West Coast
Floodwaters filled a Felton neighborhood in Santa Cruz County for a second time in less than a week after heavy rains from a series of atmospheric river storms swelled the San Lorenzo River above flood stage Jan. 14. (John Woolfolk/Bay Area News Group)

CA - Skelton: Uncaptured water isn’t wasted. But more could be stored

Uncaptured runoff flowing to the sea flushes pollutants out of rivers and bays

A gazillion gallons of stormwater have been rampaging down rivers into the sea. But that uncaptured bounty hasn’t been “wasted.”

“Wasted water” being dumped in the ocean is an old cliché that resurfaces whenever there’s a big storm in this weather-eccentric state — or during the inevitable dry periods when crops are thirsty and homeowners are told to shut off their lawn sprinklers.

But “wasted water” is a myth.

Uncaptured runoff flowing to the sea flushes pollutants out of rivers and bays, helping to cleanse water for local domestic use. It also saves many kinds of fish, including salmon, not only for recreationists but  also for the coastal fishing industry. And it deposits sand on beaches.

In the vital Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, runoff pushes back saltwater from San Francisco Bay, making the relatively small amount of water that is captured potentially drinkable.

That’s the view of water scholars I’ve talked to recently. And it makes sense, particularly concerning flows through real rivers. That doesn’t necessarily include concrete-lined flood channels, such as the so-called Los Angeles River.

“Every drop of water flowing out of the Central Valley into San Francisco Bay creates benefits,” asserts Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California.

But he continues: “I want to be perfectly clear. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t harvest more.”

The issue of whether to capture and store more runoff or allow it to flow freely into the ocean is more controversial in Northern California, where there are bona fide rivers.

The Delta, fed by several rivers originating in the snow-covered mountains and flowing through the agriculture-rich Central Valley, is the source of drinking water for 27 million Californians and irrigation for 3 million acres of crops. The uncaptured water flows into San Francisco Bay and out through the Golden Gate into the Pacific.

“Most of this water is not just uncaptured — it’s uncapturable,” says Greg Gartrell, a Delta expert, independent consulting engineer and former assistant general manager of the Contra Costa Water District.

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