Delta Flows: November 26, 2013

“Much of this is based on engineering science rather than experience.”
– Dr. Jerry Meral on the subject of earthquakes in the Delta

Boring financial details

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) told Westlands Water District that it would need $162 million from them over the next three years for pre-construction planning for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) Peripheral Tunnels, according to an 11/21/13 posting on Lloyd Carter’s blog, Chronicles of the Hydraulic Brotherhood.

BDCP planners have admitted that the engineering design for this massive boondoggle is only 10% complete, after over six years and close to $200 million dollars.  DWR Director Mark Cowin put total pre-construction planning costs at $500 million over the next three years.  DWR wants $250 million each from State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors.

David Houston, a former Bureau of Reclamation regional director and now a bond underwriter for Citibank/Citigroup, told Westlands directors that the $14.925 billion cost that BDCP planners are estimating for the tunnels facility would probably be closer to $18 billion, given inflation in construction costs.

In October, California Natural Resources Agency spokesman Richard Stapler told The Record’s Alex Breitler that each day of delay in releasing the plan equaled a cost of about $100,000 to DWR and to the public water agencies expected to pay for the bulk of the project, all of whom must maintain a staff of biologists, planners, and other experts.

Jobs have certainly been created by this project.  In 2009, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded an ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) grant for $3.95 million to DWR for the Delta Habitat Conservation and Conveyance Program (DHCCP) Investigation.  (DHCCP is the umbrella program for BDCP.)  Jobs created included various levels of engineers, scientists, technicians, and contracts staff.

Dr. Meral in “Superior California”

It is always interesting to watch Deputy Resources Secretary Dr. Jerry Meral work an audience.  He has the most affable and persuasive way of making the most questionable assertions.  And he can say “You’re right” to a questioner, then effortlessly frame what the questioner said in a way that may not actually agree at all.  Dr. Meral’s November 18 presentation to the Redding City Council, a region he referred to there as “Superior California,” provides an interesting example of his rhetorical skills.  It also gives us an opportunity to point out some of the most egregious misrepresentations in BDCP messaging.

He said that BDCP is like a local habitat conservation plan where a local government sets some land aside for endangered species in order to develop the rest.  He noted that California has never before had an aquatic conservation plan.  But that’s not the only way this plan is different than a local HCP.  In the first place, BDCP involves interests in one part of the state making plans to develop another part of the state.  (Sort of like carpetbaggers.)

Creating aquatic habitat is fraught with uncertainties.  Also, setting land aside is only part of the strategy, and not even the most important.  Said Meral, “Once we know what the rules are to comply with the [State and federal] Endangered Species Acts, then we’ll know how much water we’ll have to serve throughout the State of California.”  Sounds right.  But if they’ll know that once they have the rules, they clearly don’t have them now.  It’s too bad that BDCP wants to build the Peripheral Tunnels before they know how much water they will have.

Meral’s very first map was misleading, with amorphous red blobs showing the agricultural regions of California to be in the center of the lower San Joaquin Valley and in what he identified as the Imperial Valley (but what was actually the entire southeast desert region of California).  No Sacramento Valley ag, no coastal ag, no Delta ag – no ag in California anyplace that still has local access to surface water for irrigation. Meral called California’s system for moving water “The most important water conveyance structure in the world—although the Chinese are catching up to us here.”  Does he mean the Chinese mega-dam-building program that is blocking the flow of rivers, increasing the chances of earthquakes, destroying the environment, and displacing millions of people?  Is that a competition California should aspire to?

Meral said that the name of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan has been deceptive, since the plan is really about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  Yes, the early pretense that BDCP would address the whole Estuary and Bay was quickly abandoned, a fact of which the Bay Area is now becoming aware.

After mentioning all the important infrastructure in the Delta, Dr. Meral said that the levees were built on poor foundations of peat and clay in a casual way by the farmers who originally reclaimed the islands.  No mention of all the investments in levee upgrades by reclamation districts and government since that original levee building.  When levees fail, the State and federal governments repair them (“Your tax dollars at work”) with some local share, and then they go back into farming again.  It cost millions of dollars to repair Jones Tract.  Well, yes, but it had to be done, didn’t it? to protect all that infrastructure Dr. Meral mentioned.  And the need for levee maintenance won’t end with the construction of tunnels because the infrastructure isn’t going to be moved, people in the Delta region will still need flood protection, and BDCP itself still wants to move water through instead of under the Delta half the time.

This brought Meral to the matter of a summer levee failure when salt water would come into the Delta from the Bay and affect export water quality.  He mentioned the Andrus and Brannan Island levee failures in the summer of 1972. This is an interesting choice of example, since the breach in that case was closed in a month, and salinity conditions in the Delta were back to pre-break levels in about 6 weeks.  However, 35% of Isleton was flooded.  People in the Delta suffer directly from levees failures, which is why efforts to protect them cannot just be abandoned.

(We’ll also observe here that millions of Californians live in regions that are occasionally threatened by natural disasters: forest fires, mudslides, earthquakes, floods.  In pushing for the Peripheral Tunnels, BDCP has promoted a very grudging attitude toward the costs of protecting Delta residents and property.  This is especially unfortunate because reclamation districts and other public agencies in the region itself take considerable responsibility for that protection.  In addition, millions of Californians benefit from reliable infrastructure in the Delta.) 

Then it was time for the animated USGS earthquake simulation that shows spreading red in the Delta as dozens of levees collapse.  (“Many people predict that as many as 20 islands will fail at once.”)  Meral mentioned liquefaction in the Marina District during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and levee failures in Kobe, Japan.  “Many people” predict all kinds of alarming events. Anything is always possible.  But as a matter of fact, pictures of levees following the Kobe earthquake show surface collapse, but the levees themselves did not fail.  That is because liquefiable material under levees was confined.  It hasn’t been demonstrated that all the material under Delta levees is either unconfined or liquefiable.  Proper foundation compression and staging of levee construction can maximize the ability of levees to withstand seismic activity.  “Fat levees” are already being built to standards that will make them resistant to earthquakes.  That has to be done because, again, hundreds of thousands of people in the Delta region and billions of dollars in infrastructure of statewide economic value—including water transfer channels–have to be protected.

Redding Mayor Bossetti asked how many islands have failed in any of the earthquakes since the 19th century.  Meral ignored the “since the 19th century” part of the question and jumped right to the last earthquake of large size, Loma Prieta.  He had to admit that shaking in the Delta was limited in that case because the earthquake was on the Peninsula rather than on the closer Hayward Fault.  But he used the opportunity to note that Loma Prieta is the only major earthquake we have had since we had the problem of islands going below sea level.  “When the 1907 earthquake occurred, all the islands were pretty much at sea level,” so we didn’t have this liquefaction problem.  Actually, a 1985 article on Delta Earthquake Damage published in California Geology by Michael Finch of DWR says that “Much of the Delta was already below sea level during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake.”  And wouldn’t we expect those early nonengineered levees to liquefy if Delta levees were likely to do that at all?

Back to the USGS animation with its spreading red indicating salt water coming into the Delta.  “It would take a long time to repair the islands, pump them out, get fresh water going again.  How long we don’t really know.  We’ve never had a multi-island failure of this type.  Certainly more than six months, could be up to three years, if enough failures occurred, it could be ten years.”  Whoa!  Are we talking about getting fresh water flowing through the Delta again?  With some strategic levee repairs, Delta outflows could take care of that in a few months.  This is a good example of Dr. Meral and BDCP planners employing any scenario—worst case or best case—that justifies what they want to do.


Redding Councilmember Cadd wanted to know about the effects of drought on sea water intrusion.  Wasn’t there quite a lot of salt water claiming in the past?  Yes, said Dr. Meral, before we had dams to release freshwater into the Delta “we had noticeable salt water at the I Street bridge in Sacramento.”  How often?  In summer and in dry years, apparently.  Now, though, “Folsom, Oroville, and Shasta control water quality to meet the water rights of the farmers in the Delta. . . .  In late summer in a very dry year, their water rights begin to expire.”

BIG whoa!  Note the ease with which Dr. Meral turned three of California’s largest water supply, hydroelectric, recreation, and flood control structures into facilities for controlling salinity for Delta farmers.

Councilmember Cadd persisted:  Is it all that big a problem if salt water comes into the Delta?  Generally not, said Dr. Meral, because we operate upstream dams to keep it out when we need to serve the farmers in the Delta.  Wait!  We operate upstream dams for many purposes, not the least of which is releases for FISH.  And summer and dry year releases are made to benefit all downstream users, especially THE EXPORT CONTRACTORS.

Councilmember Cadd suggested that we might be trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable; salt water intrusion has always been a problem in the Delta and will always be a problem.  He would be right if, as Meral suggested, the main purpose for releasing water from upstream dams was to keep salt water out of the Delta for the benefit of Delta farmers. 

Councilmember Cadd changed the subject and introduced the four big water issues now under discussion at the State level:  Raising Shasta Dam, building Sites Reservoir, building the Peripheral Tunnels, and passing the Water Bond.  He suggested that these are not really separate issues.

Without exactly agreeing, Dr. Meral mentioned listed, threatened, endangered species and said that we need to maintain a cold water pool in Shasta Dam for releases to repel salt to protect smelt.

Mayor Bossetti wanted to know what the smelt did before we had dams.  Said Dr. Meral, “They’re generally adapted to variability in the salt.  They tend to rely on high outflow in the spring, which we naturally had before we had the dams.”  And “The salmon without the dams of course did better.”  Here, Dr. Meral was on shaky ground with this audience.  So he changed the subject.

“We had a [fish] crash in part due to invasion of different organisms.  Fish did fairly well at the beginning of this century.”  Which century does he mean?  Fish have done increasingly badly for the last 30 years.  “We’ve changed the environment a lot, and now we’re trying to restore a little bit of it.”

Dr. Meral showed a picture of San Luis Reservoir down to 15%  full  and introduced the idea of taking a “big gulp” in wet years.  No mention of the fact that water exporters have developed a need for big gulps every yearNo mention of the lack of facilities south of the Delta to store big gulps now; that isn’t part of the BDCP plan.

He called earthquake protection an “incidental benefit” of the conservation plan to protect species; with the tunnels, if there were an earthquake, we would still be able to export some water.  Assuming that there is enough water.  He said that the new fish screens in the North Delta would be like the ones councilmembers could see at the Red Bluff diversion dam.

Councilmember Cadd wanted to verify the capacity of the tunnels.  “The tunnels,” said Dr. Meral, in utter contradiction of BDCP’s own documents, “could carry 9,000 cubic feet per second.”  This is “a few percent” of the Sacramento River’s maximum flow during a flood, or most of the flow sometimes.  In fact, Dr. Meral knows perfectly well that the two tunnels have a combined capacity of 15,000 cfs.  They’ve scaled back the number of intakes to a total of 9,000 cfs and plan to use gravity flow rather than pumping to get the water into the tunnels.  (The mechanics of the operation are still unclear.)  But the 15,000 cfs tunnel capacity will be there if these tunnels are actually built.

According to Dr. Meral, NMFS (the National Marine Fisheries Service) has told BDCP that if the flow of the river is 4,000 cfs, they can only divert 400 cfs.  If it is 10,000 cfs, they can take 1000 cfs.  (“I’m making up a few numbers,” he said.)  “You could never take even a third of the river.  Most of the time it’s only ten percent because we’re trying to protect the fish coming downstream.”  No, you’re going to try to maximize exports.  If the objective of this project were to protect fish, there are other ways to do it.  Furthermore, if BDCP were in a situation where they could only divert 400 cfs in the North Delta, they would be making maximum use of the pumps in the South Delta that rely on through-Delta flows.  We already know that South Delta pumping is not good for fish.

Councilmember Cadd was concerned about the cost.  No one up here would have to pay, Dr. Meral assured him.  Regarding reservoir operations, “We decided we would not do anything to affect the operation of these reservoirs.”  Shasta, Trinity, Folsom don’t have to worry about any effects on recreation, power generation, water rights, or flood control.  Oroville will be affected slightly during part of the year.

But “With less snow fall, reservoir operations will change.”  Yes.

Is it possible that upstream users might have to provide extra water to further protect species?  Dr. Meral said that the project is a protection to the water rights holders of Northern California, and they hope the Water Board will say that BDCP does enough to protect species.  They hope.

Will water in the Yolo Bypass (a new use of an existing Delta feature) affect flood control?  They think not.  They think not.

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk noted that Shasta Dam was built on an earthquake fault line.  And speaking of earthquake faults, there is also one under San Luis Reservoir.  She mentioned the 1941 act of Congress that took Winnemem Wintu land and said the tribe still has water rights to be addressed.  There’s no protection for those water rights under BDCP.  Chief Sisk pointed out that the biological opinions that will govern BDCP are not in and that there is currently no guarantee that threatened and endangered fish would actually recover under BDCP.

In other public comments, Charles Alexander astutely asked why the state should build two 40-foot tunnels if the intention is to take such a small amount of water.

Dr. Meral mentioned the Water Board’s updates to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan and suggested that when that update is completed, there would be more water than there is today from the San Joaquin River.  Tell that to south-of-the-Delta San Joaquin River water users.  Westlands, he said, will not get any more water; users there will get stability.  “There’s no way that any more water will be taken out of the Delta under this plan than has been taken out historically.”  This is by no means reassuring.  Historically, almost twice as much water has been taken out of the Delta as BDCP claims it will take.

Councilmember Cadd observed that Sites Reservoir would be taking water out of the Sacramento at the same time as BDCP would be wanting to fill the tunnels with water going south.  He thinks they’ll inject the water into groundwater basins, then take it out to sell to Los Angeles or San Diego.  There are, he said, “too many questions for us here in Northern California.”  Dr. Meral said the Coordinated Operations Agreement governing the water projects would be amended.

He agreed with Cadd that new habitat in the Delta will need to accommodate sea level rise.  “We think that decaying tule marsh can keep up with rising sea level.”  We think.

“This is a slow process, a 50-year plan.  We think we can accommodate those problems.”  We think.

After a few more questions and some praise of Dr. Meral’s presentation by a couple of council members, the Council voted unanimously to accept the report.  But the Mayor told Meral that they wanted it in writing that Shasta and Trinity dam operations will not change.  Dr. Meral said they would have that.  But the Redding City Council would be foolish to be reassured.  When it comes to water, having protections in writing hasn’t protected holders of water rights when someone powerful downstream got thirsty.  It hasn’t protected the Winnemum Wintu.  And it hasn’t protected the Delta.

You can watch this presentation on Maven’s Notebook.

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