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Tuesday, May 13 2014 11:01 PM

JEFF FABBRI: If our water system were a bank, we'd be under new management

Water is like money, and our account is very low: 8.83 inches to be exact. That's the total average precipitation for the state of California for the first four months of this year and the lowest amount of rain received during a similar time since 1895. California's entering its third year of drought. The state would have to receive an average of 53 inches between now and October -- more than 10 inches of rainfall each month -- to break the extreme, ongoing drought.

As with money, water has many uses. It is the universal currency that supports survival. It transcends various uses -- between protecting the environment and enhancing commerce -- and it's relied upon as a public utility by every Californian. Water, like money, can be wasted or put away in a bank to be saved and stored. California built a central banking system known as the State Water Project, a vast system of aqueducts, dams and reservoirs designed to catch rain and mountain snow runoff from wet years for storage/use in dry years. The banking system was designed to have a built-in reserve to hold enough water to withstand five years of drought.

Water deliveries have been unevenly distributed from year to year, creating centuries of wet and dry cycles in California. When in need, we are supposed to be able to go to the water bank where our stored water currency should have been placed in an account (storage), ready for us to draw upon in drought years.

We are in a severe drought, and it's time to go to the bank. But since the bank was built, new management has redirected our investment. Apparently, management hasn't stored our good-year water for this critical time. Rather, they have invested over 3 million acre-feet of fresh water (our money) to fulfill new California laws allowing the State Water Project bank to use water to "improve water quality in the Delta" and "enhance fish and wildlife." That leaves Californians nearly 978 billion gallons short.

Bank accounting is long overdue, and here is the math: If we take the last 10-year average of precipitation, nearly 2 billion-acre feet of water fell on California's borders, including recent drought years. On average during this 10-year period, nearly 1.5 billion-acre feet went to environmental uses. We captured and used for humans -- both for cities and farms -- about a quarter of it. The rest (three-fourths) was used for trees, plants, fish, birds and animals.

What is missed by most water bank investors, (the taxpayers) is that the quarter that was captured and used by people is what all the debate is about. The water wars center on that one-fourth left over, the critical quarter of water that produces the capital necessary to sustain the world's eighth-largest economy and supports the lives of over 40 million Californians.

Seems we can't fire our bank water managers, but if we continue to send 75 percent of the state's water for environmental use on an average year, we must then decide to at least capture the excess water on wet years and store it for dry ones.

Of the quarter of the water that is allowed to flow, we have historically done a pretty good job of storing it in surface reservoirs, less so in underground state aquifers. If we make the simple decision to store water in the ground during the wet years, the available space in the San Joaquin valley can sequester 20 to 30 million-acre feet of water -- about two-thirds of the amount of current surface storage in all the Sierra Nevada reservoirs. There are already various groundwater storage projects that hold several million-acre feet of water from some wet winters from 1998-2006. These storage projects continue to make limited water deliveries to cities especially in today's drought.

If, however, we continue to divert three-fourths of the water to nature, then we should at least recognize that there are added costs to that decision. As an example, consider that from February 1 to April 7 of this year, a good many inches of rain fell in Northern California, yet nearly 1.7 million-acre feet of water went out to the sea under the Golden Gate Bridge -- while only 400,000 acre-feet was captured for human use this summer.

Costs arise when others don't pay for the water they use. Environmental advocates obtain water from projects that were built by urban and agricultural buyers during the last century, using three-fourths of this water for organisms that are endangered. Yet cities and farms are paying for an entire year's water supply and not getting a single spoonful of water. The bank needs a change in management. There is currency to fill its vaults; we just need to invest it in the right places.

Jeff Fabbri of Bakersfield is a farmer and board member of the Semitropic Water Storage District.

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