Increasing Surface Water Storage in California

This Pritzker Brief focuses on legal risks and timeline associated with increasing surface water storage in California

June 17, 2017
Julia Forgie, James Salzman

In California, surface water storage has become a hot topic. California's recent drought has fueled the discussion, with a number of agricultural interests forcefully arguing that the state needs to store more water. Their efforts have been successful, and California's water bond, Proposition 1, has earmarked $2.7 billion for the public benefits of storage projects.

There are now dozens of proposals for Proposition 1 funding, including twenty projects that incorporate surface storage, varying in size and location from large CALFED projects supported by federal and state funding to smaller, local projects. On average, the eligible large CALFED projects seek ten times the amount of funding as the small local/regional projects.

While there has been a great deal of research and debate over the environmental impacts and cost effectiveness of surface water storage projects, there has been little consideration of the more fundamental question of their practical feasibility—in particular, the time required from project initiation to completion. This is critically important, for it will determine when and if these projects actually make a difference to water users. This report fills that gap, detailing the time commitment associated with designing, analyzing, and implementing recent major surface water storage projects.

Our key finding is that most major surface water storage projects seriously considered since 2000 have not been completed and may never be. Among the eight projects evaluated in California since 2000, only two have been completed. Both of those expanded already existing storage facilities and still required about twelve years for permitting, approvals, and planning, followed by about two years for project construction. Including the other CALFED projects still under consideration, recent major surface storage projects have required almost fifteen years (and counting) for the permitting and analysis phase. No new major surface storage facility has been constructed in the state during this timeframe, despite millions spent on feasibility studies and environmental documentation.

These long project timelines reflect the multiple assessments and permitting requirements necessary to ensure the feasibility, safety, and financial viability of the storage facilities. Many different laws and political/financial concerns contribute to the long timelines, meaning that there is no silver bullet for shortening schedules. And it would be inadvisable for other reasons to remove any of these requirements.

Long timelines for recent large surface storage projects suggest that future major projects will likely follow similarly lengthy schedules. The California Water Commission should explicitly account for the practical timelines and requirements for a project to move from proposal to completion as it decides how to allocate Proposition 1 funding among storage projects.


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