The Clean Water Blog

The California Water Commission Needs to Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room

You know that feeling when there’s something that really needs discussing, but nobody wants to talk about it? People call it the “elephant in the room.”

Well, on March 16, the California Water Commission will hear public testimony before it makes the first of a few big decisions regarding drought-proofing our water supply:

  • Option one is expensive, harms the environment and doesn’t really work.
  • Option two is much cheaper, helps the environment and definitely works.

Right now, the state is in the midst of the worst drought in more than a millennium, and there are nearly three billion taxpayer dollars at stake, so the pressure is on to make the right choice. But it’s simple, right? If you were on the Commission, you’d choose the option that definitely works, and that makes the best use of taxpayer dollars. Now, put yourself in the shoes of the commission. Imagine you’re one of these folks:

—Images from California Water Commission website
—Images from California Water Commission website

Not to judge anyone by appearances alone, but they all seem like pretty accomplished-looking people. So: which option do you think they might be about to choose?

The wrong choice: spending $2.7 billion on new dams to increase reservoir storage.

Here’s the elephant in the room. For some reason, California developed an addiction to building dams over the last century. And we built lots and lots of them – more than 1,400! But they store just a fraction of the water that our groundwater basins hold. Few people talk about how much more effective it is to store water under ground, recharging depleted aquifers. Perhaps that’s because groundwater isn’t so sexy to look at? Maybe it’s just that dams look imposing, and can be named after the politicians who got them built? Or maybe some people in California are stuck in the last century, and want an approach that matches last century’s weather patterns? Who knows.

It’s time to talk about that elephant! So far, more than 700 people have written to the water commission to ask them to make the sensible choice. You can add your letter now, by clicking here.

We have more than 1,400 dams in the state, fuelling reservoirs. And yet, unless they’re willing to listen to the public at their hearing on March 16, and make some changes to their upcoming regulations, the California Water Commissioners are poised to make the wrong choice and waste billions in taxpayer dollars on increasing surface water storage.

Here’s why it’s not a great idea to spend more on building dams in California:

  • reservoirs deplete first in a drought, so they’re not the best choice for multi-year droughts like the one we’re going through now
  • in dry seasons, depending on size, dam reservoirs and diversions can evaporate more water than they store
  • dams and reservoirs cost six times as much as groundwater storage to build (check out this research by Stanford University for more on comparative costs)
  • as the climate warms, and our snowpack disappears, heavy rains and fast snowmelt will generate more water faster, and the reservoirs won’t be able to hold it all. It means we’ll squander precious opportunities to recharge our water supply, even when the water does come.
  • dams displace local residents who have lived on their land for generations (check out this story by East Bay Express reporter Will Parish, for just one example)

The right choice: spending money on less expensive, climate-resilient groundwater recharge and storage.

  • the state has more than 500 groundwater basins, all of which would benefit from recharge
  • during a drought, reliance on groundwater increases dramatically
  • groundwater aquifers are depleted, which is causing subsidence in some parts of the state as the ground sinks beneath our feet
  • $2.7billion can fund 8.4 million acre-feet of groundwater storage, compared to just 1.4 million acre-feet of storage —groundwater storage is more climate resilient because water stored underground is not as vulnerable to evaporation as surface water

For more facts, see our factsheet.

What can I do to make sure the water commissioners make the right choice?

Let’s get them talking about the elephant in the room! Groundwater is a better use of taxpayer dollars and it’s going to be more effective at preparing California for a future of prolonged drought.

So far, more than 700 people have sent emails and handwritten letters to the water commission to ask them to make the sensible choice. You can add your letter now, by clicking here.

The more people contact the commission now, the better. We plan to attend the hearing and showcase the hundreds of handwritten letters from citizens asking the water commissioners to make the right choice. To do that, we’ll be printing up a nice, visible elephant image onto a placard and putting the names of everyone who’s written to the commission onto it, and placing it on an easel at the hearing when we go along to testify. It’ll make for a nice reminder of the importance of groundwater, and at least, then, the commissioners won’t be able to say nobody mentioned the elephant in the room.