“So much of the water conversation in this state has been about conservation, a scarcity mindset,” Newsom said. “That’s a relatively small component of the overall strategy we are introducing here today ... [Now], we are focusing on creating more water.”
It would be premature to be cynical about the governor’s remarks. Sooner or later, California’s ruling elite will have to face an inescapable truth: During multi-year droughts, conservation alone cannot possibly balance supply and demand for water. The shortfall, or the required sacrifices, is simply too big.
To begin with, groundwater pumping, averaging 18.7 million acre-feet per year, has withdrawn water faster than it can be replenished with percolating runoff. This has caused wells to dry up, led to ground subsidence, and in some cases is causing underground aquifers to collapse and degrade to the point where they no longer can be refilled. To restore aquifers as a sustainable source of water storage and supply, not only will annual withdrawals need to drop well below 18.7 million acre-feet per year, but until the water levels in the aquifers are restored, total annual withdrawals need to be less than the annual amount of natural recharge.
If that isn’t enough, because most of California’s reservoirs are in-stream, their first priority is to prevent flooding. For this reason, they cannot be used to store water from early season storms, such as the deluge that fell in December 2021. If early season storms are allowed to fill these reservoirs, should a late-season storm hit the state, there would be no reservoir capacity left to buffer the runoff and prevent flooding. But during droughts, when an adequate Sierra snowpack fails to develop in order to deliver snowmelt well into the summer months, and no late-season rainstorms inundate the state, summer arrives and the reservoirs are empty.
By contrast, the most significant component of Newsom’s new water strategy is to “expand storage above and below ground.” This accounts for 4 million acre feet out of the 7 million acre feet total. But this is profoundly misleading, as noted in the footnote on page 3 of the 16 page document, which reads, “Additional storage capacity does not equate to a similar volume of new water supply.”
Indeed it does not. Reservoirs are never completely emptied, and, especially in the case of in-stream reservoirs, they are rarely filled to capacity. As for below-ground storage in aquifers, they can only fill slowly through large spreading basins to capture floodwater in rural areas or via percolation ponds in urban areas, which means water can only be withdrawn from them at the rate water can be injected into them. The so-called “yield” of reservoirs and aquifers is usually, at best, only about one-third of their capacity. These storage projects therefore will not contribute 4 million acre feet per year, but are more likely to add around 1.5 million acre feet.
Considering the opposition any storage projects elicit from environmentalist lobbyists and litigators, who implacably oppose pretty much anything that makes so much as a scratch in the ground, if Newsom can pull off these storage projects it will be a major accomplishment. But how? The plan only estimates groundwater recharge at 500,000 acre feet per year. The plan then commits to finally building the storage projects approved by voters back in 2014, which it claims would increase storage by 2.8 million acre feet.
Newsom, to his credit, made mention of this, expressing exasperation that environmentalist regulations have prevented as many good projects from getting built as bad ones. Is Newsom just triangulating, as he ups his game to run for president? Or does he mean it? Here’s what he said:
“The time to get these dam projects [completed] is ridiculous, absurd and reasonably comedic. In so many ways, the world that we invented, from an environmental perspective, is now getting in the way of moving these projects forward … permits that take years and years and years. And so one of the principles of this plan is our efforts to change our permitting ... fast-track these projects, address the regulatory thickets, and move things forward."
Was the timing of that highly publicized study designed to provide cover for the Coastal Commission to kill a major desalination project that would have made a major contribution to eliminating water scarcity in the Los Angeles Basin? If so, it worked. And if so, is Newsom’s new water strategy, announced at a critical time, just a tactic to prevent support from building to put a water initiative on the ballot in 2024 that might force the state to fund water supply infrastructure and rewrite environmental regulations that have stopped everything cold?
The only other elements of Newsom’s plan are to increase urban wastewater recycling capacity, a relatively uncontroversial idea that could add a substantial 1.8 million acre feet to California’s annual water supply, and, of course, another 500,000 acre feet of water savings per year via even more urban water conservation. Finding another half-million acre feet of water savings would require household water use to drop from the current average of 60 gallons per person per day, to 48 gallons per person per day. Residents who are already enduring annoying restrictions on their ability to shower, wash, or grow greenery around their homes may decide if another 20 percent reduction is desirable.
Altogether, Newsom’s water supply strategy does not add 7 million acre feet of annual new water. If every proposed storage facility is built—extremely unlikely without dealing a major defeat to the powerful environmentalist lobby—and the proposed water recycling and desalination projects are also all eventually completed, it will add about half that much, around 3.5 million acre feet per year.
Again, it is premature to be cynical about what Newsom has done. But to make even this much happen, he will have to overcome a hostile bureaucracy and environmentalist machine that finds joy and fulfillment in cracking down on “water wasters,” and views conservation as the only acceptable policy.