Jennifer Pierre wants more water

May 7, 2024


05/03/2024 07:30 PM EDT

Jennifer Pierre is disappointed.

Despite this year’s deep snowpack, record-setting rainstorms and consequently full reservoirs, the 27 water agencies she represents as general manager of the State Water Contractors are getting just 40 percent of their contracted deliveries, as we reported earlier this week.

We wanted to go a little deeper on how Pierre — one of the most seasoned observers of California’s perpetual water conflicts — sees this year’s supply, the longer-term economics of big water projects and whether she sees any end in sight for some of the state’s most intractable knots.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does this compare to previous years with a similar hydrology?

We’ve never seen this happen before. We had relatively sustained flows the entire season, and we could hardly export any of it. Usually, if there’s a year with this amount of snowpack, the allocations or the exports are slightly higher. We should be at least over 50 to be consistent with what’s available in the system. But the constraint is in the south Delta. The constraint is not the hydrology. It’s the south Delta. So the system’s not working.

You say this underscores the need for a tunnel that could circumvent the south Delta. But Metropolitan Water District, which supplies nearly half of Californians, saw a drop in water sales over the last two years that had at least one board member questioning whether there was even a need for additional supply. Do urban agencies really need the additional water the tunnel could provide?

The Delta Conveyance Project is really shoring up the reliability of the State Water Project. You could think of that as new water or you could think about as a restoration of what your reliability should have been.

Given the aridification of the Colorado River system, they’re projecting actual massive reductions in precipitation and water available in the system. In the Delta, what we’re seeing is a shift from snow to rain. My forecast is that there will be a greater demand on our ability to move essentially rainwater in the Bay Delta system. That is what the tunnel would provide benefits to, because it could actually move a portion of that water into storage. It’s not really about more water. It’s about how the system works.

Met hasn’t decided yet whether to fund more of the tunnel. Neither has the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Are enough state contractors going to get on board with the funding to make it happen?

Each agency has to make their own decision. But I do think that each individual contractor will ultimately decide that this is a project that’s worth continuing to fund and ultimately construct and operate. We’re going to see a lot of them starting to take those votes by the end of the year.

My read of the conversations that we have collectively is that this project becomes more and more obvious that it’s needed. The water that it provides is significantly more affordable than many of the other alternatives for many of our agencies, especially for urban agencies. And every day that goes by becomes more expensive, so the clock is ticking.

How many times a week do you have to make that pitch?

I think people are getting it now. What’s really fascinating is that probably 10 or 15 years ago, people said, ‘We don’t really need more storage. It’s not really the limiting factor in the system.’ And what we’ve seen in 2017, 2019, 2023, is that the wetter years are actually much wetter, and we don’t have a place to put that water. I don’t know that water managers were all thinking that way until probably in the last decade. And now I think it’s a race against the clock.

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