By Mike Wade

9/4/13 Editorial in OC Register

In a normal year about 30 percent of the water supply needed by Southern California flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A portion of that water is stored in San Luis Reservoir along Highway 152 near the town of Los Baños. But this year was anything but normal.

From December through February Northern California experienced some of the heaviest rainfall it has seen in years. That’s usually good news for Southern California because the water that makes it way through the system helps meet the needs of people from the Bay Area to San Diego. It is also an important water supply for farmers who grow much of the food that fills the produce aisles of our grocery stores here and across the nation.

But that didn’t happen this year. Over 800,000 acre-feet of water, an amount sufficient to meet the needs of more than 6 million people for a year or 200,000 acres of farmland, was flushed out to the ocean.

Why? Because Endangered Species Act protections for Chinook salmon and the tiny, two-inch Delta smelt prevented water from being delivered to Southern California in an attempt to protect the fish.

San Luis Reservoir stores water from winter storms like the ones we had this year. It holds more than 2 million acre-feet that is used throughout the year by farms, homes and businesses and by two-thirds of the people who live in California. But today the reservoir sits nearly empty with barely 15 percent of the water it could hold. A dry winter later this year could spell disaster.

Water users are anxiously looking ahead to what the next water year will bring. If it is anything but a gully-washer and if there’s no relief from the federal regulatory restrictions, water officials have already indicated that deliveries could be even less than this year. Farms that depend on water stored in San Luis Reservoir may not receive any water at all.

There is also a significant risk that a seismic event in the Delta region will damage existing water delivery infrastructure, making it unable to deliver the water we need. Seismic experts say there is a two-thirds chance that a significant earthquake will hit the region sometime in the next 30 years. Or it could happen tomorrow.

No one knows for sure. A significant outage could cost California’s economy $40 billion, much more than the initial cost of upgrading the infrastructure that delivers our water today.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a solution being developed by scientists, engineers, biologists and water leaders called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. It provides protection for many fish and wildlife species including the Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. If the BDCP had been in place this year, the loss of over 800,000 acre-feet of water would have been avoided.

By adding the right protections for the ecosystem it will improve water supply reliability for 25 million Californians and almost 4,000 farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and dairy products for our grocery store shelves.

What will this added water supply reliability cost? About $5 per month for the typical household, according to the public water agencies that deliver our water.

Compared to other costs, such as cable TV, a cell phone or even a good latté, that’s cheap insurance for something as vital as the water supply that we depend on every day.

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