With the San Luis Reservoir serving as a backdrop, Assemblyman Adam Gray renewed on his call for an audit of California’s entire water regulatory system.

Gray and State Sen. Anna Caballero hosted a summit of top state, federal and Valley water managers on June 17 at Grasslands Water District.

Gray was scheduled to attend the summit, but when Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, he asked Gray and Caballero to host the Friday meeting. 

“We’ve got a broken system,” said Gray. “All of the talk about conservation and efficiency, those are short-term solutions. What about the long term? How do we have water security for our state’s future? That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”

“Until we understand how, where and why the system is broken, we can’t begin to fix it,” said Gray, explaining his March request for a top-to-bottom examination of the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board. 

Caballero echoed Gray’s concern, noting the colossal miscalculations in 2021 that led DWR to mistakenly release enough water to supply every household in the entire Bay Area for a year after grossly miscalculating Sierra runoff. The runoff was much lower, contributing to difficulties brought on by the drought that has worsened this year.

“Why isn’t the state using the LIDAR system?” Caballero asked DWR Director Karla Nemeth. Agencies like Turlock Irrigation District and others using the light detection and ranging system accurately predicted runoff, allowing them to help store enough water to supply area farmers and residents of 23 Bay Area cities, including San Francisco. “We would have known that (runoff was diminished) if we had LIDAR.”

The Water Board’s only Valley member, Dorene D’Adamo, spoke of similar frustrations. “We want to see information from models not based on the last 100 years, but based on what conditions are now.” 

The San Luis Reservoir is an integral part of California’s water system, benefiting the Westside, as well as a long stretch from San Diego to San Francisco. Built to help feed 17 million Californians by furnishing water for farming, the system is now under enormous pressure to provide water for cities, threatened wildlife and farming. 

“If we’re going to find more water for California — for farmers, for the environment, for people to drink — we’ve got to have a lot more projects like this,” said Gray.

Prior to the summit on Friday, guests marked the expansion of the reservoir and the 120th birthday of the Bureau of Reclamation. Already the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States, the crest of Sisk Dam will rise 10 feet to 392 feet, creating an additional 130,000-acre feet of storage and bringing reservoir capacity to 2,170,000 acre feet. The $100 million project will add “stability berms” for seismic safety for Westside communities. 

Kennedy Hill is where President John F. Kennedy joined California Gov. Pat Brown to break ground on the original 3.5-mile dam in 1962. 

At the San Luis groundbreaking, DWR’s Nemeth applauded California’s leaders from 60 years ago. “They had a vision of California’s future and they acted on that vision. Now it’s up to us to execute on projects that will provide water security for the future and for 40 million Californians.” 

Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, noted that a very wet 2019 left the 54 reservoirs in the federal CVP and State Water Project system virtually full. But only two years later, farmers will get zero allocations because most of that water has been used for environmental benefits. 

Meanwhile, “we fallowed 267,000 acres in Westlands alone,” said Birmingham. 

Ric Ortega, who manages the Grassland Water District, said it’s not just agriculture suffering. “Habitat (projects are) also fallowing record amounts of acreage,” he said. “Millions of birds are going to pass over the Sacramento Valley and land right on us” without enough food or water to support them. 

“This is a conversation we’re having in every major river basin in the West,” said the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton. “If we do nothing on the Colorado River, we’ll hit dead-pool in 2 years. That’s how bad it is across the west.” Then she spoke of the consequences: “If the farm goes, then the industry it supports goes, too.”