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.”