Opinion: Some dam questions about the California drought

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For Southern Californians, the current record-breaking drought means letting the lawn fade to a trendy golden brown and making sure the hose doesn’t water the asphalt while you’re washing your car. It does not mean wondering whether anything will come out of the faucet and, unlike in the drought of 1977, it hasn’t stopped most restaurants from automatically serving water to their customers.

The drought is not a constant presence here. Los Angeles residents are generally environmentally oriented, but they’re feeling the drought less than they otherwise might, in large part because the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California invested ratepayer money in the 1990s building and filling reservoirs.

And that’s the model for the future, right? You build the dams and fill them in the wet years to hold water for use in the dry ones. It’s like the three little pigs and their houses, one of straw, one of sticks and one of brick. L.A. is the third little pig. No big, bad wolf is going to blow down our house; or rather, no big, bad drought is going to dry up our water supply. We planned ahead. We spent. We built. We’re ready.


And that’s why it was so important (mostly to Southern California Republicans, curiously) to include in the water bond – the one that was finalized in Sacramento last month and is going to voters Nov. 4 -- $2.7 billion in funding for “storage,” which in the water world generally means dams. That will get us ready for the next drought. And with more dam capacity, we’ll be able to weather the storm – rather, the lack of storms – for longer. San Joaquin Valley farmers who are now having to rip out their almond trees or pump so much groundwater that their land is sinking will have a more reliable supply and won’t have to lose their businesses. Right?

Well, right – with some fairly significant reservations.

One is the need to acknowledge that dams work the way VCRs do – as time-shifters. They hold on to water when you can’t use it to make it available for when you can, but they don’t give you any more water than you had before. They might help farmers keep their acreage alive during a couple dry seasons, but they can’t justify expansion of acreage or growing more water-intensive crops.

The reservoirs in Diamond Valley, between Hemet and Menifee in Riverside County, are working for urban water users this year, and perhaps will next year as well, but after that, without enough snowfall in the distant Rockies to sufficiently fill the Colorado River to satisfy the claims of several Western states and the MWD besides, or without enough Sierra snowmelt to keep water flowing down the Feather River, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, into the California Aqueduct and over the Tehachapis, it’s just dry concrete.

Building new dams increases capacity but doesn’t create more rivers to fill them. There is a natural limit to how much water will flow through California in an average year, and there’s not much point to building dams that can collect and hold more than that, because the marginal increase in the total holding capacity only counts when it is filled. We will have wet years again, but not so wet that we’ll be able to fill every new dam every year.

Besides, many water engineers argue, the geologically and geographically viable places to build dams are pretty much taken. Some can be enlarged – but at a cost that may not be worth the marginally larger storage capacity.

Environmentalists and some other water-watchers are expressing frustration at Proposition 1, the water bond, because in purporting to raise money for dams it diverts attention as well as funding for sources that, they argue, do produce “new” water in the form of recapture and reuse of urban storm runoff, recycling water from sewage, and the most unglamorous but most productive source of new water, at least in urban areas: better efficiency.


Efficient use brings us “new” water? Yes, in a sense – if, for example, it allows us to get two gallons’ worth of use from every gallon. It’s an often-recited fact that Los Angeles has held its water use steady over 20 years while its population increased. Too rarely we’re reminded that we did it by changing the building codes to require more efficient toilets.

It’s worth noting that the bond does provide money for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater basins like those under the San Fernando Valley, and it does provide funding for better stewardship of the state’s water resources.

But still, there are those dam problems. For example, why, exactly, should the state’s general fund – in other words, all taxpayers throughout the state – pay for any particular new dam that will hold water for, say, Central Valley agriculture? Diamond Valley, after all, was paid for by the people who use the water in it, through their rates. If Los Angeles County residents pay a third of the taxes in the state, should they get a third of the dams and a third of the water they will hold? Or does it make sense for all of us to keep agriculture in business, given the role it plays in our economy? Is it engaging in water warfare to even ask these questions?

One of the most promising aspects of the bond is the questions it necessarily will raise among voters, not just about the projects that will be funded but about the numerous other decisions Californians must make to secure their water future.

Follow Robert Greene on Twitter @RGreene2