‘New’ Delta plan rehashes old plans from 1950s and 70s

Swamp Water movie poster 1Jan. 24, 2013

by Wayne Lusvardi

Just as Hollywood often remakes old movies, water engineers apparently rehash old forgotten plans to refashion the Sacramento Delta.  And then the proponents call these plans “new” and “cheaper” alternatives.

Water engineer Robert Pyke has gotten a lot of media attention recently for his  “Delta Tunnel Alternative Plan.”  Pyke’s plan is called the Western Delta Intakes Concept.  Pykes plan:

* Was proposed at the eleventh hour after $150 million had recently been spent on Delta studies.  Pyke’s plan ignores the 1,051 comments received by the Delta Stewardship Commission about alternative concepts for conveyance of water through the Delta;

* Is supported by a northern California water lobby, Restore the Delta, disguised as an environmental advocacy organization;

* Also has a tunnel concept.  Any above-ground canal would require very high embankments to protect the canal if a Delta island became inundated, and would have to be very wide to provide support;

* Has no detailed cost estimate other than the unsubstantiated and self-serving claim by Pyke that it is a cheaper alternative.  A similar plan studied in 1997 was two to three times the cost of an isolated eastern canal;

* Even if it had lower construction costs it would likely mean more pumping costs;

* Would likely mean more salinity, resulting in lower quality exported water and higher downstream water treatment costs;

* A key component of Pyke’s plan — a permeable fish screen — would eventually silt up and be useless.  A prior 1997 plan to use the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel to divert water did not provide sufficient “fishery benefits”;

* Would likely result in seepage on adjacent islands resulting in damages to landowners;

* Would eliminate reverse-flow impacts in the central and south Delta, but would not supply fresh water into the extreme eastern Delta.

The Pyke plan calls for a water intake in the western Delta near higher elevated uplands and intertidal areas.  It would be analogous to depending on water only during unusually high tides, instead of on water at low tides. Pyke’s plan is a thinly disguised way for Northern California water interests to keep more water in the Delta by only exporting water to Southern farms and cities when there is a very wet year. Pyke’s alternative would still leave farmers and Southern cities at the mercy of the rainfall cycle.  Thus, it would do little to solve so-called “climate change.”

And this “new” plan is just a rehash of several plans proposed from the 1950s up to 2008.

Swamp water movie poster 2Rehash of old plans

Pyke’s plan apparently is an undisclosed rehash of:

* The 1957 and 1960 proposed Western Delta salinity control facilities authorized under the State Department of Water Resources Bulletin No. 60 in compliance with the Abshire-Kelly Salinity Control Barrier Act of 1957;

* The Montezuma Hills Canal Plan of 1977;

* The “isolated conveyance alternative 3G” proposed in 1997 as part of the old CALFED Delta Plan;

* The Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel plan proposed by the Department of Water Resources in 2001;

* The Isolated Conveyance Plan for a proposed isolated conveyance as part of the Record of Decision (ROD) of the CALFED plan 2008.

Pyke’s plan is anything but new. And like all plans for refashioning the Sacramento Delta, it has already been “studied to death.”

If the current Bay Delta Conservation Plan does not pass a cost-benefit test, Pyke’s Western Delta Intakes Concept would be even less-cost effective. Even if it were a cheaper alternative, it would only deliver water sporadically on an unplanned basis. It would put Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities in a permanent state of drought.

In short, there would be no reliable water supply from such a plan.  Without a dependable water supply, farmers could not get financing to produce crops.  And there would likely be hidden costs, such as higher pumping and water treatment costs and increased need for downstream water banks and conjunctive use basins.

New plan does not provide a solution

Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition commented on Jan. 17 on his blog:

 “This is not a new proposal. It has been part of the project review documented all the way back to last March and can be found here. Proponents of this “new” proposal have taken the current two-tunnel project and cut it in half to only one, reducing its ability to deliver water to farms that need it now and to meet the future needs of cities later, as the article describes. They’re also proposing a reduced ecosystem restoration program in the Delta, cutting back more costs but also reducing the effectiveness of those projects for the environment. Under the guise of cost cutting they have dramatically swept aside years of study that have resulted in the two-tunnel proposal. On the eve of the plan’s formal announcement, this plan suddenly is being shopped as a new idea. It’s not.

“The ‘new’ proposal does not provide a solution to a broken water supply system that threatens our state. This editorial admits that it will not answer long-term needs. Water supply reliability has declined, affecting everyone from urban residents through higher water costs to the farmers that grow fresh fruit and vegetables destined for the grocery store.  The end result is fewer locally grown food choices and higher food costs, all at a time when the economy is just beginning to recover.

“Significantly absent from this group of environmental organizations and business groups are public water agencies that represent large areas of some of the state’s most productive farmland. Not surprising, this ‘new’ proposal would be devastating to farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, home to some of the most productive farmland in the world. 

“Planning for a reliable water supply must continue to move forward.  … [A] smaller approach that ignores the needs of California’s farm community is a step backwards and is the wrong choice for California.”

The newly proposed alternative Delta Plan is like watching the remake of an old popular Hollywood movie.  And this remake is way over budget and is flopping at the box office.


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  1. Eric
    Eric 24 January, 2013, 14:09

    “The Pyke plan calls for a water intake in the western Delta near higher elevated uplands and intertidal areas. It would be analogous to depending on water only during unusually high tides, instead of on water at low tides. Pyke’s plan is a thinly disguised way for Northern California water interests to keep more water in the Delta by only exporting water to Southern farms and cities when there is a very wet year.”

    The core concept of sending more water in wet years and during the rainy winter season and banking in reservoirs more than we currently do makes sense, though. Let’s not “waste” excess water, let’s send it south. The author of this article clearly reflect a southern California bias, but if this water transport capacity is additional to the current capacity, how is SoCal hurt, even if water only flows some parts of the year? It’s still more water, right? There just needs to be a place to put it.

    There’s enough water to go around if we are smart about it(and if the Delta Smelt can share). Some crops and agricultural techniques may be too water hungry for the region, and some southern California water conservation may be in order–the world won’t end if there are a few brown lawns in LA. It’s a desert, after all.

    Reply this comment
  2. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 24 January, 2013, 14:50

    “It’s a desert, after all.”

    That statement vies with “California will fall into the ocean” for the number one position on the All-Time California Canard list.

    They also share similar levels of scientific accuracy.

    Reply this comment
  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 24 January, 2013, 16:32

    Reply to Eric

    There is the hypothesis that the Delta has too much water at times that causes floods and levee failures. I agree that it is certainly better to send that excess water southward where it will be productive. The problem with the Pyke plan as I see it is that it is too dependent on climate and rain cycles. What farmers and cities need is a reliable and regular allocation of water that they can take to the bank and invest in crops, water intensive industries, and real estate development where done wisely. Waiting for the water level to rise to some intake stand pipe in the Western Delta will not provide a steady flow of water for a modern society. Letting all of that water flow to the ocean is not good stewardship. Homeowners typically use 70% of their water for landscape irrigation which is often mischaracterized as waste. But that landscaping water also supports urban flora and fauna, urban wildlife, pets, untold number of butterflies, bees, and other wildlife. All the ecological resources in the state are not in raw, pristine areas. CEQA just considers loss of vegetation and wildlife in some remote watershed not the transfer ecological value to urban ecology.

    Reply this comment
  4. John Bass
    John Bass 25 January, 2013, 12:02

    Wayne, you’ve mistakenly cited Mike Wade’s critique of the NRDC proposal as a critque of Pyke’s plan. Hou should correct this.

    Reply this comment
  5. John Bass
    John Bass 25 January, 2013, 12:03

    *You* that is…

    Reply this comment
  6. rob globus
    rob globus 23 May, 2013, 16:48

    i find the belief that california’s water supply should be treated as and made to be preditible. i doubt that it ever will be. we live in an area with extremely dry and extremely wety wintersd that we are unable to accuretley predict on a long term basis.

    this wasnt such an issue before landowners and farmers put in permanent crops in the southern San Joaquin vally. if you plant permant crops in a waterless desert you may experience a drought year.

    Reply this comment

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