Water bills threaten California prosperity

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By WAYNE LUSVARDI

Will Southern California sell its maximum annual entitlement of 2 million acre feet of water from the State Water Project for a bundle of small water projects of uncertain yield, plus $2 billion of political pork barrel projects, if voters approve the proposed $11.1 billion Comprehensive Water Package, a bond proposal known as the “Safe, Clean, Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010”?

That is a key question for statewide voters to answer by the November 2010 election. And to do this they need to understand the package of water bills (SB1, SB 2, SB6, SB7 and SB8 from 2009) that have been cobbled together before they vote out of panic given the dire curtailment of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities.

Forgetting for the moment that the state is broke, the entire approach of the $11.1 billion package of legislation is to first allocate money and then find projects to fit its major co-equal goals of Delta restoration and water supply reliability. This process is backwards from that of the Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown era where alternative water projects were first evaluated by engineers for physical and economic feasibility, quantified for water yield, and then the best project was specifically selected and the public was asked to fund it with a bond issue.

‘Ready, shoot, aim’

We have no idea today how many, if any, of the myriad of proposed statewide water projects in the Comprehensive Water Package have any physical or economic feasibility. Rather, they are like former Gov. Jerry Brown’s failed geothermal “ghost” plants built in the mid-1980s, where the funding and political approvals preceded any idea of whether they were feasible in the first place. “Ready, shoot, aim” seems to be the panicky approach of the Comprehensive Water Package.

For example, the notion that urban Southern California wastes water by letting rainfall flow out to the ocean sounds good, but proposals to capture this water are misguided. Sure, large amounts of urban rainwater flow to the ocean. The drainage plans of most coastal cities in California were originally designed to divert rainwater to the ocean via flood control channels mostly built as jobs programs during the crisis of the Great Depression. Water and power during that era were to be supplied from far away by huge Works Progress Administration dam and hydro-power projects – not from local reservoirs and canals to capture urban runoff.

But urban runoff can’t be physically and economically captured. Where would one build the reservoirs – where houses exist today? There no longer is land available in urban cities to build another Santa Fe Dam such as currently exists in Irwindale or Prado Dam near the Corona in Southern California. Neither are there any new foothill dams that could be built like Morris Dam that is upstream from the San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County.

These are pipe dream projects that can’t possibly meet the needs of a growing population state. But such projects are apparently being considered for funding by the Comprehensive Water Package under the line-item designated for “Coastal Counties and Watersheds,” as well as other line items.

The Delta Master Veto Agency

A triangular-shaped island at the ocean mouth of many rivers is named after a similar shaped letter from the Greek alphabet – “delta.” Incremental sedimentary river deposits create a delta island or alluvial fan. The word “delta” also means the amount of change from deposits of a financial investment. But the new Comprehensive Water Package will not be incremental or gradual with respect to the change it will bring to the structure of California’s water system.

The Comprehensive Water Package creates a Delta Stewardship Council that will effectively abrogate Southern California’s existing maximum annual entitlement of two million acre feet of water from the State Water Project. It would have veto powers over the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the State Department of Water Resources (DWR), Westland Water District, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and other water districts as to building any future reservoirs and canals. All future water infrastructure projects statewide would have to be vetted through the Delta Stewardship Council and its tentacle entities.

The package would create a seven-member Sacramento Delta Stewardship Council that would have quasi-judicial powers to balance the “co-equal” goals of “Delta restoration and water supply reliability.” The Delta Stewardship Council would consolidate the current patchwork of agencies and cities that have jurisdiction over the Delta.

A whole new state entity, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy would also be created under the Natural Resources Agency, to implement ecosystem restoration of the Delta. A Delta Independent Science Board would additionally be created to advise the Conservancy and Stewardship Council. And a Delta Watermaster’s office would be created and funded to assure water quality enforcement. All these new entities would be linked with a larger web of existing committees and state agencies.

The Water Package is no less than a new reorganization of state water politics and implementation with the Delta getting first dibs at water and everyone else queuing up afterward. The long-proposed Peripheral Canal to divert water around the Delta is expressly forbidden under the water bill package. Cities and farmers are hoping that by passing the water bill package that the roadblock of fixing the Delta will surmounted and the Peripheral Canal can ultimately be built. But when would that be – 2050, if ever?

And what about the problem of bait and switch? The last time Southern California got a bundle of state water projects in return for building levees in the Delta it made sure to enshrine the projects in the state Constitution so that they could not be unwound at the next session of the state Legislature. There is no such guarantee in the water bill package. The hope that the package is a prerequisite for the Peripheral Canal, Auburn Dam or other water projects is an exercise in faith.

Even if Southern California water leaders are appointed as members of the Delta Stewardship Council they effectively will end up representing the Delta, not their water ratepayers. Who would end up advocates for Southern California cities, Central Valley farmers or even the urban ecosystem? Presumably, everyone outside the Delta would end up being represented by state bureaucratic officials. The Legislature would only have authority over water projects outside the Delta that the Delta Stewardship Council did not veto.

The Stewardship Council would additionally delegate to the State Department of Fish and Game and the Water Quality Control Board the responsibility to “identify the water supply needs of the Delta Estuary.” The water supply needs of urban or agricultural users would not be on their radar screen.

Of likely concern to cities surrounding the Bay Delta is that each city would have to certify to the council that development and land use decisions are compatible with the Delta Plan, subject to an appeal process. This would usurp “home rule” for many Bay Area cities and counties. Imagine something like the Coastal Commission suddenly having jurisdiction over your city, leading many observers to believe that the package is a simple power grab.

Water officials contacted in the process of writing this article anonymously stated that their educated guess as to how much of its water entitlement might flow to Southern California after the Delta gets to trump all water needs in the state is about 25 percent (500,000 acre-feet, or enough for about 2.5 million people). On a wet year, Southern California typically draws down about 500,000 to 1 million acre-feet of water from the State Water Project. The last time the MWD drew close to its maximum entitlement was 2001, when it drew about 1.7 million acre feet of water during the California Electricity Crisis. However, Southern California’s cities could lose their potential entitlement to water for 7.5 million people overnight on the November 2010 election.

The Delta Stewardship Council would theoretically offer a fix to the political fragmentation and dysfunctional log jamming that characterizes about every issue in the state. But even though the council would have broad powers to fix the Delta, it would also have the power to veto other water projects statewide, leaving only the Delta immune from the political dysfunction that exists in California government.

The Comprehensive Water Package would not be incremental but revolutionary. In concept it would save the Delta, but it would be “every man for himself” for the rest of California, albeit with the aid of some subsidies for local water projects and $2 billion in pork barrel projects for key politicians.

20 by 2020

This package of bills calls for a 20 percent reduction in baseline daily per capita water use by the year 2020.  It also calls for the volume of agricultural water to be measured for the first time.

Perhaps of most interest to the average person, it establishes a target of 55 gallons per capita daily for residential indoor water use. Taking a shower can use 25 gallons alone.

The water bill package gives water agencies four options for complying with conservation goals: (1) 20 percent reduction in daily use; (2) 20 percent reduction in regional imports; (3) utilize performance standards for commercial, industrial and institutional users; and (4) a method to be developed by DWR by 2010.

Processed water from recycling would not be subject to conservation mandates. The problem with conservation is that it works on the state level by eliminating the need for new costly and environmentally damaging dams and canals. But on the local level conservation only depletes local groundwater basins resulting in more reliance on imported water supplies.

Delta Council as Climate Change Talisman

The rationales for saving the Delta from environmental crisis are often depicted in quasi-religious apocalyptic terms: rising sea levels that would flood the fresh water Delta with seawater; warming temperatures would mean more rain and less snow pack in the Sierras, resulting in more floods; catastrophic earthquakes could breach Delta levees resulting in seawater intrusion that would end shipments of imported water to Southern California; global warming and pollution are killing off salmon and smelt fish populations. Realistically, the water bill package would prevent none of these scenarios.

The Delta Stewardship Council would be empowered to review transportation and land- use plans for impacts on climate change. This would include compliance with California Senate Bill 375, the “anti-sprawl bill,” that diverts new growth and development away from suburbs and edge cities and toward coastal cities.

An obvious problem with all this anti-global-warming and anti-sprawl legislation is that the most abundant groundwater resources in California are located inland and not toward the coast. So reducing auto pollution by shortening auto commutes or shifting to light rail would in turn result in more dependence on imported water supplies. Life is full of trade-offs and ironies never acknowledged by environmentalists or politicians. It is nonetheless strange that such a highly touted package of water bills would result in more dependence on imported water all in the name of combating global warming.

Another problem is that during a prolonged drought existing environmental laws make urban, agricultural and recreational users curtail water usage to great hardship. But the sacrosanct natural environment cannot even be stressed or have any species of fish decline in population due to natural causes without some lawsuit alleging harm from cities or farms.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Center for Rivers and Deltas, flush with a $100,000 blind donation in 2007 from Meg Whitman, won a court injunction against transporting water through the California Aqueduct alleging that pumps at the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant on the California Aqueduct were the cause of the disappearance of the Smelt. But the Smelt don’t find their habitat only near the pumps, nor do they affect them. Today, Whitman ironically is probably the only candidate for governor likely to veto the water bill package if it came across her desk on her watch.

There are other plausible reasons for the smelt’s decline, including pollution and invasive species. Prior water quality improvements in the Delta have increased the population of natural smelt predators. The Smelt, like the famous Spine Stickleback fish, could have gone into hiding to protect themselves. Cleaner Delta water could also have reduced food sources the Smelt forage on such as Krill.

The courts have never addressed the favorable treatment under California environmental laws of the natural environment to the detriment of the urban eco-system. When a dam and reservoir is built, the natural eco-system that once depended on that water is transferred downstream to an environment of urban forests, gardens and wildlife. Urban lawns, rose bushes, tree squirrels and Koi fish ponds are not valued in our culture or laws as is the Delta smelt fish, coastal sage brush and kangaroo rats. “Save the Delta” – to hell with the cities and farms seems to be the mantra.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), measures gross, not net, impacts on the environment. For example, CEQA only measures upstream gross impacts of a dam without considering any offset for the downstream transfer of vegetation and wildlife from the wilderness to cities and farms. Are commercial poppy fields or urban arboretums any less of the environment? The poppies don’t know the difference whether grown in the wild or on a horticultural operation. Once commercialized, poppies (the official state flower) will be sustainable and protected forever.

The Delta Scientific “Certainty Wallahs”

The presumption for the creation of the Delta Stewardship Council and Delta Independent Science Board is that it knows or will know what is best for the Delta environment. This is a dubious presumption, even from a scientific standpoint. No one knows, nor can they know, what the ramifications of tinkering with the Delta ecosystem would be. Moreover, scientists are being asked to make cultural and political values judgments not dispassionate science

For example, say that sending more water to cities in the southern half of the state results in more seawater intrusion to the Delta. So instead of fresh water fish and plant species we get saltwater fish and vegetation. The freshwater species don’t necessarily die off as much as their population is reduced. They are merely replaced by a different type of ecosystem. Scientists can’t tell us which ecosystem is preferable; only cultural and commercial values enshrined in law can. The public can be sold on aesthetic values of species based on visualized depictions of their plight. But what about ugly species or vegetation that sucks up too much water from its “neighbors?” Those are often dubiously labeled “invasive” or “non-native” species.

After spending billions of dollars under the water bill package on cleaning up the Delta purportedly to make it a natural aquarium we can’t be assured that the unintended consequences of the cleanup won’t alter the ecosystem deleteriously. Sociologically speaking, the ideology behind saving the Delta is more anti-business and anti-urban than it is truly scientific.

In any case there is no new cheap water.

According to water officials this writer spoke with, the water bill package and Delta Stewardship Council and Delta Plan won’t make much of a difference because there is no new cheap water that can be created, at least quickly, without a return of the monsoons that periodically fill our statewide reservoirs. If so, California might do just as well or better if it just waited for rain relief rather than rush the water bill package.

Many contend that more water has been over committed from the Bay Delta. Southern California is entitled to a maximum of 2 million of the 4 million acre-feet annually of the State Water Project (WSP) that is routed through the Delta. Four million acre-feet of water sounds like an over-commitment during a drought. But in a drought the state has the right to reduce a water agency’s allocation.  So the argument of over committal of water is specious and often used for propaganda.

As radical as the water bill package is, it cannot change our meteorological fortune or misfortune. The ancients believed that gods controlled the world. In modern-day society we believe we can magically control nature with legislation, with the same result.

A three-year drought is normal by conventional water planning standards. However, if the drought persists to, say, an eight-year cycle as it has in the past, California will be in even more of a crisis.

Fixing the Bay Delta at the cost of farms and cities may ring a death knell for California. The solution lies not in affluence removal or perhaps not even in effluence removal. The environment has always improved with affluence, not the other way around.

3 comments

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  1. Susan
    Susan 5 January, 2010, 14:50

    Great article. Interesting, from looking at a summary of the water bill package one could see that it was loaded with pork and political favors, but this reveals it as a cover for a full power grab. All the more reason to defeat it.

    Reply this comment
  2. sam rivers
    sam rivers 5 January, 2010, 18:14

    Good article as far as it goes; accurately points out that in a “bass-ackwards” fashion the politicos allocated lots of money and then left it to others to find deserving projects. The article fails to point out that $3 billion of that allocation is for storage projects and that the folks who will decide who gets the $3 billion is the California Water Commission. The “who”? The California Water Commission has been defunct, moribund and without any validly appointed members for many, many years. But Water Code sections 150 etc. says the Governor gets to appoint all 9 members of the Water Commission. Is this good government? One unpopular termed out Governor gets to appoint the people who will decide how $3 billion of taxpayer money is spent on water projects that, in reality, ought to be paid for by those who will get the benefits from the projects? And if you answer that some of the benefits are “public benefits” (i.e. environmental benefits) then why don’t the politicos in the Legislature have the courage to retain to themselves the authority to ultimately decide what is a public benefit and where the money should go? Answer: Because they are cowards.

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  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 5 January, 2010, 23:57

    Sam:
    What is to prevent yet another environmental lawsuit on, say, the proposed Sites Reservoir? Nothing that I know of. Then we would be back to square zero.
    WL

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