A fix for California’s water situation?

Department of Water Resources certifies environmental documents, approves California WaterFix

The California Department of Water Resources announced that it has certified the environmental analysis of California WaterFix and approved the project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In addition to the certification, DWR also filed a “validation action” with the Sacramento County Superior Court to affirm the department’s authority to issue revenue bonds to finance the planning, design, construction and other capital costs of California WaterFix. A validation action is necessary to provide assurances to the financial community for the sale of the California WaterFix revenue bonds.

What is California WaterFix?

California WaterFix is a large-scale infrastructure project proposed by DWR to implement the goals of the Delta Reform Act, adopted by the California Legislature in 2009. The project is intended to address long-standing environmental and operational issues associated with the delivery of State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the SWP and CVP pumping plants in the south Delta. The project includes a new point of diversion for the SWP and CVP on the Sacramento River for water diversion through two tunnels that will be constructed beneath the Delta for delivery to state and federal water contractors south of the Delta.

The Delta is an estuary where salty tides from the San Francisco Bay tangle with the discharge of rivers. The Delta was once a vast mosaic of freshwater and saltwater marshes, with riverside forest and a myriad of sloughs. Today the Delta consists of a few dozen islands protected from flooding by dirt and rock levees. Most of the islands are farmed, and many are sunken below sea level.

When the State Water Project was built in the 1960s, planners intended to carry water to the state and federal pumping plants through a 43-mile canal skirting the eastern edge of the Delta. The canal would carry water directly from the Sacramento River to the pumping plants, which sit on the southern edge of the Delta.

The canal was intended to protect water quality and avoid significant damage to Delta fisheries caused in part by the federal and state pumping plants, which draw water directly from channels in the south Delta. The pumps can entrap fish directly and draw others off course by creating “reverse flows” in south Delta channels.

For cost reasons, the originally proposed peripheral canal was not built. Over time, the state has developed a better understanding of the danger to fish of pumping directly from the south Delta. With the current water challenges in California, populations of native fish have reached historically low numbers, and “reverse flows” and pump entrapment are important factors. Other factors bolster the need for a more sustainable way to divert water from the Delta. The current water conveyance system depends upon levees that are vulnerable to subsiding peat soils, earthquake, flood, even burrowing ground squirrels. Threats will only worsen as climate change brings higher sea levels and intense storms.

Wide consensus exists that improvements facilities are needed. For decades, while environmental and water supply conditions deteriorate, Californians have debated whether and how to fix the system. California WaterFix is the product of decades of deliberation and the evolution of California’s twin goals of protecting and securing water resources to meet growing demand while maintaining a healthy environment.

California’s Complicated Hydrology

California’s climate and hydrology are unlike any other in the nation, with variability and uncertainty the main characteristics. In an average year, the total amount of precipitation is about 200 million acre-feet; however, the actual precipitation can vary anywhere from 100 million acre-feet to 300 million acre-feet, depending on whether it is a wet year, a dry year, or something in between. About half of the precipitation will evaporate, be used by vegetation, or sink into the subsurface, salt sinks, or flow to the ocean; the remaining half, known as "dedicated water’"is what is available for use in cities, on farms, for the environment, or to be put in storage.

Besides variability, there are other challenges for California’s water supply. Most of this precipitation will occur between November and April, yet most water demand is in the hot, dry months of summer and early fall. Additionally, most of the precipitation falls in the mountains in the middle to northern half of the state, far from major urban and agricultural centers. So in order to make this work, California has built an extensive water storage and conveyance network that can store the water from the winter when it falls, and deliver it to the drier parts of the state in the summer.

Water development has fueled California’s economic growth

The state’s largest urban centers depend on multiple water systems to support their populations: The Bay Area depends on the State Water Project, the Central Valley Project, the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System and the Mokelumne Aqeuduct for two-thirds of its water supplies. Southern California, home to half of the state’s population, depends on the State Water Project, the Colorado River Aqueduct and the Los Angeles Aqueduct supply for about half of its supply.

California’s vast agricultural industry is also dependent on water projects, both large and small. The Central Valley Project irrigates one-third of the irrigated lands in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys; Kern County is reliant on both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project for its supply, and the All-American Canal conveys Colorado River water to the Imperial Valley. Here locally we depend on our groundwater supply and imported Central Valley Project water.

The construction of California’s extensive water infrastructure in the twentieth century has transformed the state into one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, the most populated state in the country, and the eighth largest economy in the world.

Development has issues

This intensive development has not been without its consequences: dams have blocked access to habitat for native species and altered the natural flow of water, wetlands have been drained, and invasive species have moved in, altering habitat. Populations of native fish and wildlife species have plummeted; some have gone extinct, and many more are threatened. Most of the state’s waterways are impaired by pollutants from agricultural, urban, and legacy mining sources.

Most of California’s water infrastructure projects were designed and constructed at a time when delivering cheap water to feed economic development was a goal, and ecosystem and species concerns were rarely considered.

Changing societal values have meant increased restrictions and regulations to protect endangered species have reduced the amount that can be withdrawn from our waterways and fueled political wars that have stretched on for decades as demands for water from agriculture, cities and industry must be constantly balanced against the need for maintaining water quality and protecting fisheries and wildlife.

The Solution

After years of deliberation, the state, working with many agencies and public/private groups has developed WaterFix

The project website states,”WaterFix is a science-driven upgrade to our aging water system. It will provide clean, reliable water while protecting our environment.”

WaterFix covers five main areas:

  • Water security
  • Environmental protection
  • Reduced risk from earthquakes and climate change
  • System upgrades and new technology
  • Increased efficiency

WaterFix proposes construction of three new water intakes located farther away from endangered species habitats. Two 40-foot wide tunnels located about 150 feet below ground would carry diverted water by gravity under the Delta to pumping facilities south of the estuary.The tunnels will stretch for 43.5 miles and the project will take 16 years to complete.

The estimated cost of California WaterFix is about $15 billion.

For more information, visit:

*Sources: California WaterFix; Maven’s Notebook

Shawn Novack

Shawn Novack is the Director of the Water Resources Association of San Benito County. The Association represents the City of Hollister, the City of San Juan Bautista, the Sunnyslope County Water District and the San Benito County Water District for all their water conservation and water resource protection programs. Shawn has been in the field of water conservation for 20 years. He has a certification as a Water Conservation Practioner from the American Water Works Association California/Nevada Chapter. He also is a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor through the Irrigation Association in Virginia. Before getting into the water industry, Shawn worked as a technical writer for the Naval Research Center in Monterey.