 38-member board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the largest supplier of treated water in the United States delivering water to agencies serving 19 million people — is scheduled to vote on the $17 billion California WaterFix.

Metropolitan’s staff has waged a campaign in favor of the project for years and is recommending its board ratify the environmental review and also pay 26 percent of the cost, amounting to $4.3 billion. MWD’s wholesale water rates charged to 26 Southern California retail water districts and cities would rise 4.5 percent annually during the 18-year construction period, but the agency says WaterFix only accounts for 1 percent of the increase, with inflation accounting for the rest.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Department of Water Resources say the project will make water supplies more reliable, stabilize water flow and protect endangered fish species. The project would include installing three intakes north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and building two, 35-mile concrete diversion tunnels that would move water more efficiently into the State Water Project for cities and the federal Central Valley Project used by farmers. …

Read the full article from the Press-Enterprise

Water Wars Rage Over Where to Spend Bond Money

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirAfter a 35-year stalemate stalled new California water storage projects, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders agreed in 2014 to include $2.7 billion for such needs as part of Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond approved in a landslide by voters later that year.

The then-raging drought persuaded Democrats to go along with major water storage creation plans after blocking new projects since California completed its last dam in 1979. Many Republicans saw the opposition as a back-door way for environmentalists to squeeze state farmers to limit agricultural pollution and protect native species, and to slow growth in urban areas.

Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council scoffed at these claims. They say encouraging water conservation is always a good goal in an arid state, and argue that state and federal laws that protect threatened species need to be fully followed.

This sharp disagreement reflects how water politics have long been fraught in the Golden State. And now that the California Water Commission must choose which of 12 qualified proposed projects to fund with the $2.7 billion kitty, officials’ decisions are sure to be buffeted once again by regional interests (Northern vs. Southern California), economic interests (farmers vs. developers) and environmentalists’ interests. With the 12 projects estimated to cost about $13.1 billion – $10 billion-plus more than what is available – some key water stakeholders are sure to end up unhappy. Some districts will be forced to seek all or nearly all funding from other sources, starting with their customers.

Greens quick to start push for preferred project

The 12 projects were unveiled last week. The water commission must make its final decision by June 2018.

Environmentalists wasted no time identifying their favorite project: The Contra Costa Water District’s proposal to increase the storage capacity at its Los Vaqueros reservoir by more than 70 percent – going from 160,000 acre-feet to 275,000 acre-feet. Contra Costa officials say the additional capacity could meet the yearly needs of 1.4 million people.

But that isn’t why the $914 million project already has the strong support of several environmental groups – including the Planning and Conservation League, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. It’s because a chunk of the water would go to threatened Central Valley wetland refuges to shore up their fragile ecosystems, long a goal of state greens.

To boost the case for the proposal, Contra Costa water officials have lined up the formal support – and promises of funding help – from 12 other Bay Area water districts, which see the additional storage as “drought insurance.”

The most costly proposed projects are to build a $5 billion dam in Colusa County and a $3 billion dam in Fresno County.

Most of the projects proposed for Southern California are less ambitious. The exception is from the city of San Diego, which is asking for the water commission to help cover the $1.2 billion cost of a plant to recycle wastewater with advanced technology that makes it fully safe to mix with conventional water supplies. Officials believe the plant can supply one-third of city needs by 2035.

The project won final approval at San Diego City Hall in 2014, two weeks after Proposition 1 passed.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California orders closer look at these 93 dams after Oroville crisis

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

California officials have ordered owners of 93 dams to reinspect their flood-control spillways following the Oroville Dam crisis, saying the spillways need a closer look following a preliminary review.

The list released by the Department of Water Resources includes some of the largest dams in California, such as the New Exchequer Dam on the Merced River, New Bullards Bar on the Yuba River, and Lake Almanor Dam on the Feather River in Plumas County. Each holds back reservoirs roughly the size of Folsom Lake, which can store about 977,000 acre-feet of water.

Also on the list is New Don Pedro Dam, on the Tuolumne River, which is about twice the size of Folsom and contains the sixth largest reservoir in California.

DWR’s list also features scores of obscure facilities, including two owned along the American River by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District: Ice House and Union Valley dams.

The 93 dams represent less than 10 percent of the 1,250 dams overseen by the Department of Water Resources’ dam safety division. …

Click here to read the full article

California’s drought might never be over for farmers

After a particularly soppy winter refilled California’s gasping reservoirs and swelled the Sierra Nevada snowpack — to 175 percent above its historical average, in some spots — grateful residents hailed the end of a dry spell that stretched back six years. Governor Jerry Brown has declared that the state’s drought is mostly over, though he cautions that “conservation must remain a way of life.”

DroughtBut for the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, which covers roughly 400 miles from north to south and averages about 50 miles in width, water poverty continues — and in their case, the drought is mostly man-made. While the rain and snow have eased general water-use rules in place during the drought, California farmers continue to operate under strict environmental-regulatory constraints that have left this land parched.

For example, fresh water needed by farmers will still be diverted into the San Francisco Bay — 1.4 trillion gallons from 2008 through last spring — to protect the Delta smelt, a three-inch baitfish that has landed on the Endangered Species List and now gets preferential political treatment over farmers. The smelt’s defenders fear that the pumps that move critical water supplies to farmers could harm its chances for survival. So the fresh water is dumped into the ocean instead. To no avail, as it turns out: Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, told National Geographic that a survey that netted only six delta smelt is “further proof that redirecting water from human use to environmental use in the name of helping the fish is not working.”

It’s possible that as much as half of the water that is impounded in the state’s systems of dams and reservoirs and flows through its network of aqueducts, canals and pipelines gets diverted for an environmental agenda. Smelt protection is a federal policy. But California has the largest representation in Washington of any state. Why couldn’t this politically powerful delegation apply pressure in the right places to fix the problem? Maybe because most of California’s Senate and House members side with the environmental agenda over human needs.

State regulations also hold back the extraction of water, including a “groundwater sustainability plan” that when fully implemented will limit the volume of underground water that farmers can pump. Historically, landowners have had the right to determine how much water they pull out of the ground.

The state has also failed to address its glaring shortage of water infrastructure. California’s aqueducts and storage facilities simply cannot handle the volume of water needed to keep the Golden State sated over the long term. The California Farm Water Coalition says the state has a “broken water system” that creates “the risk of permanent water shortages during even the wettest of years, and ever-escalating disaster during multi-year droughts” if it’s not repaired.

Two years ago, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond to improve this situation. The funds would be spent on “surface and groundwater storage,” “water supply management and conveyance,” and “drought relief.” As much as $2.7 billion was earmarked for “water storage projects, dams, and reservoirs.” But critics say that California is sitting on needed projects.

The San Joaquin Valley is called the “breadbasket” and “food basket of the world” for good reason. Its 20,000 square miles produce 8 percent of the nation’s agriculture output by value, about a quarter of its food, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and 40 percent of the fruits, nuts, and other table foods consumed in this country. It’s an indispensable resource.

Despite the valley’s importance, Congressman Devin Nunes believes that environmentalists want to drive farmers out of it through water deprivation. With the San Joaquin Valley now in its third decade of a government-caused water shortage, it’s hard to argue with the Republican, whose valley district is home to nearly 4,000 farms. He’s met with the extreme Greens and seen their plans, which are disastrous for his constituents.

Thousands still forced from homes by flooding in California tech hub

As reported by Reuters:

The mucky water flooding a section of San Jose in Northern California forced officials on Wednesday to widen the area under mandatory evacuation orders, with about 14,000 people barred from returning to their homes following drenching rains.

San Jose, a hub of high-tech Silicon Valley, suffered major flooding on Tuesday triggering evacuation orders when Coyote Creek overran its banks, swamping the Rock Springs neighborhood. Water at some sites engulfed the entire first floor of residences while in other places it reached waist-high.

Officials said the city of about 1 million residents has not seen a flood approaching this magnitude since 1997.

The gush of water inundating San Jose flowed down from the Anderson Reservoir, which was pushed to overflowing by a rainstorm that pounded Northern California from Sunday to Tuesday, officials said. …

Click here to read the full article

Warnings About Oroville Dam Ignored 12 Years Ago

Oroville Dam 2SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento Bee story published Monday succinctly described the disaster unfolding at the nation’s tallest dam, where flaws in the Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway are forcing water onto the earthen emergency spillway. Threats of a spillway collapse led to mandatory evacuations throughout Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties Sunday.

“Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert, one that could damage the structure during a major flood and threaten downstream communities,” according to the Bee. “That flaw is the dam’s emergency spillway, which empties onto a bare dirt hillside adjacent to the earthen-fill dam.” The torrent of water could erode the unprotected hillside, undermine the emergency spillway’s foundation and lead to a catastrophic failure.

The amazing thing is that the news report was first published Nov. 27, 2005. The Bee’s Monday publication was a reprint, given the relevance of the report nearly a dozen years later. It provides necessary context after another news organization revealed that three environmental groups at the time had urged state and federal officials to line the emergency spillway with concrete to avoid the kind of problems on display this week.

A dozen years ago, the dam was going through a 50-year relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League argued in their filings that the 1960s-era dam “did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway” and threaten flooding in communities down river, according to the Mercury News, which broke the story this week.

State and federal officials brushed off the suggestion at the time, arguing that the likelihood of such an event was slim and that it would be too costly to complete those improvements. The dam received its relicensing and the matter faded away. State water officials have been consumed more by drought issues than flood possibilities in the ensuing dozen years. But given the accuracy of the environmental groups’ predictions, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what happened.

At a news conference near Lake Oroville Monday, “the state’s top water officials brushed aside questions” about that old report and didn’t address assurances from a top state water official in 2005 that “(o)ur facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event,” according to the latest Bee report.

The news story revealed another troubling piece of the puzzle: Congress had authorized the construction of a smaller dam on the Yuba River near Marysville, which is down river from Oroville. The Oroville Dam’s operating plan was predicated, in part, on the construction of this other dam, which would take pressure off the larger facility. But it was never built. In the view of critics, this serves as a touchstone for much that is wrong with California’s water policy.

Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for spending so much time defying the new Trump administration “that it forgot to do the things government is supposed to do, like maintain infrastructure.” The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season, he added, would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams but the Brown administration was more focused on building a $68-billion high-speed rail line, dealing with immigration issues and boosting public-employee compensation.

That’s a harsh assessment, but there’s much evidence to support the theory of ongoing state neglect. There are available water-bond funds, yet the state government has been lackadaisical at best about spending them. Many of its priorities are about environmental restoration rather than dam protection and there’s been little appetite in the Capitol to build new storage facilities.

Indeed, the governor has been more focused on removing dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon border than on shoring up the linchpin of the State Water Project – the system of levees and dams that directs water from the Sacramento Valley southward.

The Brown administration, which had vowed to fight against Donald Trump on his climate, immigration and other policies, nevertheless asked the president Friday to declare parts of California a disaster area, thus opening up a floodgate of federal aid. But there are other federal policies that the Trump administration could consider that would help protect residents living within the shadow of Oroville and other California dams.

For instance, current mortgage rules regarding flood insurance discourage people who live in the shadow of large dams from purchasing flood insurance policies. Federal lending rules require such insurance for owners of property in flood plains, but flood-protection systems such as dams and levees usually remove the floodplain designation from those areas. Without pressure from mortgage companies, owners typically avoid the insurance, figuring there’s little chance of a dam failure.

“Properties that would be designated as located within a flood plain but for a flood protection system like dams and levees – residual risk areas – should be subject to the mandatory purchase requirement,” argues the SmarterSafer Coalition, which includes the R Street Institute, in a recent study analyzing the federal flood insurance program. Those areas would, of course, have rates that “clearly reflect the decreased risk the properties face as a result of the dam or levee.”

Such an insurance system wouldn’t ensure that state and federal authorities repair their dams and levees in a timely manner, but it would offer a level of economic protection for people who are now sitting in motel rooms, watching the news and wondering whether they’ll have anything left if the Oroville Dam spillway gives way. Furthermore, it would protect taxpayers, who typically pay for the aid after a natural disaster strikes.

For now, watching and waiting is all that most Northern California residents can do. Once the crisis passes, there will be intense pressure on the state government to make repairs to Oroville Dam and others across the state. But news reports make clear that state officials were warned about the very problems now unfolding.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com