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Dam Facts, Dam Lies, and Statistics
Reality Takes a Back Seat to Hyperbole in Water Debate

 

By Steve Evans

McCormick Dam

View a FOR presentation about the Governor's proposed dams. (1.5 MB PDF).  (Above) McCormick Dam.

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FOR Conservation Director
It’s a sad state of affairs when good public policy takes a back seat to sound bites that have no basis in reality. So here is a selection of pithy-sounding but less-than-factual sound bites of dam proponents compared to the real facts of the matter (complete with footnotes).
  • "Do you know that for 20 years, well, actually since the late '70s, they have not built a dam? I mean, think about that. They have not built a dam.”
    -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, July 14, 2007
  • “California’s population is growing rapidly, but our statewide water storage and delivery system has not been significantly improved in 30 years.”
    -- Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), September 2007

In fact, more than 6.2 million acre feet of water storage has been developed in California since 1990. (1) This includes 5.3 million acre feet of groundwater storage in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as 924,000 acre feet of surface storage behind the Los Vaqueros, Diamond Valley, and Olivenhain Dams (all completed in the last 10 years). It is important to note that these dams were built by local water districts, and the total cost of the dams -- more than $2.5 billion -- was paid for by the ratepayers who directly benefit from the increased surface storage, not the state or federal taxpayers.

  • “I have just one statistic, one only, and that is 25 million people depend on Delta water for the drinking water of the state."
    -- Senator Dianne Feinstein, August 21, 20007
  • “The Delta, a key natural estuary and the pathway through which more than 25 million Californians and 2.5 million acres of productive farmland receive their water, is in an ecological crisis that threatens people as well as the environment.”
    -- ACWA, September 2007

The “25 million people depend on water from the Delta” factoid (2) is the most overly hyped and abused pseudo-fact in the water debate. Yes, 25 million people live south of the Delta, but few depend exclusively on the water from the Delta.

Not all Californians downstream of the Delta depend on the Delta for water. Millions of people south of the Delta receive their drinking water from local sources. Only about 16% of the water used in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Tulare Basin, Central Coast, South Coast, (including Los Angeles and San Diego), and the California Desert comes from the Delta. The rest comes from groundwater, recycling, local watersheds, and non-Delta exports (such as Colorado and Owens River water to Los Angeles). (3)

Of the water exported from the Delta, nearly 80% goes to the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin, where the primary use is agriculture. (4) About 500 farmers in the Westlands Water District in the Tulare Basin receive more water every year from the Delta than the Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco Bay metropolitan areas combined. (5)

Federal and state courts have ruled that state and federal agencies must reduce water exports from the Delta to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This limits but does not halt Delta water exports. Unfortunately, Governor Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have opposed any water bond that may resolve Delta problems, particularly if it does not include substantial public funding of new dams. Even worse, the new dams pushed by Governor Schwarzenegger are likely to make the Delta situation worse by providing more water for export.

It is absolutely true that the ecological crisis in the Delta threatens the environment. But the Delta’s water quality, ecosystem, and native fish species are directly threatened by the state and federal government’s fresh water exports from the Delta. The rhetoric of the water interests is a classic case of turning the victim (in this case, the Delta smelt) into the perceived threat.

  • “California is facing severe drought conditions, with 2007 ranking as a record dry-year in some regions. If the current drought continues, mandatory water rationing may be imposed in many areas … Significantly reduced supplies and growing water uncertainties already are causing some California farmers to fallow prime agricultural lands, hurting one of our state’s most important industries.”
    -- ACWA, September 2007

We cannot drought-proof California. But we can adjust water use during droughts, with relatively few statewide economic impacts. Conservation and demand management are particularly useful tools to address water supply demands during drought. During California's 1987-1992 drought, there was a 12% decrease in irrigated acreage, but the value of California-produced food and fiber increased by more than 34% over the same period as growers abandoned marginal land, employed the most modern irrigation technologies, and switched to higher-value crops. (6) California’s population and economic output has increased even as we have reduced the amount of water we use. Total water use in California was less in 2001 than it was in 1975, yet population increased by 60% and the gross state product increased 2.5 times. (7)

  • “Conservation is key, but cannot solve California’s growing water crisis alone.”
    -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, October 10, 2007

No one is saying that the sole solution to the state’s current and future water needs is conservation. In fact, conservation groups proposed a $4.5 billion bond to fund several different water supply programs, including conservation, water recycling, groundwater storage, reclamation, and other programs statewide that would produce more than 2.2 million acre feet of water. In contrast, the Governor’s latest bond proposal was for $9.4 billion, of which 55% would go to building three new dams that produced a third of the amount of water generated by the non-dam water programs proposed by conservationists.

Reclaimed water signConservation and other alternative water programs have been quite successful in California. Forty years ago we used nearly 2,000 gallons of water for every person in the state. Today, we use half that amount. (8) Water use in California is declining and will continue to decline as we invest in more conservation, recycling, reclamation, and groundwater management.  Two of the three future water use scenarios examined in the California Water Plan show a decline in water use as we invest more in conservation and other programs. (9)

  • “We need more water. We need more storage. We need to build more storage, and we have to build conveyance, the canal, all of those kinds of things … I know the environmentalists don’t like to create and talk even about conveyance. They don’t like that. And they don’t like to build more water storage. I understand it when you come from their point of view. They were up there in my office. We were all talking yesterday about it. They want to do another five-year study. There is no more study. We have studied this subject to death.”
    -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, June 14, 2007

None of the surface storage project studies by federal and state agencies in California has been completed. We really don’t know how much the projects that the Governor proposes to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on cost, how much water they will reliably produce, who will get the water, and who will pay for the cost of the dams.

Tentative information provided by state agencies indicates that the actual water yield of the three dam projects proposed in the latest version of the Governor’s water bond (Sites, Temperance Flat, Enlarged Los Vaqueros) produce only about a third of the water at about 13 times the cost that could be produced by increased investments in water conservation. (10)

In addition, previous studies of the Peripheral Canal (now called “Delta conveyance”) are more than 20 years old. The old canal proposal includes a diversion at Hood, which is only five feet above sea level. The Governor may be proposing a multi-billion dollar facility that will eventually drown under rising seas induced by global warming. The Governor’s own Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delta has yet to recommend a comprehensive solution to the Delta’s myriad of problems. It may or may not recommend a canal. If they do, it is likely to be substantially different than the canal that the Governor apparently wanted to start digging in July.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Recently developed water storage capacity in California, Spreck Rosekrans, Environmental Defense, April 2007.
  2. In the parlance of journalism, a “factoid” is something that sounds like a fact, but isn’t. Small discrete facts are actually called “sniblets.”
  3. California Water Plan, 2005 Update.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Environmental Working Group, April 2005.
  6. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Future of Irrigated Agriculture, Task Force Report #127 (Ames, Iowa: 1996), pg. 37.
  7. Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute, 2006.
  8. Ibid.
  9. California Water Plan, 2005 Update.
  10. Dams v. Conservation, Friends of the River, October 2007.

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