Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Water Storage or Conservation?

Good overview, and what emerges is that we need to do both as well as we can, but we cannot continue to deny the reality of big dams being the only sound and proven protection against flooding and drought that we have yet devised.

Water more precious as state grows
Strong feelings over dams: Not everyone agrees with governor that new reservoirs are best way to prepare for dry years -- some experts wonder if they'll even be needed
Tom Chorneau, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
Saturday, April 14, 2007

04-14) 04:00 PDT Maxwell, Colusa County -- From a ridge overlooking bucolic Antelope Valley, rancher Bob Alvernaz can almost make out the banks of the Sacramento River about 15 miles to the east.

Somewhere in the distance, he said, the state wants to build a canal and pumping system to bring the river water across the rice fields and up the hills to the valley, creating California's next big reservoir.

Although the Sites Dam project has been in the planning stage for years, it is still hard for the 76-year-old cattleman and rice farmer to visualize the whole length of the valley -- including his 5,000-acre ranch -- under nearly 2 million acre-feet of water.

And even after one of the driest winters on record, he doesn't see the sense of it.

"The water won't be for us," he said. "It will be too expensive. It's for the cities down south.

"And they say it will generate power, too -- but what about all the power it takes to get the water up here? There's got to be more sensible places to build more storage."

His concerns about the $2.4 billion dam project cut to the heart of a bigger debate among water resources experts and elected officials over the best way for California to meet future demands as the population increases an expected 30 percent over the next 20 years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been pushing a $4 billion bond measure he wants to put before voters next year that would help fund the Sites project, as well as one other reservoir in the Central Valley -- a plan that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein endorsed just last week.

But a number of water resources experts say water demand is not likely to increase substantially, even with the population growth expected by 2030. They say conservation programs, improvements in residential design and changes in the economics of farming will likely offset increased demand from a larger population.

Both sides agree that climate changes are likely to produce smaller snowpacks and more flooding in the future, but there is no agreement on how best to prepare for those changes -- nor even if adding more storage facilities to capture the runoff is the best approach.

"I think spending money on new storage is grossly premature," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank that specializes in water and environmental issues. "There are other options that are faster, cheaper and more environmentally sound. I think that's supported by the state's own assessments."

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, said that during the next 20 years, urban users are expected to continue to be more efficient even as cities continue to grow. He said more farmland will be converted to housing -- which will reduce water use as the state imports more foods that can be grown cheaper elsewhere.

Under such a scenario, some said, making good choices for water-project investments will be critical.

"In order to make decisions on billions of dollars of investments, we need to have a clear understanding of all the costs and benefits and all the options. I've not seen that study yet," said Bob Wilkinson, head of the water policy program at UC Santa Barbara.

"As we allocate scarce resources to meet our needs, what are the best investments?" he asked. "Surface storage may or may not be there. But clearly, efficiency strategies and recycling are very attractive from an economic standpoint, and from a reliability standpoint, too."

Lester Snow, director of the state's Department of Water Resources, disagreed that conservation alone could sustain state through multiple drought years. He said the governor also supports alternative strategies -- but new reservoirs must be part of the plan.

"Our future droughts are going to be worse, they are going to be longer and deeper, and our flood peaks are going to be higher," he said. "People say, 'Let's just conserve more.' But conserving this year will not help you in the eighth year of a drought, if you haven't stored the water somewhere.