When I first interviewed California’s Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird, I was thrilled to meet a man with a great reputation as a conservationist. As a newly-minted reporter, I hoped that he and Gov. Brown would bring positive change to California’s deteriorating environment.
But the conversation quickly shifted from Laird’s life story to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), an expensive scheme to build two tunnels and export more water out of the beleaguered SF-Bay Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast. Laird called the Delta, the “Rubik’s Cube” of water policy for its complexity.
True. I’ve investigated it for more than a year, but it’s really not all that complicated. The Delta’s two primary tributaries are in trouble. The San Joaquin River often runs dry due to excessive diversions, and the Sacramento River is sucked south by two massive pumps sitting in the estuary. The pumps cause rivers to flow backwards and entrap thousands of fish en route to spawn, including salmon, steelhead and smelt.
In a nutshell, the Delta needs more water and less pumping. 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, unless flows increase. But by how much? In 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board issued public trust recommendations that showed that flows need to increase by nearly 50 percent to restore the ecosystem. That’s a lot, but it’s possible.
I interviewed scientists. I drove to Southern California and talked to residents who put in dry landscaping. I met farmers who installed drip irrigation systems. I talked to Central Valley irrigation district managers who showed me new technology. I went to water recycling plants and drank purified sewage. In sum, I discovered that we can reduce water use by that much—in fact, there is more “new” water in recycling, conservation and technology, than California regularly exports from the Delta.
But there are major snags. One is Gov. Brown’s leadership; he wants to win an age-old battle to build the latest version of the peripheral canal, which voters soundly rejected years ago. The other is entrenched urban and agricultural interests, which are already refueling Brown’s reelection campaign. On my way to L.A., I noticed signs peppered all over the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, an alkaline desert that receives a large of portion of Delta water. I’d read that the area had drainage issues, so I got my boots dirty, again—actually my sandals dusty.
I learned that in 1980s, west side drainage water caused massive bird, fish and livestock deformities at Kesterson Reservoir, due to selenium, a naturally occurring mineral, which is toxic in large doses. Selenium can’t be removed nor can it be diluted with more water. It bio-accumulates and works its way up the food chain. The current proposed solution? Filter it into a toxic sludge, and then dispose of it somewhere else. The hard truth? West side farming isn’t suitable for irrigated agriculture in the long run because of the drainage problem, but there are other viable uses for the land, like dry cropping or solar farming, and some land has been retired. Herein lies a potent solution.
Consider that 1.3 million acres on the west side is impaired because of salt and selenium buildup. Gradually retiring these lands might free up nearly 4 million acre-feet of water, which happens to be enough to fulfill the public trust recommendations for flows for the north and south delta. That’s not all the water that’s needed, but it would go a long way. That and effective conservation would solve the primary problems associated with the water supply and the ecosystem.
But BDCP continues to go another direction.
At the last public budget meeting, Dr. David Sunding spoke about a benefit-cost analysis for the tunnels. I wondered how he could justify the project since it’s well-known that conservation is the cheapest way to create new supplies, and the $23 to $50 billion tunnel project won’t increase supplies. I quickly learned that the fundamental assumptions behind Sunding’s budget analysis are so heavily skewed towards the tunnels; they’re essentially false. He assumes that urban water use will increase, and that agriculture use will remain steady. Yet, urban use has declined or remained flat since the 1990s, despite an increase in population. Agriculture demand has also declined, due to improvements in efficiency, among other things.
Instead of dealing straight, the BDCP is trumping up data and attempting to get science to match the tunnel project. It could bolster new industries, create high-paying jobs and preserve one of the most bio-diverse and beautiful places in the country, both its agriculture and its environment. But integrity and honesty would have to take the lead, along with a strong conservation program. Instead, the BDCP is feeding the public false data to build a project that will not serve anyone in the long run.
What happening now? Most immediately, the State Water Board is holding a hearing on Wednesday, March 20 at 9 a.m. in the Coastal Hearing Room, Cal/EPA Building, 1001 Street, Second Floor, Sacramento. The meeting regards the public trust recommendations for Delta flows; the Board is currently considering lowering its standards. Comments can be emailed to email@example.com by March 29, 2013. Include “Comment Letter – Bay Delta Plan SED” in the subject line.
The next BDCP meeting is also on March 20. It begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Ramada in West Sacramento, on 1250 Halyard Drive.
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.—E. F. Schumacher