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.”