Water pressure mounting in West

timestamp icon
category icon Columns, Opinion

By Don C. Brunell, Guest Columnist

As we deal with our population growth, we must address sufficient supplies of drinkable fresh water for residential, commercial, agriculture, fisheries and industrial needs.

Not only will our numbers continue to climb, but so will competing pressures for fresh water. While demographers can project population growth fairly accurately and planners are good at assessing future needs, nature controls the supply of rainfall and mountain snowpack; and, when it occurs. Too often, precipitation is “feast or famine.”

For example, precipitation in the California’s agricultural region historically fluctuates with periods of above-average rainfall followed by periods of below average rainfall. In 1897, the Central Valley received 13.6 inches of rain, but only 4.6 inches the following year. In 1958, the region received more than 23 inches of rain while the next yea, it received less than 8 inches.

Most recently, California experienced a severe, four-year drought, culminating in 2015. Two years ago, an estimated 564,000 acres of prime cropland was left unplanted because of the critical water shortage. Economists at the University of California, Davis estimated the drought caused $2.7 billion in economic losses and cost 18,000 farm workers their jobs.

The water shortage was so acute that California Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25-percent reduction in household usage, which forced many homeowners to rip out their manicured lawns and plant desert plants among sand and rocks.

Then, in 2017, record rain and snow overwhelmed the state. By February of 2018, there was so much water in the reservoir behind Oroville Dam — the tallest in the United States at 770 feet high with a lake containing 1.1 trillion gallons of water — was at 151 percent of normal capacity. There was so much water pressure, the lower spillway began collapsing.

Last summer, near Santa Barbara in Southern California, heavy rains falling on mountains scorched by wildfires created flash floods, causing huge boulders to roll down narrow creek beds, burying homes and major roads.

In 2014, California voters — with bi-partisan support — approved a $7.5 billion bond to expand water storage and improve flood control. The vote allocated $2.7 billion for 11 water storage projects.

Yet, according to an editorial printed in the Wall Street Journal on March 7, 2018, “the California Water Commission, which doles out the cash, has tried to scuttle 11 water-storage projects. It says the projects would provide negligible public benefits as required by the law.”

The editorial writer added that “the proposed Sites Reservoir in Northern California could store up to 1.8 million acre-feet of water.”

According to Republican State Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, Sites could have captured more than 586 billion gallons of runoff between October of 2017 and February of 2018 — enough to supply 13.3 million Californians for a year. The Sites Reservoir would help California’s endangered Chinook salmon by increasing the amount of cold water in rivers available during droughts.

Our country’s population last year topped 325 million. Much of that growth has been along our western seacoast and inland states such as Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. Washington and California grew nearly threefold.

What is happening in California with water allocation disputes is a harbinger of what is to come in Washington State.

If we release too much water from reservoirs, how will we sustain ourselves during dry spells? What happens to the 670,000 acres of Eastern Washington farmland that depend on irrigation? What happens to the 82,000 agriculture-related jobs and $1.5 billion in wages? How will we replace the 75 percent of our electricity that is generated by hydropower? We need to carefully assess our total needs and implement the strategies that will insure our children and grandchildren have adequate supplies of fresh water.

Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer, columnist and the retired president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. To contact Don Brunell, email him at