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How to Define “Public Benefit”?

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The drought is far from over, and many California communities are preparing for future water scarcity better than they have before, or at least trying to, by enlarging their reservoirs. But they’re hitting a snag when they try to get state funding for building new dams or otherwise expanding their water-storage capacity.

The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, commonly known as Proposition 1, calls for jurisdictions to demonstrate a public benefit—beyond just the storage of additional water—before funds can be allocated for a particular project. The proposition was, in part, a reaction to the use of public funds for projects that primarily benefited special interests, as well as to the downright damaging effects of many dams built in the past.

At least 11 currently proposed projects, including the expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay area and dams on the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, have run into the same objection—that they don’t provide enough in the way of public benefits. “Public benefit” as defined by Proposition 1 might include creating new recreational opportunities or increasing water flows for endangered fish species. Still, despite endorsements from conservation groups for its plan to send additional water to wetlands that harbor wildlife, the Los Vaqueros Reservoir project has not gotten a green light for state funding.

Ironically, Proposition 1 was passed in response to the drought, with the intent of boosting water conservation and storage measures. It allocated more than $7.5 billion to fund watershed protection and restoration projects, water supply infrastructure projects including both surface and groundwater storage, and drinking water protection projects. About $2.7 billion of that is specifically intended for water storage projects. But the stringent language and strict requirements for how much public benefit each project will provide is having the opposite effect. “There is the possibility we’ve painted ourselves into a corner with this bond language,” says a senior fellow of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, quoted in this article.

What do you think—is the “public benefit” requirement the state is placing on projects too severe? Should water storage itself be enough justification for a project in times of worsening drought? EC_bug_web

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  1. Here in the UK and Europe, we’ve been developing and using modified cost benefit analysis techniques to estimate environmental benefits in monetary terms for quite a few years with some success. It’s well worthwhile having a look at some of the outputs from our research on the Environment Agency’s website.

  2. Increasing the size of existing reservoirs or building new ones is the least cost effective, and most environmentally damaging way to store water in the 21st century (and for that matter, hindsight says just that for many of the water projects of the last century). Aquifer recharge and more diligent planning of water use (otherwise known as water conservation) provide long term benefits at far less cost, both in $$$ spent upfront and maintenance. All of the economically feasible surface storage projects in the western US were completed before 1955, and many of those have created more problems than they solved.

  3. With the western U.S. and surroundings drying up along with the expanding population in the southern portion of the state, the vote will swing yet more south, as it has for decades. The MWD/SC, I was once told, has against it an un-exercised contract for 800K AF from LA’s DW&P. From where will that water come? The “paper water” plan, once its underlying pragmatic agenda was brought out, left many previously politically attractive development projects in the southern portion of the state without the reality of water. To make up for that, the citizens were put onto toilet to tap. Even with that, there will likely be deficits as the deepening climate change progresses and the Colorado is affected. Although there may exist at this time a law on the books dealing with proof of added benefit for water projects, that will soon be trumped by the demand for water in the expanding southern areas and this will see a shift in Sacramento. Serving the furred, finned and feathered friends will be seen as something that can be done without.

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