DC legislators talk water storage for California

Committee roomOn October 29th,2013, the House Subcommittee on Water and Power held on oversight hearing, A Road Map for Increasing Our Water and Hydropower Supplies: The Need for New or Expanded Multi-purpose Facilities. The hearing, led by Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, focused on the benefits of high-elevation storage projects, as well as much discussion about whether the lack of new storage projects in recent decades has been due to regulatory or financial impediments.

The purpose of today’s hearing is to identify the current impediments to increasing water storage and hydropower capacity and to look at new concepts on the construction of smaller, high elevation dams,” began Mr. McClintock.  “During the first two-thirds of the 21st century, local, state and federal governments devoted themselves to the development of the vast, untapped water resources of the western U.S.  Yet in the 1970s, this positive and forward looking policy was abandoned in favor of increasingly restrictive environmental demands.  We’ve now lived under these policies for more than 4 decades and as a result, we face increasingly severe water and electricity shortages, spiraling water and electricity prices, devastated farms, and a chronically declining economy.

It seems we’ve lost sight of several self-evident water truths,” he continued.  “First, more water is better than less water.  That’s about as self evident as it gets.  Yet we often hear that instead of producing new storage, we should resign ourselves to chronic water shortages, and manage those shortages through increasingly severe conservation measures.  But conservation doesn’t add more water; it merely manages a water shortage.”

Second, cheaper water is better than more expensive water,” said Mr. McClintock.  “If we agree on this, then it naturally follows that before we employ more expensive sources of water like desalination and recycling, we should first be sure we’ve exhausted the less expensive alternatives like water storage.”

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Congressman Tom McClintock

Third, water is unevenly distributed over both time and distance,” he said.  “If we want to have plenty of water in dry periods, we have to store it in wet ones; and if we want to have plenty of water in dry regions, we have to move it from wet ones.  Mother Nature produces about 45,000 gallons of fresh water each day for every man, woman and child on this planet.  The problem is not supply; it is distribution – that’s why we build dams and aqueducts.”

Fourth, we don’t need to build dams and aqueducts if our goal is simply to let the water run into the ocean,” said Mr. McClintock.  “Water tends to run downhill very well on its own; it doesn’t need our help to do so.  We build dams and aqueducts to put surplus water to beneficial, human use before it runs into the ocean.”

Now if we agree on these self-evident water truths, then why aren’t we approaching our policies in concert with those truths?” he asked.  “In the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation built more than 600 dams and reservoirs, yet today two-thirds of them are more than 50 years old and with the exception of the Animas-La Plata project in southwestern Colorado, Reclamation has not built a large multi-purpose dam in an entire generation.”

We’ll hear that California’s water system was built for 22 million people but it’s now struggling to serve 38 million,” said Mr. McClintock.  “The last major water project in California over a million acre-feet was the New Melones Dam in 1979.  Yet, with water supplies strained to the breaking point, the left sees no problem committing billions of gallons of precious water for the care and amusement of the Delta smeltThe status quo is simply not working and the purpose of today’s hearing is to chart a path that leads us to a new era of abundance.”

There’s no shortage of economical storage sites,” said Mr. McClintock.  “Financing’s never been a problem for projects that produce abundant water and power.  Experience shows us such projects paid for themselves many times over.  What we suffer is a superabundance of bureaucracy and a catastrophic shortage of vision and political will.  That is what has to change. “

I’m looking forward to hearing from our witnesses today as we chart a course away from past policies of paralysis, shortage, rationing and decline, toward a new era of action, abundance and prosperity,” concluded Mr. McClintock.

Congresswoman Grace Napolitano

I’ve no objection to the hearing and the emphasis,” began Ms. Napolitano, “but the concern, however, remains that this hearing only looks at one side of the coin.  It only looks at new surface storage.  It doesn’t look at groundwater storage, efficiencies, water recycling, desalination, and of course, education.”

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Congresswoman Grace Napolitano

This is our second hearing specifically on this issue since last February; we have not looked at any of the other options,” she said.  “If we’re looking for solutions to our water problems and for certainty for our communities, then we must all have full consideration of all other options, including storage and other alternatives such as desalination and recycling.  We cannot just prioritize the option that is the most expensive, least efficient, takes longer to create, and creates the most environmental conflict.”

There’s no doubt Reclamation projects have had a great impact on the west with over 40 million people depending on the water from Reclamation projects, said Ms. Napolitano, noting that of the $22 billion dollars that Reclamation has already spent on major water projects, only 25 % or $5.2 billion, has been repaid to the federal government.

The biggest impediment to dam construction is limited federal funding.  New storage when appropriate is not impossible; California has added 5.6 million acre-feet in new groundwater and surface water storage in the last 20 years,” said Ms. Napolitano, citing the examples of Contra Costa Water District’s expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir and Metropolitan Water District’s Diamond Valley Lake.

Metropolitan Water District's Diamond Valley Lake
Metropolitan Water District’s Diamond Valley Lake

Water managers have already realized they cannot wait to compete for limited federal dollars or the 20 or 30 years or so it will take to construct the facility,” said Ms. Napolitano.  “They need to solve problems now.  Water managers are looking for projects that involve limited federal involvement and can produce water, wet water, on a faster scale.  This can also be seen in the 53 water recycling projects Congress has authorized since 1992,“ noting that Reclamation has facilitated the conservation of 616,000 acre-feet of water from 2010 to 2012 through Title 16 Water Smart Grants and other conservation programs.

The threat to our water supply is real.  We have many challenges like climate change, decreased snow pack, increased demand and development of alternative water intensive fuels like oil shale,” she said.  “Not all of the water needs in the west can or should be met by new dams or bigger dams.”

New storage is not always the right answer or the only answer, and the same can be said of water recycling or desalination,” continued Ms. Napolitano.  “What works for one community may not work for others and we must select the most effective and affordable solution.  To know the right solution for the community is to have all the options on the table, and looking at surface storage does not provide our water managers with a baseline data they need to conserve for all our communities.”

Congressman Doc Hastings

“I believe that America needs an all-of-the-above water supply strategy and today’s hearing is a step in the right direction,” said Congressman Doc Hastings.  “Water storage has been the key to economic prosperity and a way of life in my Central Washington district, which is home to two large federal water projects and an integral part of the Columbia River power system.  Together, these two projects irrigate more than a million acres of farmlands, makes possible a vital, navigation link for millions of tons of grains and commodities annually, it provides numerous recreation and flood control benefits, and these projects, no wholly within my district, but these projects provide over 21 billion KWH of carbon-free renewable hydroelectric power to customers throughout the Pacific Northwest.“

Congressman Doc Hastings

Before these projects were constructed, this area was an arid desert where there was little but tumbleweeds and sagebrush and today it is one of the most productive and diverse agriculture areas in the world,” said Mr. Hasintgs.  “Yakima County in my district is one of the top agriculture areas in the nation, ranking12th nationally in total value of agriculture products sold.  Without a doubt, this is possible because a prior generation had the vision of capturing spring runoff to deliver water during dry times. … ”

What is obvious is that it is necessary for us to build more surface storage if we want to maintain our prosperity,” he said.  “I am aware of those who say that conservation is the only way to produce more water.  Conservation can and should play a role; however, it alone is not the answer.  After all, you cannot conserve water that has already been lost to the ocean, and you can’t conserve water that doesn’t exist. … ”

It’s this generation’s turn to recognize our nation’s growing water needs and to take steps to meet it,” said Mr. Hastings.  “For us to have another water supply renaissance, we must embrace new or expanded storage so that we can truly have all-of-the-above water supply strategy well into the future.  We have the power to make that happen and we will push legislative reforms to bring regulations back to reality.”

Congressman Peter DeFazio (Oregon)

I think there is substantial grounds for agreement between the majority and the minority in terms of our objectives, but, perhaps the path here that we envision is maybe a little more complicated, maybe a lot less expensive, and something that hasn’t been talked about much,” began Congressman DeFazio.  “We’re living off a 19th and 20th century infrastructure as it relates to water storage in the western US for the most part.  … What we need to do is take a really comprehensive look at all the factors that are playing in here.  We have a system in place that is deteriorated and needs restoration and repair.  We have some that need upgrading and there are certainly places where we could look at new infrastructure.”

The major impediment, however, is the same impediment that we have on roads, bridges, highways and transit and the same impediment that the Corps of Engineers projects have across the United States,” said Mr. DeFazio, “and that is that we are not investing in America’s infrastructure the way competitor nations are around the world.  We are simply not doing that. … ”

We’ve got to take an approach that’s more comprehensive,” said Mr. Defazio.  “Look at changes in population, look at changes in the weather, look at new technologies that are out there or improvements that are out there for the existing system,  how much can be gained then, what’s the cost benefit analysis that relates there, and then, yes, we can look at additional storage as needed.  But massive new storage projects, particularly new storage projects that would employ 20th century engineering techniques are not long term solution to the western problems.”

Congressman Scott Tipton

Last month a deadly storm struck my home state of Colorado, causing unprecedented lethal flooding that damaged over 16,000 homes and destroyed hundreds of local businesses.  My heart, as does everyone’s, goes out to all the families and business owners that are still struggling to be able to recover from this tragic event,” began Congressman Tipton.  “But as the Chairman noted, with the exception of the Animas-LaPlata project in southwest Colorado, the Bureau of Reclamation has not built any new large multi-purpose dams or reservoirs over the last generation. Preventing all the damage of a storm of this magnitude in Colorado is impossible.  However, our nation’s failure to develop new surface storage projects only continues to amplify the devastating results of storms like this one.”

Ridges Basin Dam, Animas-La Plata Project Photo by Bureau of Reclamation
Ridges Basin Dam, Animas-La Plata Project
Photo by Bureau of Reclamation

Increasing water storage is critical as the natural cycle of rivers in the west is one of boom and bust, surplus and drought,” he said.  “Streamlining the regulatory permitting process is just one way to be able to reduce the ills associated with this cycle and can help better prepare those communities that rely on snowpack to support local economies.”

Colorado is a headwaters state.  As the Water Information Program in Southwest Colorado reports, more than 10 million acre-feet of water flows out of Colorado watersheds annually,” said Mr. Tipton.  “Thanks to the foresight of previous generations, water storage infrastructure was built throughout the west to be able to capture this vital resource.  This infrastructure helped reduce the threat of catastrophic flooding and provided a secure and stable source of water.

Many western cities have grown and prospered in part in thanks to that water that originates in Colorado,” said Mr. Tipton.  “Without the ability to be able to store water that falls on Colorado’s slopes, the west as we know it would not exist.  … Water conservation is something all westerners know and the importance of it, but conservation is not enough.  New water storage will play a role in meeting future demands and could also be utilized to be able to meet environmental and species protection goals, support our farm and ranch communities and ensure recreational opportunities that are consistent and address the reducing of destruction of wildfires caused by drought conditions.”

Unfortunately we have many groups that have failed to recognize the potential environmental benefits of increased storage and they have held up development of new projects with endless litigation and a variety of other tactics,” he said.  “Rather than increasing storage capacity, some of these groups have instead focused on efforts to redistribute water from rural to urban areas.  This is frightening, not only from the perspective of water rights, but in terms of our nation’s food supply.”  …

Congressman Scott Tipton

The growing west needs new water projects and the federal government should be fostering a regulatory environment that encourages new surface storage production rather than stifling these efforts,” said Mr. Tipton.  “Unfortunately, in too many instances, this is not the case. … My hope is that today’s oversight hearing will shine a light on some of the obstacles that are preventing the construction of new federal and non-federal water storage projects, as well as explore some innovative options and technologies that will increase the capacity.”

Water is one of the most important natural resources in Colorado, and a main driver of economic growth,” he said.  “Prudent supply management and the ability to be able to store much needed water will allow communities to support jobs that depend upon the availability of water, protect food security, control flooding, ensure continued recreational opportunities, provide water for the development of hydropower, and meet environmental protection needs.”

Congressman Jim Costa

Congressman Jim Costa began by saying he agreed with the subject matter of the hearing, but that it’s only part of the story.  “The other part is using all of the water tools that are in our water management toolbox.  I think that we make this overly complicated.  Frankly, we know that, particularly in the west, the climate is changing … reservoirs have to be operated differently than they were in the past.  And we know that we’re going to need to capture additional water because when we do have that additional rainfall, we need to try to make sure that we can conserve it, not only for the existing use but for conjunctive use to make groundwater banks work because you can’t inject that water in groundwater banks unless you have the surface supply to keep it when you get the rain.”

Congressman Jim Costa

We all have our favorite projects, he said.  “However, the fact is that we know we have an existing shortfall in western states. … We ought to be able to come to some kind of conclusion about what that annual shortfall is in terms of acre-feet, and we ought to look at the next long term efforts over the next 20 to 40 years as to what the additional need is, notwithstanding the implementation of conservation, groundwater banking, water transfers, desalination, all of these are part of the tools we have to use.”

We all should subscribe to a good conservative principle of what is the most cost effective, Mr. Costa said.  “Because notwithstanding your favorite project or my favorite project, at the end of the day, this water costs more than it did when our parents and our grandparents developed the projects that we’re living off of today.”

In California, we have 38 million people; we have a water system designed for 20 million people, and by the year 2030, we’re going to have 50 million people,” he said.  “If we are going to continue to economically be successful in California, we’re going to have to grow our water supply by using all the water tools in that water tool box, and we need to do it in the most cost-effective way possible, so we use conservation, we use desalination, we use groundwater banking, and yes we do additional reservoir surface supplies.  Raising Shasta is a good project.  Temperance Flat I think has merit.  The state is looking at Sites Reservoir as a potential and yes we could expand Los Vaqueros a second time.  All of those reservoir surface storage projects have multiple benefits.  The trick of course is how you pay for them.”

Mr. Costa said that he and Senator Feinstein have asked the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite the storage studies as they have been going on for way too long.  “We need to get the feasibility studies complete so then we can determine the cost feasibility and what other potential challenges we face.  Obviously, a number of these projects have environmental opposition. … That gets to the regulatory aspect because frankly, the endangered species act was passed and signed into law by a good Republican administration, but I think has gone in directions that many of us would not like to see it today.  … We have aspects of the ESA that I think have been used in ways that are counterproductive, and so therefore we need to look at how we deal with that.

We need to agree on what our deficits are, whether it’s in California or other western states, and what we need to add in terms of acre-feet, and then figure out what’s the most cost-effective to develop that additional new water supply … wet water is wet water, and frankly the water that takes us to a population of 50 million people for our urban population, to maintain our agriculture economy and to deal with the environmental issues is what I support,” concluded Mr. Costa.

Congressman David Valadao (California)

My Congressional district includes some of the most productive and diverse farmland in our nation.  We are proud of our agricultural heritage and the crops we produce but we know that we would not be where we are today without previous generation’s decisions to invest in water infrastructure,” said Congressman Valadao.  “Unfortunately, the investments in water storage made by previous generations have not continued into the modern day. …

Today farmers and families across the district are feeling the real impacts of restricted infrastructure growth, but the most unfortunate part of the recent water shortages is that simply doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.  “It is not that we are a society that uses too much water or that we have not become more efficient; rather the investment in our water infrastructure has failed to keep pace with our growing population and economy. …

Today, water shortages and environmental red tape are forcing California farmers to deal with 20% of their water allocation.  Next year, because of the same bureaucratic overreach, for farmers, this may very well be a 0% year for us,” he said.  “For individuals, economies and civilizations, the same truths hold true: without water you die.  Although there are many factors that contribute to the 2009 water crisis, one thing is clear: the ability to store more water in wet years could have guarded against the 2009 crisis, and the new one we are facing in 2014.”

Water storage provides many benefits but the most important benefit it provides is the assurance that when times are dry, water will be there for families, for crops, to protect jobs, and to continue to fuel our economy,” concluded Mr. Valadao.  “We must invest in our water infrastructure today so we can be assured for our tomorrow.”

Congressman Jared Huffman

I want to respectfully push back on the idea that it somehow environmental regulations or environmental standards that are holding up the possibility of constructing lots of new dams,” said Congressman Jared Huffman.  “I’m not aware of a single dam, at least in California, maybe throughout the west, that actually has the financing in place to happen, and is being held up because of environmental requirements.  … I am aware of a lot of new dam proposals that are being held up because of feasibility studies and the basic requirement that beneficiaries find a way that they can actually pay for these things before we start to build them.  That’s common sense, and that’s sort of the law of reality with financing, but that’s not any particular environmental standard.”

The fact is the most cost-effective dams in California and in other parts of the country were built a long time ago,” said Mr. Huffman.  “The remaining dam sites that are under consideration are far more expensive and far less productive because the biggest dam in the world doesn’t make it rain or snow anymore.  You’re talking about managing the same increment of water.”

HuffmanThere was a statement made at the outset that conservation does not add more water,” continued Mr. Huffman.  “I think if we had a few of the water managers from Southern California and other parts of California here today, they would tell you that’s absolutely false.  There’s so many conservation strategies that we have pioneered in recent decades that do produce more water and we need to hear that perspective.  We need to hear how evaporative losses and other losses have been dramatically reduced by pioneering conservation strategies – far cheaper by the way then the tremendous price tag of building new surface storage.  We need to hear how addressing transmission losses and efficiencies in the actual water infrastructure can dramatically increase the amount of available water, wet water, for beneficial uses throughout the system.”

It was assumed in the opening that cheaper water is better than more expensive, therefore we should be moving to surface storage before recycling and desalination,” he said.  “Well, there’s a reason why new dams are generally not being constructed but there are some exceptions, Los Angeles and others have found way to find the money and they’ve been able to move forward with their surface storage, but there’s a reason why you’re seeing more recycling and desalination starting to happen and that’s because people are willing to pay for them.  These are not projects that are carrying with them huge federal subsidies like the kind of new surface storage projects that we like to talk about in these discussions.  These are projects that San Diego and other places have decided are important enough to them that they are willing to actually pony up their own money and make them happen.”

New Melones is not the last major surface storage in California; that was the last storage that was built by the Bureau of Reclamation, clarified Mr. Huffman.  “There have been huge new surface storage projects that have come online in California, but the secret to making them happen is that people didn’t put their hand out and ask for huge federal subsidies.  They actually found beneficiaries that were willing to pay for those projects, and guess what, the environmental laws didn’t stop them.”

I think it is important as we move forward in this discussion to tease out the religion of surface storage from the actual facts on the ground,” said Mr. Huffman.  “It would be nice to hear from more water managers that have actually found ways to build these projects because there’s another story to be told here.  There’s all sorts of water that we can be making available for all the beneficial uses that I know we all care about if we focus on creative strategies and the realities and the finances of water management, instead of bringing out the old dogma about environmental laws and new dams being something that would happen in the absence of the Endangered Species Act.”

Testimony of Witnesses

The hearing then turned to the witness panel.  Today’s panel includes Robert Shibatani, a hydrologist; Laura Ziemer from Trout Unlimited, and Tom Barcellos, a Central Valley dairy farmer.

Robert Shibatani, CEO and principal hydrologist of the Shibatani Group; Sacramento, California

After what appears to be several decades of relative idleness, water managers, water practitioners across the nation are now realizing that we are embarking upon a new era of dam and reservoir revitalization, and one that is quite different than what we experienced in the past,” began Robert Shibtani.  “I would like to spend a few moments talking about one specific aspect of that discussion and debate, and that is related to the opportunities emerging related to new high-elevation storage.”

Let me begin by defining what that is.  High elevation storage in California represents new facilities above existing state, federal and local agency impoundments that currently ring or circle the Central Valley and what we operationally label as “terminal” or rim reservoirs,” explained Mr. Shibatani.

ShibitaniThere are a number of distinguishing factors that make these facilities quite different than their historic counterparts,” he said.  “For one, they are at high elevation, which means that they are at the source area of both snow accumulation and the potential effects of climatic forcings brought upon by climate change.  We are observing some of those effects today.  Number two, because of their remote location, some of the potential population displacement risks are largely marginalized, relative to the other facilities.  Number three, the construction related effects associated with their development, things such as sensitive receptors to such things noise, air quality, traffic disruptions, possibly even land use conflicts are largely marginalized relative to reservoir sites more closely situated near high population centers.  Fourthly and finally, they are at distal proximity to the downstream outflow locations, either the Pacific Ocean or some estuary, California is a good example – the Bay-Delta, along with the interceding the reservoirs between them and the Pacific Ocean, and this largely means that high elevation storage facilities are largely immune or unaffected by downstream Delta water quality requirements.

Functionally and hydrologically, capturing new upstream precipitation provides a downstream flood control benefit at the point source of runoff generation, so it’s a first line defense for flood control – very different from levee management, which is the last line of defense for flood control,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “Now the additional storage developed in these upstream reservoirs also provides a number of environmental benefits for such things as habitat protection flows, fish attraction flows for returning adult spawners, and pulse flows for downstream water quality control including estuaries that have salinity as a major issue.  And the last issue of course is dilution potential for the many thousands of NPDES and waste discharge requirements that are currently in existence today.”

Significantly, high level storage also provides operational flexibility for those jurisdictions that enjoy joint federal water project operations, local and regional water supply sustainability, and the support for a very robust and active water transfer market,” said Mr. Shibatani.

From an endangered species perspective, high elevation storage provides additional cold water pool reservoir assets that are very important for instream thermal management,” he said.  “There are many emerging studies that are confirming that those facilities provide an effective adaptation to the effects of climatic change brought about by either warming temperatures or a change in precipitation form.  So such things as a shifted hydrograph in upstream watersheds, annual yield differentials, and extreme event probabilities associated with climatic forcings are all each accommodated through new high elevation storage.”

ice house reservoir
Ice House Reservoir, El Dorado County

“I get asked quite frequently whether new dams are even possible in this contemporary context and I answer that query with a flip question in return,” said Mr. Shibatani. “I approach this from a hydrologic perspective only because that’s the limitation of my expertise, so I ask the prescient question, does a watershed experience at any time of the year uncontrolled releases or surplus flows during any given water year?  Typically in the western and the mountain states, that answer is ‘yes.’  That un-captured flow is the water that I want to serve as a foundational basis for new water storage development across the western states.”

Let me conclude by saying that there are a number of challenges that lay ahead of us and many of them in my view are regulatory driven,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “In my experience and in the work that I’ve done on water supply development for the last 30 years, there has never been a more prescient time for new storage development in the United States today.”

There are a number of growing concerns, demands associated with new supply security, water quality control, including protection from saline intrusion associated with sea level rise.  All of these can be accommodated by new high-elevation storage potential adaptations across the western and mountain states.”

  • Click here for Robert Shibatani’s written testimony.
Laura Ziemer, Senior Counsel and Water Policy Advisor for Trout Unlimited; Bozeman, Montana

Laura Ziemer  began by saying she has dedicated the last 15 years of her professional life to finding innovative solutions to water scarcity.  “In my experience, on the ground, throughout the west, diverse partners are coming together to find innovative solutions to water scarcity at a variety of scales by rethinking old infrastructure and repairing natural systems,” she said.  “Trout Unlimited is not opposed to new storage.  We believe it has a role to play in modern water management.  And to this end, I’ve learned a couple of things over walking irrigation ditches for the last 15 years that I’d like to share today.”

ZiemerFirst I’ve learned that the largest and cheapest reservoir of new storage and new water lies in the miles of irrigation canals and laterals dug by shovel and plow over a hundred years ago,” said Ms. Ziemer.  “For example, my colleagues in Eastern Washington worked with the Wennatche water users to upgrade their irrigation works to now the most advanced system in the state.  By doing so, they returned almost 8000 acre-feet of new water to the flow limited Wennatche River for imperiled spring Chinook salmon, and not only that, but helped secure the city of Wennatche’s municipal water supply. … “  She added that Congress can encourage these kinds of cooperative solutions by funding farm bill and Bureau of Reclamation competitive grant programs.

Second, I’ve learned it can be at lot cheaper, faster and smarter to expand one existing reservoirs than build a new one, and new storage can be used in a variety of ways to optimize water supply,” she said, giving the example of Colorado’s Chatfield Reservoir.  “We’re looking at that for reallocating storage water to new supply for both municipalities and irrigation.  That’s the kind of solution that doesn’t require new concrete but just new thinking.”

Finally, I’ve learned over the years that the best solutions are usually not the easiest ones,” said Ms. Ziemer.  “The innovative work I’ve done with Trout Unlimited has involved a lot of listening over the time to what other people need water for.  New storage likewise is best planned and carried out in a multi-stakeholder basin study process that embeds storage into a multi-pronged approach for addressing water scarcity.”

When we invest in the river basin’s natural infrastructure, it becomes a highly cost-effective way to buffer the effects of both floods and drought,” concluded Ms. Ziemer.

  • Click here for Laura Ziemer’s written testimony.
Tom Barcellos, Central Valley dairy farmer; Porterville, California

My name is Tom Barcellos, and I’m a family dairy farmer from Tipton, California on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley,” he began. “I serve on the board of directors Lower Tule River Irrigation District which is a member of the Family Farm Alliance.  I also represent both of those organizations here today.”

BarcellosLike many water users represented by the Family Farm Alliance, I rely upon a combination of surface and groundwater supplies managed through a variety of local, state, and federal arrangements,” said Mr. Barcellos.  “Like me, many family farms as well as the communities they are intertwined with owe their existence in large part to the flood control safety and certainty provided by water stored behind dams.  Nowhere is the uncertainty of water supplies greater than in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  We face incredibly complex federal regulatory structure – the very expensive and lengthy processes we face to make obtaining and sustaining water supplies increasing difficult on both agricultural and municipal users.  For the farmer, the current water allocation and reallocation schemes often offer us a sense of disillusionment and economic uncertainty.”

Severe water shortages caused by the combination of federal fisheries restrictions and drought on water supplies to the western side of the valley forced hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland to be fallowed in 2009 and beyond, costing Central Valley agriculture nearly $1 billion in lost income and more than 20,000 lost jobs,” said Mr. Barcellos.  “In 2009 also the Central Valley Project received only 10% of the water they contracted for, the lowest allocation in the history of the project.  This year, 20%, next year, these water users face a 0% allocation at this point.  Implementation of federal law such as the ESA is a primary reason for this grim scenario.”

Expanded storage in California would be hugely beneficial right now,” he said, noting that the Family Farm Alliance compiled a database in 2005 of potential water supply enhancement projects in the Central Valley and elsewhere, and that the same year, the Bureau of Reclamation identified nearly 1000 potential hydroelectric and water supply projects that have been studied but not constructed.  “Water resources are available to be developed,” he said.

Little progress has been made on the supply management end of things, while development has occurred on conjunctive management and groundwater banking projects,” said Mr. Barcellos.  “Development of new surface storage projects have virtually ground to a halt in the past 30 years, especially in areas where any sort of federal nexus exists for proposed projects.”

Farmers will continue to do all they can to save water; however, water savings cannot be expanded indefinitely without reducing acreage in production,” he said.  “At some point, the growing water demands of the west, coupled with the omnipresent possibility of drought as we have seen must be met or it will be taken from agriculture.  We cannot continue to downplay or ignore the negative implications of reallocating more agricultural water supplies to meet the new urban energy and environmental water demands.  Solutions will require workable policy that emphasizes the development of new storage projects.  To make that happen, existing procedures for developing additional supplies need to be revised to make project approval less burdensome.  The federal government really needs to adopt a policy of supporting new efforts to enhance water supplies and encouraging state and local interests to take the lead in formulation of those efforts. …

No better example of what new storage capacity provides than in the watershed directly north of where I farm where the Lake Kaweah Enlargement Terminus Dam Spillway has already demonstrated its effectiveness,” he said.  “The new project has raised the level by 21 feet, increasing the storage capacity by one third.  This project has generated many environmental benefits and is a key component in the local conjunctive use equation.  The relatively simple and inexpensive project took over 20 years to complete and that was without any environmental opposition.”

We continue to push improved water storage and conveyance infrastructure to mitigate for water that’s been reallocated away from agriculture,” said Mr. Barcellos.  “Without water supply reliability for irrigated agriculture through a combination of new infrastructure and other supply enhancements along with efforts in demand management, our county’s ability to feed and clothes itself, and with the world, will be jeopardized.”

  • Click here for Tom Barcellos’s written testimony.

Discussion Highlights

Members of the Committee were then given the opportunity to question the witnesses and offer their comments.

Congressman Doc Hastings on the threat of litigation

“ … I think at some point you have to recognize, especially with the growing population and growing demands, that at the end of the day, you have to have more storage, and that’s really what this hearing is all about.  I mentioned in my opening statement that conservation ought to be part of that, but it can’t be the only tool. … ”

“ … I am not necessarily convinced that the regulations themselves stop projects.  But what concerns me is the threat of legislation that slows down the process, when it slows it down, you have less certainty with maybe with an investment that needs to be made, whether you’re a farmer that’s going to make an investment in an irrigation canal.  All of those things are not because the regulation has been strictly enforced, but it’s the threat of litigation that slows the whole process down. … ”

Congresswoman Grace Napolitano asks about integrated plans and benefit-cost ratios

Congresswoman Napolitano asked Mr. Sandison, another witness at the hearing from the state of Washington, would the integrated plans and water storage project being planned for the Yakima Basin provide a positive benefit-cost ratio on a stand-alone basis without the conservation and restoration measures?

The basic premise of an integrated of the plan is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and so a disaggregated analysis of the components of an integrated plan typically would fail to capture the synergies among the component parts of the program,” said Mr. Sandison.  “Having said that, the formal benefit-cost analysis has not been on either the entire project or on any of the individual storage projects.  … We have a project that’s not looking at expanding irrigated agriculture, we’re really trying to drought-proof a basin with an existing agricultural economy and it’s harder to capture the benefits when you’re trying to preserve an economy than when you’re trying to grow an entirely new one.”

Congressman Tom McClintock asks about harnessing California’s ‘surplus’ water

Congressman Tom McClintock asked Mr. Shibatani what percentage of Sacramento River runoff is utilized for all purposes, including environmental?  What percentage is controlled, what percentage is uncontrolled?

There’s about 80% of total precipitation that comes in that is managed for use, and that’s sort of divided through ag, M&I, and environmental flows,” responded Mr. Shibatani.  “The rest of the 120 million acre-feet statewide, or 60% of that available water is simply not touched by our management prescriptions.”

So that’s 120 million acre-feet statewide that’s not required for environmental flows and it simply runs off into the ocean,” said Mr. Clintock.

Correct,” replied Mr. Shibatani.  “There are three factors of losses of water that is not touched by our management prescriptions.  It’s water that is either lost directly, through evaporative losses, transfer of losses through vegetation and soil, or losses to a deep salt sink or runoff to the Pacific Ocean.  That’s the yield differential.”

What would be required to harness more of that surplus water?” asked Mr. McClintock.

For the direct evaporative water and the transfer water, there’s not much you can do,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “For the deep losses to the salt sink, there’s not much you can do, but for the amount of water that actually leaves through channelized outflow, about 15 million acre-feet that leaves through the north Coast, there’s about 7 million acre-feet a year that leaves through the Golden Gate, so you’ve got 22 million acre-feet of outflow – that’s riverine outflow – that’s going out to the ocean as lost runoff.  …

There is a great deal of water that could be stored for future use that right now is going into the Pacific Ocean,” said Mr. McClintock.  “Is there any shortage of geologically suitable sites to store that additional water?

In the American River watershed, as a watershed that has most of its facilities built, we did a study with some various partners a few years ago called a Joint Benefits Investigation Study,” replied Mr. Shibatani.  “We identified 30 sites in the American River basin watershed that have potential for feasibility studies for new reservoirs. … “

Congressman Jared Huffman counters that the ‘surplus’ water has uses … and other users

I found your testimony interesting about all that outflow that escapes the dams and that is conceptually could be captured at a high elevation storage point, but that outflow actually serves some purposes, doesn’t it, when it escapes those dams?” began Mr. Huffman.

Mr. Shibatani agreed.

Not just a purpose, but let’s talk about the many purposes that it serves,” continued Mr. Huffman.  “There are entire municipalities whose wastewater discharge programs would not exist if they didn’t have dilution ratios based on that outflow, so you may have some municipalities all over the state of California that might object to you shutting down their wastewater treatment operations.  Those outflows that some might take as wasted also help juvenile salmon out migrate, they help migrating salmon spawn, they provide water quality benefits that are essential to maintaining beneficial use, there are riparian users downstream from those dams that have priority water rights to use it for irrigation or any number of other purposes.  They provide all sorts of system work for riparian ecosystems, they mobilize gravels, they do things an ecosystem can’t even function without.  Have you looked at how much of that water is actually doing  something important, versus how much could sort of conceptually you could actually take away into the system through these high elevation storage systems?  … Have you analyzed how much is actually available for the high elevation storage that you’re talking about today?

We’ve done some preliminary assessments,” said Mr. Shibatani.

Have you looked at water rights?  Have you looked at downstream beneficial uses?” asked Mr. Huffman.

We have not looked at the actual water right,” said Mr. Shibatani.

Then how can you know how much is actually available for this hydrologic exercise?” asked Mr. Huffman.

We do it from a mass balance perspective,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “We know that precipitation is coming in November through March, we look at that volume, we say how much are the reservoirs evacuating …

Huffman asked how much he thought could be captured upstream, without impacting other users in the Delta watershed.  Shibatani answered that there’s about 7 million acre-feet that goes out per year.

Mr. Huffman noted that during Mr. Shibatani’s testimony, he did not identify a single river or location for a facility.  “You just testified generically this theoretically is possible to do all this upstream high elevation storage, but on every major tributary of that system, you have existing high elevation storage, with the exception of wild & scenic rivers … Have you looked at other hydro projects … the many dams that PG&E has throughout the system?  If you’re going to start putting dams in upstream of them, you’re impacting their water rights and you’re impacting their hydropower operations.  Have you gotten blessings from all of these different users?  Because California is a state that’s already allocated all of its water.

It’s allocated its water at certain times of the year,” responded Mr. Shibatani.  “If you go to the State Water Board, and ask if that particular river overallocated, they will say from April to September, yes, but November through March, perhaps no.”

Congressman Huffman questions a 0% allocation for Westlands

Mr. Huffman then turned to Mr. Barcellas.  “It was alarming for me to hear you say that even with a normal hydrology next year, that you’re anticipating a 0% water allocation.  I’m aware of Westlands Water District and they’ve got the worst allocation, everyone knows that.  Their last notice, October 17, said even a below normal year and with minimal to moderate Delta restrictions, therefore casting 25 to 30%, or up to 35 to 40% allocation.  So I’m confused about your testimony – you’re anticipating 0%. … how do justify telling the Committee 0% when Westlands itself is saying much more than that?”

I was referring to what the anticipated allocation was going to be for Westlands,” responded Mr. Barcellas.  “I am in the Friant unit …  At this point, we don’t know what our current allocation is going to be.  On a normal year, if we can possibly anticipate 50%, I think we’re going to be lucky.  If the exchange contractors don’t get the water because we have a short year, they can put a call on the water that Friant has available.  We have technical experts that work that out, I work strictly from a board perspective on my farming operation, but those numbers change as you know from month to month dependent on what precipitation is in those certain watersheds.”

Congressman Scott Tipton on bringing the regulatory process up-to-date

Congressman Tipton and Mr. Shibatani discuss flood control benefits of high-elevation storage in the light of the recent devastating floods in Colorado.  Mr. Tipton asks Mr. Shibatani about hydroelectric potential.  “That is one of the primary motivations of high-elevation storage,” responded Mr. Shibatani.  “The standard rules are that it rains every year, can’t guarantee how much but it does rain every year, and that water always follows its natural oceanic migration.  If you put a turbine in it, it’s converting potential energy to kinetic … “

Chairman McClintock brought up that we’ve got a lot of projects that are apparently being able to be cash flowed off of this,” said Mr. Tipton.  “What do you see as the number one impediment to developing some of these projects?

I clearly feel today that the overlapping and almost redundant layers in certain environmental regulations that we’re currently operating under is scaring away a lot of investors,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “I know private sector investors who are chomping at the bit to underwrite these facility projects and the first question they ask me is have you secured your permits?  My answer is always no, not yet.  They are going to wait until all those permits and approvals are in place before they are ready to sign that check.  … I don’t want to leave the impression that I am not supportive of these various important environmental regulatory oversight processes, but let’s face it.  NEPA, CEQA, ESA  – they were developed 30, 40 years ago.  Other things have changed.  These regulations haven’t.  And I’ve been doing environmental documents for 30 years and I just can’t seem to get them done fast enough to get some of these major infrastructure projects moving forward.  Everything else is static, except for the environmental that is moving forward.  That has to change.”

So we have a regulatory process that was established for the 20th century … we’ve now moved into the 21st century,” said Mr. Tipton.  “We’ve got new processes and new technologies which we’re able to be able to do it more efficiently yet still be able to respect the environmental concerns which we all share. … rather than taking 20 years to be able to develop a project, we could actually do it in more timely fashion just by cleaning up that regulatory process.”

You’re absolutely correct, and the one point I will quickly add here is that the shelf life for a lot of the environmental documents is very short,” added Mr. Shibatani.  “The private sector develops methodologies, metrics very quickly so by the time I bring a project for certification, it could be 10 or 15 years old.  The easiest way to oppose that project is to just make the claim that the best scientific information is no longer valid.  Ten years has gone by, that’s a legitimate concern.  We have to recircle and start at the beginning again, and we never get at that end point.”

So it’s time for the regulatory process to come out of the past and join us in the future and to be able to build for a more prosperous country,” said Mr. Tipton.

At least stay on the same pace of change as the environment,” responded Mr. Shibatani.  “The environment is changing, climate change is pushing it a certain way, and the regulatory environment has to stay in pace with that.”

Congressman Doug LaMalfa on regulations and investing in hydropower projects

We have to acknowledge some positive strides have been made in California,” began Congressman LaMalfa.  “They are doing amazing things with conservation and recycling in urban areas, as well in agricultural with drip irrigation and recycling ag water and using it over and over again as well.  But we keep coming back to the needs of a growing population and a further shift in reallocation of existing water that was built for other purposes at the time than for environmental uses.  Millions of acre-feet have been shifted. …

We hear thoughts in the Committee that the money isn’t there and the desire isn’t there. … Mr. Shibatani says the money is there, but when you add a 10 to 15, 20 year buffer of regulatory tangles and permit tangles and lawsuits and all that, of course the money is scared away by that. So how do you see us getting out of this?” LaMalfa then asks Mr. Shibatani.

Any one particular element in a water supply portfolio cannot be the solving answer,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “Water conservation is important,and certainly it’s progressed considerably over the last several decades, but for the amount of demands and concerns that we have facing us in the future – the importance of having instream flows provide benefit, thermal benefit, water quality benefit, protection against sea level rise – we need to have additional assets in those storage reservoirs.  It provides a flood control benefit, it provides a supply benefit, it provides an instream environmental ecosystem functionality benefit, but most important what it does it that it takes California’s inherent hydrology, which is four-month based, it puts it into storage.  It allows the resource managers then to use their professional discretion, rather than have that water leave and run out to the Pacific Ocean … My contention has always been that California has never been a water short state; it’s always been a state challenged by moving water from Point A to Point B.  If we have additional supplies up in the source areas, where that precipitation is occurring, and shifting under current climatic forcings …

If there is a climate force that is changing, then isn’t it even greater that during that narrow window of time that we capture a greater amount of that water that is no longer snowpack … ?,” asked Mr. LaMalfa.

If you look at the hydrograph of California, we’ve always managed for that spring freshet,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “That spring peak is dropping and moving earlier through the season, so we’re going to have more water in our watersheds earlier in the season, and that would just leave, unless we capture it.”

That and we need to have certainty for the people who invest in this that they can actually get a project done, otherwise they are going to stay away with their money,” said Mr. LaMalfa.

“When I talk to private investors and say that we can expand our hydro-generating period time, it becomes very enticing carrot that you throw in front of a private equity investor to say that we can extend our hydropower generating period by two or three months,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “Private investors and the equity market, they know exactly California’s potential for hydropower and they are just waiting for us to do something on the regulatory environment to make it a little more efficient, a little more judicious in meeting its responsibilities to come up with some kind of genuine expediency to get these long-standing infrastructure projects built that are quite frankly decades overdue to actually reinvest private sector money into this state.”

Congressman Tom McClintock wraps up …

Mr. Barcellos, you never had an adequate opportunity to respond to Mr. Huffman’s insinuation that you were throwing out faulty numbers when it came to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” said Mr. McClintock. “Isn’t it true that Westlands numbers show an initial allocation of 0 to 15% under normal conditions?

Yes it is, and in my written testimony, that is considerably expanded upon,” said Mr. Barcellas, “including some other projects that I didn’t have time to discuss.”

The rhetorical question was raised well what dams are being stalled by environmental objections,” said Mr. McClintock.  “Well I can tell you that in my district alone, we’re running into a [a lot] of environmental opposition to a simple proposal by Merced to raise the new Exchequer dam at Lake McClure by a mere 10 feet, which it was designed to be raised by, so that will give you some idea of the problems we’re facing.”

Mr. Shibatani, you pointed out the difference between allocated and unallocated water,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “Water might be allocated between March and November but not allocated between December and February, basically.  Isn’t that the time when we watch the Sacramento River swollen with enormous flood runoff?  So that’s what you’re talking about storing, right?

That’s the amount that we want to store,” replied Mr. Shibatani.

In order to store all that floodwater, we have to have a place to put it, and that’s the whole point,” said Mr. McClintock.  “If the climate continues to warm as it has been, on and off, since the last Ice Age, snowpacks will not be holding water as long, so doesn’t that also argue for more water storage?”

Absolutely,” replied Mr. Shibatani.  “During that time of year, too, Mr. Chairman.”

We’ve covered the fact that there are plenty of geologically adequate sites, particularly in the high elevations, we’ve covered the fact that these projects should be, can be, and if they are properly thought out, are self-financing, in fact can produce revenues, pretty much in perpetuity, and you’ve covered the point that one of the greatest drawbacks to these projects is fear of regulatory delays that simply make them no longer viable,” said Mr. McClintock.  “What can you recommend to us for changes that need to be made at the federal level to bring about this new era of water storage?

There are two facets,” responded Mr. Shibatani.  “One facet has to do with the actual responsibilities and the accountabilities with those permitting agencies that have to deal with the applications that come before them.  Now they’ll come back and say there are resource constrained, we don’t have enough staff, we have backlog.  … Maybe there’s a situation where we can develop a new statute called the Responsibility and Accountability Act of 2014, that compels public trust resource agencies, those with the responsibility of adjudicating on private proponent applications, to actually expedite those processes and put some kind of accountability on timelines so that all parties, applicants and the permitting agencies can actually meet.  If we have that kind of assurance, I could go to the private sector market and say, at least in law, there’s this time period and some closure date.  It gives them some assurance we have a target to reach.  Without that, it’s an open-ended checkpoint and we can’t necessarily compel that kind of interest for private sector investment.

I’m told if there was just some certainty in outcome, that private sector financing for these projects would be abundant and there would be no need for putting taxpayers at risk on any of this,” said Mr. McClintock.  “The risk would be borne by private investors.”

That’s correct and that’s one of the big issues about why certain groups that I’m associated with are moving away from state and federal funding for these major infrastructures as it’s not going to get done,” said Mr. Shibatani.  “The private sector is chomping at the bit with all the pension funds waiting to reinvest in what they feel are very important natural resource public trust needed infrastructure improvement projects for the nation.  The money is available.”

So it’s not financing, it’s not suitable sites, it’s not engineering,” said Mr. McClintock.  “It is government regulatory delays and uncertainty that are the root of our problem.  I’d be very interested in working with you on such legislation.”

For more information:

  • Click here for the webcast and full meeting materials.

Photo credit:  Diamond Valley Lake photo by Maven; Ice House Reservoir photo by flickr photographer foggytown1

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