Tuesday, September 3, 2013


By Patricia McBroom

         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
       Several sources consulted for this report believe that water exports could be improved in the near future, with new fish screens that are in current testing, plus some modifications of through-Delta channels. That, combined with new storage south of the Delta to take excess water in wet years, could either make tunnels unnecessary or reduce their size.
       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.
    The history of through-delta conveyance is a sorry chronicle of one aborted attempt after another to improve water deliveries. The estuary is complex. Water flows are unnatural because much of the water, especially from the San Joaquin River, is driven south instead of west toward the Golden Gate. Politics gets in the way; wealthy San Joaquin farmers and associated water contractors haven't wanted to do anything significant since 2006 to improve current infrastructure for fear of diverting attention from the tunnels.
      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
      Another way to protect fish from the pumps could be to widen and deepen the channels so that water velocity slows down, allowing more fish to escape entrainment. “It's extremely complex, but it should definitely be studied,” said Greg Gartrell, an expert on tidal flow and Delta hydrology who recently retired from the Contra Costa Water District.
      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.
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 
NOTE: Predictions 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:
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.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013


By Patricia McBroom

      Twenty-two years ago, Santa Barbara voters faced a decision like the one the state faces today in the Delta. Voters had to decide whether to build a 144-mile pipeline from the state's aqueduct to the coast, thus bringing northern water (from the Delta) to Santa Barbara consumers. The coastal residents were plagued by drought and thought this would solve their problems. In fact, they were promised it would. Water, they were told, would be more “reliable” – as much as 97 percent reliable. The costs, at a promised $270 million, would be bearable. It all added up on paper.
Santa Barbara sought water from the Delta and paid bigtime for it.
photo from California Water Impact Network
      On Thursday, the Brown Administration released the first of three parts of a plan to build two huge tunnels for carrying water from the north Delta (near Hood) to the southern parts of the state, thus bypassing the Delta's stressed ecology. Citizens will not vote on this plan, which is being requested and shouldered by water contractors south of the Delta. San Joaquin farmers and some Los Angeles water districts believe they will have a more reliable water supply with a north Delta diversion.

Reality versus promises

      The reality in Santa Barbara, however, was shockingly different from expectations. As the years rolled by, costs mounted, many times higher than advertised. Water, it turned out, was not available during droughts. Moreover, the water that was there during wet years could not be stored, because Santa Barbara's lake-reservoir was full at those times.
      Now, two decades later, some of the water districts that signed on the dotted line are in financial difficulty. They are having a hard time generating enough money from sales of water (made too expensive because of the pipeline) to pay off the debt.
       “I tried to stop the state project (for Santa Barbara),” said Carolee Krieger, head of the California Water Impact Network. “I knew it was bad. I just didn't know how bad. The boondoggle has water distributors here borrowing revenue bonds to pay their debt. That's like using your credit card to pay off your mortgage.”
      Driven by this and other experiences in her years as a water warrior, Krieger is now working to raise a water users revolt against the Bay Delta conservation Plan, as the administration's new plan is called.

Some Differences, with Alarming Parallels
BDCP average yearly exports would match those in the 1998-2002 period.
 Higher exports in 2003-2007are judged to have crashed fish populations in 
the Delta. Recent lower exports were aimed at saving the fish.
      Unlike in Santa Barbara, the BDCP does not claim to produce any new water for contractors. It calls for an historic average of water exports to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California of 5.3 million acre feet (maf). (One maf is enough to satisfy the needs of 6.7 million residents). But it claims to make the supply more “reliable.” There's that word again. By “reliable,” they mean pumps won't stop to protect thumb-sized smelt from getting chewed up in export operations in Tracy. On the other hand, the northern pumps might take out too many salmon. So who knows?
      Comparisons between Santa Barbara in 1991 and California in 2013 could be off base; even what happened in that coastal county is controversial. But some of the bold outlines raise alarms. Let's look first at the dry years.

Dry Years and the Price tag

      The BDCP tunnels can't be used much, if at all, during droughts, which will become more common in the future with climate change. In fact, dry years predominate in coming decades.

New pathway (isolated facility) on right would have two 40-foot diameter tunnels
carry export water 150 feet below the surface, from near Sacramento to Tracy's pumps.
      “The BDCP does not solve the dry year problem.” Greg Gartrell, assistant general manager with the Contra Costa  Water District, told state water officials (agenda item 11, index 4) last month. “It doesn't matter how big the pipe is, if you haven't got water to put in it, you just don't get the water.” Gartrell said that during the increasingly likely three to six-year droughts due this century, only a fraction of the 9,000  cubic feet per second (csf) capacity would be used. “The tunnels will be sitting there idle, but you've still got a mortgage to pay.”
      And the mortgage is likely to be a doozy. Most experts foresee some multiple of the $14 billion dollar price tag to be the real price. Such a big mortgage, of course, leaves precious little credit for new storage. So, let's look at the very wet years.

Wet Years and Computer Water

     The models predict incredibly high exports during wet years – so much, in fact, that the flow would exceed the capacity of south-of-delta reservoirs to store it. If, for example, 2025 is a very wet year, the BDCP estimates that it could export as much as 8.2 million acre feet. But there is no evidence there is a place to put that much water south of the Delta. Even if 2025 is an average wet year with projected exports of 6.8 million acre feet, that would surpass the highest export ever from the delta, which occurred two years ago in 2011.
     In March and April of 2011, exporters called a halt to the pumping because they had nowhere to store the deluge. Their reservoirs were full. They stopped pumping at 6.6 maf
     “Unless they (water contractors backing the BDCP) have storage, they are in big trouble.” said Gartrell, who has examined the numbers from the BDCP studies. “If you don't do something about having a place to put the water in wet years, you're fooling yourself with these studies.”
      In an interview and in his testimony, Gartrell referred to these high export figures in wet years as “computer water.” It looks good on paper, but “when it comes to real life, you can't get it.”

The Role of Storage in “Reliability”

     To be more accurate, you can get it, but you can't keep it.
     Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors – the group that is pushing for big twin tunnels – agreed that the maximum water in wet years could not be used. He said that “at some point, in the really wet years, you might have to have additional storage to take advantage of it.” He added, SWC is only providing the “capability,” for delivering the water. “It's up to the water users to figure out how to use it.”
     A spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources, home of the BDCP, said only, “There's no simple answer to that question,” when asked whether south-of-delta contractors could export and store water that exceeded 6.6 maf. She said it depended on how full the reservoirs were already.
Water levels (red line) hit the ceiling in the winter/spring
of 2011 in San Joaquin Valley's main reservoir,
 causing export pumping to stop prematurely. 
     But if history is any guide, export contractors have been unable to take the “big gulp” in very wet years on three or four different occasions since 1995, according to Gartrell.  That's a lot of water lost to reservoirs that could cushion devastating drought. This year, for instance, after the driest January and February on record, and with pumping restrictions already in place, the state is lucky to have begun the year with high water levels still in reservoirs from recent wet years.

A Call for Broader Plans

     The dry/wet year quandary – you can't get it in dry years and can't store it in wet – has raised a concerted call for more and broader alternatives from environmental groups and water agencies north and south.
     Gartrell's water district has joined with half a dozen other districts, including East Bay Mud and San Diego, plus a coalition of environmental and business groups, legislators and members of Congress, to propose an alternative to the BDCP – one that would cut the size of the tunnels to one third (3,000 cfs), while advocating for new storage and improvements to levees. This “portfolio” approach seems to make much more sense than relying only on a pipeline to deliver water that is – whatever the size of the tunnel – unreliable by nature.
     Erlewine's organization disparaged the small tunnel. He said it would only fill the main south-of-delta reservoir (San Luis Reservoir) ten percent of the time, so more storage would not even be needed.
     But Gartrell urged water contractors to take another look at the figures, emphasizing that a smaller, cheaper tunnel gives 90-97 percent as much water as the bigger one, when all the constraints of operating it are factored in. Most of the time, he said, you can't export more than 3,000 cfs from the north Delta because the rules require leaving necessary bypass flows in the river.
      “Most years the big tunnels won't make a dime's worth of difference. Just adding capacity ignores the fact that most of the water still goes through the south (the pumps at Tracy), especially in dry years”
because of needed protections for fisheries.

Back to Governor Brown

     If a tunnel one third the size of that being proposed by the Brown Administration delivers 90 to 97 percent of the goods, why isn't it under consideration? One answer is that the small conduit relies on new storage capability to meet export goals, and contractors have their eyes fixed on a big, big pipe stuffed partially with paper water. Erlewine and others who support the BDCP said they certainly are not opposed to increased storage – everybody wants it. Contractors in the SWC “may be thinking about it,” said Erlewine, “but I'm not aware of any such plans.”
     So, who has the capacity to broaden the goals for the good of the state? Not the citizens. Not any state water agency this reporter has consulted. The state legislature seems disinclined. It's up to the State and Federal Administrations, said Gartrell.
     “I'm not pessimistic, but we need leadership from the Administrations. I don't mean they can impose it, but they can bring people along to get the best project, and I think that's possible.”