LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The snow melt provides most of the water that flows into the Colorado River. However, in California capturing rainfall is another option to save water to help the crisis on the Colorado River.
No year provides a more stark illustration of this than 2023, during which has already seen about twice as much rain as a normal year. This means a massive amount of water has flowed out to sea, never to be captured and never to be used to help combat the water crisis.
“There’s been very little dams built in California recently,” Bill Hasencamp said, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million southern Californians.
Indeed, California has not built a dam or reservoir – more or less – in 40 years. Near the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, politicians and voters have been arguing about the so-called Sites reservoir for decades. As of now, the project remains stagnant, but it could cost taxpayers almost $4 billion.
The Sites project, and the concept of building new dams in general, have raised environmental concerns.
“So building new dams is something that society at large is a little bit more skeptical than they’ve been in the past,” Hasencamp said.
In southern California – Los Angeles County, for instance – 14 major dams collect much of the stormwater from mountains and other precipitous terrains. Officials there said they have no plans to build more dams.
“Yeah, we aren’t building new dams,” Sterling Klippel, L.A. County’s principal stormwater engineer said. “But we’re retrofitting the dams to make sure that they can capture as much as possible.”
On a tour of the Big Tujunga Dam at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Klippel boasted about a $100 million project to modernize that manmade marvel situated in the middle of mother nature. That money ensures that it meets seismic standards in California so that it can withstand the maximum credible earthquake or flood event.
“We’ve replaced the valves that allow the water to pass through,” Klippel said. “We’ve upgraded electrical systems, we’ve upgraded control systems, all the mechanical systems.”
Klippel said engineers in L.A. County are exploring the possibility of raising Big Tujunga in order to capture more water in wet years, like 2023.
The need for water storage is greater during wet years, but the existence of wet years is no guarantee. In fact, California has not seen a wet year since 2019, and 2017 before that. 2018, 2020, 2021, and 2022 were all dry years, which helped contribute to Lake Mead and Lake Powell being at their lowest levels ever.
“What we need is that storage to carry water over from one wet year to the subsequent dry years, because those the variations seem to be increasing through time,” Hasencamp said.
Hasencamp said storage programs across California are helping ensure stormwater gets captured, even if new dams are not the answer. Underground storage solutions and new groundwater storage programs in southern California are helping with those efforts.
“We do have the storage available to us,” Hasencamp said. “But we had to be creative in coming up with it rather than building new dams.”