Delta Flows: October 17, 2013

History is a distillation of rumor.
– Thomas Carlyle

California Water 101: Flaws in the curriculum

Those of use who have been following the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) process are waiting with interest to see whether, and for how long, the federal government shutdown may have delayed release of the environmental documents for the plan, scheduled for November 15. (We are waiting to hear.)

Meanwhile, a lot of Californians who never heard of the Delta are getting various courses in California Water 101, frequently from the media or from different interests groups, some of them well-meaning. Lots more people in the state are beginning to notice that decisions about the Delta will affect them.

Unfortunately, the dominant narrative of California Water 101 gets a lot of important things wrong.

The Delta is NOT a giant bathtub waiting to fill at the first seismic event, depriving two-thirds of the state of freshwater for years; earthquakes in other parts of the state are a more serious threat to the reliable delivery of water.

All the important agriculture in the state is NOT in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The Delta and Northern California are also important agricultural regions, and they will become more important as climate change causes the already-arid southern San Joaquin Valley to heat up.

People in the Delta are NOT a bunch of whiny, greedy landowners who don’t want to share the water to which they have senior rights. They are part of a regional economy that includes recreational and commercial fishing as well as transportation and energy infrastructure of statewide importance. When promises made to in-Delta water users about water quality and availability were broken to enable water transfers, fish and the environment suffered as well.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is NOT primarily a conservation plan. It is a Peripheral Tunnel plan to gain greater access to high quality Sacramento River water for export, with enough conservation measures thrown in to try to convince permitting agencies that this can be done without further damaging the ecosystem. Planners have so far NOT been able to demonstrate to the fisheries agencies that BDCP will lead to the recovery of endangered species, as a habitat conservation plan must do. Creating more habitat in the Delta will NOT compensate for reduced flows of fresh water.

Beneficiaries of this plan do NOT intend to pay for it. The water contractors have been engaged in a series of strategies to shift costs to taxpayers. They’re counting on a water bond next year to help them do that.

Climate One ventures into the Delta

One recent California Water 101-type exploration of “fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta” was hosted in Sacramento by Climate One, a special project of San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. The program was presented in association with Capital Public Radio, which taped it and will air it November 7.

Predictably, Climate One did not include anyone FROM the Delta on the panel ABOUT the Delta.

Some highlights from the panelists they did find, responding to questions from moderator and Climate One founder Greg Dalton:

Jay Lund, Director of the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences (an a co-author of several Public Policy Institute of California – PPIC – reports), outlined the major water interest groups, but kind of glossed over southern San Joaquin Valley agriculture.

Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall said that the only consensus about water is for everyone to try to get as much water as they always have. “Nobody wants to give anything up. Most of the state wants to maintain the status quo.”

David Hayes, former Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Interior and now a visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Hewlett Foundation, introduced the “everyone agrees that the status quo is unsustainable” trope and went on to say that the first earthquake will cause Delta levees “to turn to soup.” (In public comments, Restore the Delta pointed out some of the economic reasons why writing off levees this way is not an adequate policy, and Dr. Lund agreed.)

Kip Lipper, chief policy advisor on energy, natural resources, and environment in the office of Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said there is an increasing political push for all regions of the state to manage their own water better. Asked if the tunnels should be built, he said that that would be determined by the permitting process.

Panelists generally agreed that it will be tough to ask anyone to invest in the tunnel project when no quantity of exports can be guaranteed and scientific certainty about operations is not possible. Boxall in particular pointed out that Westlands Water District and many irrigation districts are used to relying on large amounts of cheap, subsidized water. If the tunnels aren’t economically worthwhile to them, the whole project falls apart. And there was really no good answer to Restore the Delta’s question about a cost-benefit analysis for a no-tunnel option.

There was some talk about mandated restrictions on agricultural water use and the fact that California will have to grow less water-intensive crops. Hayes raised the issue of water marketing. He seemed to think that transfers from willing sellers north of the Delta to buyers south of the Delta was a win/win solution, suggesting that he is unfamiliar with the adverse effect of these kinds of transfers on aquifers in the north and the farmers who rely on them.

Everyone praised conservation in Los Angeles (and Restore the Delta agrees). Boxall correctly noted that urban Southern California does a much better job of using water wisely than, say, meterless Sacramento does. Water recycling and stormwater capture were discussed, but Hayes couldn’t let go of the “all the water is in the north and all the users are in the south” idea. “Decentralized” doesn’t seem to be a notion that he cares to consider.

Somebody thought there were nine or so alternatives to the tunnels being considered. Uh, no, not seriously. BDCP planners have put all their eggs in the tunnel basket.

Everyone seemed to agree that for the future, we are all looking at higher prices and greater uncertainty about supplies.

As to what Californians can do if they decide they don’t like this whole plan, Lipper noted that next year is an election year, and people can be voted out of office. Unfortunately, until the prevailing narrative about the Delta shifts to something more in line with the realities of water availability, voting out one batch of politicians and voting another batch in is probably not going to help.

The program was “generously underwritten” by Climate One supporters the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation and the Pisces Foundation, which supports efforts to reduce global climate change (as well as “integrated, solutions-oriented approaches and new models that will measurably improve water management.”)

A few things to keep in mind about S.D. Bechtel, CHM2Hill, and corporate contractors

While we are busy tracking those water districts that are pushing for the BDCP and ever increasing yields in water exports from the Delta, we also need to reflect on the history of those infrastructure corporations involved in California water planning. In particular, we encourage our readers to do a little internet poking to examine how some of these involved players in the BDCP, the Delta Plan, and other supporting Delta projects will profit from the State’s master plan for managing the Delta. In particular, we think it’s worth reflecting on the lack of results accomplished by these entities in various arenas, especially in consideration of the tax payer dollars spent.

For instance, as reported in a NY Times article in 2007:

One of the largest American contractors working in Iraq, Bechtel National, met its original objectives on fewer than half of the projects it received as part of a $1.8 billion reconstruction contract, while most of the rest were canceled, reduced in scope or never completed as designed, federal investigators have found in a report released yesterday.

This article goes on to explain how sewer projects were left unfinished in Iraq, despite receiving full payment of the $1.8 billion. And of course, we cannot forget Bechtel’s ties to water privatization in Bolivia and throughout the world.

CHM2Hill also has its own extensive history of incomplete work at tax payer expense in Iraq, New Orleans, and most recently in Georgia. Known as a “rent-a-government” firm, several municipalities learned the hard way that they could manage their own services for millions of dollars less than what they were paying to CHM2Hill.

When we look at the work history of these corporate players, and we consider their potential involvement in establishing and managing Delta habitat and the actual tunnels, we shudder. Under their managerial hand, we will not only lose our fisheries for good, but our communities will be left uninhabitable, and Californians across the state will be left paying the bill for zero benefits.

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