Monday, May 16, 2016


By Patricia McBroom

       On a sunny morning in April, civil engineer Dominick Gulli was out checking the levees in a critical area of the Sacramento/San Joaquin delta where fresh water gets diverted to Southern California. The levees had recently been strongly reinforced to guard against seepage, overtopping, and collapse from various stresses including earthquakes. Gulli is out there two or three times a week to check them out, year after year.
Dominick Gulli, engineer for upgrade
of levees to protect EBMUD aqueduct.
       “Uh-oh,” he said, slowing the pickup truck as he noticed a large puddle of water down on the slope. “Oh, well, it's evaporating,” he added, pointing to the drying patches around the puddle. “Must be from the recent rains.”

Keepers of the Levees

Gulli's company, Green Mountain Engineering, is one of three or four local firms who manage this crucial Delta infrastructure, the viability of which is absolutely necessary for the health and welfare of the great majority of Californians. Woodward Island, which we toured that day, is tiny (three square miles) with nine miles of critical levees. If they were to fail, it would jeopardize fresh water delivery to not only most points south of the delta, but to the East Bay of San Francisco as well. That's how connected and complicated the "water pipes" are in this state.  Their security depends on a handful of heroes who live and work in the Delta, carrying on the traditions of generations of levee builders who keep the islands dry. 
Map of California's "water pipes shows EBMUD
aqueduct (center) crossing the Delta. State and
Federal pumping stations (red squares) lead to
California Aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal (right)
                           Further north of Woodward Island, another local architect/engineer, Gilbert Labrie, is watching a levee along the edge of the San Joaquin River.  It shows signs of slumping and will need to be repaired this summer.

On Watch in the Delta

       And it's not only the engineers who keep their eyes peeled for levee damage. Delta farmers, as well, watch all the time, reporting suspicious activity to their local reclamation districts that employ the engineers. Just seven years ago, island ranchers saved their levee from a crazy impact by an ocean-going ship on the San Joaquin River that could have shut down much of the state's water supply.
       Civil engineer Gilbert Cosio, with MBK Engineering firm in Sacramento, manages the levees in 27 reclamation districts. He's seen enormous improvements in levee reliability since he began this work in 1984. “At that time, we'd have to sandbag many miles of levee at high tide to keep water from going over the top. Some islands would threaten to flood every three years. They didn't because farmers down there would throw on the sandbags,” said Cosio. “Now we've got about a foot of freeboard (above the 100-year flood) almost everywhere.”
         Seven years ago, in 2009, a devastating State report on the condition of Delta levees predicted that, using average probability statistics, there would be about a dozen levee failures by this year.  None has occurred.

Cooperation and Progress

       Unbeknownst to most people who read about California's Delta, levees there have been steadily improving over the past decade. With State bond money, and now – belatedly – money from water contractors, a surge in reconstruction is taking place. Moreover, the work is being carried out by groups who have long been in opposing camps in the battle for fresh water: delta residents, state officials and water contractors.  It is one of the few places where cooperation is actually resulting in tangible, physical improvements.
       “I am confident that levees in the Delta are in better shape than they've ever been,” said state official, Dave Mraz, who heads up the Delta Levee program at the Department of Water Resources. “It's taken a lot of cooperative effort. We (State officials) pay money to pile up the earth out there and provide roads. Then, when the high waters come, local reclamation districts are out there, doing levee patrols, watching for seepage and actively treating them in the middle of a storm. The system still needs that kind of attention from local interests that have a big stake in making sure their levees stand. We rely on that. Even with all the work the State has done, it's a cooperative effort. We provide (some of) the money, but they do the work.”

EBMUD's Million-Dollar Levees

       A major leap forward was taken six years ago when East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) made an historic decision to come up with millions of new dollars to fortify the levees on Woodward and four other islands that affect its aqueduct. EBMUD's $6 million paid the local share in a $41 million levee improvement program – shares that Delta farmers cannot and should not have to pay to reinforce levees that benefit 1.4 million EBMUD customers.
Tiny Woodward Island's widened crown and broadened base protects two
critical aqueduct systems in California

       The results have been outstanding. In a very short time (compared to the usual slow pace of levee reinforcement), the levees have been raised in height, often doubled at the crown, and greatly broadened at the base with tons of new dirt creating a gentle slope down, instead of a precipitous drop to the bottom.
The cost of doing all this was not cheap. Forty miles of levee improvement on five islands cost $41 million. That's a million dollars a mile, with the State paying 85% of it, and it reveals why levee improvement in the Delta has been so slow – farmers cannot afford the local share, even at 15%. (These levees are on private land and are therefore not maintained by the Federal or State governments.)
       “This is a real success story,” said Eileen White, water operations manager for East Bay MUD. We did this to improve the stability of the levees out there. Knowing their vulnerability to failure, we wanted to protect the integrity of our pipelines,” said White. The retrofit will protect against floods, seepage of water, damage by rodents and other ordinary failures. 

Earthquake Resistance: The Stronger, the Better

       Whether the new work also protects against an earthquake is unknown, partly because levee failure from an earthquake has never occurred in the Delta in historic times. Widening the crest and broadening the base, however, are classic ways of protecting levees against earthquake damage and scenarios for seismic resistance have been tested in the Delta.

       White couldn't say whether the new levees would withstand an earthquake. She said that would depend on how big it was. “Will this buy protection in an 8.0 on the Rodgers Fault (a portion of the Hayward)? I can't tell you that. But it will make them stronger . The more you do, the better. The wider the top, the flatter the slope, the more stable it is. It's like retrofitting a house. You put in sheer walls; then you bolt it down. There's no guarantee in any earthquake, but we've made the levees stronger without a doubt.”
EBMUD's aqueduct takes water across the Delta to 1.4 million people.
       Moreover, the added dirt and stockpiling of rock on the islands makes it much easier to repair a break immediately rather than waiting days for new material to arrive, several authorities noted. “If the land subsides in an earthquake, we can fill it back in quickly,” said Christopher Neudeck, whose Delta company Kjeldsen, Sinnock and Neudeck, provided inspection and management services on the EBMUD project. With new dirt added to the levee, “We just take a tractor and push it back up. We're doing that everywhere all over the Delta, adding these berms,” said Neudeck.

                                                                                        Two for One Protection

So. California's freshwater corridor runs north to south past Woodward
island in two tributaries (Old and Middle River) to the San Joaquin River.
        A disturbing fact about levees in this part of the south/central Delta is that they are actually dikes that hold water back 24 hours a day and the landward side has sunk below sea level by 10 to 20 feet. They are a core infrastructure for water supplies to Southern California, as well as to the S.F. East Bay. The so called “fresh water corridor” – small rivers that carry water to the California aqueduct – runs right past some of the islands recently reinforced. So, in protecting their own pipes, EBMUD also fortified three of some seven to nine islands along the corridor.
       “By improving these levees, we not only protect our own supplies, but we help the 20 million people in Southern California who rely on water to be pumped from the Delta,” said White. It's a win, win. We have protected a lot of important infrastructure in California. It would be really good if other entities out there who benefit would also step forward.”
       Other “entities” in the area include Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, PG&E, which has transmission lines in the area, Kinder Morgan with its pipes, a state highway and a railroad. Few of these has contributed any money to reinforce Delta levees, although MET and six other water contractors, plus PG&E, are stepping forward with a small amount (totaling less than $500,000 in local share for all; the State is paying 97%) to reinforce Bacon Island, north of Woodward on the corridor, next year. (Bacon is one of the islands recently purchased by MET).

Into the Future with Toe Berms

Bigger levees with stockpiled material (back, center) 
protect the island and aqueduct (distance) 
from being flooded.

        Back on Woodward Island, Gulli pointed out the “toe berms” added to the back sides of the levees. The new sides sloped gently down, at a one to four foot ratio. Many – but not all – of the levees protecting water delivery routes now have these toe berms. (Engineer Cosio estimated that the entire fresh water corridor would be up to the desired Corps of Engineers' standard, PL 84-99, in about five years).
       “We finished this project two or three years ago,” Giulli explained stopping the pickup again to draw a graph. “The crown here was 14 feet; now it's 22 feet wide,” broad enough for two trucks to pass each other. As we prepared to exit the island via ferry, Gulli pointed out the spot where a levee failed on Jones Tract on a sunny day in 2004, possibly due to a rodent burrow. The EBMUD improvements would protect against that sort of calamity and, indeed, no more failures in the Delta have occurred since that date. But it takes constant vigilance.
        In any foreseeable plan for California's water future, these levees play a central role. Even if the State builds two giant 40 feet-in-diameter tunnels deep under the delta to transport water, we will still depend on these structures to protect our fresh water. And the one thing that has not been analyzed in the 20,000 plus pages of environmental reports on the tunnels is the true impact on Delta agriculture and recreation of a ten-year construction project through the middle of the place.

The Importance of Skin in the Game

        In October of last year, an independent science board that works with the Delta Stewardship Council wrote a detailed analysis ( pages 9-17) of what more than 10 years of heavy-duty construction might do to the Delta economy if the tunnel project is approved. Such a project would have “significant adverse effects on the Delta's unique values,” the report said. Effects on the agricultural economy, recreation values and way of life in the Delta would be serious and have not been adequately evaluated, the report said.
       It is possible that such adverse effects could drive out the few thousand people who maintain this crucial water infrastructure, and then, the State would lose something it could not replace –the eyes and energy of people who have skin in the game.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


By Patricia McBroom

      Climate in California is changing fast, but, sadly, the State's water system is not. If the Governor and Southern California managers do not reconsider building the largest piece of infrastructure in state history – two enormous tunnels under the delta – they could end up with a very expensive stranded asset (an asset that has become non-productive typically because of climate change). And the State would continue to be hobbled in its planning for the future, as it has been since 2006 when the tunnels were first proposed.

        The aim of the controversial tunnel project, called WaterFix (formerly BDCP or Bay Delta Conservation Plan), is to take water from the northeast corner of the Delta near Sacramento and convey it underground to pumps near Tracy so that it can be exported south. This gives exporters high quality river water and allows them to better manage fish regulations for saving endangered species that have sometimes reduced their take in the south of the Delta. (More on that later.)  And there's some history. State officials have been touring the Southland this summer, promoting the tunnels as the long-awaited completion of the 1960's State Water Project which built the California Aqueduct to transport water from north to south.

Cartoon by Jack Ohman, Sacramento Bee,  January 22, 2014
        But this is a new age.
Dire predictions of climate change in California are throwing projections of water availability in the Delta into a cocked hat, suggesting that by mid-century, exports could be constrained more by the amount of water coming down the river – and by more urgent needs – than by the location of the pumps. Urban water users in Southern California and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who are expected to pay for these $15 billion tunnels would be wise to reassess the information created by older environmental reports done for the BDCP.

                             The Looming  Future

          A critical new evaluation of climate change comes from researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the U.S. Geological Survey who told state officials in March that snowpack in the Sierras could decline by 35% by 2060. This is higher than the 25% loss projection built into the WaterFix analysis and it would begin to accelerate in 2030, just as the tunnels come on line, if there are no legal challenges to their construction (which is unlikely). What this means is more flooding over a large area and less water stored behind dams which can be channeled down the rivers. As evident in the graph below by Noah Knowles and Dan Cayan, snowpack losses are small (5%) during the first thirty years of this century (blue graph on left) and then quicken after 2030, so that by 2060, (middle graph) another 30% of snowpack is lost.

Pace of snowpack loss accelerates after 2030, when the
tunnels might come online, if they are not challenged
       “The losses are occurring on the fringe of the Sierras,” said Scripps scientist Cayan. These low to moderate elevations do receive snowpack today, but “in the future, as climate warms, that will be vastly diminished.” It is also projected that the lower-elevation northern mountains will lose more snow than the higher mountains of Central California. Again, the loss is to water supplies coming from the Sacramento watershed which the tunnels are supposed to exploit.

Doubling of Drought Risk

       Compounding the snowpack problem is the greatly increased risk of droughts in future decades. The droughts will not necessarily be caused by lack of rainfall, but by rising temperatures. “It's hot and it's getting hotter,” said a speaker at an August climate change symposium in Sacramento. Stanford University scientist Noah Diffenbaugh estimated that the risk of drought will double in the future, mostly due to temperature increases that dry out the soils, hasten evaporation and harden demand. Water is less likely to be exported from the north Delta tunnels during droughts, so the new intakes and tunnels will be of less and less use as the years pass, bringing higher temperatures. Depending on a drought's severity, water will continue to be exported from the south, but a doubling of risk has not been analyzed by WaterFix.

        At the same time, increased flows to the ocean will be needed to hold back rising sea levels that carry salt into the fresh waters of the delta. Moderate projections call for a 16 inch increase in sea level at the Golden Gate by mid-century, but storm surges and high tides will periodically drive levels much higher, requiring ever more flow to push back the salinity. High sea levels combined with drought will be killers, especially for reservoir storage.

                                    Confusing Data for Benefits

       So, why do tunnel advocates think they will get more water by building a north Delta intake? The answer is based on assumptions rife with confusion and obscure data.
       Government drivers of the project in the Natural Resources Agency say that a northern intake will recreate more natural river flows through the Delta and halt the completely aberrant backward flows that have pertained for decades, carrying fish to death in the south pumps. Federal regulations to save the fish have sometimes stopped water deliveries temporarily and the exporters yell bloody murder when that happens, blaming the Feds for a “Congress created Dust Bowl.” Therefore, a well-screened northern intake should avoid the cutoffs and create better flows for fish. Voila, more water for export. The graph on the right shows a threatened future reduction in exports (to 3.5 maf) if the tunnels are NOT built.

 "Awful" Place for the Pumps

Graph based on the BDCP analysis posits that exports will
be cut to 3.5 maf if the tunnels are not built due to new
regulations for fish – a controversial claim.
       Fish biologists agree that the south Delta is a terrible place for the pumps. In rapid-fire succession, the Natural Resources Defense Council biologist Tina Swanson reeled off the following questions:
      “Could you come up with better place to divert water than what we have? Absolutely.
       Is there a better place for water quality? Absolutely
       Could you have less impact and entrain fewer fish? Absolutely.
       So, yes, there are better places for the pumps, but it is worth it?” she asked.

       The Bay Institute's fish biologist, Jon Rosenfield, agreed that the southern location for the pumps Is “awful”, but he added that the tunnel plan fails in three ways, on timing, cost and efficacy. “Even its own documentation doesn't claim that it will provide much benefit, and the impact analyses dramatically overstate the benefits and understate the negative consequences,” he said, in an interview. Rosenfield also said that export cuts to save imperiled fish have been very infrequent during the current drought, and that the main reason for limiting exports has been to keep the salty tides at bay, i.e. to maintain fresh water for users (which include water districts in Contra Costa County).

               Pushing the Salt Back – An Overriding Problem

       The idea that salinity control is the overriding problem exporters face is backed up by experience with drought last year when 71 percent of the flow through the delta was needed to push back salty water, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California at UC Davis.  It is hard to gauge how much fresh water will be needed to push back the salt in future decades, but California's water system has been built for snowmelt, and the loss of snow, combined with increased drought and higher seas, raise alarms.
       Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board – a critical regulatory body – told a group of lawyers last November,Over the decades, we do have to think about sea level rise because we’re going to have more salt water intrusion and there’s no way we’re going to have enough water storage to repel it like we can today and we’re going to have to think differently about that.”
       Evidence that the major exporters ARE doing some new thinking came last month in a meeting of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, when director Roger Patterson called for another analysis of the WaterFix that would compare the tunnels with a “No Action Alternative.” He called the data represented in the BDCP graph “confusing.”


                                            Financial Losses and Tradeoffs                                                         

The beautiful and endangered Sierra watershed nourishes all life.
         And what about the financial consequences of building a colossal underground watercourse that may not be used often enough? Economist Jeffrey Michael of the University of the Pacific estimated that -– based on figures of water yield generated in the State's own reports – exporters might recover $5 billion in benefits for the $15 billion spent. Moreover, he wrote in a July column in the Sacramento Bee, “the benefit-cost ratio is even worse when the negative impacts to the Delta and risks to the environment and upstream interests are considered.”

                                            What We Could Do

        Finally, there is the impact on credit for water districts and exporters who invest in the tunnels – if they don't pan out. The enormous expense could sink other efforts to pay for water infrastructure that really does help with climate change – projects like capturing storm waters, recovering the flood plains of old creeks and rivers, building more recycling facilities, storing water underground,  erecting earthquake-resistant levees, even perhaps creating hundreds of ponds on farms for irrigation and storage.
The list is long for regional projects that could move California from an old water system, built for the 20th century, to a new one. All of our systems and expectations are built on what used to be normal, says Diffenbaugh, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. If we are going to “avoid disasters now and in the future, we have to acknowledge that California's climate has changed.”

Monday, May 4, 2015


By Patricia McBroom
       In the mountains above Fresno, a slim, beautiful wild plum has taken root in a newly cleared meadow. No one planted the tree. It simply sprouted on its own, once the overgrowth was pushed out by Native Americans working to revitalize the forest.
      The blooming presence of this sapling stands as testimony to what can be done to not only restore a meadow but to thin the forest and thereby bring more water down from the Sierra Nevada mountain range.                                                    

                                                                                  More Water

A wild Sierra Plum tree sprouted naturally in
the restored Progeny meadow, east of Bass Lake.
                                          credit: Ron Goode
       Experts have been talking for years about thinning California's forests to enhance the water supply downstream. No one knows exactly how much more water the Sierras could produce if the dense undergrowth was removed, but it's a lot – two, three, up to 16 percent (p.2) or more, of current yield. While estimates vary, most reflect a recognition that reversing the century's old habit of suppressing fire in the watershed is critically needed.
      “Failure to understand the urgency of the situation in the Sierra Nevada will have devastating impacts on California's environment and economy,” warns the Sierra Nevada Conservancy in a new report on the need for prescribed burns and thinning in the forests.
       The Conservancy, a state agency, was referring mainly to the risk of huge wild fires, like those that have been growing in size every year. But authors of the report, The State of the Sierra Nevada's Forests, also estimate that up to 60 percent of snowfall never reaches the ground because the tree canopy is too thick. Much of that snow then evaporates and never reaches downstream use. On the other hand, when wildfires rip through the forest, they take out every tree and nothing is left to shade the new snow, which again is lost to the air and early melting.
      A golden mean is needed – some trees, but not too many, and a forest cleared of dense underbrush so that when fire does come, it stays on the ground. A wet meadow, for its part, acts to control the wild fire. It is the forest's sponge, holding water late in the year and releasing it slowly into streams and groundwater. Many, if not most, of the Sierra's meadows have been degraded, no longer functioning as sponges or sources of species diversity.
North Fork Mono Tribe chief Ron Goode has worked for
decades to revitalize his homeland with traditional knowledge of
 prescribed burns and forest ecology. credit: Patricia McBroom 


            Ancient traditions

 I was in the Sierra National Forest, which surrounds the San Joaquin River watershed, between Yosemite and Sequoia, to find out what the North Fork Mono Tribe was doing to recover the health of the forest there. It is their ancient homeland and while most of the several thousand Indians – those who survived genocide – were driven out of the mountains a century ago, many of them still carry traditional knowledge of forest stewardship.
       “Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the use of fire by North Fork Mono and other California Indian people enhanced plant and animal resources and sustained a higher human population density than intensive, seed-crop agriculture could have supported,” writes Jared Dahl Aldern, an environmental historian and co-director of the Stanford University-based Comparative Wests Project.


                                    Gardeners of the Forest

       “These were the gardeners of the forest,” said Douglas McKay, head archaeologist of the Sierra National Forest's heritage program, as we rumbled in a Forest Service jeep through the woods from meadow to meadow. McKay explained that the several hundred thousand Indians who originally lived there had maintained healthy forests with regular controlled burns that preserved the meadows, increased the diversity of species and protected against wild fire.
       “We need the gardeners to come back and start taking care of the land again.” said McKay, adding that most of what scientists describe as a “natural” forest with a clean understory was actually created by Indians.
Wood and debris waiting to be removed after meadow restoration in the
Sierra National Forest. credit: Patricia McBroom
      Seated beside McKay in the jeep was one of those head gardeners, Ron Goode, tribal chief of the North Fork Mono, a founding father of a movement to help federal land managers understand the role of Native Americans on the landscape. Goode has been prodding and poking for 30 odd years to bring back traditional burning and native knowledge.
       “A good meadow has up to 55 species, including food, medicine and other useful products,” said Goode. “This meadow was brown when we started,” he said, pointing to a green space in the trees filled with flowers and new grasses. “Before, all we had was thistles and brush. Now we have bees, flowers and plants. The water is providing for all of that.” Goode is participating in the Dinkey Creek collaborative, an effort to restore 154,000 acres in Sierra National Forest with thinning and meadow revitalization. It's one of the larger Forest Service projects in California, representing about 10 percent of this national forest (1.3 million acres). But it's a drop in the bucket, compared to what needs to be done.

                                    Benefits of Forest Restoration

        In a large scientific review of water supply benefits, the Nature Conservancy recently estimated that tripling the pace of current forest restoration would result in up to a six percent increase in the mean annual streamflow from individual watersheds. The restoration would pay for itself in these water benefits, the non-profit conservation group concluded.
Sierra National Forest has 1.3 million acres, half of which is
in need of thinning; the rest is protected wilderness areas.
credit: US Forest Service
       Yet, the Forest Service is crippled by loss of personnel due to Congressional cutbacks. Controlled burning usually can't be done because of resistance by air pollution boards, or public misunderstanding. Moreover, the forests are now so choked with flammable material that a prescribed burn could easily turn wild. And it's dry and hot. And there's no money. Most of the money that U.S. land management agencies such as the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management have early in the year for proactive management is swallowed up later by the need to fight fire.

            The Karma of Doing Nothing

       “Pick your smoke.” says the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, in advocating for controlled burns. Adds McKay, “Mother nature will do it if we don't and you will not like the result.”
       What then can we do? If government agencies can only respond to crisis management of wild fire, there will be little effort to fix the State's crucial watershed – the magnificent mountain range that stretches 400 miles from Bakersfield to the Oregon border which is the source of 60 percent of our developed water supply. Moreover, climate change is reducing the snow pack to a frightening degree; there is an urgent need to make the best use of what falls from the sky.
       Against these odds, McKay is optimistic. “We have the ability to fix this problem, but we need some funding,” he said. McKay wants to see tribal people employed in a modern day Conservation Corps to initially clear the forest of its dangerous overgrowth by mechanical means, then maintain a clean forest with low-intensity prescribed burns every few years.
Forest archaeologist Douglas McKay wants a
modern-day Conservation Corps to restore the
Sierras: "We can fix this problem," he says.
credit: Patricia McBroom
       Native Americans lived in and maintained the Sierra Nevada mountains with such burns for more than 9,000 years until European contact. We could do worse than use their knowledge. The small burns not only kept wild fire under control, but they were necessary to maintain the ecological health of a wide variety of animal and plant species. Giant Sequoia trees, for instance, require periodic fire to regenerate and are at risk from fire suppression. Sierra meadows are primary resting places for millions of migratory birds on the Pacific flyway. 

             Collaboration and Money

       But are there enough Indians to do the job? “There are plenty of Indians,” replied Goode. Some 6,000 Indians from 13 tribes still live in or near the Sierra National Forest, with many more thousands further north. “Anyway, all you need is one, who knows what he's doing.” Young Americans of all backgrounds could then be employed to serve the nation under a collaborative effort by many organizations including tribes.
       That is exactly what the Forest Service is trying to put together now. The Dinkey Creek Landscape Restoration Project, for example, involves 30 different organizations – state, federal, non-governmental, private and Indian – which have so far thinned thousands of acres of forest and are preparing to restore the meadows.
       “We need to be putting together more of these collaborative groups,” said McKay. “All we need is the money.”

Monday, December 15, 2014


By Patricia McBroom

        “Picture a pasture open to all,” where each herdsman strives to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons, an economist wrote almost 50 years ago. The rational choice for each individual is to add more animals to his herd without regard for the welfare of neighbors, and they all do that as they march inexorably toward mutual destruction – the “Tragedy of the Commons” as described by Garrett Hardin.
       “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin wrote in Science Magazine in 1968.                                                                               
Groundwater infiltrates subterranean rock, creating ancient reservoirs

Groundwater Commons    

         By far, the largest, most important commons in California is the water beneath our feet, and it is well on its way toward ruin. Large basins beneath the valley floors contain up to ten times the capacity of all the state's reservoirs put together (42 million acre feet). They are uncharted and boundless, subterranean streams of water flowing among the rocks in mysterious, unexpected ways from one region to another. And they are shrinking.
       In these years of drought, a giant sucking sound could be heard throughout the Central Valley as farmers pumped ever more water from the rocks beneath the earth.  The deeper the drill, the more ancient the layers. As they pumped, the land sank, along with the water table. In some areas of the San Joaquin Valley, only the biggest, wealthiest farmers could go deep enough to reach the water, and they did, leaving their neighbors literally in the dust with dry wells. Surface land in portions of the San Joaquin Valley sank by up to ten inches in just six months of this year, from May to October.
California has 515 groundwater basins (dark grey) in
ten hydrologic regions (outlined)   

     100 years of Exploitation

  Californians have been exploiting this commons for 100 years with precious few restrictions. There has been no statute governing its use. The only law that even affects groundwater pumping has come through case law when a property owner sued another for infringing on his rights. In these rare instances, judges have ruled that a property owner's right to pump water from the ground is not unlimited. Neighbors have rights as well – called correlative rights – and any one property owner can only take his fair share of the safe yield. But aside from this case law – of which the particulars are hard to determine (what is “safe yield” from an uncharted basin?) – the state has never imposed any limits on groundwater pumping.
       That is now changing.

First Statute to Govern Commons

       Next month, in January, the first written law governing this commons will go into effect, a statute requiring local groups to create sustainability agencies that will be charged with bringing depleted groundwater reservoirs into balance. If locals don't do it within the next few years, the state's water board has been empowered to come in and correct the balance. This is the first time in California's history that state authorities (other than courts) have given themselves the power to stop a property owner from taking water from beneath his land. But it will be a while before such power comes into play.
        The first opportunity to restrict pumping will be January of 2020, the deadline for passage of a local sustainability plan, said David Orth, manager of the Kings River Conservation District in the San Joaquin Valley and member of the powerful California Water Commission which will be making decisions on surface and groundwater storage with new state bond money approved by voters this year.
King's County's Dave Orth surveying a
recharge pond
       “A lot of things can happen in five years and that concerns me.... but this problem doesn't lend itself to a quick fix,”said Orth. “Any attempt tomorrow to restrict groundwater use, or even to set fees is likely to lead to a legal challenge. We have to be patient and recognize that it took 100 years to get here. It will take at least 20 to get out of it.”

Counties Stepping Up

       Meanwhile, county supervisors in the San Joaquin Valley are stepping into the breach to find various ways to halt the overdraft in their local groundwater basins. It's an urgent issue in counties like Merced, Stanislaus, Madera and Kern where lands are sinking and wells are running dry. Farmers are split, some opposing any restrictions; others calling for a moratorium on extraction.
       “Before, farmers were united against doing anything,” said Sarge Green, a program director from the California Water Institute at Fresno State, who is helping counties write groundwater ordinances. “Now they are being damaged by each other, and it has created a powerful incentive to do something. You have farmers saying, 'I don't want my neighbor to export water to another county or build a giant well that dries up mine'.”
       The issues are so contentious that a groundwater lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County had to be moved to Santa Clara County last month because no one was neutral in the county of origin. San Luis Obispo supervisors had passed a moratorium last year on new well drilling from the Paso Robles groundwater basin and the county is now being sued by 35 plaintiffs. They argue that no official can restrict their right to pump whatever they need.
Land subsidence from May to October, 2014, from Merced to Corcoran
shows deepest subsidence (red) near El Nido and Corcoran


 Local Variability  

 Elsewhere, Madera and Kern counties both considered a moratorium on pumping and rejected the idea. On the other side of the issue, Stanislaus County passed an ordinance restricting people from certain unincorporated areas from extracting water without a permit, while Merced County is considering a similar ordinance that would also restrict export of water from the county.
       Merced supervisor Diedre Kelsey said she became aware of the need for county action when she discovered that two individuals from her district were trying to pump local groundwater and sell it to buyers in another county. “We may need an immediate moratorium,” she said.
       The issues are complicated.

                Agony and Creativity in Reaching for Sustainability

       In Kings county, Orth and others are striving to create a sustainability plan, bringing farmers together to expand land devoted to recharge basins – areas where water can sit for several weeks to soak into the aquifer below. They have even tried flooding grape fields with 18 inches of water for two months during the dormant season. In that case, they came out ahead of the game with a bumper harvest. They're now looking at how long they can leave water standing in an orchard, anything to build the recharge capacity of an area where agriculture is outrunning available water.
       Orth estimates that the Kings area is farming about five percent more land than can be sustained with current water supplies. “Our strategy is to make every bit of that up with flood water (recharge) and voluntary water conservation to avoid land retirement,” he said, adding that the state as a whole is over-farming by a significant amount and will have to retire some agricultural land, if it cannot replenish the underground aquifers.
Merced County Supervisor Diedre Kelsey:  "We may need
a moratorium." Credit: Patricia McBroom
       Land retirement.
      “That's the word that everyone is trying to avoid,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Everybody is bending over backwards to not have that conversation (about land retirement) right now,” said Christian-Smith. Instead they are talking about moratoriums and ordinances, data and analysis:
       “ 'How much groundwater are we using? How much is being replenished naturally? What do we need to do to reach the level of sustainable yield? What does proportional reduction look like? Should we buy out landowners?' They have to figure out what has gone on so far.” said Christian-Smith.
        Can Californians learn to cooperate in this commons and not take more than their “fair share” of a “safe yield”? It's a good question. Some people may cooperate voluntarily; others will no doubt need the police powers of the state and counties before they stop taking their lion's share of precious water.
       Meanwhile, the cavalry is coming over the hill.

Monday, July 7, 2014


By Patricia McBroom
       There is no fresh water flowing out of the Delta on this early July day in summer and hasn't been since May, new data is showing. The only water surging in and out are the salty tides, which continually threaten fish and fresh water pumps serving people throughout the state.
USGS acoustic Doppler devices near Rio Vista bridge
keep track of fresh water outflow from Delta channels

      This is the apparent condition of the Delta, according to state-of-the-art flow monitors operated by the USGS in four locations near Rio Vista and Brannon State Park (among others), where fresh water meets salty and becomes brackish. 
       Official estimates of outflow, however, calculate that about  4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of fresh water is flowing into the Bay – admittedly low, but not zero, which would have important implications for managing water in this drought. State-generated outflow estimates are not based on the above USGS monitors, though it has been obvious for at least a year that there is a significant difference in dry years between the two methods of calculating flow.

Small Differences Matter During Drought

      In wetter years, a small disparity such as 3,000-4,000 cfs would not amount to much. This year is different. Drought is taking a huge toll in both northern and southern parts of the state. In the usually wet north, streams and rivers are near dry. The meager snowpack in the northern Sierras hit its runoff peak in April, not July, as usual. Ground water tables are sinking, not just in the San Joaquin Valley, but in some northern counties as well. Farmers throughout the state with junior rights have been ordered to stop diverting water for their thirsty crops.
      Under these conditions, sales of water from north to south – normal at this time of year –become problematic, even when the sellers are willing. And the condition of the Delta, through which the transfer waters must flow, is critical.

Suits Aims to Stop Transfers

Biostatistician Thomas Cannon challenges State outflow
estimates in environmental suit. Credit: Patricia McBroom
      Hoping to stop water transfers of 175,000 acre feet, approved by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this spring, two environmental organizations have filed suit in federal court. They requested an expedited hearing to halt the transfers that are scheduled to begin this month. Plaintiffs charge that the Bureau did not do a proper environmental analysis before approving the transfers, and the flow monitors maintained by the USGS in the Delta are poised to play a staring role in the case.
      “Their totals (measuring delta outflow) have been near zero since May,” said Thomas Cannon, a biostatistician whose work is cited in the lawsuit by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and AquAlliance. I've never seen it this salty up here,” said Cannon on a recent day in the Delta, waving his arm toward the docks at Brannon State Park.  Based on his analysis, the suit charges that the dayflow method used by State and Federal water officials “grossly overestimates actual Delta outflow” during dry years.
 USGS technician repairs an outflow monitor
at Three-Mile Slough in June.
Credit: Patricia McBroom
      If the outflow is truly as low as the USGS monitors indicate, it means that salt water is constantly threatening to move up the estuary and that a number of fish species, including the iconic longfin and delta smelt, are at risk of being carried into the export pumps which carry water to the south of the State.

Accuracy of USGS Monitors Challenged

      Difference, however, does not establish worth. The man in charge of water operations for the State Water Project in California's Department of Water Resources, John Lehigh, challenges the idea that USGS monitors are more accurate than state estimates.  “I have seen no evidence that would lead me to conclude that this estimate of outflow (using USGS monitors) is more accurate than the one used now.” said Lehigh. He added that if someone thinks he has a better way to measure outflow, that person should bring the issue to the attention of the State Water Board. So far, no one has done that, he said.
      Lehigh also questioned whether the monitors located in the lower Delta, closer to the Bay, can truly detect outflow in the presence of tidal flux. Outflow in drought conditions (3,000 cfs, for example) is miniscule compared to the huge tides (150,000 cfs or more) that daily wash in and out of the lower delta.

Science panel Validates New Outflow Estimates

      Apparently, USGS scientists have been able to account for the tides, because a report to the Delta Science Program in February demonstrated that last year's salinity levels in the Delta matched the USGS outflow meters. Not so the estimates used by the state (called NDOI for Net Delta Outflow Index), which judged outflow to be more than twice as high as the USGS monitors in the fall of 2013.
 “The NDOI estimates appeared to be clearly incorrect,” said the science program's final report (page 15) released in May. The report went on to say that Delta outflow did not meet minimum standards last year and questioned why the better outflow measures are not being used now.
     For this blog, a member of the expert outflow science panel, retired USGS engineer Pete Smith, calculated the difference between the two measurements for May and June this year (see graph). 

By official estimates, fresh water outflow from the Delta is about 4,000 cfs; USGS monitors show that outflow to the
Bay vacillated between minus 6,000 cfs and plus 6,000 but the average for May and June was close to zero.
Graph by Pete Smith

                        The same disparity that was evident in 2013 showed up again this year. NDOI estimates were way higher than outflow as measured by USGS monitors. Whereas California officials believe outflow in the Delta is around 4,000 cfs this summer, the actual figure measured where the Delta meets the Bay is about zero.  In light of these findings, the State Water Board will be looking at "possible changes in determining outflow," said SWRCB engineer Rick Satkowski.

Delta Smelt Not in Normal Habitat

      So what does this complicated science all mean?
      One possibility is that famous Delta fish species – the delta smelt and longfin smelt– could go extinct this year. Smelt follow a salt line called the X2 because they prefer brackish water. Normally the smelt are in Suisun Bay by the end of June, but this year they seem to be still swimming around in the central Delta, near Brannon. In addition to using possibly inaccurate measures of outflow (thus not releasing sufficient water from the reservoirs), the State has also relaxed its salinity standards this summer, bringing the X2 boundary further upstream. This means the precious few smelt that are left after years of decline are now directly in line of the pumps that take water south.
      “This year, the only delta smelt anyone's been able to find are in the Delta,” said Michael Jackson, an environmental lawyer who has filed public trust suits against the State in past years, but is not involved in this one.
Four USGS stations monitor outflow where Delta water enters the Bay;
official outflow monitors are located further upstream toward Sacramento
and where rivers enter the Delta.
      “Because there is no outflow, the only flow will be toward the pumps. Since transport goes right through the area where the last smelt are, it seems like we have put a tremendous amount of money and pain into preserving the fish, only to end up exterminating the species this year.”  Jackson said there is nothing in the Bureau of Reclamation's environmental report on water transfers that recognizes the threat to delta smelt.

Northern Communities also at Risk

      Nor is there anything that recognizes the danger to communities, farms or ecology in California's north, said Barbara Vlamis of AquAlliance, one of the plaintiffs. She said that the Bureau has simply asserted that no environmental harm will be done to northern areas selling the water, calling the assessment a “cheap and shoddy version of NEPA” (National Environmental Policy Act).
“Why are we selling water out of the north when the area will be rationing this summer? By percentage of normal precipitation, the north has been hit harder this year than the south,” said Vlamis.
      (Bureau officials have been making “temporary” one-time transfer decisions for years, thereby obviating the need for a full-scale environmental analysis on any one of them. The environmental suit is challenging this practice.)

Salt Levels Due to Affect Pumps

      Another thing zero flow means is that salt contamination of pumps that bring water to people in Contra Costa County, as well as southern parts of the State, will climb throughout the dry summer months. When salt rises too high, however, the Contra Costa Water District can dilute it with fresh water from Los Vaqueros Reservoir, so there is no imminent threat to urban areas. Too much salty water in the southern Delta could, however, stop the water transfers regardless of the outcome of the pending legal case.
      Who gets the water – if it goes through – is unknown. Buyers and sellers are anonymous until contracts are written. But if history and rumor are any guides, most of the water is destined to reach Westlands, the wealthy corporate farmers in Kern County, known far and wide for their political muscle in bending state and Federal policies to their private needs. And that's a shame. It is bad enough that these toxic lands, which release selenium into the waterways, get watered in wet years. It's a travesty when they get to use water during a drought like this – water that is critically needed to save the ecosystem and hold the salt at bay for the rest of us.