Can New California Water Storage Projects Win State Funding?

An initial review by the California Water Commission slashed the ‘public benefits’ claimed by project applicants, prompting outrage in some quarters. Others say the process is working exactly as voters intended.

Bear River CA

The Bear River in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, shown here, is the site for the Centennial Dam project proposed by the Nevada Irrigation District. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Written by Matt Weiser

If California taxpayers are going to spend $2.7 billion on new water storage projects, the projects had better come with many more environmental benefits.

That was the message sent by the California Water Commission, which on February 2 released its first analysis of 11 projects vying for a share of the riches. The money will come from Proposition 1, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014, which empowered the state to issue nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for water storage, whether new reservoirs, groundwater recharge or some form of hybrid.

But according to Prop. 1, the money can only pay for “public benefits” associated with the projects, not just the cost of storing water. This includes environmental enhancements like improving streamflow for fish, the capacity to capture or convey floodwaters, recreational amenities and emergency response capabilities.

The State Water Commission is charged with vetting the public benefit claims. This is a weighty undertaking, because such a thing has never been done before.

In its initial review of the projects, the commission found that none would deliver all the public benefits claimed in their applications. Some were very far off the mark, the commission found, especially concerning environmental benefits. In a few cases, the commission actually zeroed-out the claimed benefits.

This triggered a swift backlash from the water industry and some conservative politicians in the state, who criticized the commission for setting the bar too high.

A cosponsor of the original Prop. 1 legislation, state senator Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, urged the commission in a letter to revamp its application process, claiming “dereliction of the duties bestowed upon the Water Commission and its staff.”

The Association of California Water Agencies called the low rankings “deeply concerning.” State senator Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, told the Sacramento Bee he felt “visceral anger” at the news and suggested the commission was thwarting the will of the voters.

But others said the commission is doing exactly what the voters wanted: Holding water storage projects to a higher standard, and rigorously vetting the claims they make.

“In quite a number of cases they said, ‘Well, these numbers just look too high.’ I thought it was pretty brave of them,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and a professor of engineering. “This is public money. It’s going to be coming out of the state budget for decades to come. So I’m glad to see them doing a reasonable job of it.”

The projects that took the biggest hit in the Water Commission evaluations include Pure Water San Diego, which involves recycling and storing wastewater; Centennial Dam, proposed on the Bear River by the Nevada Irrigation District; and the Willow Springs groundwater banking project proposed in the San Joaquin Valley. The water commission found all of these had no public benefits to offer, or that the claimed benefits could not be verified.

Two others were reduced to near zero, including Temperance Flat Reservoir, a new dam proposed on the San Joaquin River, which has been heavily criticized by environmental groups; and a Tulare Lake groundwater storage project in the San Joaquin Valley, which is opposed by some neighboring water users.

The best-performing projects are a proposal by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District to use recycled wastewater for farm irrigation, helping to recharge groundwater; and a proposal by the Inland Empire UCtilities Agency to recycle water for groundwater recharge, easing pressure on Feather River diversions. The commission reduced their public benefits by less than one-third.

Others fall somewhere in between these extremes. One is the Sites Reservoir project in Colusa County, which proposes to divert Sacramento River water into a new 1.8 million acre-foot off-stream reservoir. The commission rated its ecosystem benefits at only 13 percent of what the backers claimed, and its overall public benefit at 40 percent.

The biggest setback for the Sites project involved the claim that its stored water could be used at critical times to improve flows for salmon migration, and that this would ease pressure on other reservoirs to provide fishery flows, thereby stretching regional water supplies. These benefits either didn’t measure up as claimed, or could not be fully verified.

Yet Jim Watson, general manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority, said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the scrutiny.

“We figured that with the size of the project, and some of the bold concepts that we put into our proposal, that we would have to clarify some of them,” Watson said. “We were very disappointed we were not able to be scored on environmental benefits in terms of water for salmon.”

This isn’t the end for these projects. The water commission is urging the applicants to amend their proposals, and it has set up an appeal process, with revised applications due by February 23. After that, it will conduct another review, with preliminary funding decisions expected in July.

“The commission has every confidence the information received in the coming weeks will help us fund eligible projects and the public benefits they provide,” Armando Quintero, the commission’s chair, said in a statement.

In a few cases, the shortcomings found by the commission appear to be more technical than substantive. One example is the proposal to expand the existing Los Vaqueros Reservoir, located south of Antioch and operated by Contra Costa Water District.

The project has become something of a favorite among environmental groups, because some of the additional water it proposes to store would be dedicated to wildlife refuge areas in the San Joaquin Valley. This would help hundreds of migratory bird species, as well as many other kinds of wildlife, that have been shortchanged on water deliveries for decades.

Los Vaqueros had its public benefits slashed by the commission partly because its backers used a modified computer model that was not familiar to the reviewers.

I’m confident it can overcome the analytical problems with its application,” Rachel Zwillinger, a water policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, said of the Los Vaqueros project. “It’s heartening to see the commission is taking their review seriously and are trying to make sure we select projects that provide real environmental benefits. I expect to see a lot of new analysis come in as a result of this appeal process.”

Some projects will probably have to make major changes to continue through the application process. This could include revising operations to produce more public benefits, or requesting less money to bring the project into alignment with the benefits it offers.

The Sites Reservoir proposal, for example, already has enough funding commitments from interested water agencies. Yet Watson says he is committed to the process.

“I know the commissioners will make investment decisions in projects,” said Watson. “The fact that our biggest selling point (water for salmon) wasn’t recognized is the part that we’re working on.”

Some proponents may decide to pull their projects from the process and proceed without state funding.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about water issues and the American West, you can sign up to the Water email list.

A Great Blue Heron, Cherry Garcia and the Founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance

By Don Pelton and Jane Pelton
Members, Wolf Creek Community Alliance

INSPIRATION

CLICK TO ENLARGEOne day in the fall of 2002, local contractor Jonathan Keehn had an unforgettable experience while walking along a stretch of Wolf Creek in downtown Grass Valley. He described that experience a couple of months later in an influential article: “I was walking along the creek behind the Safeway and came across a great blue heron standing knee-deep facing upstream, obviously fishing. After eyeing me for a few moments, she took off. A few wing flaps brought her over the freeway as she headed down toward French Ravine.”

Reminiscing years later about the founding of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance (WCCA), two of the founding members said that it was Jonathan’s original article that inspired them to join with him to create the environmental non-profit, dedicated to “preserving and protecting Wolf Creek and its watershed for the benefit of present and future generations”.

In the early months of 2003, the founding group met frequently to talk about the alarming threats to water quality in creeks and streams in the Wolf Creek watershed, and about how a small group of local citizens could enlist community support to restore Wolf Creek. One staple of these early meetings was Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. As Jonathan recalled, people would say, “Not another meeting! … Oh wait, there’s gonna be ice cream?” The Wolf Creek Community Alliance wasn’t just another environmental non-profit, it was becoming a community of like-minded souls.

By means of a huge volunteer effort, plus donations from local citizens and occasional grants, the Wolf Creek Community Alliance has grown into a mature and effective watershed organization.

Wolf Creek is a major tributary to the Bear River; it is 20+ miles long, and its watershed encompasses about 78 square miles from the slopes of Banner Mountain to its confluence with the Bear. Within the watershed, population and land uses vary widely so that the interacting streams range from highly degraded and urbanized to relatively wild. Because of the elevation, sun exposure, and variety of soils, the watershed once supported very productive and diverse ecosystems. But today, water and soil contamination persists from past mining and logging. Development has led to increasing deforestation, impermeable surfaces, erosion, and increased water usage. Setbacks and riparian corridors for the Creek have not been consistently maintained. Portions of Wolf Creek have been diverted into culverts and paved-over. Periodic accidents at the City’s waste water treatment plant spill sewage into the Creek. Winter rains wash contaminants into the Creek. The urban and mining-waste effluents that enter Wolf Creek and its tributaries in and around Grass Valley affect downstream farmers who use irrigation water that comes from Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek has been listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act due to bacteria levels.


ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN ITS FIRST 15 YEARS

Water Quality Monitoring: Since 2005, WCCA volunteers have been monitoring water quality at sentinel sites on Wolf Creek and some of its tributaries. The scientific data collected helps to identify and address problems, disturbances, and contamination affecting the health of our watershed and that of all of its human and wild inhabitants.

Education and Outreach: WCCA volunteers work to increase community understanding of water quality problems in the watershed by tabling at local events, and producing brochures, display materials, videos, maps, handouts, and an informative website. WCCA volunteers produced a film about the proposed Wolf Creek Trails plan, “A Creek Runs Through It”. 

Restoration and StewardshipWCCA volunteers lead Stewardship Days to remove non-native invasive vegetation and plant stabilizing native plants along creek banks on public lands, and are available to consult with Creekside property owners who have questions concerning stream stewardship. Volunteers worked with the City of Grass Valley to adopt Grass Valley’s first riparian set-back regulations, and were instrumental in the development of the Wolf Creek Parkway conceptual plan for a connecting system of walk-able and bike-able trails along Wolf Creek through Grass Valley. In partnership with American Rivers and the City of Grass Valley, WCCA is helping to restore a reach of Peabody Creek, a tributary of Wolf Creek that flows through Condon Park.

Creek-Friendly Development: WCCA volunteers attend City and County Planning Commission meetings in order to advocate for creek–friendly practices in construction and landscaping – erosion and sediment control, creek setbacks and easements, riparian buffer zones, wetlands protection, storm water catchment, permeable surfaces, water conservation, wildlife habitat and trails.

Watershed Assessment and Planning: In 2017, in partnership with Sierra Streams Institute and funded by the Bella Vista Foundation, WCCA began work on a 3-phase pre-restoration assessment of conditions throughout the Wolf Creek watershed including land use, land cover, hydrology from historical and current perspectives, abandoned mine sites, and planned future developments.

Collaboration: In addition to project partnerships with American Rivers and Sierra Streams Institute, WCCA volunteers participate with groups working to protect and restore neighboring watersheds: South Yuba River Citizens League during their annual river cleanup, the Fire Safe Council during their annual Scotch Broom Challenge, and The Sierra Fund during their events to bring attention to mining’s toxic legacy.

DO YOU WANT TO HELP?

Volunteer: WCCA welcomes volunteers for water monitoring, restoration and stewardship, wildlife surveys, outreach and education, fundraising and grants, creek advocacy at city and county planning meetings, publicity, and office support. See “Support our Work” on the WCCA website.

ROUND UP when you shop at Briarpatch In the month of February, 2018, WCCA is the Briarpatch “COOP-CAUSE” of the month. You can help when you shop at Briarpatch in February by remembering to tell the cashier at the register to “ROUND UP!” when you pay your bill.

DONATE

Earn rebates for WCCA when you shop at SPD (hand in this form to any SPD market) and Save Mart (use this form).

SAVE THE DATES APRIL 28 – MAY 6, 2018 FOR KNOW YOUR WATERSHED WEEK:

Wolf Creek is spearheading the first annual “Know Your Watershed” event planned for April 28 through May 6 involving over 18 watershed organizations, tribes, land trusts, and other organizations focused on protecting the Bear, Yuba, and American River watersheds. It will be 8 days of learning and fun with hikes, bio-blitzes, school programs, and art programs throughout the watersheds. If you would like to be involved with this event, send an email to  wolf@wolfcreekalliance.org.


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