Fall water anxiety 2013

Submitted: Sep 25, 2013
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 The autumnal spate of water-anxiety articles appears in the desert regions of California as the first big rains hit the northern part of the state. The descriptions of “our water problem” become more neurotic and technically sophisticated each year. Our society maintains, despite all indications that it should be most wary, its sublime faith in the power of American engineering know-how and the democratic process in our state Capitol, where finance, insurance and real estate (especially agribusiness) buys the votes proffered by our elected officials for sale in our sacred “decision making process.”

 

Let us humbly suggest a point of departure for the debate that you will not find in the corporate media: California agriculture and real estate industries are over-developed and long ago outstripped the capacity of the state’s natural resources to support them. It is impossible to imagine in California any longer how anything but increasing social, economic and environmental destruction can “develop.” -- blj

 

 

 

"You have to see it as a 50-50 chance of being above or below average precipitation this winter," he said. "Either way, we will manage, as we have before."

 

 

 

 

Fresno Bee 

Central Valley awash in water worries…Mark Grossi…9-21-13

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/09/21/3511798/valley-awash-in-water-worries.html

The state has not declared a drought after two dry winters, but farmers and city leaders in the central San Joaquin Valley don't need an official pronouncement.

Everyone looks at the bottom line in the Valley — the groundwater. Big withdrawals have been made this summer from the already sinking underground water table in the Valley.

If this winter is as dry as the previous two, the drought conversation could turn to pumping restrictions, which is a dreaded prospect. Farmers, politicians and many businesses do not want state authority and expense involved in the use of groundwater.

But the underground losses due to pumping here are hard to ignore.

The Kings River Conservation District —1.1 million acres of farms and communities in Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties — estimates 500,000 acre-feet of water have been overdrafted from the underground this year. That's enough to fill Millerton Lake.

In Westlands Water District, the groundwater loss this year will total nearly 600,000 acre-feet — the most desperate time since 1992 at the end of a seven-year drought. Dry weather and controversial environmental pumping restrictions left the district with a 20% allocation of Northern California river water this year.

What happens if the coming winter is dry and Westlands gets a zero allocation?

"The district feels it must explore limits on groundwater extraction," general manager Tom Birmingham said. "The district exercised this limited authority in 2006 when we had 100% of our water allocation. This would be quite a different situation."

In Valley cities, groundwater banking projects store water in big rainfall years so there is enough for dry spells. Still, the water table continues to fall in many places such as Fresno — 100 feet over the last 80 years.

Fresno will build a second water treatment plant to provide more river water for customers and greatly reduce reliance on the city's 270 wells.

"Our combined treatment plants will handle 73% of the total demand," said Martin Querin, assistant director of Fresno's public utilities, water division.

Fresno also has gone from flat-rate billing to metered water rates in the last two years, spurring savings. Fresno's per-capita consumption has dropped from 320 gallons a day to less than 250. City officials would like to see it drop to 200 per day.

But as the population grows and dry spells continue during climate change, groundwater still will be an important part of the water supply for Valley cities and farms, many experts say.

About 70% of California's total groundwater use is in the combined San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, known as the Central Valley, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

California groundwater pumping is not regulated by the state, as it is in such places as Colorado and Arizona. The idea always has been a political hot potato in Sacramento.

One result: The region has tens of thousands of private wells that are not tracked in a detailed way, unlike river water. People in the water business around the Valley are talking about dozens of private wells going dry this year, but the state has no way of tracking it.

Many farmers say they must drill new, deeper wells now. Older wells are breaking down and going out of service, they say.

Kings County grower Ted Sheely, who has 40 years of farming experience in the Valley, says he spent $10,000 over a few days, coaxing water out of an old well to get a crop through the season.

He needs all of his 25 wells this year because his Westlands water allocation is only 20% for his 7,500-plus acre operation. And the open market for water has been very tight.

Over the years, Sheely has shifted part of his farm to permanent crops — 2,500 acres of pistachios and 300 acres of wine grapes. Using stingy drip irrigation, his wells can supply enough water for those crops in dry years. It has proven to be a wise approach.

"This year is really different," Sheely said. "Even in most drier years, you can buy water from someone if you're coming up short and get it the next day. This year, you might have to wait, and it's a real challenge. When you need water for a crop, you can't wait a week."

The underground aquifers, which run thousands of feet deep in some places, have been more than a backup plan in the past. They were heavily tapped decades ago, making the landscape sink dramatically in some west Valley locations.

Just southwest of Mendota in Fresno County, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a 28-foot drop between 1925 and 1977. Federal scientists call it the "largest human alteration of the Earth's surface."

Local groups, such as the Kings River Conservation District, bring together water agencies, local governments and environmental groups to find ways of preventing groundwater depletion, such as groundwater banking.

District leaders estimate 90 million acre-feet of water exists down to a depth of 1,000 feet in the district. But the deeper the wells are drilled, the more expensive it is to pump the water up.

And the demand for water is not going away.

"We've seen demand hardened for urban use and permanent crops," said district general manager Dave Orth. "There is a lot less resilience in the groundwater system now. Limits on groundwater may be inevitable at some point. But I think people recognize and support the notion of local control."

The immediate worry is the 2013-14 winter. Will it be wet or dry?

Gary Serrato, longtime water expert and general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, said this region survived the seven-year drought that ended in the early 1990s. It can survive this dry spell too, he said.

"You have to see it as a 50-50 chance of being above or below average precipitation this winter," he said. "Either way, we will manage, as we have before."

 

Sacramento Bee

Southern California water users view Delta tunnel plan as key to reliable future…Matt Weiser…9-22-13

http://www.sacbee.com/2013/09/22/v-print/5756636/southern-california-water-users.html

When it comes to water supply in California, nothing is easy or cheap. Experts will tell you the simple solutions were tapped decades ago, and most new water development projects are about stretching whatever water nature has left.

So it ought to be no surprise that California’s biggest water users are preparing to invest $25billion in a water project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that may not deliver one drop of “new” water supply.

That project is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the state’s proposal to build two massive tunnels beneath the Delta. Already the source of half of California’s fresh water, the Delta environment has been under strain for decades. The tunnels are proposed as a way to ease this strain while also stabilizing water deliveries from the estuary, the largest on this half of the Pacific Rim.

If approved next year, the project would bring a decade of heavy construction to the Delta, including rerouted highways, new power lines and thousands of heavy truck trips. Once built, the new infrastructure and a planned 100,000 acres of habitat restoration would transform the Delta’s character.

Some Northern Californians have branded the project a water grab, fearing the tunnels are primarily a tool to divert more precious Sierra Nevada snowmelt to Southern California.

But the current project description promises no additional water supply beyond what has been diverted from the Delta, on average, over the past decade. As a result, lots of people watching the project are asking why it should be done: How is it that a project that will be so disruptive to the Delta landscape, and promises so little in terms of water supply, has become the state’s top-priority water infrastructure project?

The Southern California water agencies backing the project say the answer is clear-cut. They say the tunnels are essential to their economic future – and by extension, the state’s. What they want from the project is “reliability,” a word that is relatively new in the world of water supply. What it means is disputed. But the clamor for reliability does suggest there are not many options left to provide more water in 21st century California.

“We’ve kind of come to the conclusion that we’re near the limits of what we can do to cope,” said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager at Westlands Water District, the massive farm irrigation agency in the San Joaquin Valley.

As a measure of the project’s importance, water agencies in Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Clara Valley have spent about $240million just to get far enough to release a draft environmental impact study, due for release next month. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that equals the cost to build Folsom Dam, which was completed in 1956 and stores 1million acre-feet of water.

Reliability, Peltier said, means a predictable water supply, not one that swings wildly from one season to the next based on rainfall and rules to protect endangered species, like the Delta smelt, an endangered native fish that may be near extinction.

As an example, he said, state and federal water agencies had to cut the throttle on their Delta diversion pumps in December 2012 to avoid killing too many smelt, which would have violated the Endangered Species Act. As it turned out, December was the only wet month last winter. The January-through-June stretch proved to be the driest in state history,

As a result, Westlands had its 2013 allocation of Delta water cut to just 20percent of what its contract allows. If the coming winter also proves dry, Westlands estimates its 2014 allocation could be worse: zero to 10percent.

“That has people scared to death,” Peltier said.

Westlands holds a contract to purchase as much as 1.1million acre-feet of Delta water annually. It serves about 600 farmers who irrigate more than 600,000 acres in Fresno and Kings counties, generating more than $3billion in economic activity annually.

Other major water diverters south of the Delta got a 35percent allocation this year, including those in Silicon Valley, Kern County, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Seeking a stable supply

The tunnel project might alleviate such cutbacks because it would build three new water intakes 40 miles farther north on the banks of the Sacramento River, near Courtland. The current diversion pumps near Tracy are located at a comparatively dead-end location, where fish screens are not effective. The proposed new intakes are considered a better location, because the Sacramento River will provide sweeping flows past the intakes that allow the use of modern fish screens; water could be diverted even if smelt are present.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 18million people in the sprawling Los Angeles-San Diego region, got only 35 percent of its Delta water allocation this year.

Roger Patterson, assistant general manager at Metropolitan, said a reliable supply would mean 65percent to 75percent of the agency’s full contract water deliveries is available every year. That amounts to 1.3million to 1.5million acre-feet of water, or enough to serve at least 3million households per year. The tunnels also could create more leeway to divert surplus water in winter, such as during pulses of storm runoff.

Patterson said Metropolitan is not looking to get more water from the Delta, and that it is moving aggressively to conserve water. Average residential water use in the district is 160 gallons per person per day, compared to 217 in Sacramento. He said what Metropolitan needs is more certainty.

“What we’re looking for is to basically find a way to stabilize our water supply,” said Patterson. “We’ve got to make sure we provide the reliability in water supply so that it’s not the controlling factor that decides you cannot have more people here, you cannot have new businesses coming in.”

That reliability will come at a huge cost. Construction of the tunnels and intakes is estimated to cost $15billion and take 10 years. If the project is approved next year, it would be funded by bonds issued by the California Department of Water Resources, the project’s lead agency, and repaid by water rate increases charged to everyone who receives water from the tunnels.

The remaining $10billion of the project’s total cost would go mostly to habitat restoration. The plan calls for restoration of 100,000 acres of Delta habitat, in the hope that 57 imperiled wildlife species can leave the endangered species list. The plan calls for most of this expense to be covered by taxpayers at large, using future state bond measures and federal funds.

The project originally was intended to deliver more water than diverters, including Metropolitan and Westlands, currently receive from the Delta. But state and federal wildlife agencies provided a bruising reality check over the past two years. In short, more water probably isn’t possible, even with the tunnels, if the state also aims to recover those 57 imperiled species.

As a result, water users have had to settle for reliability – the notion that they may not get more water, but what they do get could be much more dependable.

There has been extensive debate about whether the huge investment is worth it in this context. Patterson said it is. He deems it essential to support ongoing investment in other water supply solutions, such as groundwater storage and wastewater recycling. These depend to some degree on Delta water. Without that assured supply, these other projects become “stranded investments,” he said.

“We’re looking at making an investment that is substantial,” he said. “But the economics of that are very sound.”

Critics of the project disagree, and caution that the tunnel cost is likely to increase, given that the engineering and design are still preliminary. Instead, they want Delta water users to reduce their dependence on the estuary through aggressive conservation, tapping local supplies, recycling wastewater and investing in seawater desalination. If the diverters commit to these options, some environmental groups are even willing to consider a single, smaller Delta tunnel.

“The project has not proven to be financially or environmentally feasible,” said Jonas Minton, senior project manager at the Planning and Conservation League and a former deputy director at the state Department of Water Resources. “The draft environmental analyses released to date show that, at best, there might be minor improvements for some species, but potentially significant adverse impacts on other species. And the costs have run up through the roof.”

Earthquake could sever freshwater flows

Another major justification for the project that supporters raise is the threat of a disaster in the Delta, such as an earthquake or flood, that could take out levees. Because most Delta islands actually sit below sea level, the collapse of numerous levees would cause the islands to fill with water, in turn sucking salty water into the Delta from San Francisco Bay. This contamination could cut off freshwater diversions to the south state.

If that were to happen, Peltier said, “there would be tremendous pressure to stop irrigating farms,” and divert whatever fresh water is available to keep cities functioning.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that, by 2050, there is a 60percent chance of an earthquake occurring that is large enough to flood multiple islands. “The consequence of multiple island failures is pretty certain,” Peltier said.

The tunnel proposal is designed to protect against this scenario by placing the three new intakes upstream of the most vulnerable islands, and upstream of the likely extent of seawater intrusion.

When the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was first conceived, water officials estimated such a disaster could cut off freshwater exports from the Delta for as long as two years. It could take that long, they said, to repair some of the islands and flush out the Delta with fresh water from upstream reservoirs.

More recently, those estimates have been revised significantly, and most water officials now speak of a six-month halt in water deliveries. And in a little-noticed 2010 study commissioned by Water Resources, consultants estimated freshwater exports could resume in as little as two to three months after a disaster that floods numerous islands, even accounting for future sea level rise.

Reinforcing this are two separate economic analyses of the tunnel project, one from a consultant hired by Water Resources, and another by Jeffrey Michael, an economist with the Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific. Michael put the economic cost of such a disaster at $866million, and the Water Resources consultant put it at no more than $477 million. One reason is that all Delta water contractors have other supplies they could rely on, if used cautiously, to survive a few months without Delta water.

“It’s a scary scenario that works well in political rhetoric,” Michael said. “Even if we put that aside, it’s not the strong economic justification for the project.”

One of the biggest concerns to Minton and others is the question of how the tunnels will be operated. It remains to be seen, he said, whether there will be dependable and independent operation of the tunnels to ensure water diversions don’t harm the Delta environment, the Sacramento River, and upstream water users such as the city of Sacramento. State and federal wildlife officials have raised similar concerns in their early reviews of the draft proposal.

Patterson said Metropolitan already is proceeding with every conceivable alternative to serve anticipated growth. This includes stormwater capture, wastewater recycling, groundwater development and some of the nation’s most aggressive conservation measures.

It also is exploring seawater desalination, seen by many as a cure-all for the state’s water struggles. But Patterson said sufficient desalination to serve the Los Angeles region would be even more costly and time-consuming to build than the proposed tunnels.

For example, the Carlsbad Desalination Project, backed by the San Diego County Water Authority, is under construction and considered the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. But it took 20 years to reach construction, it will likely cost $1 billionto build, and it will yield only about 56,000 acre-feet of water per year. That water will cost $2,000 per acre-foot, more expensive than any other source in California, and will meet only 7percent of San Diego’s water demand.

Patterson said it would take 30 such projects to replace the region’s Delta water supplies, likely requiring a desalination plant every 5 miles along the coast from Mexico to Ventura. It also would require a massive network of water pipelines and significant new energy supplies to serve the plants.

Which helps explain why Metropolitan and others are prepared to invest so much just to hold tighter to their Delta water supply.

“To think you can find a replacement source for something like that that would be economically and environmentally acceptable, it’s just not out there,” Patterson said.

 

“On a macro level, this is a story about California’s ongoing struggle over water: how to allocate a limited and unstable supply to meet the mounting demands for clean drinking water, crop irrigation, healthy fisheries and outdoor recreation,” Anderluh said. “With or without the tunnels, California is facing difficult choices that will require new ways of thinking about conservation, water storage and wildlife. The Delta gives us a focal point to explore those issues.”

 

 

Joyce Terhaar: Not many stories are bigger than the Delta…Joyce Terhaar...9-22-13

http://www.sacbee.com/2013/09/22/v-print/5754280/joyce-terhaar-not-many-stories.html

It affects the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. It could harm the oldest known bird species. And, while it is expected to cost a fraction of the price of California’s proposed high speed rail line, the $25billion price of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan still would make it one of the most expensive state public projects ever.

This immense plan supported by Gov. Jerry Brown would build three new intakes in the Courtland area that would then move water into two 30-mile long tunnels bored 150 feet underground. The construction is intended to protect fish species and the estuary that supplies two-thirds of California’s water. Perhaps more relevant to some of you are concerns that it would disrupt and change this picturesque recreation, farming and wine region. Or that it could impact this region’s animal habitat and water supply.

It’s a complicated plan, and the job of The Bee’s Matt Weiser to translate this policy wonk language into stories that matter to you.

Few news organizations in California are able to deeply cover public policy issues that affect our lives. Those that do include traditional newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Stockton’s The Record or San Jose Mercury News, all of which have weighed in on the Delta proposal. It’s difficult and sometimes tedious work, and it takes years of reporting to build up enough expertise. For us, though, it’s a key part of our reporting mission. The tunnel plan falls squarely into reporting areas we emphasize: It’s local, it involves a substantial public expenditure that should be scrutinized, and it is one of the most knotty of statewide public policy issues, designed to resolve decades of disagreement over California’s water supplies and endangered species.

“I think this is exactly the type of coverage where The Bee ... can provide a real public service,” said Deb Anderluh, senior editor for investigations and enterprise.

Anderluh is Weiser’s editor and knows well the expertise he brings to his coverage. Weiser was the reporter who discovered last year that California’s parks system was hiding money even as it was asking for donations to keep parks open. He’s covered the environment for about 25 years, and the Delta and water issues for 15.

Weiser explains his role this way: “I’ve tried to give readers a good look at the complexity of the project, and of the Delta itself. The complexity has been difficult for me to wrestle with, as well, because we’re talking about 30,000 pages of technical documents and seven years of planning” so far.

Weiser’s coverage has ranged from explanatory to investigative. He broke the story when state officials proposed a new route for the tunnels to ease the damage to some Delta towns. Then he pointed out the conundrum: The new proposal would have this giant construction project run through Staten Island, where voters paid $35million to create a refuge for the endangered greater sandhill cranes, the oldest known bird species.

“That’s typical in the Delta: You find a place for one puzzle piece, and another suddenly doesn’t fit,” Weiser said.

Weiser has examined the economic projections of the Delta plan, which claim it will generate $5billion for the state, along with 1million jobs. The projections rely on water delivery that critics say might not happen, and that customers who benefit from the delivery will foot the higher bills to pay off public bonds. He’s looked at water contracts being negotiated by state and federal water agencies that will set the stage for that financial scenario.

And he’s delved into life in the Delta and how it might change under the tunnel plan, as well as reporting the protests and backlash attached to the plan.

“I’m trying to give people a sense of the high stakes,” Weiser said. “The Delta is in trouble because there are too many people depending on it for water. Even worse, there isn’t as much water available as in the past because of climate change and new understanding about fishery needs. It’s a classic resource conflict. ... All of California depends on it to some degree.”

In today’s story, published on Page A1, Weiser examines the proposal from the perspective of Californians to the south who need a more consistently reliable water source. It’s an entirely different perspective from the more common concern in Sacramento that the project will upend lives and potentially harm water supplies and ecosystems. Yet it is a perspective necessary to understand the broader import of the Delta plan.

Do Sacramentans need to understand that perspective? We believe we do. Sacramento’s political battles over the Delta plan, our community support or opposition, all ought to be informed by an understanding of what the state looks like if water reliability does not improve.

“On a macro level, this is a story about California’s ongoing struggle over water: how to allocate a limited and unstable supply to meet the mounting demands for clean drinking water, crop irrigation, healthy fisheries and outdoor recreation,” Anderluh said. “With or without the tunnels, California is facing difficult choices that will require new ways of thinking about conservation, water storage and wildlife. The Delta gives us a focal point to explore those issues.”

Our reporting is only one piece of our coverage, however. The editorial board continues to opine as the plan moves forward, particularly about opportunities for the public to weigh in. Currently state and federal officials say they will build the tunnels without a vote of elected lawmakers or the public. The Bee’s institutional stand – which is separate from our news coverage – is that the process must be more inclusionary.

The Delta plan already has changed because of public pressure. We’ll continue to provide news and analysis of this key state project as it moves forward.

 

9-26-13

Los Angeles Times

Delta conservation plan is only a piecemeal solution

What's needed is a statewide, or even regionwide, solution to the problem of limited water supply and burgeoning demand.

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20130925%2c0%2c2605143.column?track=rss

STATEN ISLAND, Calif. — The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically sensitive areas in the country and the source of 30% of Southern California's water. It's also broken.

Those may be the only facts about the delta on which everybody agrees.

Because of oxidation of the area's unprotected peaty soil, the level of farm tracts on some of its 57 levee-ringed islands has dropped to as much as 30 feet below sea level. That makes them especially vulnerable to a rise in the water level, deterioration of the levees and contamination by saltwater flowing in from San Francisco Bay. Habitat for countless species of fish, bird and mammal has been destroyed. Before 1850, the delta comprised 540 square miles of freshwater wetlands and more than 300 salt marshes; today those ecosystems have been shrunk to a combined 48 square miles.

"The delta is one of the most degraded estuary and wetland systems in the nation," Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a group of journalists this week. He also said that fixing it "might be the most intractable natural resources problem in America."

Bonham was speaking from this 9,100-acre island owned by the Nature Conservancy, which operates a migratory bird refuge and demonstration farm growing corn and wheat on the tract. His audience was assembled to tour the delta, a filigree of winding waterways east of San Francisco Bay and west of Stockton, by the Metropolitan Water District and the state Department of Water Resources. Their goal was to promote the latest in a long sequence of delta fixes, the so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The massive scheme includes a pair of 30-mile tunnels to carry water from the Sacramento River upstream of the delta to an existing pumping station downstream, where it feeds into the California aqueduct serving the Central Valley and Southern California. The tunnels would be paid for by growers and urban water users in the south — the average bill for a Southern California resident served by the MWD would move $5 a month higher over several years, according to Jeff Kightlinger, the district's general manager. A final environmental impact statement for the plan is due to be published Nov. 15.

The second part of the plan is a large-scale rehabilitation program aimed at reclaiming 150,000 acres of wetlands and marsh after decades of destruction. The restoration would be financed out of the proposed $11-billion water bond issue that Gov. Jerry Brown hopes will prevail on the November 2014 ballot.

There are obvious virtues to shifting the aqueduct intakes 40 miles upstream from their current location in the south delta. The change would yield improvements in water quality and accommodate new technologies to keep fish out of the intakes — currently salmon fry and delta smelt get sucked into the pumping plants and mulched. The project's supporters say the tunnels would reduce the risk that earthquake or storm damage to the levees would interrupt the flow of water to users in the Central Valley and Southern California.

Yet the very nature of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan underscores its greatest flaw. The plan yokes a major infrastructure improvement to an environmental upgrade serving one discrete element of the state's water supply network. What's needed is a statewide, or even regionwide, solution to the problem of limited water supply and burgeoning demand.

"Our water use isn't planned, it's haphazard," says Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute and one of the most incisive analysts of water issues today. As he points out, every part of California's water supply system is connected to the whole. Yet state and regional water policy focuses on solving problems as though they occur in separate sandboxes.

Is there a dispute over Southern California's supply from the Colorado River? Then we solve it narrowly through agreements among the dozens of government bodies, Indian tribes and water districts with claims on the river. Corporate growers plant almond and pistachio trees in the Central Valley because they're hugely profitable. But the trees are exceptionally thirsty, and once they're planted they create a permanent demand for lots of water. Are thirsty almonds the best crop for a semi-arid region with lots of competing demands? Doesn't matter; they're planted because their owners happen to have access to lots of water — for now.

"If we took the amount of water we know we have reliably and divided it up in a logical, socially responsible fashion, it would look different from what we have today," Gleick observes. "But there's no overarching guidance about who can plant what where or how much water people use in their homes."

On Gov. Brown's order, the Department of Water Resources is developing a statewide water strategy to be issued next month. But it's not yet public and is sure to be nothing like the ambitious program that's needed for a future of limited supply. The vacuum is only getting more dangerous, since climate change is likely to make rainfall and snowpack in the American West more sporadic and unpredictable.

In the meantime, the best we have is piecemeal approaches such as the delta conservation plan. Proposals to divert southbound water intake around the most sensitive portions of the delta have emerged every 20 or 30 years since the 1930s. The last one was the peripheral canal, a $3-billion, 42-mile project that suffered a resounding ballot defeat in 1982.

The campaign over the canal pitted farmers against urban dwellers, and some farmers against other farmers, but the major split was geographical. Its 2-to-1 support in Southern California was swamped by voting in Northern California that in some counties ran 95% against.

The latest political strategy for the delta aims to circumvent the north-south split that doomed the peripheral canal. The tunnel project itself won't go before the voters, since it's part of a comprehensive delta stewardship plan approved by the Legislature in 2009.

The portion of the conservation plan that will need voter approval is the conservation and restoration scheme, which will be covered by a water bond of up to $11 billion currently scheduled for the November 2014 election. (Voters are thought to be more amenable to spending on conservation than, well, water tunnels.)

The tunnel plan still isn't a slam-dunk. The release of the environmental impact report is certain to prompt many rounds of questioning and dickering by stakeholders on all sides of this multifaceted debate. That process will last another year at least. The plan has already been scaled back to meet objections from local residents and government environmental regulators, and the likelihood that it will evolve further is therefore 100%.

Southern California has achieved wonders through conservation and renewable uses. MWD's water sales have gone down over the last two decades despite a growth of 3 million residents in its service area, and Kightlinger says the district thinks it can fulfill demand through 2050 or even 2075 without expanding the supply it has today.

But make no mistake: Water will continue to be taken out of the delta to serve the Central Valley and Southern California, if only for the simple reason that 75% of precipitation in the state falls north of Sacramento, and 75% of demand is south. Finding a way to do it better is essential. Whether the tunnel plan is that way will be hashed out over the coming months by stakeholders who see the situation through their own lenses. The conflict over their rights is bound to become more intense.

At every stop the journalists on tour this week were shadowed by representatives of local delta landowners and farmers, who maintain that the tunnels will destroy their way of life.

They have a right to be heard. As Bonham put it, "You can't do delta restoration on the backs of the local community." But their interests, and everyone else's, also need to be measured against myriad other statewide interests — salmon fishermen, dairy farmers, semiconductor manufacturers, San Franciscans, Angelenos — and balanced against the immutable realities of supply.

As Gleick puts it, California and the West have reached "peak water." He says, "We're at the limits of what we can do." In the Delta, "we're taking out too much water and the consequences are disputes over allocations and devastated ecosystems." But that's not the only place where more water has been promised than can be responsibly delivered.

"It doesn't solve our problems if we fix only a piece of them at a time," he says. "The delta tunnel is only one piece."

 

 

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