Thursday, June 14, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

         Anxiety is flooding the water world this month, as people await a Brown Administration plan for a “peripheral canal”, due in July (according to last report).
        The agitation is mixed with incredulity since the project has been so roundly criticized as a fish killer, and the tradeoffs that seem to be under consideration appear to be unworkable.
        Those who want the canal (mainly rich farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) have been told by state and federal fish agencies that they cannot have as much water as they want, nor even as much as they have now. Yet these are the water contractors who are supposed to pay for the “canal” – actually two huge tunnels capable of diverting most of the Sacramento River, costing upwards of $14 billion, plus interest, to build. Who wants to pay for a tunnel that delivers less water than is available through the current setup?
       That question echoes through the airwaves, along with rumors that the Brown Administration plans to weaken laws protecting fish to get its version of the peripheral tunnels built.
From front page of Restore the Delta website
       On Wednesday, a powerhouse coalition of 38 environmental, fishing and San Francisco-Bay Delta organizations wrote to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warning him that “It would be folly for the Department of Interior to follow the State of California down this risky path” and urging him to dissuade the state from this “poorly conceived and destructive plan.”
        But which plan?
        A state panel of scientists appointed to analyze the project – the Independent Science Board (ISB) – couldn't figure out last week how to proceed in evaluating an environmental impact report. “Is this the project we will be looking at?” panel members wanted to know, pointing to a 5,000-page draft EIR released in February. The question went unanswered, but one member gave voice to the word that can't be mentioned – “collapse” – as in “assuming the project doesn't collapse.” He clearly thought it should.
Thirty years later, same canal; underground this time
        To make the anxiety especially acute, state officials have said that they won't decide at this point how much water to pump nor whose finger is on the switch. That will become clear, officials have told stakeholders, as the project is being built and the ecology improves – or not. It's hard to see how anyone on any side of this issue could be comfortable with indeterminate operating rules.
        “It won't fly,” said Sunne McPeak, president of the Delta Vision Foundation, in an interview.  She said that current plans for the conveyance suffer from the same deficiency as in 1982 when the last peripheral canal was defeated by voters. It fails to couple new storage with conveyance so that water can be taken in a huge gulp during wet years and little or not at all in dry years. Lack of storage is an open admission that “you intend to use the facility (in a way that would) starve the fish and the delta of fresh water,” she said.
        But with few details on what the Administration plans to propose, all eyes are fixed on the image of an enormous pumping operation up to five miles long in the most scenic part of the Sacramento River, sucking out most of the fresh water and sending it through tunnels right past the delta.
California needs that dog.
       One is reminded of the climactic scene in the Wizard of Oz when a fearsome image of the wizard is projected onto a wall, with booming voice and belching smoke – until Dorothy's little dog, Toto, trots over to a booth and tugs back a curtain, behind which a white-haired gent is shown pulling levers. Dorothy was being frightened by a magic show.
      Where is Toto when we need him?
       But if smoke and mirrors are clouding California's future water plans, people on the ground – including opponents from north and south – are working together better than ever. Without any state managers in charge, the people who supply water and protect resources are doing what lies in the best interests of everyone: meeting together in democratic groups, under the name “Delta Projects Coalition,” to figure out how best to repair and pay for improved levees. It's about time.
       A project that has the support of major opponents in the water wars – in both southern and northern California – would armor part of the freshwater corridor through the Delta that delivers water to some 23 million people and millions of acres of farmland. Proposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the project would raise and widen the tops of levees, adding berms to their slopes, in a stretch of the Middle San Joaquin River, at a cost of less than $200 million.
      The aim is to strengthen the levees enough so that a large earthquake in the Bay Area, while it might cause the levee to slump, wouldn't break it, leaving time for workers to get out there with reinforcements, said Roger Patterson, general manager of MWD in an interview.
       “If we can hold the Middle River pathway together (after a big earthquake), we might still have limitations on water diversion, but at least we wouldn't be out for an extended period of time.” Patterson said they could probably put things together and be back on line in six months, rather than the years estimated by state water officials.
        “We will be diverting water from the south Delta forever,” said Patterson, referring to the pumps near Tracy that get water via the Middle River. “So having integrity in the levee system for the long term is in our interest as well.” Almost half of Met's diversion will continue to come from the south Delta, even with a new conveyance – “if that ever happens,” he added.
Delta engineers build seismic-resistant levees along freshwater corridor
       This particular stretch of the river, however, is not the only piece that needs to be done; Patterson said his agency intends to follow up with more projects. Nor is MWD the only urban agency out there working on the levees. EBMUD has nearly completed work on the levees that protect its own aqueduct. All have the support of local reclamation districts and water agencies in the Delta.
       “We're willing to work with Met, just like we've worked with EBMUD,” said Dante Nomellini, manager of the Central Delta Water Agency and counsel for most of the local districts along the freshwater corridor. Local expertise with levees is critical to the success of any project there. Patterson said MWD plans to rely on that expertise.
       Six long years ago, California citizens passed Prop 1E, a $4 billion bond measure, to reinforce the levees. About $1 billion of it is left – money that McPeak of the Delta Vision Foundation believes should be spent totally on Delta levees, including this freshwater corridor. The Delta Coalition so far is considering 41 separate levee and habitat projects that will be voted upon later in the summer.
       It is a good example of democratic governance of a “common pool resource” as described by 2009 Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom who died June 12 at the age of 78, after becoming the first woman to win the prize in economics. Her work demonstrated that the people who used the common resource created better water systems than governments did because they bargained with each other, forming cooperative relationships, even when they were prone to fight. This advantage of “commons” governance held even when the government could build bigger water works ­– a word to the wise for California.