Tunnels, Forests and Billions of Dollars?

The following conversation is excerpted from a webinar hosted by our friends at Water Deeply, who are doing great work covering the water crises in California and the American West. The webinar featured our own Kimery Wiltshire, as well as Dr. Jeff Mount with the Public Policy Institute of California. Tara Lohan, Water Deeply’s Senior Editor, moderated the session.


Kimery: 2018 is going to be a rocky and exciting year for Western water. There is a long list of challenges that we’re going to be facing, including continued catastrophic fires, floods and mudslides. And we’ve seen it before – the difference is that now we must scale up solutions much more quickly and purposefully. We are all on the front lines in the time of climate change.

The good news is communities are working hard on scalable solutions, for example the Rio Grande Water Fund. These solutions are close at hand, but they’re not necessarily the big ones that we would all expect; like building new dams or reservoirs or tunnels. From our perspective, many of the most important solutions are about forests and the role they play in Western water security and quality.

These solutions are multi-benefit, meaning that when the forests are healthier, flows are regulated, snow doesn’t melt as fast, there’s a natural storage in places like meadows and in ground water, wildfires and flooding are less catastrophic, and local jobs are created.

So, we’re seeing this from everywhere from Flagstaff to Eugene to Salt Lake, to Colorado’s Front Range, to the restoration work in California using AB32 funds, which, I will say, is a great start. This is not easy work, but that’s what we’re seeing for 2018.

Jeff: Agreed. Throughout the West, the overall awareness of the relationship between the watershed and the headwater forests in particular, and the downstream users, is at a level I’ve never seen in my entire career. That’s actually pretty exciting.

But here in California, what we’re grappling with is the age-old problem: who pays for what? And I have a hypothesis, Kimery, that I think you can appreciate. I think that the downstream interest, and that is the political and social interest in engaging in the headwaters investments, follows an asymptotic decay curve. The closer you are to the watershed in, say, for example, an urban area, the more interest you have, the more direct interest you have in that watershed. And the opposite is also true.

And that’s a challenge. Because it’s a struggle here in California to tell people in San Diego that what happens up in the Tuolumne watershed is extremely important to them. When we talk about the restoration work in dense, dry, and dying forests, and try to convince them that this work is absolutely essential to them and their water supply, and they look at us and yawn. This is probably, more than anything, about communicating those connections better. It’s about raising awareness and interest. Frankly, that challenge exceeds the technological challenges.

Kimery: Agreed! Relatedly, these catastrophic fires we are seeing are both a terrible threat, and a great opportunity to connect these dots between upper watersheds and water supply in the current climate, both here in California and around the West. These stories are so terrifying, and so tragic, and they can also help inspire understanding of the solutions.

Jeff: Yes. In California, you know, the normally very conservative Association of California Water Agencies is all in on maintaining headwater forests, recognizing that it’s a threat to both supply and quality. And, of course, that’s what we’re seeing right now, the big effect on water quality of these huge fires and then the floods and mudslides that follow. But, of course, when you ask utilities to pay for the restoration and protection work, then the conversation changes.

That’s connected to the larger conversation around California water challenges and solutions, including the big debates this year around the financing and construction of tunnels to move water from North to South. This being Gov. Jerry Brown’s last year in office, the pressure is on, particularly because this Governor is a lot more engaged on water management issues.

In all of water policy, there are winners and losers, and I wish people would acknowledge that. In California, there’s a series of trade-offs, and there will be winners and losers. And the best way to go is to mitigate the losers as best you can.

On the tunnels, there is a compromise here. There will be some people who are willing to sit down and hammer out a compromised solution, and there are some people who would really just rather see everything crash and burn rather than compromise.

Whether the radical middle will persevere and hammer out a compromise, I don’t know. This is about all I know – the Governor has been trying to get people to sit down and compromise. It’s just whether the parties which who have been at war for so long are willing to say, “Okay, you know, I’m willing to give something up to get what I really need.”

And the price tag is just huge – $17 billion that, under the current proposal, would be paid for entirely by water users.

But right now, they don’t have anywhere near that level of commitment from the proposed water users, so they just don’t have the money to do the project.

There have been no proposals that public financing step in on part of this, although that would actually be an interesting option, because then the project would have to be managed in part for public benefit.

This is one of the two big infrastructure issues. The second will be whether we build any big new dams in California.

Kimery: I do want to push back on the payment part and point out that many downstream western utilities are already paying for great work in the upper watershed, and part of our challenge is to share those stories to inspire more that behavior – investing in these incredibly efficient interventions that are truly protective of water and communities.

And speaking of money, as we in the Healthy Headwaters work look at the kind of money budgeted for the tunnels, we have some ideas! What if we took half that money, this mythical money, this $17 billion that nobody really knows where it’s coming from, and we spent that on forest restoration and groundwater recharge and recycling and increase the amount of efficient water? What if we spent even half of that on ways to stretch our current supplies, and ensure that future supplies are protected from fires, and thus that downstream communities were safer? That would be a pretty amazing start.

January 25, 2018
Photo Credit:  Liz Coughlan

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