Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Water, Conservation & Dams

This is an argument that is recent, as since ancient times, humans have always used dam technology to store water, and from our perspective, it is still the best way to do so.

While conservation is something that should primarily be left up to individual jurisdictions or individuals themselves, depending on their specific circumstances; building large dams to store millions of acre feet of water is something only the largest jurisdictions can adequately pursue and it is crucial California again consider bringing large new dams online for water storage and flood protection.

This article from the Hanford Sentinel examines the issues.

An excerpt.

“If there's one issue that virtually everybody agrees on in Sacramento, it's that California has water problems. Three years of drought, endangered species restrictions on pumping, a growing population, huge areas of the state without natural water supplies, an outdated delivery system -- the list of liquid challenges for the Golden State goes on and on.

“The problem was felt last year by urban residents in Southern California who faced mandatory rationing. But the issue also had a big impact on agriculture, the largest water user in the state. In Kings County, supervisors declared a state of emergency all year. Farmers, particularly those who count on water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, grew increasingly worried about whether there would be enough.

“In many cases, fields were left fallow and millions of dollars were lost in production along with thousands of agricultural jobs. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimated that water shortages cost the San Joaquin Valley 21,000 jobs in 2009. In Avenal and Kettleman City, unemployment soared past 30 percent.

“It's impossible to deny that water is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. But when it comes to solutions, agreement tends to evaporate. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the argument between environmentally-minded conservationists and advocates for new dams.

“Case in point: Recent testimony by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank specializing in water issues.

“Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick testified at a congressional hearing recently that California could save 1 million acre-feet quickly and cost effectively by adopting comprehensive conservation measures in cities and fields.

“Urban residents, Gleick said, would need to replace $2 billion worth of inefficient toilets, shower heads, restaurant spray rinse nozzles and washing machines. Farmers would need to convert more of their orchards, vegetable fields and vineyards to drip lines and micro-sprinklers. They would also need to apply just the right amount of water at just the right time, with no extra water soaking into the ground.

“All these conservation measures promise to save enough water to supply approximately one million households for a year.

"A gallon of water conserved is equivalent to a gallon of new storage," said Heather Cooley, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute.

“Actually, however, the Institute seems to tip the argument in favor of conservation. Gleick, Cooley and others argue that conservation is far more effective and cheaper at providing additional water than building dams.

“But many, particularly those in agriculture, say that claim is overstated. They maintain that a new dam would provide far more benefits than the Institute lets on.

“Locally, many are still pushing for Temperance Flat, a proposed second dam on the San Joaquin River above the existing one at Millerton Lake in Fresno County.

“Millerton Lake, with 500,000 acre-feet of capacity, is inadequate to capture the runoff from the San Joaquin in wet years, argues Don Mills, general manager of the Kings County Water District. Mills points out that Pine Flat Reservoir on the Kings River has double the capacity of Millerton, yet both rivers produce nearly the same amount of snowmelt runoff.

“That argument extends into the issue of flood control benefits. Mills noted that in the last really wet year -- 2005-2006 -- one million-acre feet of water from Pine Flat and Millerton flowed out to sea because there was no way to capture it. High flows in the San Joaquin River channel, some if it Kings River water, threatened to flood some Fresno County communities like Firebaugh. Mills and other local water leaders would dearly love to keep that excess Kings River water in Kings County, either by banking it underground or by catching it in above-ground storage.

"The majority of these projects, most of the benefits are flood control," Mills said.

“When it comes to agricultural water conservation measure recommended by the Institute, Mills said he doesn't believe that they can be fully implemented without sacrificing production. If, as suggested, pistachio and almond farmers practiced a technique called "deficit irrigation" -- meaning they deliberately stress the plant by applying less water at certain times -- yields would drop, he said.

“The California Farm Water Coalition doesn't completely disagree with the Institute on the potential for agricultural conservation. The coalition just disagrees on the amount of water Institute analysts think farmers can save. The coalition says actual on-the-ground potential savings that won't sacrifice production are far less than Institute estimates.

“But farming interests and other San Joaquin Valley water advocates have bigger arguments on the table. They are convinced that in order for California agriculture to keep enough water and still leave enough for growing cities, more water storage is needed.”