A Happy New Water Year?

According to the AP, California could be heading for a major water shortage in 2010:
Yesterday’s snow survey is the first of five surveys done on about the first of the month each year from January through May. If you’ve lived in California for long, you know that our real wet months are January, February, and March. So we need to wait and see what the next few months bring us. But the first survey shows us to be a little behind, with levels at 85% of the historical average.
Precipitation is of obvious importance to our water supply picture, but it is not the whole story. Let’s take a quick look at two more factors that are also of great importance. The first is how much do we have in the bank, saved from previous years? Taking a look at our reservoirs – mostly the big ones of Shasta and Oroville – we see that storage is at about one-third of capacity. That’s not terrible, because the reservoirs are normally kept low on purpose at this time of year, so that they can act as flood control tools. However, these levels are only about 50% of the historical average, so we are starting off 2010 with a water storage deficit.
The next key factor is getting water out of those reservoirs and into our local water systems. It seems simple enough until you realize that we never finished the piping job on our State Water Project. We have a gaping hole in the middle of the Project: the Sacramento River Delta. Our stored water and this year’s runoff water have to flow through the delta, which is also a natural water way. And moving large quantities of water in unnatural amounts and directions is disruptive to the ecosystem of the delta.
In essence, we have a water intersection – much like a traffic intersection. Traffic – or water – can only flow in one direction at a time, or chaos will ensue. So the flow of water to cities and farms must wait at the red light while natural flows travel.
Have you ever felt like you were forced to wait forever for the light to turn green? Well, that’s exactly how water supply folks have felt the last several years. Natural water flows have taken precedence over water supply. As a consequence, we have what has been described as a “regulatory drought”: there might be enough water, but the traffic signal is stuck on red.
In traffic engineering, the optimal way to deal with such intersections is to avoid them completely, such as with freeways. Providing infinitely more benefit than any other conceivable solution, what the State of California needs to address water supply is the Peripheral Canal. This would protect the natural flows of the delta, because they would never face a red light. And it would greatly increase the amount of water that could be allocated to cities and farms.
In a later blog, I’ll explain how the Peripheral Canal also would vastly improve water quality – and vastly reduce treatment costs!
I hope to speak with you next on Monday, January 4. Have a happy – and hopefully wet – 2010!

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