Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on the impact the forecasted Super El Nino would have on our four-year drought. The column included an overview of California’s water storage capability, which is inadequate under the best of circumstances.

Water for much of California is dependent on the state’s 161 reservoirs. In an average year of precipitation each of these reservoirs are replenished during California’s wet months (October through March). As of last May, the state’s reservoirs had only received 6.5 million acre-feet of water from last winter. That is only 78% of the necessary annual recharge of 8.2 million acre-feet. For reference, a single acre-foot contains 325,000 gallons of water.

Our four-year drought has resulted in the state’s reservoir levels as of last May to be at 17.2 million acre-feet. The typical annual withdrawal over the dry months (April through September) is around 8 million acre-feet. Therefore, if California has a fifth year of drought it will only have a little more than two years of water left in the reservoirs and for the first time in state history the reservoirs will have less than 10 million acre-feet of water storage.

Much of California’s current water storage issues are a result of state leadership failure to follow-thru on a number of well-developed water solution/storage strategic plans that would have addressed and solved this issue.

This failure hit home with one reader, David Bolton of Brea, who forwarded information of California’s ineptitude by bringing some interesting history to my attention. David was born before the start of WWII and witnessed California’s population boom after WWII ended when many veterans, who either trained in California or came thru California on their way to the war in the Pacific, saw that the state was full of opportunity and was a great place to raise a family.

The significant population growth, combined with the state’s cyclical droughts, severely strained the water resources, especially in the most populated areas of the state, the Bay Area and the greater Los Angeles area. In his e-mail David described one of the more innovative, ambitious and visionary water resource and economic plans that was designed and developed by John Reber, who was an actor, theatrical producer and a schoolteacher.

The Reber Plan, also referred to as the San Francisco Bay Project, would have constructed dam across the Sacramento River, creating multiple channels and two freshwater lakes. The dam would provide power and the two lakes, drinking water for the greater Bay Area and Northern California. With the Reber Plan in place, the federal Central Valley Project, would then create a system of canals, pumps and aqueducts up and down the San Joaquin Valley, providing enough freshwater for the agriculture growth occurring in the Central Valley.

In addition, to address the water needs of Southern California, then Governor Pat Brown endorsed and advocated the State Water Project, a plan that would create an extensive system of reservoirs, aqueducts, and pipelines powered by pump stations and electrical generating plants to transport the water where it was needed. This included the capture of Sacramento River runoff, which would add additional water resources for the lower Central Valley and provide the water needed by Southern California. The entire project was projected to be built over sixty years, at a cost of $13 billion (or $104 billion in 2015 dollars).

Political infighting began along and the need for study after study, especially those required by the U.S. Army Corps, whose study of the Reber Plan recommended even more studies. After more than a decade of such studies, the Reber Plan was scrapped in 1960. Though some parts of both the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project plans were funded and completed, neither provided the comprehensive water solutions and storage that California required.

Unfortunately, despite the long history of droughts in California, state leaders have chosen to rely on Mother Nature to replenish and recharge our inadequate number or reservoirs, and deliver a sufficient snow pack to provide for the state’s annual water needs.

That kind of reliance is unacceptable. California voters should demand that our next Governor and State legislators develop a comprehensive strategic water storage plan, which can be sufficiently funded and implemented.

The proposed plans of the past, like the Reber Plan, can offer some guidance about the visionary thinking necessary to meet the water storage needs of this state, but it will also require utilizing the most innovative water treatment technologies available today.

California’s water needs vary greatly depending on location, latitude, elevation, and proximity to the coast. Our strategic water solution will need to take into account these variables so we can handle whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at us.

Ian’s weekly column covers regional, state and national issues. His 40 year media career includes 20 years as Publisher & CEO of various media companies. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached at