PHOTO: JIM URQUHART/REUTERS
No new state dams have been built since the 1970s, even as California’s population has nearly doubled in the time
SAN FRANCISCO—Since the beginning of the year, enough water has spilled out of California’s rain-swollen Lake Oroville to meet the demands of roughly 14 million people for a year. With no place to store the excess, much of it ended up flowing out to sea.
It wasn’t just last month’s dramatic near-disaster at Lake Oroville’s dam that is to blame for the water loss. After years of drought, months of rains are exposing a major weakness in California’s water system: lack of storage.
No new state dams have been built in California since the first time Jerry Brown served as governor in the 1970s, putting a strain on existing reservoirs as the state’s population has nearly doubled to about 40 million over the same time. “The system we have was built more than 40 years ago, and it is doing more than it was planned to do,” said Ajay Goyal, chief of infrastructure investigations for the state’s Department of Water Resources.
Now, there is a renewed push to expand the state’s reservoirs with projects that have long been stalled by environmentalists and others, who opposed dams as too expensive and harmful to fish and other species. Building dams would be a reversal of sorts in California, where state and federal officials have worked in recent years to remove dams near Monterey, Calif., and along the Oregon-California border to help endangered fish and other species. Other parts of the country are trying to increase reservoir storage to meet growing demand.
In Colorado, plans are under way to triple the capacity of a reservoir in the Rocky Mountain foothills to provide more water for the fast-growing Denver area. In South Florida, construction is expected to start soon on a new reservoir for Broward and Palm Beach counties amid drought conditions that have hit much of the heavily populated region over the past three years. South Florida has wet and dry seasons like California, as well as heavy demands on its water from agricultural and urban users.
Proposals for three new reservoir projects in California would add around four million acre feet of new storage capacity. An acre foot is roughly enough water for a family of five for a year.
They include building Sites Reservoir 70 miles northwest of Sacramento that would store 1.8 million acre feet of water. Another reservoir, called Temperance Flat, is planned to be built near Fresno, and would hold with 1.3 million acre feet of water.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to raise the 602-foot Shasta Dam, near Redding, Calif., by 18.5 feet to increase its capacity by 634,000 acre feet, or enough water for three million people.
Water managers who support the new projects say the extreme snow and rainfall—as well as the changing political climate in Washington, D.C.—makes them more hopeful this time around. In December, then-President Barack Obama signed an infrastructure bill passed by the Republican-led Congress that helps streamline new dam-building in California.
New dams also fit into President Donald Trump’s call for major investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a Feb. 14 briefing. Gov. Brown on Feb. 24 called for billions of dollars to overhaul California’s aging infrastructure, including for dams. Many environmental and tribal groups, though, say dam projects are too costly and destructive. The enlargement of Shasta Lake, for example, is opposed by the local Winnemem Wintu tribe for fear it would inundate their ancestral land. Peter Gleick, co-founder and chief scientist of the Pacific Institute, an environmental group based in Oakland, Calif., advocates for conservation and increased use of groundwater aquifers to store water. Many water managers want more groundwater, too. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, are looking for ways to better refill groundwater basins that have become severely overused, such as diverting floodwaters onto farm fields so the moisture can seep underground.
More than 130 local California water officials met in Washington last week with members of the state’s congressional delegation and the Trump administration to push for more water facilities in the Golden State.
“It seems like the stars are aligning to reinvest in our water infrastructure,” said Jim Watson, general manager for the Sites Project Authority pushing for that reservoir.
California voters approved $2.7 billion in bonds in 2014 to fund water storage projects. Backers of the Sites dam are seeking up to half their $4.4 billion funding from the bonds. The rest of the money would come from local water districts.
Sites will compete with as many as 40 other projects for that money when the application process is set to begin this week, said Chris Orrock, spokesman for the California Water Commission, which is to decide by next year on how to divvy the money.
Groundwater by itself isn’t a solution because it can’t be moved quickly, said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents.
New reservoirs won’t help much, he said, unless work is done to improve the bottleneck of water flowing from the north to south via Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Much of the new storage would be situated north of the delta, but pumping restrictions to protect smelt and other endangered fish limit how much water can be shipped through it, he said.
Mr. Brown has proposed a $15.5 billion plan to build twin, 30-mile-long tunnels beneath the delta to move water more reliably. That project, too, faces intense opposition from local farmers and environmentalists, who say the tunnels would destroy fisheries, farms and communities in the delta by rerouting fresh water.