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Time for California to ‘insure’ against dangers of drought

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Californians are accustomed to living with danger – and protecting themselves against it. Homeowners in earthquake-prone areas carry insurance to protect themselves against financial ruin. In forested areas, homeowners clear nearby brush and trees to create defensible space and are sure to have insurance in the event that catastrophic wildfire hits their community. Everyone plans for the worst – because it’s the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, as a state we have not planned for the worst when it comes to our water supply, especially during a warming climate. Rather than stockpiling water as insurance against drought years, California does little to capture water to save for a “dry day.” Instead, we allow water to flow from our mountains into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the Pacific Ocean. As the water flows into the ocean, so too does our protection against drought. As California leaders struggle with today’s budget and economic crisis, it’s easy to delay action on other important and impending crises. Yet, if we don’t address these issues today, we set ourselves up for a future water crisis that would dramatically affect our economy and our personal, industrial and agricultural supply. Some might think that recent rains mean that we can relax because the drought is over. Unfortunately, these rains are a drop in California’s huge bucket. No one can forecast the future, but droughts are inevitable and we lose time — and water — by failing to increase our capacity to store it. The lack of investment in California’s water storage capability is startling. Forty years ago, about 20 million people lived in California. Today, nearly twice as many people live in our state. In those 40 years, much has changed – a huge influx of people who created innovative technology, an expansion of agricultural production to feed our country, and the creation of a unique and vibrant California lifestyle. To keep up, we have built new highways, thousands of new schools, and countless roads to serve our increased population. Not since Lake Oroville was completed in 1967 have we added any major improvement to our water storage capacity in Northern California. As a result, when drought hits, we have an amount of water suitable for California in 1960 – not 2009. Without increased storage, we would have little water to serve Californians during a drought or to release into our rivers to protect the fish and wildlife that depend on it. A critical component to increased water storage is a proposed reservoir in Colusa County, where we are fortunate to have a natural bowl formation at the old John Sites Ranch. The California Department of Water Resources has identified this reservoir as one of the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial alternatives for water storage in the state. DWR has included Sites in its plans for increasing water storage and states that “surface storage is particularly useful in providing drought protection.” Without damming a river and with minimal environmental disruption, water could be put in this new reservoir through existing canals that already come close to the property. When needed, the water could flow back into the Sacramento River, helping to protect fragile river ecosystems and the Delta, and providing water for Californians and our economy. The site is well above sea level so it could naturally flow downstream. In total, this new reservoir could hold nearly 2 million acre feet of water – twice the surplus of Folsom Lake and about half that of Shasta Lake. This increased water storage would help California in a drought and against possible climate change impacts. In addition, it would help our state better manage our water to prevent flooding in Northern California, particularly Sacramento. Some state leaders, including Gov. Schwarzenegger and top legislators, have supported increased storage, including the Sites Reservoir. As we look at another below-normal rain year, despite the recent rain, and a difficult dry summer, it is time to address this issue and not let it remain on the back burner of Sacramento’s agenda. The Sites Reservoir site was identified as a possible water storage location more than 15 years ago. Yet today it remains only a hope for California’s water crisis. Californians prepare for disasters — it’s time for our state to get the “insurance” that water storage provides. – Donn Zea is president of the Northern California Water Association. For more information visit www.norcalwater.org.