From the Golden Gate to the Tower Bridge

One night, two events, two different views on managing California water
Last Wednesday night, folks interested in California water had two big public events to choose from. One was a slick and very political sales pitch; the other was a thoughtful discussion of science.
One event was held at the Sacramento Bee headquarters, and the other at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Both were happening at the exact same moment and the contrast between the two serves as fascinating bookends of an ongoing battle over how to best plan for California’s water future.
Restore the Delta was at both events. Here is our report.
At the Sacramento Bee event, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) Jeff Kightlinger spoke with Sacramento Bee Editor Dan Morain about California Water broadly and especially the Delta Tunnels plan (CA WaterFix) proposal.
The event was a notably one-sided affair denounced by Restore the Delta as a biased sales pitch, not the public debate one would expect from an objective news source. Weeks before, RTD offered experts to balance the event, but the Bee ignored those suggestions. In a one hour presentation, Restore the Delta executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, counted more than 40 half-truths, misstatements, lies, or deceptions.
Kightlinger began the evening with some positive comments about how MWD is “very supportive” of the Delta Reform Act and that the districts wants to restore 8,000 acres of habitat in the Delta. Yet, he forgot to mention that MWD has yet to meet habitat requirements under the 2008 biological opinions.
He also warned that action was needed soon on the Delta Tunnels because it will take a decade until water districts get even a drop of that water. The Tunnels, Kightlinger explained, were the only sensible project on the table, because desalination was not fiscally and physically realistic. He forgot that the anticipated construction period for the tunnels is 14 years, and that climate change modeling by USGS shows that the Sacramento River watershed will be drier in the years to come. There will be less water for export.
Eventually, even Delta Tunnel opponents will to have to admit, Kightlinger explained, that we are not going to get universal consensus on the Tunnels and at some point, “We have to say this gives the most value to the most people in the State and has to move forward.” Of course he forgot about the 4 million Delta residents who depend on adequate freshwater flows for many uses or that the San Francisco Bay, which supports millions more residents, depends on freshwater flows from the Delta. Might does not make right. And might doesn’t make water rights law, or overturn Clean Water Act protections.
When asked about protecting endangered species, Kightlinger said, “MWD is very supportive of the ESA, but the ESA is a fairly inflexibly piece of legislation.” Kightlinger failed to mention that the MWD lobbied to delist Delta smelt in Washington, DC during 2015.
Kightlinger said MWD is telling board members the Delta Tunnels are an upgrade and modernization of infrastructure and that it is a sound investment. It seems that he has forgotten to tell them about the declining Sacramento River watershed, and he certainly forgot to discuss with the audience any cost-benefit analysis considering the value of freshwater for the Bay-Delta estuary.
When asked why California voters will not get a vote on the Delta Tunnels as we did on the Peripheral Canal in 1982, he explained that it’s rare for people to weigh in on state projects (e.g. Bay Bridge) – it’s unprecedented to invite people who aren’t paying for a project to vote on it / or who aren’t beneficiares. He forgot about public votes on seismic upgrades to the Bay Bridge, or that people who to stand to lose from the project, might like to vote on the matter.
On funding, Kightlinger said revenue bonds will most likely be used to pay for the project and that the Tunnels will lift the same exact amount of water from the North Delta as is now taken from the South Delta. With the Tunnels, he claimed, water exports will interfere less with tidal flow “technically returning the Delta to its prehistoric condition” of brackish water. Here, he forgot to mention: the State Water Board hearing calling for more flows through the Delta, the Delta Reform Act calling for reduced reliance on the Delta, or that the interior Delta was primarily the freshwater end of the estuary – that’s why farmers settled here.
When asked why SoCal legislators won’t engage like NorCal legislators on Tunnels, Kighlinger said, “No comment.” This was perhaps his most honest statement of the night.
When asked how will the terms of paying for the Tunnels work, Kightlinger said if Westlands gets 25 percent of water from tunnels they would pay 25 percent of the cost. He doesn’t see MWD saying they will pay for Big Ag’s share because it’s not politically feasible. He forget to mention that Fitch Credit services reported the other day that Westlands will acquire hundreds of millions of dollars of debt from the settlement requiring them to clean up drainage impaired lands, leaving little extra cash flow for a Delta Tunnels project which will cost them billions.
Kightlinger said we have to build the Tunnels to deal with this problem of sea level rise and that Delta islands cannot survive climate change. He said the Delta Tunnels are part of a long-term solution. He forgot to mention that decisions will need to be made first at the coast on how we will manage the region for sea level rise before deciding on how to manage the Delta. He also failed to mention that recent reports show that if we do not get our act together regarding climate change and sea level rise, the Delta Tunnels will be under ocean water.
San Francisco
At the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco a completely different discussion was taking place.
The panel included three experts who are grappling with climate science and California’s water future.
Noah Diffenbaugh, Associate Professor, School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University said that many scientists are currently examining whether global warming is influencing drought in California. They conclude, it is.
We now get warm years, year after year. When that mixes with low precipitation years, we are moving towards more droughts. Diffenbaugh sees a connection between the amount of ice in the arctic and the circulation of the atmosphere. Record low Arctic ice and drought in California seem to be connected. As the Arctic warms, it changes the balance and flow of our weather. Since California gets a majority of our rainfall from just a few storms, any changes can create big trouble for our economy and ecology. Diffenbaugh explained that if La Nina, continues to develop in the Pacific, the odds tip towards the winter of 2016 being dry.
When asked what solutions he saw, Diffenbaugh mentioned that the emerging “Internet of Things” technology could help improved our information collection on water use data in aggregate while remaining anonymous about specific users. He mentioned lawn retirement as a good idea that has been helpful in Southern California. He also supports better science that links modern weather forecasting technology with an update to regulations for dam operations/flood control.
Karen Ross, the California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary, confirmed that the drought was hitting California farms. In places with no access to groundwater land was being fallowed. Ross explained that in a normal year, California agriculture relies on groundwater for 30 percent of its water supply, but during the drought farms have been drawing 60 percent of their supply from groundwater.
Farmers are shifting to higher-value crops that can’t grow everywhere. Less cotton and alfalfa is being grown as farmers are now seeking salt and drought-tolerant crops. Some crops have made great progress with underground drip watering like tomatoes, but alfalfa remains one of the biggest water users in the state because it is thirsty and harvested so many times a year.
Her lessons from the drought? Conservation really works and really hasn’t impacted our lifestyle very much. She also learned that drought really impacts environmental justice communities who get hit hardest as wells go dry.
Peter Gleick, Co-founder, Pacific Institute also spoke at the San Francisco event.
Gleick warned the audience that the drought is not over. We had only an average rain year in 2015, the snowpack was a little below average and melted very fast. As the climate changes, Gleick said, we may see crops change and more lands retired from farming over the long term.
Asked if moving to a water market would make a difference, he said markets work, but water in California is given out by water rights, not markets. Changing that system would be quite a political feat.
When asked if agriculture is doing enough to save water, Gleick said, “None of us are.” We could grow more food with far less water if we adopt better technology and consider new crops. That is the inevitable future for us all. For urban water districts, repairing infrastructure, increasing conservation, using smarter appliances, and water recycling would all help.
Gleick called for more open source data on who uses water and what they use it for. It will provide a better tool for decision-making.
When asked about his lessons from the drought, Gleick said he was shocked by how hard California’s ecosystems were hit during the drought from vanishing fish species to dying trees in the Sierra Nevada. He noted that energy production shifted away from hydro and towards natural gas during the drought.
In the future, Gleick predicts we are not likely to build more dams. But through better water technology for agriculture, stormwater capture, and water recycling he envisions a future when wastewater treatment plants will be renamed “water recovery plants.”
Gleick pointed to hopeful signs emerging in water recycling, especially in coastal communities and groundwater replenishment projects in Southern California. On the economics of water, Gleick said that a billion dollars spent on efficiency and recycling will produce far more water than a billion spent on desalinization plants like the one San Diego recently built.
When asked whether California is headed for a megadrought? Gleick answered, “Maybe.” So we should start planning now. Uncertainty is a challenge for the state’s water system built on the predictable arrival of snow and rain.
What was notable at the scientific panel in San Francisco, is that when climate change is considered, none of the experts mentioned the Delta Tunnels as a viable or smart solution to our long-term problems.
Meanwhile, at the Sacramento event, the Delta Tunnels were being sold as the only solution, and a newspaper was hosting the sales pitch.

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