The Brown administration's plan to dig giant water tunnels under the Delta looks financially precarious, like a bus hanging out over a cliff. It's economic benefits have been seriously challenged and there is no agreement yet whether the people who stand to profit are willing to pay for it.
State water contractors in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California who want this pricey project, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan or BDCP, are promising economic benefits based on a supposed threat that, without the tunnels, future water exports will plummet.
“It's like shoring up the foundation of your house,” the project's chief economist, David Sunding, of UC Berkeley, told the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently. That means you won't get a better house, but you won't lose it either. Even so, "The deal can't get much worse for contractors and still make sense," Sunding admitted to a California Senate hearing in August.
A central problem for tunnel promoters is that if their predictions are wrong about sinking water exports – if future water deliveries through existing Delta channels continue as they are today, and especially if they improve, the economic value of the tunnels would evaporate.
Economist Jeffrey Michael of the University of the Pacific has called the prediction of highly reduced exports a “ridiculous assumption.” (Indeed, the basis for the prediction is really obscure; see note). This story will go further, however, in proposing that more water, not less, can be pumped in the future through current infrastructure – if the State ever decides to fix it up.
Mitigating the “killer” function of pumps
The idea that new engineering of the existing through-Delta waterworks can address problems that lead to cutbacks in water deliveries has been around for years. But the approach is gaining urgency as the tunnel project totters.
|Sunne McPeak, Delta Vision Foundation president: "Declare|
an emergency and move quickly on this." Credit: P. McBroom
Moreover, these same experts believe that the “killer” function of the export pumps that chew up Delta smelt and other fish, known as “net reverse flow,” can be mitigated. A dedicated group of engineers could figure out how to do that in a year, they say.
“With leadership and purpose, we could get an improved through-Delta conveyance constructed in three years. You need a governor who will declare an emergency and move quickly to focus on this,” said Sunne McPeak, president of the Delta Vision Foundation which developed California's modern strategic vision for water in 2008 (a vision often honored in the breach since then).If it had been done a few years ago, she said, California would now have enough water south of the Delta to cover the reductions that loom this year.
McPeak has been traveling up and down the state with the message that state water policy must be more comprehensive. It must include new storage so that water can be put back into the massive aquifer that underlies the San Joaquin Valley. And it must act to repair and improve existing water transfer channels.
Saving Smelt While Improving Water Delivery
|Middle River, a tributary of the San Joaquin, carries water|
back to the South; it needs work to improve exports.
Nevertheless, many experts believe that innovative things can be done in the Delta to both save fish and deliver more water. One such hydrological engineer, Pete Smith, believes that new knowledge of smelt behavior can make it easier to save them. Smith was an advisor to the Federal agency that wrote the 2008 biological opinions regarding protection of smelt which led to pumping restrictions.
His favorite idea is to place a temporary air bladder in a strategic channel (the Georgiana Slough) to block off water transfer for a short period at critical times, so that the smelt are kept away from the pumps. Use of the bladder during the first week or two of wintertime high flow known as the “first flush” would prevent large sediment loads from heading south toward the pumps. Because Delta smelt tend to favor muddy (turbid) water, such a gate could theoretically keep smelt out of the water delivery channels.
Now retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, Smith has continued his studies on smelt for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. He thinks it might be useful to revisit the biological opinions based on this new information. “It shouldn't cost us that much water to protect the smelt,” he said.
Smith added that, while he cannot predict the future, “I personally don't see why curtailment (of pumping) for the delta smelt has to become more strict. I lean toward it getting easier and with new engineering it could be even better.”
Call for Quick Study
|Harvey O. Banks pumping plant near the Altamont Pass exports water to|
the California aqueduct (top) and kills fish pulled into the pumps.
photo credit: Jim Wilson, New York Times News Service
He said that with modeling of Delta channels, “we can improve fresh water flow to the pumps and at the same time, reduce the potential for entrainment.” New modeling would also improve flood management and “allow us to change the levee system to make it more robust to withstand flood or earthquake.”
The Delta Vision Foundation is pushing strongly for such a study, which executive director Charles Gardiner estimated would take six months to a year to complete. (This proposal has little to do with alternative F, a through-Delta option in the BDCP economic study.)
A third way to protect the fish is to employ new fish screens. A study that evaluates the impact of screening a portion of the water flowing into Clifton Court (holding basin in front of the pumps) is in its final stages. While conclusions are not yet available, Contra Costa's Leah Orloff said she feels “positive” about the results. The four-year study by water agencies is in its last round of corrections, said Orloff, water resources manager at the CC Water District.
Transfixed by Tunnel Vision
Improving current infrastructure seems like an obvious call. The pathways will continue to be used whether or not the tunnels are built. Farmers south of the Delta will have to endure anxiety for at least 15, maybe even 20 years, as lawsuits, construction delays, and ever more planning delay the BDCP.
Droughts, floods, climate change, decline of the Delta's ecology, stress on agriculture, maybe an earthquake or two – all this and more is likely to happen in the next two decades. Some of us will be dead by the time the tunnels open for business (if they do).
So why has the State been dragging its feet on this issue? The answer is the same wherever one turns: State agencies “are swamped by the BDCP. They don't have the bandwidth to take on the problems that would work in the meantime,” said Gardiner. Such comments are echoed up and down the state.
“The process has been stultifying,” said James Tischer, of Fresno State's California Water Institute. “It's a real failure of the body politic....We have to start with improving conveyance in the Delta.” Tischer said that county groups, including elected representatives for 12 counties in San Joaquin Valley and the Delta, are moving to address the problem. He added that he has seen a political shift in this direction over the past six months, influenced by McPeak's advocacy.
“She gets it,” he said.
Serving Both Sides in Water Wars
McPeak is sometimes accused of switching sides since she successfully joined the fight against the peripheral canal as a Contra Costa County supervisor in 1982. But, in fact, her position is more nuanced than that. She advocates continuing to plan for the BDCP tunnels, while fixing up the current system. Only then, will the state know whether the tunnels are needed and how big to make them.
that future water exports will plummet under the existing
through-Delta conveyance seem to be based on something called
“Scenario 6 operations.” This excerpt from the introduction to appendix 9.A,
describes how the analysis was done:
After her years of fighting for a water policy that serves both the Delta and the San Joaquin Valley, McPeak says she has earned the right to call some shots.
“I grew up on a farm in Livingston near Modesto. As a child, I would get up at four in the morning to get water for the cows and watermelons. I learned that whether you get the water and when is up to the guy who controls the ditch.” This early experience imprinted a passionate attitude, “Don't mess with my farm or my factory!” At the same time, she said, “I'm not going to let the Delta get hurt.”
|Sunset on Highway 160 in the Delta. Credit: Patricia McBroom|
For purposes of understanding a future condition without the BDCP infrastructure, but with the potential future operational constraints, this analysis also uses a comparison scenario that includes the fall and spring outflow (i.e., high outflow scenario of the decision tree) and south Delta operating restrictions of the BDCP (i.e., current biological opinions plus Scenario 6 operations) imposed on existing water conveyance facilities. This comparison scenario is called the Existing Conveyance High‐Outflow Scenario. A similar scenario is also introduced that applies the BDCP outflow criteria and south Delta operating restrictions using the low‐outflow points on the decision tree (i.e., no Fall X2 and no additional spring outflow). This scenario is called the Existing Conveyance Low‐Outflow Scenario. These scenarios are used only in Chapter 9, Alternatives to Take, and this appendix and only to provide a reasonable comparison point for the cost practicability analysis of the BDCP Proposed Action.One searches for scenario 6 in vain among the 18,000 or so pages of documents on the BDCP website. It seems to be some variation of this 2012 paper which recommends conservation measures to protect the South Delta when North Delta intakes (tunnels) are also taking water. It is difficult to see how these conservation measures apply to the south Delta if there are no tunnels in the North. (Dr. Sunding did not respond to calls for clarification.)