Politics & Government

Southern California water users view Delta tunnel plan as key to reliable future

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.

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