Peter Gleick: The Number of New Dams Built in California is Not Zero


Californians love (or hate) to fight about water in part because there are no easy solutions left, just hard decisions about priorities, money, and philosophy. Amid all of the different pieces of the debate, a number of misleading statements, misinformation, hyperbole, and just plain errors of fact keep resurfacing.

Progress in solving our water problems will be hindered if these errors of fact are not corrected, or even worse, are repeated in the press over and over and come to be believed by the public or our policy makers. Every so often, I will address one of these in my posts to this Water Numbers blog, like today’s.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is an internationally recognized water expert and was named a MacArthur Fellow for his work in October 2003.

Water Number: Not Zero
Some water pundits would like to argue that NO new water storage has been built in California in the past few decades. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong. The next time you hear someone make this argument, correct him or her.

For example, just a couple of weeks ago, in an NPR piece on the California drought, former Congressman Tony Coelho (and a farmer in the Central Valley) responded to the statement that California’s population has gone from 15 to 30 million in the past 50 years by adding: “And we haven’t added one bit of water, storage, conveyance, dams – anything.”

Even worse, the Governor himself has repeated this falsehood. On July 23, 2007 he said “But right now, the water system is extremely vulnerable. For one thing, we haven’t built anything, like I said, in 30 years.” The very next day, he said, “For one thing, we haven’t built a reservoir for the last 30 years.”

In December 2008, State Assemblyman Ted Gaines said, “We haven’t added a new water storage facility in decades.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Data on California dams are readily available on the internet, so people should stop repeating this falsehood.

Over the past 50 years (since 1959), California has added a whopping 21 million acre-feet of storage, including some of the largest reservoirs in the State.

Over the past 50 years (since 1959), California has added a whopping 21 million acre-feet of storage, including some of the largest reservoirs in the State. Over the past 40 years (since 1969), we have added over 8,600,000 AF of storage (including massive New Melones Dam). Since 1979, we have added over 1,600,000 acre-feet (including New Spicer Meadows Dam and Warm Springs Dam). Since 1989, we have added over a million acre-feet (including Diamond Valley and Los Vaqueros). And these numbers don’t include new groundwater storage systems or the vast “reservoirs” of saved water we’ve created through conservation and efficiency programs.

Are we adding new traditional storage more and more slowly? Yes. We’ve built on all the good dam sites (and some would argue, some not-so-good sites) and the economic, environmental, and political cost of finding and building on new ones has grown.

I’m not going to debate the value of adding even more here and now: I’m on the record about this, arguing that other options are cheaper, faster, and less environmentally disruptive. Let’s save our arguing for the real disagreements. There are enough of them so that we don’t need to argue about the facts.

Dr. Gleick’s blog posts are provided in cooperation with the SFGate. Previous posts can be found here.

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