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California’s Choices: Two Big Expensive Tunnels or Just Better Water Management


The Delta. Graphic adapted from BDCP documentation.

The big unveiling last week, long anticipated, was the estimated cost of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan’s (BDCP) tunnel conveyance system, or peripheral canal. The total cost estimates for the entire project, which proposes to fix California’s water system,  are now approximately $23 billion, which includes construction, habitat restoration, monitoring and adaptive management. However, that’s just the base estimate.

The debt servicing costs associated with the project are $1.1 billion a year for 35 years, which significantly increases the price.

So what will citizens, rate payers and water districts get in exchange? Two 33-foot-diameter tunnels, which would carry part of the Sacramento River’s flow underneath the Delta for 37-miles to the California Aqueduct. There, the water would be pumped and distributed to state and federal water contractors, which include farmers, cities and water districts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

But there are considerable hurdles and doubts about the project. Among them, whether the water will actually be available and how the project will mitigate its environmental effects.

BDCP plans to increase water exports to 5.9 million acre-feet, which is 16 to 24 percent higher than average. And that’s troubling given the public trust recommendations for rivers and the Delta, as set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board. Those recommendations indicate the need to reduce Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent.

(Learn more about the public trust recommendations here.)  While these recommendations must be weighed against economic needs, the indication is clear: California has to reduce surface water use to keep its ecosystems intact.

The Sacramento River

Why? The Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. This includes chinook salmon, Delta smelt and steelhead. While the Delta’s decline is due to many factors, including pollution, invasive species and loss of wetlands, one of the primary reasons for species loss are water diversions and excessive pumping in the estuary. The San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers are the Delta’s primary tributaries, and the San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River, which once flowed out to sea, is used to convey water to federal and state pumps so that it can be exported.

So why build the tunnel? The pumps kill thousands of fish annually and alter the habitat of the estuary by creating a north to south flow across a tidal ecosystem, which would naturally flow east to west. The proposed tunnels would move the intake upstream to locations that might be less harmful. It would also secure water exports from threats such as earthquakes, floods and sea level rise. Some state and federal contractors view the project as vital to the state’s economic well being, but others are highly critical.

“Everyone knows that they want more water from the Delta, and you can’t revive the system and bleed more water from the system. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” said Lloyd G. Carter, former Fresno Bee reporter and President of the California Save Our Streams Council. “It’s a shell game, and the legislature won’t even do the most basic examination of the cost.”

Photo Courtesy of USDA - Flood Irrigated Field

Thus far, the BDCP has no plans for a cost-benefit analysis, which might indicate the value of the project to citizens and water districts over the long term.

“Because of its large costs and significant impact on those who do not benefit from the project, it’s appropriate to perform a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Eberhardt School of Business. “But the BDCP is only doing a cost feasibility study, which simply answers the question, whether it can be paid for, and who will pay for it.  The question is, should we build this project?”

Regardless of costs, the project does not directly address the need to reduce surface water consumption in order to increase river flows. Some suggest that the state and federal water systems aren’t currently set up to respond to a changing environment.

“Overall, California’s water system functions in ways that are fundamentally different than how major state and federal agencies conceive the water supply system and plan investigations,” said Dr. Jay Lund, Director of U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “This causes many federal and state planning studies to be ineffective, costly, prolonged and distracting of public attention, rather than insightful and useful. At the local level, many water districts and agencies are doing a far better job of developing integrated portfolios. They are smart and want to save, and the state is often better in a supporting role.”

Already, individual farmers and local water districts are making smart changes that have big effects.

Photo Courtesy of USDA - Drip Irrigation on an Almond Orchard

Since agriculture uses the majority of California’s water, about 80 percent of the average annual supply, its conservation efforts can yield significant water savings. (Learn more about urban conservation efforts here.) But for farmers, dealing with less surface water requires new management techniques and some capital investment, which can cost time and money.

According to the Department of Water Resources, from 1967 to 2007, the gross revenue for California agriculture increased 84 percent from $19.9 billion to $36.6 billion while total crop-applied water fell by 15 percent.

What happened? Farmers became more efficient, each in their own way. A straight-forward fix begins with system evaluations. A farm’s soil, water, climate and slope are analyzed and adjustments are then made. “You can’t generalize solutions, because all farms are different. You have to know the infiltration rate and the time that water sits on different parts of the field to estimate how evenly water soaks in across the field. You also need to know the application and runoff rates, which are somewhat difficult to measure in a surface irrigated field,” said Dr. Richard L. Snyder, U.C. Davis Bio-meteorology Specialist. “The farmer can do this, but it takes work and effort.”

Photo Courtesy of USDA, Micro Sprinkler

To help with this, the USDA funds the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which provides technical and financial assistance to producers who develop conservation plans. Farmers can receive a 50 percent discount on costs when they implement an efficient water plan.

That may mean moving from flood irrigation to drip irrigation systems. Drip irrigation is the direct application of low pressure water to soil and plants using tubes or tape. If properly applied, it can be the most efficient irrigation method, but it requires up-front capital investment and maintenance.

“Based on the figures that I’ve seen, we get a greater than 20 percent savings of water with pressurized irrigation systems, and that can be quite a lot savings,” said Joe Mota, NRCS soil conservationist. “This is a very popular program; we usually have more interest than funding. With these systems, it’s not just saving water; it’s saving time and energy, and you can spoon feed trees and not apply pesticides or apply very little. It’s all depends on the type of ground you’re on. Drip irrigation systems also reduce erosion as well as make trees and plants grow faster.”

Flood irrigation is still a primary watering technique in California; it uses on average 13.5 million acre-feet a year. Reducing water demand on flood irrigated crops by 20 percent would equal nearly 3 million acre-feet, or about the average annual flow of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, combined. However, replacing flood irrigation doesn’t work for every crop, and it isn’t the only solution. It’s one of many.

Total Channel Control Water Distribution System

On the water district level, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) is evaluating a water distribution system on two of its key canals, which may yeild 8 to 10 percent in water savings. “Most irrigation districts are manually controlled. To ensure that all water orders are filled in a canal you send extra water down, and any surplus water spills at the end of the canal,” said Steve Knell, OID General Manager. “The technology, called Total Channel Control (TCC), allows districts to eliminate or reduce this spilling. You minimize the need for this extra water, so you have little no wasted water.” In 2011, the OID installed a TCC system, which uses software, control engineering and a wireless and solar systems to remotely manage flume gates, which distribute water to farms.

Modernizing water districts could produce huge water savings.

OID receives water from the Stanislaus River and New Melones Reservoir. Its estimated annual operational losses vary but are approximately 100,000 acre-feet. Those losses come from spills (17-22 percent), canal seepage to groundwater (32-38 percent), surface evaporation (1-3 percent), riparian losses (1-3 percent) and on-farm losses (45-55 percent). Each area presents an opportunity for increased efficiency, but spills are the current focus.

.

Steve Knell Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager

“OID’s 5-year average of diversions is about 232,000 acre feet, and  spill water makes up about 20,000 acre feet of that. So you can see the advantage of a modernization system that focuses on spill savings,” Knell said. “Even if you could reduce spills 75 percent you could generate 15,000 acre-feet in water savings.”

The total cost for the two canal system was $2.9 million; Rubicon Systems America, an Australian company marketing the TCC system, contributed $1.7 million to the project, with OID contributing $1.2 million. The pilot system was installed on 15 out of the OID’s 265 miles of service canals. A complete system is estimated to cost about $30 million.

In past, OID had invested little in replacement and modernization, but that’s changed due to increased revenues. “Until districts manage their water well, farmers have little ability to manage their water well,” Knell said. “It has to start with us.”

About Deanna Lynn Wulff

Deanna is an activist, an editor and a writer. She is the Director of the Sierra National Monument Project (www.unitetheparks.org) and the author of the award-winning book, "The Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: Hard Hikes for Wild Women." Follow her blog, Minerva's Moxie, at deannalynnwulff.wordpress.com/.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “California’s Choices: Two Big Expensive Tunnels or Just Better Water Management

  1. Mr. Wade – It wouldn’t be a water story without your comments! Thank you.
    1) I’ve tried to articulate the complexity associated with improving irrigation practices, and I have clearly stated that there is no single-all encompassing way to approach farming. But the potential for improvement is there. The dispute here is about the degree of improvement.
    2) Also, I’ve indicated that we might help farmers if we find ways to deliver water more efficiently. The potential for improvement is quite large, and there is much work to be done. I don’t think there is much to dispute here.
    3) If a cost-benefit analysis is truly worthless, then there should be no threat in actually conducting one.
    4) And lastly, it seems like the west side farmers are in the most difficult position. Maybe, that’s what we’re talking about here. They rely on surface water deliveries, which are intermittent and subject to change, and there are still issues with drainage and selenium in that area. I don’t have a solution for that yet. But there is probably an answer out there, if we deal more directly with these issues.

    Posted by Deanna Lynn Wulff | March 7, 2012, 1:37 pm
    • “If a cost-benefit analysis is truly worthless, then there should be no threat in actually conducting one.”
      Excellent point, followed closely by “worthless” to whom ?
      On January 10, 2012 I attended the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee meeting where AB550 (Huber) which would have required an up or down vote and a cost/benefit analysis to be performed was killed.
      Every water contractor dependant on exports from the Delta walked to the podium in lock step and voiced opposition to the bill.
      You could feel the tension in the room. Water contractors weren’t there as a formality they were scared.
      If ,as Mike Wade eludes to, a cost/benefit is of no value then what are they so afraid of ?

      Posted by Chris Gulick | March 12, 2012, 8:54 am
  2. It is unfortunate the author did not include the explanation relating to a cost-benefit analysis as publicly stated by California Deputy Resources Secretary Jerry Meral. Meral has repeatedly explained that the proposed conveyance is part of a habitat conservation plan that includes public benefits of environmental restoration. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, conducting a cost-benefit analysis is frowned upon. Furthermore, Ken Schreiber is the coordinator of a separate habitat plan that balances growth and protection of natural resources in the Santa Clara Valley. His response to conducting an analysis for the BDCP—“Technically, could you do it? Yes. Would the results mean anything? The answer is no.”

    The author also states that farmers could conserve 3 million acre-feet of water by converting flood irrigation practices to drip irrigation. This statement ignores reality and exhibits a lack of true understanding of irrigation practices. A recent report by the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno demonstrated that true water conservation potential in agriculture is closer to 330,000 acre-feet, one-tenth of the author’s estimate.

    According to the California State Water Plan, from 1990 to 2000 the amount of flood irrigation acreage has already been reduced by 16% and even more has occurred in the last decade. Shifting from flood to drip often improves distribution uniformity but also can increase crop consumptive use through more vigorous plant growth, according to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. That counts as increased efficiency but doesn’t necessarily mean that additional water will be left over for other uses.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    Posted by Mike Wade | March 7, 2012, 10:21 am
  3. This is a very well researched and well written story. With work like this being done by good people like Deanna we are gradually getting California water policy out of the 19th Century and moving inexorably toward the 21st Century.

    Posted by Jerry Cadagan | March 6, 2012, 9:33 am

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