Dam Advocates "Pound the Table" at the CA Water Commission

California needs to continue to invest in 21st century water solutions like groundwater storage and water recycling that reduce reliance on the Bay-Delta watershed

In recent weeks, there have been howls of protest aimed at the California Water Commission from the proponents of big new dams like Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir, because the Commission rigorously reviewed the applications for Prop 1 funding to ensure that they really are eligible for public funds and that public funds are only spent on public benefits. Staff from the Water Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Resources Control Board reviewed all of the applications and determined that these two storage projects provided no, or very low, public benefits that would be eligible for funding. That triggered a political backlash from the backers of big dams looking for a taxpayer handout. Some commentators even went so far to claim there was a “deal” that Proposition 1 would fund Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir.

In fact, the bond does quite the opposite, as the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly wrote to the Commission recently:

  1. Proposition 1 did not fund any specific storage projects, instead requiring surface and groundwater storage projects to compete for funding;
  2. Proposition 1 required that farms and cities pay for the water supply benefits from new storage, and that monies from the bond could only be spent on specific public benefits including ecosystem improvements and water quality improvements; and
  3. Proposition 1 required that any storage projects result in net ecosystem improvements in the Bay-Delta watershed to be eligible for funding for Proposition 1.

At least as these storage projects were proposed to the Water Commission, neither Temperance Flat nor Sites Reservoir is eligible for funding from Proposition 1 because neither project provides net ecosystem benefits (meaning that the ecological benefits of the project outweigh the adverse ecological impacts). Proposition 1 also prohibited using these bond funds for an expansion of Shasta Dam, since that project would violate State law, destroy Native American sacred sites, and harm native fish and wildlife. 

Last month, NRDC and our colleagues sent two letters to the California Water Commission, summarizing and attaching prior written comments of state and federal agencies regarding Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir. In these letters, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Water Resources Control Board, and other agencies identified significant adverse impacts on fish and wildlife from each of these projects. These letters demonstrate that these two dams will not result in net ecosystem improvements, providing additional evidence supporting staff’s initial determinations, and they further demonstrate that the Commission should determine that Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir are not eligible for funding from Proposition 1.

These letters also show that state and federal agencies raised these concerns with the project proponents over the past several years, yet these two projects failed to modify their applications to address the adverse impacts to fish and wildlife that the agencies had documented years ago. There’s no reason why these applicants should be surprised by the Commission’s initial determinations, and no reason why the Commission should determine these projects are eligible for funding. For instance, in 2016 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended specific Sacramento River bypass flows and minimum Delta outflows in order for Sites Reservoir to “contribute to ecosystem benefits” and avoid causing significant adverse impacts to salmon. However, the Sites JPA refused to even consider these recommendations in their draft environmental impact report or their application to the Commission.  

The reality is that California has added substantial water storage in recent decades, but the form of that storage has changed. NRDC doesn’t oppose all surface storage projects, but we oppose storage projects that worsen already dire conditions for fish and wildlife in the Bay-Delta watershed. Instead, California needs to continue to invest in 21st century water solutions like groundwater storage and water recycling that reduce reliance on the Delta. Surface and groundwater storage projects south of the Delta provide a promising approach to enable greater diversions in very wet years and lower diversions in drier years; in both 2011 and 2017, the lack of storage capacity south of the Delta meant that hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water was lost (this problem would remain even if WaterFix was constructed, since it’s the lack of storage, not conveyance, that generally limits diversions in wet years).   

In an October 2014 blog, Annie Notthoff of NRDC wrote that, “A vote for Prop 1 is not a vote for big dams, but it is a vote for major investments in regional water supplies and watershed restoration to help sustain the economy and environment.”  While some claim that Proposition 1 was a secret deal to fund Temperance Flat and other environmentally harmful storage projects (perhaps written in invisible ink that only they can see?), the reality is that Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir fail to provide public benefits, and thus aren’t eligible for public dollars from Proposition 1. While we expect that the backers of big dams will continue to bring political pressure to bear on the Commission, they can’t change the law (only the voters can do so), nor can they change the fact that these projects fail to provide net ecosystem improvements.

The political pressure being brought to bear on the California Water Commission reminds me of an old trial lawyer adage:

“When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither the facts nor the law is on your side, pound the table.”

While backers of Sites and Temperance Flat continue to pound the table, the Commission is bound by the facts and the law. And NRDC will be watching to make sure the Commission continues to do so.

Related Issues
Fresh Water

Related Blogs