DELTA FLOWS: About a Cosmonaut and the Delta Conveyance Project

by Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst, Restore the Delta

After the Wednesday evening “climate change” edition webinar for the Delta Conveyance Project presented by the California Department of Water Resources, I found myself remembering the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.

In the spring of 1967, Komarov gave his life for the Soviet space “team.” When I was nine and a half, the Soviet Union sent Komarov into space in Soyuz 1, even though the Soviet leadership of their space agency and the political class knew that its rocket and space capsule had numerous design flaws that were not resolved before launch. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Premier at the time, wanted the mission to happen before May 1, 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, so they sent Komarov regardless. 

Komarov knew he was doomed. He was best friends with Yuri Gagarin, the first human and Soviet cosmonaut to reach space earlier that decade, and was designated the backup pilot to Komarov. Despite the well-known flaws and his certainty that he would not survive the mission, he did not back out because it would mean Gagarin, a national hero for his earlier flight, would be placed in harm’s way, and Komarov would not do that to his friend.

When Komarov was shot into space, one of his capsule’s solar panels failed to open properly. The Soviets soon decided to abort the rest of the mission and Soyuz 2 would return to earth. Before losing radio contact, the cosmonaut spent his remaining time alive clarifying personal affairs with his wife. As the capsule’s parachute became tangled in the tumbling capsule’s descent, and never opened, he screamed his rage at Soviet leaders who had sacrificed him. Soyuz 2 crashed into the earth in Soviet Asia, killing Komarov instantly.

I got to thinking about Komarov because the Department of Water Resources’ single-minded presentation about climate change exhibits bureaucratic inertia about the Delta Conveyance Project (DCP) that reminded me of what the Soviets had shown toward the life of cosmonaut Komarov. The DCP moves ahead on schedule because it must; reasonable, practical, and moral-ethical concerns be damned. And climate change is just an inconvenient variable DWR regards as something still vaguely subject to its control, especially if it can avoid having to think about the relationship of its reservoirs to actual climate change problems—like looming fish extinctions from loss of cold water pools, rising heat, and the emerging persistence of California climate refugees. The DCP is DWR engineering elevated to magical thinking.

DWR seems to believe from this presentation tonight that the major problems its DCP faces are whether and when there will be water in state and federal reservoirs in the north state, and whether sea-level rise in the Bay and Delta will affect its precious North Delta intakes. They’re preparing an environmental impact report, and they would only discuss methods of the report relating to climate change. There were no projections or other results to go over and talk about. 

As has been DWR’s preference in recent years, interactions with the public about its Delta tunnel obsession have grown increasingly beyond merely arm’s length to rely on a webinar format on Zoom (for obvious pandemic reasons, I am aware) in which interruptions from the audience of 129 (it was reported by Juliana Birkhoff of Ag Innovations, who emceed the meeting) are not only not tolerated but impossible to create, unlike a good old-fashioned public hearing. Q&A was possible in either written format or if staff determined there was time, two minutes per person max. 

DWR credited itself tonight with wanting to use the “best available science,” but on the other hand, they’re relying on the models based on the fifth IPCC global climate assessment on physical processes from 2013. Those have been adjusted (or “downscaled” from global to regional scales) so that places like California can examine impacts to their region. Then within those models, they consider scenarios that rely on different assumptions about whether global society will reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, or whether “business as usual” emissions will prevail in the near to distant future.

Last Monday, August 16, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth global climate assessment. Melissa Messerschmidt, representing ICF Consulting, a favored DWR environmental services contractor (and which coordinated the preparation of the California WaterFix/Bay Delta Conservation Plan environmental documents last decade), stated that they hoped to use model results from the new IPCC report, but other modelers were working to downscale those models to California, and it was not known when they would be finished.

But, it appeared that DWR would not alter the schedule so that it could rely on what is clearly now the best available climate change science. I guess that is what got me thinking about Vladimir Komarov.

DWR proudly mentioned that they were contributing to meeting the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan, which calls for a 60 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. That’s just over eight years away now. 

I asked was the plan was being monitored and evaluated to take account of wildfire smoke and the returning of pre-pandemic traffic levels around the state with the partial reopening of the economy and schools? Andrew Schwarz, who led the webinar’s discussion of climate change conditions, replied that he could not speak to the status of the state’s GHG reduction goal. “DWR’s plan is for just what it controls,” he said. DWR is a very large user of electricity, he acknowledged and added that while he recognizes that wildfires release a lot of carbon, that is part of the present-day carbon cycle and does not represent fossil-fuel emissions of GHGs. 

He was game to answer my question, at least, but his answer failed to acknowledge that Earth’s atmosphere does not distinguish between carbon and methane released from current carbon-cycle sources and carbon sourced from fossil fuels. For example, not all methane released into the atmosphere is “fossil” in origin. California has hundreds of thousands of cows in the San Joaquin Valley whose belches release methane into the atmosphere. Their methane hotspots are visible from space with the right satellite sensors. 

The basic point here is that DWR’s representatives could not bring themselves to acknowledge that perhaps their touting the state’s GHG reduction plan is not a winning card to play when wildfire smoke and cattle concentration camps undermine GHG emissions reductions, when not overwhelming what may be truly achieved in other economic sectors.

Mr. Schwarz also described temperature increases that have already occurred in California. This led me to ask after evaporative impacts of rising air temperatures were being factored into DWR’s water system modeling. I was assured that they would be. For now, at least, Schwarz acknowledged to another questioner that new storage is not presently included in their modeling efforts, and he sounded dubious that a reservoir like Sites in the western Sacramento Valley, would have much usefulness or impact on mitigating flood risk from climate change. 

Early today we at Restore the Delta received word of an intriguing study from watershed scientists at the University of California at Davis, arguing that cool and cold water temperatures seem to be better maintained in natural, less regulated rivers and streams in northern and central California watersheds than where dams dominate. Cool and cold water is critical for many native fish species, but especially each run of Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River basin (winter, spring, and fall). Where groundwater and flowing rivers are still connected, such as in the rivers and creeks of the northern Sacramento Valley, natural conditions still serve as habitat for spawning salmon. 

The sole exception, in their view, was Shasta Lake, a federal reservoir and dam. But it is doubtful that the study took into account of the attrition that has occurred in the 2021 cold water pool at Shasta under Trump-era rules of operation. Its authors argued that some dams may be better removed so that groundwater springs could feed free-flowing rivers and help conserve and restore native fisheries. Groundwater is cooler than reservoir water since it is stored and flows out of the sun’s heat. Imagine getting that kind of cold-water service for nearly free. 

A study like this pulls the rug out from under the state and local water managers’ sales pitch that new and existing reservoirs can be operated or re-operated to become sources of cold water pools as temperatures rise dramatically in the decades to come. 

Poppycock, as my father used to say. 

The larger and shallower the lake, the warmer its waters will be. The hotter and drier the air, the more such lakes will evaporate. The more such lakes evaporate in northern California, the less water there will be in an increasing number of years to deliver water to and from the Delta, whether there is a tunnel’s north Delta intakes are there nor not. If there are north Delta intakes, it will mean that we failed to stop a wasteful, and climatically-vulnerable infrastructure project that cost tens of billions of dollars we should have put into other ways of storing groundwater, capturing stormwater, and recycling the water our water systems already control. It will mean there are expensive tunnels that only every so often divert water to a desiccating status quo of agribusiness and urban California that could not come up with better solutions that protect water from heat.

Wildfires displace more and more Californians who wait in homeless shelters and trailers not meant for permanent residence. Some of those have been recently written about in northern California’s headline community losses—Paradise in Butte County, and now Greenville in Plumas. But what happens when major wildfires burn out communities in coastal scrub communities of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. These are Metropolitan Water District of Southern California counties, all of whom are vulnerable to wildfire—and each of whom would see major disruptions in water demand once catastrophically burned. 

No one has answers right now, but we must at least ask the right questions. I’m thinking about them, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla is thinking about them, and we’re talking with our wonderful climate water hero interns about them too. Many of our environmental water colleagues think about them too. 

We need our government to participate in asking honest and probing questions about what becomes of California as the old normal more closely resembles a house of cards built on sand? How long will it take DWR to realize this project is not a climate solution for California but is itself a climate-economic problem? Will it launch a project for “business as usual,” heedless of greenhouse gas emissions and sea-level rise, but also of wildfire population displacements and climate migration? 

DWR has one more planned webinar on the Delta Conveyance Project and environmental justice, scheduled for Thursday, September 16 at 6:00 PM.  We urge everyone within the reach of this blog to attend by registering here. That will be the webinar where our questions—for that will be all we can bring to the event—must bring together the real concerns, making the connections between Delta water quality, the fate of native fish like the iconic Chinook salmon and steelhead, our rising temperatures and sea level, our environmental justice communities’ vulnerabilities to flooding, heat, drinking water contamination, and climate change must be brought together as a force through our each and every Q&A button on our Zoom screen. 

I’m not sure who is metaphorically Komarov and who is Gagarin in this blog, but a cosmonaut’s life was callously disregarded. Komarov had less power in the Soviet system than we do here—we can still stop this DCP’s launch.

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