With much of the West blanketed by moderate to severe drought conditions, there has been much recent interest expressed for the need for additional water storage facilities. The call for more water storage only makes sense when one considers the paradigm shift of more conservative water operations, coupled with the added water supplies necessary to meet demands for water that, in many basins in the West, have simply outgrown the existing supply.
Working with urban and conservation groups, the Family Farm Alliance is developing detailed answers to 20 frequently asked questions about new water storage projects. Here are just a few examples:
Q. Why are storage projects so important to Western water users?
Western family farms and ranches of the semi-arid and arid West—as well as the communities with which they are intertwined—owe their existence, in large part, to the certainty provided by water stored and delivered by reclamation and other state and local water storage projects. A major reason many Western agricultural water users continue to push for improved water storage and conveyance infrastructure is to mitigate for the water that has been reallocated away from agriculture to growing urban, power, environmental and recreational demands in recent decades. Water storage is not sought to support continued expansion of agricultural water demand, which is not happening in most places.
Q. Why has development of storage projects nearly halted in recent decades? For many reasons—political, economic and social—the construction of traditional surface storage projects is undertaken on a much more limited basis than in decades past. The most frequent reasons center around economics or an inadequate potential water market associated with the given facilities. In other cases, environmental, safety or geologic challenges rendered storage construction, completion or operation unfeasible. Political opposition has often contributed, leaving the facilities “on the books” awaiting further action, but with external events and new priorities passing them by. Even if funding and authorization is secured for a new storage project, the existing procedures for developing additional water supplies can make project approval incredibly burdensome.
Q. Is there public support for new storage projects?
A 2009 survey released by Colorado State University (CSU) is remarkable for the strong support average citizens from the West give agriculture, especially in times of drought. Among Western respondents to the CSU poll, the most popular strategies for meeting long-term needs were to build reservoirs and reuse water. The least popular alternative was to buy water from farmers.
Q. What options should be on the table to balance the need for water for urban uses and environmental purposes against the need for agricultural use of water?
Water conservation, water recycling, watershed management, conveyance, desalination, water transfers, groundwater storage, and surface storage are all needed in a diversified management portfolio. Water conservation, one of the most cost effective actions, needs to continue to be aggressively pursued in conjunction with surface storage and other actions. However, surface storage provides a degree of operational flexibility and significant water supply volumes that cannot be provided by other management actions.
Q. Critics of proposed storage projects and existing dams often point to the environmental concerns associated with any new surface water storage projects. Is it possible to address those issues?
Individual surface storage proposals must be evaluated and the associated benefits and risks must be viewed in a net, comprehensive manner. While some critics of new storage projects focus on perceived negative impacts associated with new facility construction (e.g. loss of habitat, disruption of “natural” stream flow patterns, and potential evaporative losses), these perceived impacts must also be compared to the wide range of multi-purpose benefits that storage projects can provide. Properly designed and constructed surface storage projects provide additional water management flexibility to better meet downstream urban, industrial and agricultural water needs, improve flood control, generate clean hydropower, provide recreation opportunities, and create additional flows that can benefit downstream fish and wildlife species.
Now is the time to start planning for future droughts if we are to avoid repeating the disaster we are seeing in California and elsewhere in the West. We must start managing water across the Western United States, and especially in California, during this unparalleled drought to meet the future needs of humans and their communities, as well as protect the environment. That includes better management of our current water supplies for multiple needs, and developing new water storage projects to provide the greater flexibility needed to meet today’s demand for water, as well as the challenges of drought in the future.
It is possible for the West to find balanced solutions to these conflicts. The solutions will not come easily. They will require visionary leadership and a firm commitment to a balanced, workable policy. But opportunities exist and, if we are prepared to seize them, conflict will be reduced and certainty increased.