Recent Water Bonds and Groundwater Storage: A Retrospective

August 28, 2014 | Water in the West | Insights

By Melissa Rohde

Melissa Rohde is a graduate student researcher with Stanford’s Water in the West Program, where she recently conducted research on groundwater recharge in California for our new website: Understanding California’s Groundwater.  These are her reflections on the recently passed water bond.

The legislature is receiving plaudits for its approval of the $7.5 billion water bond, which will be presented to California voters as Proposition 1 on the November 2014 ballot. This water bond has been crafted to provide a “comprehensive and fiscally responsible approach” to address California’s diverse water woes without leaving California in the red.  However, very little of the ongoing discussion is being directed towards how to use these funds in the most cost effective way.

The bond act includes money for water storage, and most of the discussion of that is related to surface storage – building new reservoirs or raising the capacity of existing reservoirs. The legislature, the media, and the public, however, are not focusing enough attention on the benefits that groundwater storage can play in diversifying California’s water portfolio and getting the most out of the bond dollars. According to recent research from Stanford’s Water in the West Program, the cost of groundwater recharge and storage is a fraction of that of reservoir expansion or seawater desalination, and its application can also help to address the many deleterious impacts of groundwater overdraft.

Despite its benefits, the state has set aside minimal funds specifically for groundwater storage.  Over the past 14 years, voter-approved bonds have financed $1.15 billion in groundwater recharge and storage projects. However, less than 50% of the 248 recharge-related applications submitted for these bonds were awarded, suggesting that the demand for groundwater storage across the state far outstripped available funds.  The amount of money awarded under these bonds to groundwater storage projects is also a very small proportion (6%) of the total $20.3 billion in funds awarded under all past water bonds. Only one of the six bond propositions included money dedicated specifically for groundwater recharge and storage (Proposition 13, with $272 million awarded).  With a lack of clear funding streams for groundwater recharge and storage, the total amount of funds we are investing is barely scratching the surface of this versatile tool.

Under the 2014 water bond, groundwater recharge and storage projects are explicitly indicated as being eligible for funding under the $2.7 billion allocated for water storage, the $20 million for watershed protection, the $810 million for regional water security, and the $900 million for groundwater sustainability. Within these categories, groundwater recharge projects will have to compete with various other project types, or be pitched as a co-benefit for other projects.   Water storage is the largest budget item in the water bond, and highlights the importance that water storage plays in California. Surface and groundwater storage are both eligible for funding under this category. However, when you consider that $3 billion is needed in addition to other financial contributions for Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion, Temperance Flat, and Sites Reservoir, groundwater storage could get squeezed out. 

Although some funding under this bond could potentially go to groundwater recharge and storage, the lack of clearly dedicated funds for groundwater storage creates the risk that these projects will again be underfunded.  While surface water storage will always remain an important part of California’s water system, during these lean economic times it is important that we increase our support for groundwater recharge, which is a cheaper alternative to reservoir expansion and seawater desalination.  Diversifying California’s water portfolio is also an important precursor to ensure that we have efficient, sustainable water supply systems for the long-term.

Economics aside, one of the major benefits of groundwater storage is its ability to serve as a flexible, locally driven, water management tool - allowing water agencies to address the wide range of groundwater management issues on an individual basis.  Recharging water locally enables groundwater managers to make decisions that fit local groundwater needs including building seawater barriers, controlling flood risk, enhancing wildlife habitat, improving groundwater quality standards, reducing pumping costs and greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing dependence on imported water.

In addition to supporting this array of co-benefits that enhance self-sufficiency, groundwater recharge and storage projects can also play a tremendous role in the use and treatment of stormwater and recycled water – water sources that can be used to augment our stretched supplies.  Reservoirs generally cannot be integrated into systems that use these sources, because they are typically not located in urban areas generating high volumes of wastewater and stormwater.  The 2014 water bond, if passed by voters is certainly a step forward for securing California water resources, but if passed by voters this November, we need to ensure that the funds are spent as effectively as possible.