When you think “California,” lately, you think “water shortage.” You probably also think “drought.”
Drought isn’t the same thing as water shortage, though. And California is demonstrating that this spring.
The El Nino climate pattern has dumped a tremendous bounty of precipitation on northern California this past winter.
It hasn’t ended the official drought conditions; it will require more years of rainfall and melting snow packs to do that. But it’s a good start, and it has rivers and lakes in the Sacramento Delta, between the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Ocean, looking healthier than they have in a while.
But this isn’t going to do most water customers much good. Why? Well, as you read this, desperately-needed water from the El Nino bounty is being released into the ocean from northern California’s biggest reservoir – Lake Shasta – at a record pace.
Because it doesn’t fit in the reservoir.
The problem of not enough storage capacity in the water system has been understood for decades. As California’s population and development have grown, legislators from both sides of the aisle have pushed to do something about it. The voters have approved billions in state bonds to enlarge the state’s water storage infrastructure – and yet no new projects have been started since 1979.
Congressman Tom McClintock pointed this out two years ago, in yet another futile effort to call attention to the logjam of “environmental” activism at the federal and state level. He mentioned the Shasta Dam in particular, which could provide a huge boost in water storage if it were extended upward to enlarge the Shasta reservoir’s capacity.
[F]or roughly $6 billion we could complete the Shasta Dam to its design elevation, adding nine million acre feet of additional water storage to the Sacramento River system, nearly doubling its capacity.
The Shasta Dam was built in the 1930s and was originally intended to be 800 feet high. World War II caused the diversion of materials from it, and it ended up being 602 feet high, its current elevation. But multiple studies have been done in the last couple of decades on the feasibility of extending it higher. Development around the dam since it was built makes the trade-offs costly today for extending it to 800 feet; an extension of 18 feet, to a total of 620 feet, is the current baseline proposal.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation deemed the proposal feasible in 2013. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the proposal a thumbs down in 2014, saying it would likely threaten endangered species.
So California ends up where it always does, since the wave of environmental legislation created invulnerable special-interest fiefdoms in the 1970s: high and dry. Tom McClintock pointed out that there are other reservoirs to expand, but the answer is going to be the same for all of them. Any desired expansion will be guaranteed to run afoul of the environmental lobby.
The resistance to expanding water storage capacity is politically invincible. Congress and the state legislature have been tilting against it for years, but it has the federal bureaucracy and the U.S. Ninth District Court behind it.
Meanwhile, the increase in California’s population is driven largely by migration from abroad, both legal and illegal. Neither the federal nor the state government makes any effort to stem this tide. So as the population increases, while the amount of available water is capped at a level that was adequate 50 years ago, water shortages have to develop.
This is why it is so galling to middle-class Californians when the governor, or local officials, lecture them about their “wasteful” water habits. California’s leadership is just fine with an influx of immigrants, many of them illegal, and it sits by fecklessly as millions of acre-feet of water – provided by nature – are released from reservoirs into the ocean due to environmental policies of one kind or another. It then turns around and blames the people for taking showers, flushing their toilets, and watering their yards.
California sure knows how to create an artificial water shortage. Gotta give ‘em that.
Bonus graphic: See how much of the water captured in California’s outdated water system goes to human use (only 50%) – and how little is actually used by the people in urban areas who are blamed for being the big water “wasters.” (For more on the graphic, and California water-shortage politics, see here.)