California Draining

California’s Water Problems: Too Little and Too Much
California’s drought-and-flood weather matches its boom-and-bust economy and its tax-and-borrow government.

By Thomas G. Donlan, from Barrons

During the boom years of California growth, the Golden State’s future seemed golden. State government rose to meet the biggest challenge to continued prosperity: supplying more fresh water for intensive agriculture and rapid population growth.

During the administration of Democratic Gov. Pat Brown, from 1959 to 1967, the state created a water project to build 10 dams and reservoirs, 700 miles of canals and pipelines, and eight hydroelectric power plants to send water from Northern California to cities and farms in central and Southern California.

Water from Oroville Lake, 60 miles north of Sacramento, now reaches consumers all the way to the Mexican border. As a side benefit, Oroville Dam, Shasta Dam, and other dams in the mountains have so successfully controlled flooding that hundreds of thousands of people now live confidently in low-lying areas downstream.

As grand—or grandiose—as the state water project seems now, that was just Stage I. Brown’s vision was much larger, including a Stage II that would tap river systems farther north, where water is abundant and people are not. But salmon are abundant in the target rivers. The dams, tunnels, and pumps needed to tap the northern rivers would have wrecked the salmon-fishing industry. Gov. Ronald Reagan refused to approve the northern project.

Building on that victory, environmental defense became a political movement even stronger than real estate development. Many advocates moved from Nimby-ism (“Not in my backyard”) to Banana-ism (“Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone”).

A Matter of Priorities

Some parts of Stage II live on, at least on paper, but it has been stalled, even though California voters facing the recent drought approved a $7.1 billion water-bond issue in 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown, son of Pat, talks about a $15 billion water project, just a start on a need that could cost $100 billion to satisfy.

But the state’s actual spending priorities include Medicaid, prisons, aid to local education, teachers’ pensions, and the high-speed rail line from nowhere to somewhere else. Even many of the Central Valley farmers and southern city mayors who would receive more water oppose it, because the cost would force their water rates much higher.
More From Barron’s

The 2012-16 drought was no surprise to older Californians, who should have remembered some of the nine multiyear droughts that afflicted California since 1900. They might also have remembered the floods that ended most of those droughts.

At this drought’s worst, at the end of 2014, Oroville Lake was at 26% of capacity, but the water level rose during heavy winter rains in 2015. On Feb. 10, two years ago, it was at 45%, and a year ago, it was at 47%.

Last weekend, after weeks of heavy rain, the lake was at 100% of its design capacity, dangerously close to flowing over the top of the dam, threatening erosion that could endanger the dam and the people downstream.

The dam operators had to lower the water level by opening a concrete spillway to such a large flow that part of the spillway collapsed into a giant pothole about the size of a football field.

Then an earthen auxiliary spillway came into play to keep water from going directly over the dam. By last Sunday, the auxiliary spillway was eroding. Officials said this did not threaten the 770-foot-high earthen embankment dam, which had impounded more than a trillion gallons of water, but they were the same officials who said everything was under control two weeks ago. Then the trouble with the spillways threatened residents along the Feather River below the dam. About 188,000 people in three counties were ordered to leave their homes.

As happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and as so often seems to happen when people try to control nature, public works turned into a public-relations disaster. There came a sudden realization that people faced an old, well-understood problem, magnified by neglect. The Oroville Dam spillway problem surfaced in 2005, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was considering relicensing the dam’s hydroelectric power station. Three environmental groups urged the commission to require a concrete structure for the earthen auxiliary spillway.

“You don’t have unarmored spillways unless you are really sure you aren’t going to use them,” said a policy advocate with Friends of the River in 2005. The dam had never needed support from the auxiliary spillway, not even in the worst rainfalls that had occurred since it was completed in 1968.

But the Oroville Dam had been designed with an incorrect assumption—that a second dam, upstream in Marysville, would collect water on a tributary of the Feather River. That would have reduced the amount that the Oroville Dam would have to hold in major floods. That dam was never built, but the assumption was never changed.
More and Less

Nature and neglect leave California with a seemingly permanent water crisis: There’s always too much or too little, and never enough money to get ready for the future.

The Sierra Club opposes new water-storage projects and blames climate change for everything. “The days of predictable weather patterns are gone,” the organization declared recently, which is what the group also had said at the height of the drought.

Scientists were making the ridiculous assumption that there ever had been predictable weather patterns in most of California. It’s a certainty that there will be droughts, which will end with floods. But when? The pattern has always been wildly variable.

Even if climate change makes the weather worse, both in the direction of floods and the direction of droughts, California has been resisting all of the obvious solutions.

It could build more dams and reservoirs for flood control and water supplies. It could reinforce the need for conservation with permanently higher prices for the water they do have. Or, as Gov. Jerry Brown has suggested, the state could capture billions in new revenue by seceding from the U.S. For every dollar that Californians send to the feds in taxes, 79 cents is spent in the state.

“Calexit” has become a hashtag and a meme, but it can’t come soon enough to hold back the next storm. Or the next drought.

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