Before raising our glasses to toast this winter’s abundant El Niño rainfall, here’s a sobering thought: Because of deliberate efforts to protect fish by limiting water storage, about half the rain falling on California will wash into the ocean, instead of being stored for the dry, hot summer to come. As for the water now filling the state’s reservoirs, billions of gallons will be flushed down rivers and out to sea in efforts to protect fish, rather than being used to irrigate food crops or provide water for thirsty communities when the drought resumes. Lawsuits and bad policy decisions have created a situation in which the well-being of fish is seemingly valued more than our economy or quality of life. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Despite steady population increases and a growing need for water, California has removed about 30 dams to improve fish habitat since 1979, costing the state over a hundred billion gallons in lost storage capacity. Moreover, we’ve failed to build new water storage projects to replace that lost capacity, and are now paying a high price for our short-sightedness. Had the Sites Reservoir been built in western Colusa County when first proposed in the 1980’s, it would be filled with about 650 billion gallons of water. Other stalled projects would be capturing billions of gallons of water as well.