By Tito Sasaki
California is under siege of drought. Emergency regulations are popping up almost daily. Yet, legislators, at this time of writing, still haven’t agreed on a water bond to put on the November ballot.
This crisis basically stems from the past half-century’s neglect to invest in the water storage and conveyance infrastructure. Of the 37 California reservoirs with a capacity of over 200,000 acre-feet (AF), only six were completed after 1970. Lake Sonoma (381,000 AF), which opened in 1982, is one of these few.
Water released from Lake Sonoma runs through Dry Creek. When a “biological opinion” was issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the salmon habitat in the Creek, it called for a severe reduction in the summer flow there. This jeopardized the system’s ability to meet the peak season water demands. In response, Sonoma County Water Agency has been working to create better habitat protection in Dry Creek while minimizing the reduction in its conveyance performance.
Despite this problem, it is instructive now that Dry Creek and downstream are spared from the current curtailment of water rights. Vineyards along Russian River upstream of the Dry Creek confluence weren’t so lucky. All junior rights holders are now prohibited from using water from the upper Russian River. Most of the water there comes from the much smaller and antiquated (122,400 AF, 1959) Lake Mendocino.
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built both Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, sees the widening gap between the water infra-structure investment needs and the forecast appropriation. Nationwide, they need $23.5 billion just to finish the existing projects. They have only $1.5 billion to spend this year. Their recourse? Public-Private Partnership (P3).
The Corps recently started exploring private investment options for their projects, as authorized by the June 10 enactment of the Water Resources Reform & Development Act. P3 is not limited to private capital investment in public projects. It can encompass the whole or part of the design, construction, operation, maintenance and management of public-purpose facilities. It has been used for highway, bridge, airport and other projects, including Sonoma County’s solid waste management.
But, this is new territory for many. Private businesses are more attuned to zero-sum games than to win-win relations. Few bureaucrats have expertise in making business partnership deals that respect private decision-making and operational structures essential for efficiency.
For a P3 project to succeed, the public agency must maximize public benefit; the private party must secure profit to sustain its social contribution; and there have to be strong incentives for both to perform. We need new minds that skillfully blend these goals and nurture an offspring of oft-quarrelsome parents. It may take time, but it is possible.
To many, P3 used to mean the venerable maritime patrol plane, Lockheed P-3 Orion. It was a flying turret of electronic, magnetic, acoustical, and electro-optical sensors mounted on the jinxed Lockheed Electra airframe. Today, P3 more likely means the new ways of rescuing infrastructures that have been neglected by policy-makers in favor of entitlement, welfare, social and environmental spending.
The new P3 can be a turret of innovative tools mounted on the jinxed public spending pattern shaped by unsustainable priorities.