Dennis Wyatt

Water is a mirage in California.

We tend to see what we want to see.

In my case, the biggest illusion was Auburn Dam.

If you were a resident of Placer County in the 1960s to 1980s you viewed it as almost as a birthright that the American River be dammed in the canyon below Auburn.

The fact that a previously unknown earthquake fault was detected running right beneath where work had started on the dam’s foundation wouldn’t shake your faith that the dam thing needed to be built.

The proposed 2.3-million-acre feet of water storage — just 100,000-acre feet less than New Melones on the Stanislaus River — was the last big dam envisioned for the Central Valley Water Project.

It was supposed to do wonderful things such as combine water captured behind Auburn Dam to allow deep plowing in the valley floor west of Roseville and Lincoln to turn it into a productive farming area rivaling segments of the San Joaquin Valley.

The real reason why Auburn Dan didn’t make sense from a water storage standpoint as opposed to a flood control perspective is simple. The hydrology on the American River watershed wasn’t adequate enough to consistently fill the proposed dam as well as Folsom Dam below it and Hell Hole and French Meadows reservoirs above it.

Hydrology does matter.

It is why New Melones Reservoir is the proverbial canary in the mine when it comes to state water policy wedded with the return of megadroughts is taking California.

Using historical hydrology data on the Stanislaus River basin between 1922 and 2019:

*Based on current regulatory rules New Melones Reservoir would fall below 250,000-acre feet of storage in 3 out of the 98 years.

*Hydrologists point to data that indicates the period between the mid-1700s and the mid-1900s was abnormally wet in the area we refer today as California and the Southwest.

*The return to the natural megadrought cycle punctured with a year or several strung together with normal or above average precipitation is not taken into account on models using hydrology data gleaned between 1922 and 2019 on the Stanislaus River Bason.

*New Melones is the most overcommitted component of the Central Valley project in terms of water deliveries. The water promised in federal contacts in the 1970s was far more than the hydrology of the basin historically could deliver.

Eschewing climate change as we define it today, what we know about megadroughts every other water basin that is dammed in California will be channeling New Melones.

It is why the cry for building more big dams from people who take water for granted until drought starts forcing them to let their eye candy front yard look less green is akin to investing heavily in livery stables when the horseless carriage was taking off.

Hydrology models support the concept during megadroughts that there will be less snow in the higher elevations coupled with warmer temperatures and more rain in the lower elevations and valley floor. The net precipitation will be lower overall.

That means off-stream reservoirs such as San Luis near Los Banos and the proposed Sites in western Colusa County are what we need to capture premature winter runoff as well as storm water.

It also underscores the needs for endeavors such as forced flooding of orchards and such with storm runoff in the winter to recharge water tables.

If one looks at water in California when the cup is full or rising closer to the brim you start to grasp truths that are more complicated than the endless dramas California engages in such as north versus south, farms versus urban users, tunnel versus Delta, and fish versus people.

And that goes for both sides of the coin.

The environmentalists were right about Auburn Dam but not primarily for the reasons they expressed which were all legitimate. The dam simply wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do. The infamous cost benefits would never pencil out including increased food production.

That said, environmentalists tend to down play what large reservoirs have been able to do. Simply put they have provided subsidized — read that inexpensive — water that in turn has increased food production per acre and allowed food to continue on a downward path in terms of relative cost for families.

The percentage of income spent on food in the United States for a typical household was 24.2 percent in 1930. It had dropped steadily to 9.5 percent by 2004. By 2020 it was up slightly to 9.9 percent. That is data gleaned from the USDA Economic Research Service.

Water development and storage has made it possible for most to eat well — including spending higher amounts on convenience dining whether it is delivery service or such.

That in turn has allowed us to spend money on everything from the latest iPhone to filling our closets with clothes that would make us seem to be channeling Imelda Marcos compared to Americans a century ago.

We also jump to the wrong conclusions about water.

That’s because we want to believe what we see in front of us so we can confirm our biases.

There are two prime examples.

One is the Crystal Springs Reservoir on the San Francisco Peninsula. It is always full even during periods of drought.  As such it would seem to commuters driving by from the drought-ravaged Northern San Joaquin Valley that the Bay Area isn’t doing their share.

Actually, Crystal Springs Reservoir is an end reservoir. It’s much like the three 500,000-gallon water tanks at Woodward Reservoir.

The City of San Francisco’s reservoirs higher up in the Sierra are sustainably depleted at places like Cherry Lake.

Unless San Francisco is down to its last few drops of water, Crystal Springs will always be full unless it is for maintenance or seismic-related issues.

Those who believe farmers are wasting water are also guilty of reading their bias into what they see.

The flood irrigation of almond orchards west and south of Manteca is a prime example.

It is that water that primarily recharges municipal water wells in Manteca and Lathrop.

Water is the ultimate hallucination in California.

Where one sees abundance there is actually dwindling water supplies.

And where one sees waste there is often a part of a greater scheme to provide water elsewhere.