Water Board Dunks 'Animal Farm’ Policy

MARCH 24, 2011

By WAYNE LUSVARDI

California policy makers are busy mandating wind and solar farms in its deserts. But along its coastline, the Water Quality Resources Control Board is busy enforcing inconsistent environmental policy right out of George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm.”

Orwell wrote: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

So it seems with the California Water Quality Resources Control Board’s apparently inconsistent policy of mandating that 19 California coastal power plants must stop using ocean water to cool their steam-generating power plants (called “once through cooling” technology) in order to protect marine life.

At issue is a mandate from the California’s State Water Resources Control Board to stop the loss of 57 seals, sea lions or sea turtles per year from ocean water intake systems to cool steam-generated coastal power plants. By contrast, California’s projected 18,000 wind turbines would kill more than 75,000 birds per year with no consistent order to halt such impacts. (That’s estimated at 4.27 bird kills per turbine per year by Nature Magazine.)

Instead, the Water Board is requiring coastal power plants to use either costly fresh water or air-cooling systems to protect marine life from being sucked into its water intake pipes. With fresh water resources in short supply along California’s coastline and a seeming official definition that drought is perpetual, it seems inconsistent to mandate a switch to costly fresh water or precious groundwater supplies to cool coastal power plants.

Only a Water Board in California could come up with a regulation to import river water hundreds of miles away from the Colorado River or the Sacramento Delta to cool power plants next to the ocean to protect a few seals and turtles. Biologists might say that this policy just results in taking fresh water from salmon populations in the Sacramento Delta.  But the Water Quality Act doesn’t factor environmental tradeoffs into its regulations.

There are groundwater basins near power plants along the urban coastline, but drawing water from them for power plant cooling might create another problem: sea water intrusion into local water aquifers. There is no way under the Water Quality Act to consider whether environmental regulations create even worse environmental impacts. Every solution breeds new and sometimes even worse problems.

Rejecting Alternatives

Despite an appeal to no less than the U.S. Supreme Court, the Water Board has thus far rejected the use of a cost-benefit analysis or less costly alternative mitigation methods to protect marine wildlife.  The Water Board’s policy might be internally consistent with its interpretation of the Water Quality Act but, paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, is it “a foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of foolish minds”?

What is the reason for such a double standard of protecting marine life but not bird life described above? Is it to further an environmentalist agenda to bring the cost of nuclear energy and natural-gas-generated power more equal to green power so that it can compete in the electricity market?

Or is shutting down California’s two non-polluting nuclear power plants possibly just to appease nuclear power opponents? There is no way to know. It certainly is environmentally inconsistent and makes no economic sense.

California has an inconsistent policy of no oil drilling platforms within visual distance of its coastline unless camouflaged, and a zero tolerance policy for any loss of marine life from coastal power plants.

On the other hand, California does not have the same standard for large wind or solar farms in desert areas with visually blighting win turbines and solar panels and the accompanying loss of bird life and disturbance of turtle habitats.

Nor does it seem consistent when geothermal power plants in northern California require 11 million gallons of additional “treated wastewater” from a 30-mile pipeline from the City of Santa Rosa. And to think that environmentalists are concerned about the impacts of oil and gas “fracking” on deep subterranean water supplies that are no source to plant or animal life and would be diluted in any event.

One can rationalize the inconsistent policy of the State Water Board by saying that it must comply with the Federal Water Quality Act while wind farms must only comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  But if the loss of a small number of marine mammals and fish is really an issue, then why not just prohibit commercial fishing or fresh water sport fishing?  All animals are equal, aren’t they?

Delta Smelt

Or what about the environmental lawsuit that resulted in a court-ordered shutdown of 90 percent of water deliveries to farms and cities from 2007 to 2010 to protect a few tiny sardine-like smelt fish in the Sacramento Delta?

According to those who filed the lawsuit, the smelt had become nearly extinct from the Delta due to the hydraulic pumps on the California Aqueduct. But the smelt uses its small size and transparency to hide from predator fish and concentrate in cooler deep water during droughts, according to Peter B. Moyle, “Inland Fishes of California,” p. 228.

No mention was made in the media that cutting 90 percent of water deliveries probably wiped out uncounted thousands of striped and largemouth bass, catfish, carp, bluegill and crappie fish that live in the California Aqueduct. Environmental protection is a highly selective and inconsistent process in California.

If archaeologists thousands of years from now have to excavate a 300-mile pipeline to provide cooling water to coastal power plants, they would be mystified at finding a rational answer for it without understanding the politicized bureaucratic culture that produced it.

We can’t look to so-called environmental science or the legalistic scripture of the Federal Water Quality Act to understand all the inconsistencies and absurdities in energy and water policies in California. Sometimes we can find insight in novels such as Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan” where the main character writes in a letter to a friend: “In short, when a person is always to deceive, it is impossible to be consistent.”

It is apparent that politics, not impacts to plant or animal life, is what really drives environmental policy in California.

1 comment

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  1. DA
    DA 24 March, 2011, 14:49

    As usual you’ve nailed it. For those who take delight in learning about the utter insanity that passes for wisdom in California, this article is a treasure trove.

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