Water plan threatens taxpayers, environment

April 14, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

delta.photoIn Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” a priest recalls the words of a man who confessed: “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.” We can all think of people like that — folks of varied political persuasions who rally to “save” humanity, but become so consumed by their cause that they lose patience for the individuals they ostensibly are trying to help.

Judging by Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest plan to “save” the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, he appears to suffer from a variant of the same condition. California’s Green Governor loves the Earth in general but he doesn’t seem to care about particular earthly environments.

Throughout his political career, Brown has championed grand Earth-saving projects such as AB 32, the state’s first-in-the nation cap-and-trade system designed to prod the world into cutting the carbon dioxide emissions that supposedly lead to global warming. He is pushing a high-speed-rail system that is designed to lure people out of their automobiles. He speaks often about his commitment to the environment.

A lack of appreciation for the Delta

Yet I wonder whether the governor has ever taken the short trip from the Capitol to one of California’s ecological treasures. As it comes down from the mountains and heads toward the San Francisco Bay, the bulk of the state’s water passes through the Delta. It is a land of marshes, islands, charming small towns, Victorian mansions, and orchards interspersed between 1,000 miles of waterways.

The Delta also is Ground Zero for ongoing fights over the state’s water supplies. Judges have routinely stopped the water flows out of the Delta, toward the dry but agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley and toward Southern California’s massive metropolises, to help a tiny endangered baitfish known as the Delta Smelt. The smelt is viewed as the canary in a coal mine — a bellwether for the ecological health of the waterways.

Millions of fish are killed each year as they get caught in the giant pumps near Tracy, near the south end of the Delta. Environmentalists also express concerns about the level of saltwater that moves inland from the Pacific Ocean.

This tiny, tranquil region is about to undergo dramatic, government-imposed changes that threaten its beauty and way of life. The governor’s plan is touted by Southern California water agencies and farmers alike who view it as a means to assure more consistent water supplies.

Gigantic project — but not necessarily more water flow

I’m a believer in providing water to thirsty farmers and thirsty cities. But the Bay Delta Conservation Plan won’t necessarily increase the flow of water, according to the first parts of the plan, which recently has been released to the public.

The plan would start a decade-long construction project to build two massive tunnels to bypass the current river system. At a cost estimated as high as $39 billion before the usual government-project overruns, the tunnels would move water supplies under the Delta and thereby decrease the current reliance on the aging, earthquake-prone levees.

The plan has two equal goals: restore the Delta ecosystem and improve water reliability. It won’t increase water flows, but by resolving the Delta Smelt issue it will end the court-ordered water stoppages — at least in theory. Here, the administration proposes the use of tax dollars and massive engineering feats to solve a legal and regulatory problem. This is a poor use of resources, especially in a state that still is largely broke and that already faces some of the biggest debt and tax burdens in the nation.

What are the chances that once the smelt issue is fixed that environmentalists won’t find another reason to sue to stop the water flows given that the water flows are the source of the real dispute?

The administration’s plan will tear up the Delta for at least 10 years. We know how government infrastructure projects are always delayed, so it’s anyone’s guess how long it actually will take. Even its advocates admit that they aren’t sure about the unintended consequences of the project.

Destroying the Delta in order to save it?

deltaAs part of its ecosystem restoration program, this boondoggle will flood a large portion of the Delta’s land, destroying vineyards, farmland, orchards, and marshes. It will submerge islands. There will be land confiscations.

Environmental groups believe the re-engineering of the ecosystem will destroy salmon and other fish habitats. No one in their right mind would hand over a precious region such as this to bureaucrats, but in Sacramento these days the Brown administration is trying to relive the glory days of the New Deal where central planning and big spending are the in thing.

Here’s a case where free-market advocates such as myself and true environmentalists should make common cause — to stop a misguided project that will raise water rates and increase the state’s debt load to provide limited and questionable gains. There are better, cheaper, more reasonable ways to increase water supplies, tend to a damaged ecosystem and shore up the levees.

I don’t expect this governor to worry much about debt spending, tax burdens and that sort of thing. But perhaps his might take a trip through the meandering waterways and charming small towns of the Delta where he can learn that one shouldn’t save the environment in general by sacrificing an environment in the process.

[Editor’s Note: This was corrected. It originally read, “Millions of smelt,” then was corrected to “Millions of fish.”]


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  1. Brown delta trout
    Brown delta trout 14 April, 2013, 14:07

    Communist always destroy the things from the old order, they are symbols of capitalism. If you look at the history of communist countries, only one (China) is more prosperous after the destruction because they switched to free trade. It’s more about pride than function.

    Reply this comment
  2. Itachee
    Itachee 15 April, 2013, 07:59

    Mr. Greenhut your article clearly demonstrates your bias. You state: “Millions of smelt are killed each year as they get caught in the giant pumps near Tracy, near the south end of the Delta.”

    [Editor’s note: Itachee correctly quoted the original text. Due to his notification, we corrected the text to read, “Millions of fish.”]

    That is patently false and the data is readily available from both DWR and USBR web sites. For example, during the month of March 2013 the Total take (loss) of delta smelt at the delta export pumps was 22 fish. That will the reductions in delta pumping intended to reduce smelt take was a total of 180,000 acre-feet. To put that in perspective the average annual water use of the City of Sacramento is a bit less than 150,000 acre-feet.

    You then go on, in the very next sentence, to tacitly accept and support the equally false premise: “Environmentalists also express concerns about the level of saltwater that moves inland from the Pacific Ocean.” That saltwater intrusion is today vastly less than before the water projects were built is documented with maps in the DWR Delta Atlas, water quality chapter available online with a simple Google search.

    Finally, the basic premise of your article is that the cost of delta restoration and solving our state’s delta export water supply problem will be borne by tax payers. Fact is, and it is widely known and documented, that the vast majority of the cost will be borne by delta export water users.

    In closing it is disheartening the Calwatchdog would carry such a blatantly biased, factually groundless article.

    Reply this comment
  3. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog 15 April, 2013, 11:59

    Editor’s note: Steven Greenhut replies to Itachee; the correction has been made to the above text:

    One correction: Millions of fish are killed but not millions of smelt:

    Sounds like the sour grapes of a subsidized water user.

    The project will be financed on the backs of ratepayers and depends on bonds and federal money, so yes taxpayers will foot the bill.

    I don’t know the truth of the salt intrusion, but environmentalists talk about that incessantly and it is discussed throughout the documents promoting this project. Duh. Everyone talks about salt intrusion and the Delta — it’s one of the big justifications for the whole ecological portion of the project.

    And of course I’m biased. It’s a column and I opposed the enormous costs and destruction of the Delta so that people can enjoy subsidized water.

    — Steven Greenhut

    Reply this comment
  4. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 15 April, 2013, 12:28

    California has spent $150 million on environmental studies and I still don’t think all the consequences of the Delta Plan are knowable. History teaches that today’s “solution” is tomorrow’s “problem.” There probably won’t be a solution but tradeoffs.

    California has no choice but to re-engineer the Delta because Southern California has lost the portion of its Colorado River water that it was borrowing from Arizona for several decades. Southern Cal used to get two thirds of its water from the Colorado River and one third from the Delta; now those percentages are reversed.

    The Delta farmers who have access to free water without any water rights will likely be losers. If the Delta can be re-engineered to bring more cold freshwater into the system then freshwater fish may thrive.

    To clarify the comment above about costs:
    There are co-equal goals in the Delta Plan of 1) ecosystem rehabilitation and 2) greater reliability of water supply

    Greater water supply reliability will be furthered by the Delta Tunnels but that will be paid for by a combination of sources including state, Federal, Central Valley farmers, and So. Cal water districts. Northern Cal is apparently does not have to pay for tunnels. Northern Californians are not “stakeholders” in the tunnels because they aren’t paying for them.

    The ecosystem rehab however is tentatively planned to be financed by a general obligation bond to be paid by all ratepayers who get State Water Project water; or by all taxpayers in the state. The Delta Stewardship Council is releasing its financing plan for ecosystem rehab on April 22.

    Reply this comment
  5. Itachee
    Itachee 15 April, 2013, 15:18

    Mr. Greenhut
    I note that despite the Editor’s Note that the “correction has been made to the above text” the two key sentences with which I took issue, and provided sources for the actual data, have not been changed nor beeb deleted. Further the link, apparently provided by you, only serves to further reinforce, as you openly state, your bias. I feel quite let down by CalWatchDog for allowing your open, blatantly biased, factually false commentary.

    I would suggest that in the future you avoid commentary regarding facts about which you “…:don’t know the truth…” which are many. That or do your research to know what the facts are before spouting off.

    In closing I would hope that CalWatchDog would monitor your writings with some fact checking of your writings so as to preserve its integrity and reputation.

    Reply this comment
  6. Steven Greenhut
    Steven Greenhut 15 April, 2013, 16:16

    The commenter’s point — that I should avoid writing about things in which I don’t know the “truth” is downright silly. In the column, I wrote: “Environmentalists also express concerns about the level of saltwater that moves inland from the Pacific Ocean.” I am not judging the degree of intrusion, but am stating a fact — environmentalists have used that problem to call for various solutions to the Delta situation. There is no question that ratepayers and taxpayers will pay for this project. Ratepayers, by the way, are taxpayers. And bonds are paid for by taxpayers. And federal tax dollars are paid for by taxpayers. And who actually believes the state government’s initial projections?

    Reply this comment
  7. Itachee
    Itachee 15 April, 2013, 17:19

    Mr. Greenhut
    If you didn’t intend to use the environmentalists salinity intrusion mantra to support your position you wouldn’t, or should’t, have brought it up. Facts are facts and using patently false positions of others to support your view is hardly unbiased.

    As to your “rate payers” are “tax payers” argument you are clearly trying to construct a straw man to CYA. The rate payers, especially in the Central Valley Project and most of the State Water Project know full well they are footing the vast majority of the bill. And here again, a little bit of research would show you that.

    In closing you earlier asserted that I sound like a “sour grapes subsidized water user”. Again, shows your bias. In point of fact I am not now nor have I ever been a farmer of any other sort of so called “subsidized water user”. But if you want to talk honestly about subsidies you may want to research who pays for flood control benefits provided by the state and federal water projects, benefits that keep cities like Stockton, Sacramento and most of those in the delta from being hosed off the map. I’ll help you out. The land owners in those and other cities up and down the state haven’t paid a dime for it. And we could go down that same path with same findings talking about water quality benefits provided to in-delta land owners.

    Reply this comment
  8. Brown delta trout
    Brown delta trout 15 April, 2013, 22:09

    The commie fruit cakes want to tear out the dams too.

    Money for Klamath dam removal included in California water bill… ..http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2009/11/money_for_klamath_dam_removal.html

    Maybe when it dries up they can drive the bullet train thru it?

    Reply this comment
  9. Nate
    Nate 23 April, 2013, 11:41

    Was the delta smelt used to bankrupt the farms along the path of the high speed rail?.

    Reply this comment

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