San Luis Reservoir in 2015

The drought that spanned water years 2012 through 2016 included the driest four-year statewide precipitation on record (2012-2015) and the smallest Sierra-Cascades snowpack on record (2015, with 5 percent of average). It was marked by extraordinary heat: 2014, 2015 and 2016 were California’s first, second and third warmest year in terms of statewide average temperatures.

The state responded to the emergency with actions and investments that also advanced the California Water Action Plan, the five-year blueprint for more reliable, resilient water systems to prepare for climate change and population growth. To advance the priorities of the Water Action Plan and respond to drought, the voters passed a comprehensive water bond, the Legislature appropriated and accelerated funding and state agencies accelerated grants and loans to water projects.

California also enacted the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, took action to improve measurement and management of water, retrofitted tens of thousands of inefficient toilets, replaced lawns with water-wise landscaping and provided safe drinking water to impacted communities.

Californians also responded to the drought with tremendous levels of water conservation, including a nearly 25 percent average reduction in urban water use across the state. In February 2017, the statewide residential water use average was 57.5 gallons per person per day, the lowest ever reported for the state. Only two years ago, that number was rejected at a meeting with multiple California water agencies as a near-impossible target.

During the drought, Californians often asked why the state wasn’t building more reservoirs. The state finally began taking a major step toward that goal, unveiling a list of 12 huge new water projects — from massive new dams in the north to expanded groundwater banks in the south — that will compete for $2.7 billion in state bond funding for new water storage projects.

The money comes from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond overwhelmingly passed by voters in November 2014 during the depths of the state’s historic 2011-2016 drought.

August 2017 was the deadline for water agencies to submit applications for storage projects to the California Water Commission, an agency in Sacramento run by a nine-member board appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The commission will decide by June 2018 which projects receive bond funding, as well as how much, if any, each will receive, after rating them on their public benefits.

As expected, there is more demand than money. All 12 projects would cost roughly $13.1 billion to construct — five times as much money as is available under the bond. That means some won’t get built, and others will need to find the bulk of their funding from federal or local sources — which could include raising water rates or taxes, which local voters may or may not approve.

The list of applicants includes many ideas. Among them:

  • Pacheco Pass: The Santa Clara Valley Water District, along with the San Benito County Water District are hoping to build a new reservoir in southern Santa Clara County near Pacheco Pass, along with a dam up to 300 feet high. The reservoir, which would cost roughly $800 million, would hold 140,000 acre-feet of water — enough to meet the water needs of 650,000 people for a year. The project would replace an existing small reservoir of 5,500 acre-feet that is used to recharge farmers’ groundwater.
  • Sites Reservoir: A proposed $5 billion reservoir in Colusa County, roughly 100 miles north of Napa, the reservoir would be built “off stream” in a valley and would divert water from the Sacramento River, holding 1.8 million acre feet. That’s enough water for the needs of 9 million people a year. It would rank Sites as the seventh largest reservoir in the state, roughly the size of San Luis between Gilroy and Los Banos.
  • Los Vaqueros: The Contra Costa Water District is proposing to raise the earthen dam at Los Vaqueros reservoir by 55 feet, increasing the reservoir’s storage capacity from 160,000 acre feet to 275,000-acre feet, enough water to meet the annual needs of 1.4 million people. The $914 million project has a dozen Bay Area partners that would put up some of the money and receive some of the water as drought insurance. Among them are the Santa Clara Valley Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The project was endorsed Monday by a coalition of six prominent environmental groups — including the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and Planning and Conservation League — because some of the water would go to Central Valley wetland refuges for ducks, geese and other wildlife, in addition to people and farms.
  • Temperance Flat: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has proposed building a 665-foot-high dam on the San Joaquin River in the Sierra foothills in Fresno County. The $3 billion project, which would construct the second-tallest dam in California, behind Oroville Dam, would create a reservoir of 1.3 million acre-feet, enough water for 6.5 million people a year.
  • Semitropic: The groundwater district near Bakersfield, which stores water for agencies from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, has proposed an expansion.
  • Kern Fan: The Irvine Ranch Water District in Irvine, which serves 380,000 residents of Orange County, is proposing to build a $171 million groundwater storage project at the south end of the Kern River.
  • San Diego: The city of San Diego, which wants to produce one-third of its water by 2035 from recycled wastewater, is planning a $1.2 billion project to purify it and deliver it to Miramar Reservoir.
  • Centennial Reservoir: The Nevada Irrigation District in Grass Valley is proposing building a 275-foot-tall dam and 110,000 acre-foot reservoir on the Bear River near Colfax in Placer County.

Other projects were proposed from the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and other water districts.

The five-year drought had some stunning silver linings, notably a more acute personal awareness of water use. The impacts of drought and climate change yielded scarce water flows and depleted groundwater supplies that focused people’s attention on cutting back on water use, developing more water storage facilities and reuse.

During the drought, the media, water agency mailings and signs on the roadways all pointed over and over to the need to conserve. The drought began to give life to a conscious ethic of water conservation and reuse in California.

We need to keep this focus as we move into the future. Doing things like expanding current efforts to improve the efficiency of water use in homes and industries. In particular, while we often see calls for voluntary cutbacks and changes in behavior during drought, far more effective are permanent improvements in efficiency. The state has already made progress in this area, but our urban water use remains too high and much more potential exists to continue to replace inefficient appliances, reduce waste and leaks, and fundamentally change the nature of our outdoor landscape away from water-intensive lawns and gardens to low water-use plants and gardens.

We must expand current efforts to improve the efficiency of water use in the agricultural sector, by accelerating the shift to better irrigation technologies and practices. The goal here is to grow more food with less water.

Whatever we do, the drought that we just experienced is clear evidence that doing nothing is no longer an acceptable option.

We don’t know when drought will return, but we do know it’s a matter of “when” rather than “if”. The Water Resources Association of San Benito County is here to assist you and your family in being water efficient. Call us for a free Home Water Survey today at (831) 637-4378. Not only will you save water, you’ll save money!