There’s an old saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second-best time is now.
The same holds for building reservoirs.
California is enduring its worst drought in 200 years, by some measures. The agricultural belts of the Central Valley are the driest and suffering the most from shortages, with fields fallowed and groundwater drawn down severely to make up for shortages, but nobody is immune from the drought’s effects. Cities are strictly rationing water. Treasured runs of salmon are at risk of die-offs.
And much as I’d like to say otherwise, at this point there’s not a lot anyone in Sacramento can do about it, other than triage the crises. The solutions — more water storage and smarter management — require investments California should have made 20 years ago.
But the next big drought? Californians might just have a fighting chance to make it through more smoothly, thanks to the bipartisan legislative agreement on the water bond that will go before the voters this November. If Californians agree about the urgency of action, the state will commit to its first major investments in new reservoirs in decades. The bond directs $2.7 billion toward new storage, directed toward projects first identified in 2000 as the best investments the state could make to improve the water system.
They include Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley, which would store water off the river, in the Coast Range in Colusa County. Holding up to 1.4 million acre-feet of water, or about one-third the size of Lake Shasta, Sites would allow the state to store additional winter floodwaters for productive use. It would make 500,000 acre-feet of new water available in normal years, with even higher benefits in droughts. The state has talked about Sites for more than a decade. With this water bond, we take a concrete step toward pouring the concrete.
New storage is a critical breakthrough in the bond, but it also provides money for other needs: groundwater cleanup, drinking water for struggling communities, investments in healthy watersheds. What it doesn’t include is pork.
In 2009, the last time the Legislature attempted to craft a bond, they won the votes the old-fashioned way — they bought them, one pet project at a time. The result was a bond so bloated and overpriced, $11.14 billion, that the Legislature never even had the courage to present it to the voters, who would have had the good sense to reject it.
Taking a different approach, over the past two years the Assembly Water, Parks and Committee has traveled the state — including a December hearing in Redding — so members could learn firsthand about the needs of the state’s diverse regions and craft a package that would meet those needs in a balanced way. The final deal came at the last possible minute to make the November ballot, in classic Sacramento fashion, but it won nearly unanimous support even as it would spend billions of dollars less than the bond it replaces. Yes, a whole building full of politicians agreed to spend less of the taxpayers’ money, while making the fundamental investments the state needs.
This drought is tough. Farms are fallowed. Cities are rationing water. Mountain springs are drying up. Treasured fisheries are dying off. The one upside is it’s finally woken the state up to the need to build a water system that will serve the next generation. And when the next drought hits, we will be ready.
Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents California’s 1st Assembly District, which includes Shasta, Lassen, Nevada, Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas, and Sierra Counties, and portions of Butte and Placer counties.