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California Allocates $3 Billion For New Water Storage Projects


California is getting ready to write some big checks to deal with future drought. The state just awarded more than $2.5 billion for new water storage projects that could help keep fruits and vegetables on dinner tables nationwide. Lauren Sommer reports from member station KQED in San Francisco that this marks a major shift in the way the state is thinking about water.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Here's the basic problem with water in California. Most of the rain and snow falls in the very northern part of the state. The rest is relatively dry. This was painfully obvious to state planners a century ago.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A new California...

SOMMER: People were flocking to the state.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Their need for water became greater and ever greater.

SOMMER: So began the golden age of dam building.


SOMMER: Huge concrete walls went up to capture rivers. Canals stretched across the state.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One of the greatest engineering and construction achievements of the modern age.


SOMMER: And some don't want to see that era end.

MARIO SANTOYO: We're trying to build these things not for us, in particular, but for our children.

SOMMER: Mario Santoyo is director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority, a group created to build a dam. Right now, he's standing on the shore of a reservoir in California's Central Valley

SANTOYO: Built back in the late '40s because this is, for all practical purposes, one of the best prime agricultural areas in the world.

SOMMER: Pretty much all of the country's almonds, pistachios and raisins come from here. And Santoyo says to keep those crops growing, California needs another dam upriver. California voters passed a big bond in 2014 to help pay for water. So Santoyo's group applied for a billion dollars in funding, but the state said not so fast. You're only eligible for a fraction of that.

SANTOYO: It was a major blow for us 'cause we didn't see it coming.

RACHEL ZWILLINGER: The bond was really clear - to fund the projects that could provide the most public benefits.

SOMMER: Rachel Zwillinger works on water policy for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group. She says in the past, bonds were largely about building stuff to store water. But the 2014 bond can only fund projects that do more than that, like help with flood control or endangered species. To her, it's a sign that California is learning from its past.

ZWILLINGER: We didn't really think about and perhaps understand the impact that these dams would have on the environment. We've seen native wildlife species crashing.

SOMMER: Like endangered salmon. And Zwillinger says the water in most rivers is already spoken for. So even if a new dam captures water, most of it belongs to someone else. Now California is trying to fund more innovative projects.

I don't really smell anything.

CHRISTOPH DOBSON: Yeah, so you might expect it to be pretty smelly at a wastewater treatment plant.

SOMMER: Christoph Dobson is walking around Sacramento Sewage Treatment Plant. He's the director of policy and planning at Regional San, the company that runs it.

DOBSON: Right now, we are in the middle of the EchoWater Project construction area. So...

SOMMER: The plant is getting a major upgrade. And when it's done, the treated wastewater coming out of this plant will be much cleaner.

DOBSON: It is not potable, so you can't drink it. But you can do a lot with it.

SOMMER: Just a few miles from here are acres of farmland - grapes, alfalfa, almonds.

DOBSON: So why not reuse this water?

SOMMER: California awarded $280 million to build a pipeline that will get this recycled water to farmers who will use it on their fields. Dobson says not long ago, a creative solution like this would never have been in the same league as giant dams. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "SUGAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.