State legislators make final pitch for water storage projects 

The California Water Commission last week heard a chorus of state legislators wanting to keep their promise to the voters of Proposition 1 that water storage projects would be built in California.

The 11 water projects, whose applications for funding previously received low public benefit scores, had until Feb. 23 to file their appeals.

Since the scores were released last month, each applicant was allowed a one-hour meeting with Water Commission staff to provide additional information that could boost their score in the eyes of the state.

Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and Temperance Flat Dam in Fresno County are considered major contenders for a large chunk of the $2.7 billion intended for surface water improvement projects, but funding is tied only to the public benefits the projects will provide, officials said.

“This is very important for California,” Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, told the Water Commission at their Feb. 21 meeting. “I’ve spent my life dealing with it…I’ve been a part of all the various water issues for decades, and I will attest that this is, indeed, a critical moment.”

However, Nielsen, who supports Sites Reservoir, fears politics and environmental groups could stand in the way or misdirect the money away from how it was intended: for dams and reservoirs.

“It’s unfortunate that it has taken four years to get to this point,” Nielsen said. “The architects of this bond, and I was one of them, spent thousands of hours in 2009, and two years later, on the bond Prop 1…thousands of hours in deliberation and negotiation to result in this. And it was a promise made – a promise to the citizens – that there would be surface water storage. Surface storage; and the governor represented that in his arguments in favor of the bond.”

Nielsen said the biggest problem is that people have stopped trusting the government and the agencies of their government, and that they already feel betrayed by delay.

“The bond is a mandate, not a grant,” Nielsen said. “It was never envisioned to be a grant.”

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Redding, a big fan of increasing water storage, said the public must be able to trust that it is a non-partisan process.

“Go forth in funding these projects,” he told the commission. “Do what the people ask, provide storage facilities that will provide water during shortages. It’s the right thing to do for this state.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher showed concerned that the initial public benefit ratios for Sites and all the other projects were so low to start with.

“Many people agree that these projects make sense and they have multiple benefits, yet they received low scores,” he said.

Gallagher said project applicants and the state agencies assigned to determine the public benefits of the projects differ on their interpretations of the wording within the bond.

“When we talk about existing conditions, it means just that: What is the environment like right now, and do these projects improve the existing conditions – not something somebody hopes they should be or what they want it to be in an ideal world, but what is the existing condition right now…and do these projects improve the conditions. That is the clear wording of the statute and the intention of the legislature.”

Gallagher said he couldn’t imagine a world where Sites Reservoir would not be seen as a public benefit, because of its measureable benefits to the Delta, ecosystem, flood control, and recreation.

“If we see that the intent is not carried out, then we are going to have a lot of unhappy people,” Gallagher said. “Not only the legislature, but throughout this state.”

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, who represents the epicenter of the state’s water crisis, feels the same about the Temperance Flat project, which, if built, could address the long-term water needs for farms, communities, people and the environment.

“The public benefit of water is apparent,” Arambula said. “We know we can get this right because California needs us to get this right.”

California Water Commission Chairman Armando assured all project proponents that no project has been denied, but that the evaluation team, which include some 70 subject-matter experts, didn’t have enough information to come to the same public benefit outcomes that was articulated in the applications.

“Staff did not want to make any assumptions,” he said.

Armando said he hoped the additional meeting with commission staff helped all the applicants boost their scores, and said the Water Commission was anxious to get projects funded.

“We expect that this July, we will make a final determination on funding,” he said. “That is our goal; that is the target. We want the applications to be as strong as possible…We asked questions, and now we need the answers.”

The water commission anticipates releasing the final public benefit ratios in March or early April. The projects would then be scored and rated for potential funding. ■