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/.
Deanna Lynn Wulff has written 15 posts for Bilingual Weekly

Grasping at Straws: BDCP & DWR Drown Out Real Data


The California State Seal Outside that Natural Resources Building by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The California State Seal. Natural Resources Building

Gov. Brown’s twin tunnel plan has raised ire since its inception, but the battle has grown more heated with the publication of its latest economic report. Melinda Terry, manager of the North Delta Water Agency, called the document outright fraud, while state water contractors praised it with a fact sheet pointing out its strong points (primarily, its page length). Continue reading

The Tale of Two Tunnels: Gov. Brown’s Tainted BDCP Process Versus Honestly Solving the Problem


Staten Island in the Delta

Staten Island in the Delta

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.

The California State Seal Outside that Natural Resources Building by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The California State Seal Outside the Natural Resources Building

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 commentletters@waterboards.ca.gov 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

The BDCP Meeting(s) Get Heated: A Benefits Analysis, Angry Environmental Groups, 57 Threatened Species & 100,000 Acre-Feet


Staten Island in the Delta

Staten Island in the Delta, Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the twin tunnels or the latest version of the peripheral canal, recently held two public meetings with all the big players present, but with some interesting twists.

Presentations, given in the customary tight-lipped monotone, were interrupted by fiery environmental groups and the frank questions and remarks of Melinda Terry, Manager of the North Delta Water Agency.

“We really don’t have an avenue in this process, and it’s been very frustrating,” Terry said. “My one plea is going to be, when you come out with your draft, please don’t indicate that it really had the input of these stakeholders and that we helped develop it. My agency will be put in a position to refute that.”

Terry represents a district, which exists to protect Delta farmers, who get their irrigation water directly from the Sacramento River and its tributaries. The district has a contract with the Department of Water Resources, which forbids the state from harming the agency. If the BDCP builds its tunnel intake in the north delta, water quality could be affected and so could the habitat for 57 threatened species.

And environmental groups are up in arms.

Sandhill Crane in a corn field on Staten Island. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

Sandhill Crane in a corn field on Staten Island. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

“We will continue to oppose the tunnels or any of the peripheral export schemes,” said Nick Di Croce, Co-Facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus, a collection of 30 conservation groups. “We are pushing for taking less water out of the Delta; let’s make up for the reduced exports with conservation and efficiency.”

The reduced exports that Di Croce refers to, relate to environmental protections, which restrict water exports to state and federal contractors, like Metropolitan Water District, the Kern County Water Agency and Westlands Water District. In a nutshell, there are 57 endangered and threatened species in the Delta, several of which have been decimated by the lack of water flowing through the system. The Delta’s primary tributaries have big problems. The San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River is used to convey water to massive pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary. The pumps draw water into the California Aqueduct and create a north to south flow across a tidal estuary, which is meant to flow east to west, causing rivers to flow backwards and entrapping thousands of endangered fish en route to spawn, including steelhead and salmon.

The BDCP is supposed to be a habitat conservation plan, but the twin tunnels have dominated the conversation. The original hope was that by increasing Delta land habitat, the BDCP could increase water exports and build a new intake in the northern part of the Delta. Last February, the BDCP planned to increase exports by 15 to 24 percent. But the Delta ecosystem is in dire need of more water—not less. This isn’t news to anyone. The State Water Resources Control Board issued public trust recommendations in 2010, which indicated that Delta water use needs to decline by nearly 50 percent. Addressing this issue directly has not been a primary tenet of the BDCP. Instead, BDCP planners are still talking tunnels.

Questionable Fiscal Benefits of the BDCP’s Twin Tunnels

The California State Seal Outside that Natural Resources Building by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The California State Seal on the Natural Resources Building in Sacramento. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

At another BDCP meeting held at the Natural Resources Building, the benefits of the tunnel plan were outlined in a presentation given by Dr. David Sunding, a Professor in the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley.

Under hypothetical modeling conditions, the BDCP’s current selected alternative could increase urban supplies on average less than 100,000 acre-feet annually during shortages. That increases urban reliability less than 1 percent. Meanwhile, effective conservation measures could yield millions of acre-feet in new water supplies at lower costs.

Sunding’s underlying assumptions are that urban demand will grow and that agricultural demand will remain steady. “It’s not clear whether his urban demand calculations use up-to-date population forecasts,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael,  the Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific.

Sunding noted that his report was based on conditional data, but he could not be reached to discuss his modeling techniques and research, despite repeated phone calls and emails. Sunding will begin work on a benefit-cost analysis to determine the value of the $23 to $50 billion project. As yet, it is unclear what data will be included in that study. Thus far, only the benefits of the project have been evaluated, without the capital costs of the project included. Until this meeting, the BDCP had refused to perform a cost-benefit analysis.

Why the reversal? No one knows exactly. “I can only speculate that they felt political pressure, and it’s inevitable, they would prefer to control the process,” Michael said. “I am happy that they are working on it, but it has to be compared to a no-tunnel alternative that satisfies the ESA (Endangered Species Act).” That kind of comparison could keep the environmental benefits of conservation from distorting the fiscal analysis of the tunnels. An economic evaluation of Sunding’s presentation is also available on Dr. Jeffrey Michael’s blog.

average south delta exportsWhat’s Next?

The BDCP promises to release updated flow recommendations and hold another meeting in January or February. If all goes as usual, the presentations won’t be publicly released until the day of the meeting or the day after the meeting, making public participation and direct inquiry difficult.

Thus far, the BDCP has revised its predicted level of exports in a downward direction. The original plan, presented nearly a year ago, was to increase exports to 5.9 million acre-feet, then it was downsized to 5.3 million acre-feet. The current range recommended by state and federal wildlife agencies in May hovers around 4.3 to 4.7 million acre-feet, but that amount is a moving target, which few will commit to. Instead, the agencies refer to an adaptive management program, which is notably vague.

What remains implacable is a court-ordered export limit of 4.9 million acre-feet, which is about a million-acre feet shy of the public trust recommendations. According to the Doctrine of Public Trust, it is the duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage to streams, rivers, lakes, marshlands and tidelands—all components of the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast.

The BDCP Circus Continues –Toilets, Tunnels, Exports & Scientific Data Ignored


The Tuolumne River is a tributary the San Joaquin River, which flows into the Delta.

Of the 38 million people affected by the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), at least 60 phoned in to get an update last week. The public meeting held in Sacramento was chaotic, with sounds of dogs barking, neighborhood chit-chat and the double-toilet-flush from the call-in listeners who forgot to mute their lines.

Despite the bizarre atmosphere, serious clarifications were made regarding the big-picture plan to build two giant tunnels through or around the Delta—the largest estuary on the West Coast.

Gov. Brown’s tunnel conveyance plan continues to dance around the science, although the project’s leaders have publicly claimed to embrace it.

The latest news? The current plan being pushed ahead is an operations proposal known as Alternative 4. That alternative intends to raise the limit on exports for south of delta contractors from an average of 4.9 million acre-feet to 5.3 million acre-feet.

And that may be a problem—4.9 isn’t an arbitrary number. It’s a vetted biological opinion put in place to keep key species, such as delta smelt, chinook salmon and steelhead from perishing forever. Among other things, water diversions and pumping have severely impacted the beleaguered estuary. Giant pumps sit in the south Delta and send water uphill to drier parts of the state, including Los Angeles, the Central Valley and Santa Clara. When the pumps operate, rivers flow in the reverse direction and entrap fish trying to spawn. On average, 95 percent of juvenile San Joaquin River salmon and 60 percent of Sacramento River salmon don’t survive migration through the Delta. The biological opinion limits the damage.

“It was widely recognized that the alternatives analyzed in the February effects analysis would lead to further fishery declines and the likely extinction of several salmon runs,” said Kate Poole, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The state has promised that BDCP would be a science-driven process and would recover the ecosystem and imperiled salmon and other fisheries.” Choosing Alternative 4 means that the process is not being driven by science, Poole added.

What’s driving the process seems to be the state and federal contractors who are funding the BDCP, and their interest lies in increasing water exports.

Regardless, fish and other wildlife need fresh water flowing through the system,  and a lot more than they’re getting. The public trust recommendations for flow, as set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board, would limit exports to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet. That’s more than a million-acre feet less than the current proposal.

But there is a caveat. The current plan suggests that by increasing land habitat more water can be exported—although it is unclear whether scientific studies will validate that.

“They keep saying trust us; we will build it now and figure out the science later,” said Bill Jennings,the Executive Director of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).  “We no longer trust those who guided these species to the brink of extinction to do the right thing. The science and assurances must come first.”

State and federal wildlife agencies are responsible for permitting the BDCP, and they are trying to ensure that science does come first, but they’re still working out the numbers. Remediating habitat is an important part of that process as well. The Delta has only five percent of its original wetlands intact.

The costs are another matter. It’s an expensive project and who will pay for it appears to be in flux.

“At least they are being honest that they expect more water,” said Dr. Jeffrey-Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the Eberhardt School of Business. “But from a benefit-cost perspective for the state, 5.3 million acre-feet is still not enough to justify the costs of the project. It is not a good project for the state. The fact that they won’t do an official analysis shows the truth to that. If they could prove its value, believe me, they would do it.”

The project cost hovers around $23 billion, with an additional $1.1 billion in debt servicing for 35 years. The debt costs nearly double the price. Currently, contractors are set to pay 75 percent of the costs, and taxpayers the other 25 percent. But those percentages will be adjusted in the future, as noted at the meeting.

Funds from state bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of the original State Water Project.

Other details were not discussed, in particular, the total capacity of the system to export water. The topic makes local delta farmers nervous. They rely on fresh water from the Sacramento River to irrigate their crops, and the tunnels may affect that. At the meeting, one commenter verbalized his concern that the project would “bleed the river dry.”

The California Aqueduct along Highway 5

The current alternative decreases the intake size of the proposed tunnels and limits tunnel exports to 6.5 million acre-feet a year. But that’s an incomplete picture of the system. The pumps in the southern end of the Delta will still be there, and they also have a similar export capacity.

Thus, the only physically limiting factor is the size of the California Aqueduct. The system would have the capacity to export nearly 10 million acre-feet a year.

Mike Taugher, Communications Director for the California Department of Fish and Game, carefully noted that the state pumps have always had the capacity to export more water, but they’ve always been limited by operational regulations.

What next? More meetings and a forthcoming Environmental Impact Report.

In the Trenches of California’s Water War: A Farmer, an Environmentalist and a Republican Envision the Future


What’s really happening, and will Gov. Brown listen?

Water lazily rolls by, acres of pear trees blanket the horizon, and tiny communities dot the landscape. Walnut Grove is a Delta town with 1,500 residents, just one ice cream shop and a mom-and-pop grocery store. It feels sleepy, humid and slow—like the Sacramento River. Brett Baker, a sixth-generation pear farmer who lives nearby, on Sutter Island, describes the area nostalgically:

The Sacramento River is the largest river in the state. It carries nearly one-third of the total annual runoff of all California streams.

“I enjoy the peace and quiet, the landscape and scenery,” he said. “I have a personal relationship with almost everyone in my town. I have known them all my life, played sports with them, was coached by them growing up. Out here, there is a real sense of community. When tragedy strikes, your neighbors pick you up and help support you.”

Tragedy might be striking.  Just 10 minutes away is the roar of Interstate 5, one of California’s major freeways. Twenty minutes farther is Sacramento and the buzzing State Capitol, where the fate of this farming community, the Delta, the state’s river system, and the largest estuary on the West Coast will be determined.

The Delta is the heart of the state’s water resources. Most rivers flow into it, the ocean meets it, key species migrate in and out of it, 25 million people draw water from it, and a large portion of agriculture relies on it to irrigate crops.  And now, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to forge ahead with a $23 billion plan to build two massive tunnels underneath or around the Delta.

The Tunnel Options – Photo courtesy of PPIC

The stakes are enormous.

The governor’s proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the tunnel conveyance system or peripheral canal, would carry part of the Sacramento River underneath the Delta in two 35-mile long tunnels to the California Aqueduct. There, the water would be pumped uphill to cities and farms in more parched regions of the state, including the southern Central Valley, Los Angeles and Santa Clara.

The canal plan has been kicking around for decades. Brown’s original peripheral canal project was voted down in a referendum in 1982, but he is back in the saddle again. “We’re going to take into account the opposition,” Brown vowed, “but we’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. We’re going to make decisions and get it done.”

But it’s unclear what Brown is trying to get done. The project would continue to move water from one part of the state to another, with questionable benefits for citizens, farmers, fish, fishermen and even state and federal water contractors, who have funded the project thus far. The differing perspectives of a Delta farmer, a seasoned environmentalist and a Republican supervisor show the complexities and contentiousness of what lies ahead.

Brett Baker—Delta Farmer

Delta Farmer Brett Baker and his wife Meredith stand near their 40-acre farm in Courtland, CA. The couple is expecting their first child in October.

“The Delta is the largest contiguous acreage of prime farmland in California,” said Baker. “It has a naturally reliable supply of high quality water and sufficient drainage. Basically, you are taking water from land that has proven to be sustainably productive for over 150 years and moving it to lands with toxic drainage impairments.”

Acre to acre, Delta land is one the most productive farm areas in the state.

The toxic land that Baker refers to is on the west side of San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. The area has long had problems with salinity and selenium, and it’s also a primary importer of Delta water. Salinity on the west side can be flushed out with water, provided there is drainage. But there isn’t excess water or drainage, and there may never be. The taxpayer cost of fixing the drainage problem is $2.6 to $7 billion. Only $346 million in funds are currently allocated.

Selenium presents a more significant problem for the west side. It cannot be safely dispersed into the environment. It bio-accumulates and in large quantities is toxic to wildlife, livestock and humans. In the 1980s, Kesterson Reservoir had to be closed, because of the mass bird and livestock deformities that were discovered there due to selenium build-up. The area has since been cleaned up, but pollutants are still flowing into the San Joaquin River, and more water will not fix the problem.

So why construct a canal or tunnel conveyance system and route water there?

The West Side of the San Joaquin River. Graphic courtesy of the EPA.

A portion of that water flows elsewhere, to the Metropolitan Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, for example. The giant pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary entrap and kill thousands of fish annually. The pumps also 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 to smelt, salmon and other endangered species. They also might avoid delivery disruptions associated with salt water intrusion and climate change.

But under the microscopes of science and regulation, even those benefits begin to look dubious. And that’s because moving intakes upstream will affect water quality for fish and farmers downstream. “If we allow the canal to be built it will ultimately result in the salting up and ruination of one of our state’s most valuable assets,” Baker said. “Research has continued to reveal that shunting more water from the system stands to condemn the canary in the coal mine.”

And Baker is right. The birds are in trouble too. Although endangered fish species get more attention because of their effect on water exports, the Delta is a primary habitat and migratory stop for millions of birds, like tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Nearly 50 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating or wintering waterfowl depend on it.

Altogether, 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. Those species includes chinook salmon, smelt, steelhead, splittail, sturgeon and river lamprey, all of which are supposed to be protected by state and federal agencies.

And California hasn’t left much breathing room for its once abundant wildlife, particularly in the Central Valley and the Delta, where most of the land is privately held and about 95 percent of natural wetlands are gone.  And water, the other primary habitat, has been over-allocated to such a high degree that little is left for plants and animals. All total, water rights exist for 531 million acre-feet, which is nearly 10 times as much as is annually available (63 million acre-feet).

The EnvironmentalistLeo Winternitz

Staten Island with sandhill cranes. The area works as a habitat and a farm. Photo courtesy of Leo Winternitz.

Leo Winternitz, associate director of Delta Restoration and Policy for the Nature Conservancy, has been living amidst these water wars for the past 30 years. He has worked for CALFED, the Sacramento Water Forum, the Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board—all major players in water management.

As to how things are going – he says simply, “The situation is more acute. The environment is really suffering from the overuse. We need to think in terms of migratory corridors,” he continues. “If you acquire any piece of property, without a strategic plan then you have postage stamp approach and that doesn’t work. You need to have a corridor of different habitats interconnected.”

But putting that into action is no easy task. The Delta region has more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land, most of which was formerly wetland habitat. About five percent of the original environment is left.

To restore a portion, the Nature Conservancy acquired a 9200-acre tract in the Delta, called Staten Island. The area provides prime habitat for sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl. But the $35 million land purchase has been criticized. Half of the money for the acquisition came from the state funds for flood protection, and today, it’s managed primarily as a farmland and wetland—not as a flood plain. The island is below sea level, and it isn’t ideally located for tidal marsh restoration. Still, 15 percent of the Sacramento Valley sandhill crane population and thousands of birds use the area as a winter habitat.

Sandhill cranes and tundra swans fly thousands of miles in the fall to spend their winter in the Delta. Photo courtesy of Leo Winternitz.

The BDCP, at least, has a cohesive plan for restoration. It may include 80,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat and up to 45,000 acres of agricultural and grasslands habitat. But that makes Delta farmers nervous, as does changing the position of the water intake system and increasing exports, which was originally part of the plan.

And that’s where the project starts to hit serious trouble.

The BDCP sets off a series of agency interactions between the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department State Fish and Game (DFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Each agency is tasked with a particular aspect of protecting and managing the state’s natural resources. And there is a lot to protect:—California is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world.

Among these water agencies, there is a confusing array of regulations and interactions. But there are clear guidelines. “It is now state policy that we have co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability,” Winternitz said, regarding the Delta Reform Act of 2009. “Any solution has to include environmental consideration. That is a big positive. We just have to communicate better about what this means and how to implement it.”

But what’s being communicated is tough medicine for everyone.

The public trust recommendations for the Delta are the hub of public policy, and the agencies are circling around it. To resuscitate the system, scientific research indicates the need to increase river flows and decrease Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent, or 13.7 to 14.6 million-acre feet. Those recommendations are supposed to play a primary role in water planning and policy—and to some extent they have.

In July, when Brown made his public announcement, he endorsed a 55-page joint set of agency recommendations for the BDCP. The latest version includes a smaller intake system and no guaranteed export amount; instead, continued scientific studies over the 15-year construction period will determine whether exports are higher or lower than they are today. But notably, the joint recommendations also state: “Only a small percentage of research in the Bay Delta is controversial.”

Right now, what keeps the Delta ecosystem intact are court-ordered flow criteria. The current rulings limit south of Delta exports to an average of 4.9 million acre-feet. If you applied the public trust recommendations exports would drop to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet, about 25 percent. That also means that the rest of the state, including cities, irrigation districts and farms, would have to reduce use and put water back into the system.

What would we gain?

Winternitz explains, “The species we are concerned about evolved in the habitats we need to restore. Those ecosystem processes, which provide for water quality and other important benefits, are the same ones that we humans need.  And that’s why there is this whole effort to get these species turned around. If we can repair their world, we can repair our world. We’ll have better air, better places to swim and play, better places to live. It’s really our own system that we are trying to clean up.”

But can California clean up? The quick and easy answer is yes. With water recycling, conservation, efficient technology and better water management, California can meet the needs of the environment, agriculture and a growing population. There is a mountain of data, coming from nearly every water agency, suggesting that improvements can be made. Conservation is the cheapest and easiest way to create to a new supply. There is more new potential water from these investments than California regularly exports from the Delta, and they come without the damage to fish or farmers.

But the long hard truth is that change is difficult.

The Republican SupervisorJim DeMartini

DeMartini spends his mornings on his farm and the afternoons in the county supervisor’s office in downtown Modesto.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini knows first-hand just how difficult. In his office in Modesto, just south of the Delta, pictures of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger hang from the walls. DeMartini is a Republican farmer pushing to preserve prime farmland from sprawling development.

“There is no other place in the world like this; we can grow 200 types of crops here,” he said. “We have good access to water, and right now, there is no permanent protection of agriculture.”

California agriculture produces half of U.S. grown nuts, fruits and vegetables. It is also home to nine of nation’s most productive counties, and Stanislaus County is one of them.

DeMartini owns 1200 acres between Ceres and Patterson and grows a mixture of almonds, walnuts, peaches and grapes on the east side of the Central Valley. Three miles of his land borders the Tuolumne River, a primary tributary to the San Joaquin River, which flows into the Bay-Delta. He has voluntarily remediated about 120 acres and turned it back into wetlands. “Wilderness and agriculture can co-exist; there is no reason we can’t work it out,” he said, “We have 43 species of birds out there, and I want to keep it that way. It’s beautiful.”

Stanislaus County has adopted a land use plan for agriculture, but the cities within the county haven’t come up with their own plans and agreed to control sprawl. “They just want to keep growing out,” DeMartini said. “You can’t keep eroding the farmland and stay self-sufficient. The building association doesn’t want any policy adopted at all. They don’t want any restrictions.”

DeMartini planned a workshop with the Mayor’s Association to create a land use policy for each of the nine cities. “Everyone had a scheduling problem, and I never did hear from them again,” he said. “It’s been more than a year now.”  It’s surprising, since sprawl has never worked for the region. Stanislaus County has double-digit unemployment and high foreclosures—all remnants of the housing crisis.

Still, the area is on the forefront of innovation. The Oakdale Irrigation District is improving its water delivery system, and the Patterson Irrigation District is building a cross-valley channel, which could transport water east to west without going through the Delta. More recently, Modesto farmer Bill Lyons sold 1,603 acres along the Tuolumne River, to be used for wildlife and wetland restoration.

In general, what DeMartini is advocating has little to do with the peripheral canal or the tunnels. But his plans aren’t far from what’s likely to become state law. His proposals mirror the legally-mandated policies set forth by the state’s overarching water plan. California’s  88-year Delta Plan focuses on wetland preservation, habitat restoration, farmland protection and reduced reliance on Delta water. The agency putting the plan together, the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), has an appellate role regarding the canal and conveyance system. If the BDCP is approved, it will automatically be folded into the Delta Plan without review, unless someone makes an appeal.

Regarding the peripheral canal, DeMartini remains skeptical.  “I don’t think the plan is going to make it past environmental review,” he added. “I don’t know how they will pay for it either. It seems like it’s come out of nowhere.”

The question remains: Where will it go?

Note: This South of Delta Exports chart was updated on August 30, 2012 for clarity. The tunnel intake capacity is 6.5 million acre-feet. The total physical capacity to export water is 11 million acre-feet. A detailed explanation will follow in a forthcoming article.

Opinion: Will the Senate Sacrifice American Wild and Scenic Rivers for a Drop of Water?


The Merced Irrigation District Office

California has hundreds of irrigation districts and more than 1400 dams, which divide, divert and route water all over the state, but one district in particular is garnering national attention.

The Merced Irrigation District (MID) is in a relatively small town of 80,000 people, but it manages the famous Merced River, which runs through Yosemite Valley and is formed from its world-renowned waterfalls. The river has long been protected by federal Wild and Scenic status, which means it can’t be encroached on by a dam, as Yosemite’s Tuolumne River was long ago. But that status is now threatened due to bill H.R. 2578, a measure that among other things would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to make way for a spillway project. The project would flood 1700 linear feet of the wild river, a small section, but in doing so could rollback protections on all Wild and Scenic Rivers.

This could set a dangerous precedent. First, it might be 1700 feet, then it might be 17 miles, and then Yosemite’s El Capitan and Half Dome might be accessible only by power boat. And there is the vulnerability of the rest of America’s rivers to consider.

And the project doesn’t make sense.

MID’s New Exchequer Dam has a capacity of a million acre-feet, which is more than the annual average flow of the Merced River. The project would add 70,000 acre-feet of storage, but in critical dry years, it would yield only 15,000 acre-feet. By California standards, that’s not enough water for one-thousandth of one percent of the state’s population. And it’s expensive. The stated capital cost is $40 million, not including operation and maintenance costs, or debt servicing, which can double the price.

So why make such a costly proposal?

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has publicly stated in a  McClatchy News Service story, “It’s a small step. We need thousands of jobs in the Central Valley, and we need many more projects like this.”

Merced City Limit Sign. The town identifies itself with Yosemite.

The claim is that more water storage will bring jobs, help farmers and provide a reliable supply. But California’s 1400 dams have rarely fulfilled that promise. Instead, in the last 20 years, Merced County’s unemployment was, at its best, 10 percent, and, at its worst, 20 percent. Today, the rate hovers around 17 percent, and it’s not for lack of water.  In the drought years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, California agriculture generated the highest revenues on record, and agricultural work increased by 2 percent, while construction work decreased by 44 percent and trade work by 46 percent. Drops in employment were related to the recession and the housing crisis, not the drought.

There is little correlation between increased water supplies and a better living for most Central Valley residents, as poverty rates remain high in both wet and dry years.

So again, why is MID advocating another dam project? The simplest answer is to manage more water to serve its customers. “My goal is to store water in a wet year and use it in a dry year,” said MID General Manager John Sweigard. One of his primary concerns is replenishing the underground aquifer, which is being depleted.

The San Joaquin River is totally dry in parts due to diversions.

That’s a valid concern, but it overlooks the major problems caused by surface water storage. It’s well documented that dams are destructive to the natural environment. The Central Valley once had natural wetlands, rivers and seasonal lakes. The Merced River was part of an ecosystem that connected the Sierra Nevada to the sea and brought life to the valley, in all forms, for all species. In the last century, 95 percent of Central Valley wetlands have been lost. Once plentiful salmon are heading towards extinction, and the area is now home to 91 threatened and endangered species. And dams and diversions are a major contributor to the deterioration of California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem, where more than 750 species live. Thirty-three delta species are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Scientists have clearly established the need to increase in-stream flows to resuscitate the system.

And how is California going to do that? It will have to reduce use, and the cheapest, most cost effective way to do that is via conservation, improved efficiency and better water management.

An enormous amount of water is lost in its delivery. Many water districts lose about 40 percent of their water just sending it down leaking canals or decaying irrigation ditches.

A canal crossing the Central Valley

According to MID’s annual report, in 2010, MID delivered 277,789 acre feet of irrigation water to approximately 1,900 fields farmed by 1,400 customers. An operational loss of 40 percent is about 100,000 acre-feet—which is significantly more water than can be provided by new surface water storage.

That said, much of that water goes into replenishing the aquifer, which is used by farmers in dry and wet years. But the aquifer continues to get depleted despite MID’s recharge efforts, which sets up a never ending cycle of overuse, followed by increased surface water demand.

Meanwhile, MID is not compensated financially for replenishing its aquifer, which forces it to sell water out of district to compensate for losses. This March, MID voted to transfer 15,000 acre-feet of water to the San Luis Water District (SLWD) at $176 per acre-foot. Notably, that’s the average amount of water that will become available from the dam spillway project in critical dry years. The in-district cost of water is $18.25 per acre-foot.

Water management problems can be solved, but not with the build-now, plan-later approach. Charging for ground water use would be a start. And there are many more ways to become efficient, as demonstrated by existing technologies already in use. But instead, the issue has escalated to the political realm and is tied to a bill passed by the House, where fair dialogue and subtle detail gets drowned out by loud rhetoric. The devil isn’t in the details. It’s in ideology of winners and losers, and we’re all going to lose if we continue down that route.

The Merced River in June 2011: A high water year.

MID is asking Congress and the people of the United States to rollback protections on all  Wild and Scenic Rivers, by allowing a spillway project to encroach on the Merced River for a relatively small amount of water. This direction has never led to enough supply, only more consumption and demand.

Since the creation of the act in 1968, no protections have been removed from any of these rivers, and less than one-quarter of one percent of America’s rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, while more than 75,000 large dams have encroached on 600,000 miles of American rivers.

“The designation is a promise to the American people. We will protect this river from new dams and diversions, not just today, but for generations to come,” said Katherine Evatt, a 23-year-river-activist working to protect the Mokelumne River, north of Yosemite. “The most recent Mokelumne dam proposal was the sixth in the last 30 years,” she said. “We have to constantly fight them off, when we’d rather concentrate on restoring the river and getting the salmon and steelhead back. We need a way to secure permanent protection, and the wild and scenic designation is the only way.”

There are many ways to solve our water management problems, but encroaching on America’s last wild rivers isn’t one of them.

Selenium & Salinity: The West Side Farming Debacle, High Stakes, High Costs


Selenium is Still Leaking into the San Joaquin River

Mud Slough drainage flows into the San Joaquin River

Chris Eacock stands with his hands on his hips and looks out over the Central Valley’s sunny expanse of farms and wetlands and tries to explain the situation. As a natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation for the past 30 years, he began his career doing soil surveys and handling grazing leases on Bureau-owned land. Today, he manages the tougher side of that equation, the tainted drainage water now coming from farms. Salt and selenium from irrigated land on the west side of the valley have poisoned wetlands, damaged ground water and rendered farms unproductive. Eventually, the waste reaches the San Joaquin River and flows into the Bay-Delta, endangering wildlife and the state’s water supply.

Eacock insists that the situation has improved. “There is less pollution, people are still in business, and we’re all still talking to each other out here,” he said.

Chris Eacock and Stacey Brown, Natural Resource Specialists for the Bureau of Reclamation

But more than a few are critical. “The discharges have gone down significantly, and they get a lot of credit for that,” said Tom Stokely, water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network. “But there is still contamination happening in the wildlife refuges, and there is virtually an unlimited supply of selenium in those soils.”

In high concentrations, selenium is toxic to fish, livestock, humans and birds.

On the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area of large farms and agribusinesses stretch from Bakersfield to Patterson. The land, about 1.2 million acres, was once an alkaline desert, a sagebrush basin filled with coyotes, foxes, fish and watering holes. The city of Los Banos, in its center, was called the baths in reference to the artesian pools that once existed near the area. But in the 1960s, state and federal projects brought water to the desert via the construction of large reservoirs, water pumping facilities and canals. The Central Valley now has a complex network of interconnected channels and irrigation districts that move water all over the state.

The west side’s warm climate is great for year-round growing, but the land is also naturally rich in salt and selenium, and irrigating it creates a waste water problem and land-use issue, as salt and selenium progressively build up in the soil.

To address this, the Bureau began constructing the San Luis Drain in 1968; it was supposed to ship agricultural waste water to the Delta and the ocean. Instead, the drain was partially constructed and ended at Kesterson Reservoir, north of Los Banos and within a national wildlife refuge. The continuous flow of selenium tainted water poisoned bird, livestock and aquatic life, and in 1984, bird deformities were discovered there.

The Grasslands Drainage Area – Graphic Courtesy of the EPA

Kesterson was filled and the drain was closed, but since then, farming has continued on the west side, and selenium has continued to flow into the Grasslands Ecological Area, a 370,000-acre parcel that is the also largest freshwater wetland ecosystem in California. Most of the contamination now comes from the Grassland Drainage Area (GDA)—97,000 acres of irrigated farms within Charleston Drainage District, Pacheco Water District, Panoche Drainage District, part of the Central California Irrigation District (CCID), and Firebaugh Canal Water District.

After Kesterson closed, the drainage flowed into Salt Slough and Mud Slough, and then it flowed into the San Joaquin River. (Sloughs are swampy waterways.)

Today, the drainage water mostly flows into Mud Slough, but discharges are still regularly 5 to10 times higher than recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eacock says this is still an improvement, “We’ve done better than expected,” he said. “The EPA and the Regional Board established the metrics, and the grasslands area farmers are meeting those limits.” The EPA has removed several water bodies from its impaired waters list, including Salt Slough in 2008 and three segments of the San Joaquin River, and declared the program a success. But the waste is still flowing into Mud Slough via the Grassland Bypass Project (GBP), which is a comprehensive plan to address the problem.

Kesterson Today

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Report and the analysis of Dr. Dennis Lemly, a USDA biologist, specializing in contaminants and aquatic ecosystems, the current selenium concentrations in the San Joaquin River put juvenile salmon and steelhead at risk. Lemly writes, “USBR wants it both ways, to identify a problem and then say there is no problem. The correct conclusion is that available data and a reasonable interpretation of it clearly show that significant risks of substantial selenium toxicity exist, which will not be eliminated or substantially lessened by the GBP.”

He continues, “The success of salmon reintroduction depends on good water quality, and the selenium is going to create a significant hazard for those fish. It has to be below 2 parts per billion, anything above that endangers fish. In this case, because of bioaccumulation, the solution to pollution is not dilution. We have known this for decades. This is no secret. They have to stop the selenium at the source.”

That is the plan—eventually. By 2019, discharges to Mud Slough and the San Joaquin River are supposed to be eliminated altogether, with fees charged per pound of selenium over the limit beginning in 2015.  That limit, however, is still 5 parts per billion, more than double the recommended amount.

Westside Farming Salting Up – Is There a Cost-effective Solution?

Westlands Water District

On a larger scale, the Bureau is under court order to provide drainage to the entire San Luis Unit, which includes part of the Grasslands area and Westlands Water District, which is the largest water district in the nation. The current plan includes land retirement, drainage reuse facilities, treatment systems and evaporation ponds.

But it has significant problems. First, it’s pricey.

The official Bureau estimate of the capital cost is $2.6 billion. However, the total taxpayer cost could be more than $7 billion. The annualized cost is estimated at $141 million for 50 years.

“Their own report shows that the project fails most of their standard benefit-cost tests by a wide margin,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. “It is absurdly expensive, but it really isn’t optional as the courts have ruled that the government is obligated to provide drainage according to the 1960 Act.”

Notably, the money hasn’t been appropriated by Congress; new legislation is required for that. Instead, only $364 million (or 5 to 14 percent of the total) remain from the original authorization.

Second, the plan doesn’t entirely fix the environmental problems caused by selenium and salt. The minerals will have to go somewhere. But where? Some suggest that more land retirement is a better alternative than trying to manage the waste. Lawsuits have ensued; the farming community is demanding drainage service, and the environmental community is calling for discharges to stop. In addition, according to a National Academy of Sciences report on Bay-Delta stressors, the latest version of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan may increase exports to the area and exacerbate conditions.

No clear resolution is in sight.

Westlands Farmer John Diener

A few, frustrated after 30 years of political wrangling and litigation, have stepped up and decided to deal with the issue directly, individually. One of them is Westlands Farmer, John Diener. “The question is, how are we going to solve this problem?” Diener said. “The Bureau of Reclamation is in the middle of this political situation, and everyone goes back and forth, and nothing is happening. So let’s get something done here.”

Diener is getting something done on his own land, Red Rock Ranch in Five Points, CA, located southeast of Fresno; he farms about 3,000 acres of fruit and vegetable crops including almonds, grapes, wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, onions, garlic and spinach. The combination of continuous irrigation and poor drainage has resulted in concentrated levels of salinity and selenium in the soils. Trapped irrigation water forms a shallow, or perched, water table. With nowhere to go, the salty water rises closer to the surface towards the root zone and affects the fertility of the soil. In Westlands Water District, more than 200,000 acres have saline groundwater within 10 feet of the soil surface. More than 100,000 acres have already been retired.

Recycling Drainage Water

Diener manages a 640-acre parcel on his ranch that has no discharge at all. He uses a subsurface drain tile system that leaches salt out of the soil and water table, and then returns land to production. The drainage water is then re-cycled several times to irrigate blocks of increasingly salt-tolerant plants (halophytes), such as wheat grass and prickly pear cactus.

“Ultimately, the goal is not exposing the drain water to the community at large, whatever that is – the ducks, people or whatever. It’s a matter of how we treat resources that we have at our disposal and how we manage those things for the best benefit of everybody,” Diener said.

But the situation is anything but easy. “We need to find a way to keep the land productive, but that becomes difficult when you have environmental concerns stemming from soils with naturally high levels of these mineral deposits,” said Dr. Gary Bañuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist. “We’re hoping to produce crops on unproductive land with minimum water and slowly manage the selenium content out the soil.”

Prickly Pear Cactus

Still, there is no way with typical plants that sufficient quantities of selenium can be removed. All the selenium does is regenerate from a deeper soil depth and slowly migrate towards the surface, Bañuelos added. “Instead, we’re changing the perception that these soils are not useful,” he said.

Prickly pear cactus, a salt-tolerant crop, naturally produces antioxidant rich fruit and adding selenium makes it even healthier. (Selenium is essential to good health in small amounts.) But even with mineral absorption from cacti and other salt-loving plants, eventually, it all gets super concentrated, and Diener ends up with a big pile of salt on his ranch, which is the case for many farms on the west side. Water supplied by the federal and state projects brings the equivalent of 40 railroad cars of salt into the area every day, about 4,000 tons of salt daily.

Diener hopes to sell the excess salt to glass producers, since sodium ash is used in the glass manufacturing process. “The glass factory in Madera needs 20 tons a day, and we can generate that in a minute,” Diener said. “The idea is make the waste into marketable products.”

The next article in this series looks at the big picture – how California’s water plans and projects fit together or don’t.

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.

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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.”

Water Conservation, Recycling and California’s Future


A billboard from West Basin Municipal Water District

Conservation is the largest, least expensive and most environmentally sound source of new water, and water is being wasted in every sector of California’s economy, according to the Pacific Institute of Oakland. “We’ve found that California can cut its urban water use by a third through efficient technology, simple changes in policy and improved public education,” said Dr. Peter H. Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute. “What this means is that we can avoid new, expensive and environmentally destructive water projects and still meet California’s future needs—even if California’s population and economy grow as expected.”

There appears to be much room for improvement.

Lawn in Southern California

Outdoor water use accounts for 42 percent of urban use in California; this includes lawns, large landscapes, parks, golf courses and cemeteries, and a portion of commercial and industrial water use. But regional use varies significantly.

In Los Angeles, outdoor use accounts for 70 percent of residential use. In June 2009, an ordinance limiting lawn and garden watering to two days a week went into effect, and Los Angeles water consumption dropped by more than 20 percent.

In that same year, the state legislature passed Senate Bill X7-7, which requires urban water suppliers to reduce use by 20 percent per person by 2020.

Already, some water suppliers, particularly West Basin Municipal Water District (West Basin) in Los Angeles, are close to meeting the requirement. “In the early 1990s, we were relying on imported water from the Metropolitan Water District and then we had a drought, and that’s when we built our water recycling facility,” said Gus Meza, West Basin Senior Water Use Efficiency Specialist. “Now, 65 percent of our water comes from the Met Water District, and our goal is to get down to 33 percent. We hope to do that by doubling conservation, doubling recycling and using desalination.” Several cities have already met the 20 percent goal, including El Segundo, Inglewood, Lomita and Manhattan Beach.

Redesigned Drought-Tolerant Landscape - Courtesy of Eastern Municipal Water District

More recently, a coalition of Southern California water agencies, including Chino Basin Water Conservation District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and Western Municipal Water District, worked with Home Depot to encourage water-efficient landscaping. Water suppliers inserted 630,000 notices into monthly water bills, inviting customers to save up to 50 percent on water efficient plants and supplies. For 10 Saturdays in 2011, parking lot sales took place. Sales at two stores jumped 150 and 200 percent, and seven other stores had sales increases of 50 to 100 percent. This creates a win-win situation for consumers, retailers and water agencies promoting conservation.

For urban and suburban users, conservation doesn’t actually cost money over time; it creates a net savings.

Residents can also receive reimbursements directly from water agencies for replacing their lawns, at $1 per square-foot. Eastern Municipal Water District has put $100,000 into a turf buy-back program. “One of the interesting things about that program is that we are also targeting Home Owner Associations (HOAs) in these areas,” said Peter Odencrans, senior public affairs officer for Eastern Municipal Water District. HOAs constitute one-third of residential housing in California. “We have applications for 20,000 square feet, and we still have 80,000 square feet available.”  The program runs to June 2012.

Deby and John Anderson and their drought-resistant landscaping - Courtesy of Eastern Municipal Water District

But there can be resistance to change. Deby Anderson, a Hemet Resident, overcame HOA restrictions and recently replaced her lawn with drought resistant plants. “Our front yard has a huge hill, and we could never get it to look good. We had to fight our HOA, but eventually, they agreed,” Anderson said. “Every time I’m out in the garden, someone stops to comment on how beautiful the yard is which then gives me the opportunity to tell them how our water bill is less than half of what it used to be and that they, too, can get approval now to do something water-wise.”

Paula Albrigo gardening in her re-designed drought-resistant front yard.

State law backs drought-resistant landscaping, as well. In 2009, the state legislature passed A.B. 1061, and now HOA rules that interfere with water-efficient landscaping are void and unenforceable. A homeowner also cannot be fined by an HOA for putting in water efficient plants and replacing lawns.

But some HOAs are embracing change, like Casa Murietta in Sun City, California, which is currently replacing 10,000 square feet of lawn with drought-resistant landscaping and working with the local water agency. “We have a lot of green space, which uses a lot of water,” said Jeff Thomas, Casa Murietta homeowner. “There are 130 homes here. Right now everyone has their own green space, but water shortages are an issue that we’re going to have to face, sooner or later. Sooner is better, and when they’re providing incentives like this, it’s the right direction.”

Paula Albrigo, a resident from Laverne, has cut her water use in half by switching to drought-tolerant and native plants. “At first, when we let the grass die, we threw the neighbors into a tizzy. They wanted to know, did someone die? Are you leaving?” Albrigo said. “But now they love it, and we don’t pay for yard maintenance anymore.”

Water recycling is yet another way to increase water supply.

Edward C. Little Water Recycling Plant in El Segundo

Many water agencies and districts are treating sewer water and reusing it for irrigation, industrial processing and groundwater recharge.

After reprocessing waste water with microfiltration, chemicals, ultraviolet light and reverse osmosis, purified water is piped to customers who are hooked up to specific pipes for specific types of water. Chevron, for example, uses “designer” recycled water in its refinery and boiler operations.

California has more than 250 water recycling plants currently operating, and in 2009, the state recycled  approximately 724,000 acre-feet of waste water.

An additional 1.85 to 2.25 million acre-feet  of wastewater could be recycled by 2030. That’s nearly the average annual flow of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers.

Purified Water and Noelle Collins, West Basin Media and Public Affairs Specialist

Purified Water and Noelle Collins, West Basin Media and Public Affairs Specialist

One of the largest recycling facilities in the U.S. is West Basin’s plant in El Segundo. West Basin serves nearly a million people in Los Angeles, and its recycling facility produces five different qualities of water for municipal, commercial and industrial customers.

Some of its recycled water is also used to recharge ground water, which eventually ends up in the drinking water supply. “The recycled water comes from reprocessed sewage, and it has to be put in separate purple pipes, but after processing, it is more pure than bottled water. You can drink it,” said Noelle Collins, West Basin Media and Public Affairs Specialist.

Desalination is another technology being experimented with by West Basin and several other water agencies in California, but currently, its costs, energy expense and potential effect on the environment make it less useful than recycling and effective conservation.

That said, there are still major gaps in California’s conservation policies.

The lawn around the Capitol building in Sacramento

Urban water metering is required by state law by 2025, but the City of Sacramento has installed only 27,600 of the required 110,000 meters since the city began its program in 2005. The city of Fresno and more than half San Joaquin Valley residents are also not metered. The flat water rate for some Fresno customers is $28 per month, regardless of use, and the city has some of the highest water consumption per household. But by 2013, all city of Fresno customers will be metered. The city of Stockton’s water is metered.

But California can’t ignore the largest water consumer—Agriculture, which uses 70 to 80 percent of the available supply.

Senate Bill X7-7 bill requires urban users to reduce use by 20 percent per person by 2020, and agricultural water suppliers to measure the volume of water delivered to customers and adopt a pricing structure based on the quantity delivered.

“We will never adequately manage what we don’t measure. There are challenges to measuring use, but it’s critical,” said Dr. Gleick. “We, at the Pacific Institute, have determined that there is enormous potential to be more efficient, but knowing how much potential requires knowing exactly how much water is being used.”

Thus far, reporting of agricultural water deliveries is set to begin July 31, 2012. No goal has been set for reduced use.

The next Delta article in this series will investigate the costs, conflicts and challenges associated with agricultural conservation and water measurement.

The Peripheral Canal – How much water? At what cost? Who pays?


The Sacramento River near downtown Sacramento

Nearly two-thirds of California residents and the majority of agriculture get their water from the Delta and its tributaries, which surround Stockton in an intricate pattern of levees, rivers and farms. But the Delta faces multifaceted environmental problems, which have led to a crisis for fisheries, wildlife and water quality.

The peripheral canal has been touted as the solution to the Delta’s problems, but it’s questionable whether it can provide reliable water and protect the ecosystem.

The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has spent more than $150 million planning for some form of peripheral canal or tunnel-conveyance system, which would route water around the Delta rather than restoring it. The BDCP is funded by 23 South-of-Delta contractors who receive water from state and federal projects.

According to a Legislative Analyst Office report, $240 million is allocated for the BDCP planning process through the year 2013, and all total, the peripheral canal is currently estimated to cost $12 billion or higher; its actual costs are unknown.

Sign on the West Side of the Central Valley

And the BDCP draft plan has critical missing components, according to a National Academy of Sciences Report, including clearly defined goals and a scientific analysis of the proposed project’s potential impacts on Delta species—and that’s a big piece of the puzzle. Technically, the BDCP is supposed to meet the state’s co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability.

The Delta is home to 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, said Dr. Peter Moyle, Associate Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “Many of these are salmon and trout species, and most of the species are found only in California.”

While the Delta’s decline is due to many factors, including pollution, invasive species and loss of wetlands, the primary reasons for species decline are water diversions and excessive pumping in the estuary.

The San Joaquin River

The San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers are the Delta’s primary tributaries; the San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River, which once flowed out to sea, is often used to convey water to federal and state pumps, which send the water uphill and south to farms and cities in Southern California. The reduction in freshwater flow has eliminated much of the habitat, and as a result, populations of flow-dependent species have collapsed, including Chinook salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt.

To address this, the state passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act in 2009, which required the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to develop flow criteria to protect public trust resources and a suite of native fish.

The SWRCB public trust recommendations indicate the need to reduce use by 13.7 to 14.6 million acre-feet annually, which is about 22 percent of the state’s annual average water supply, or almost half of the Delta water supply.

That’s roughly equivalent to the annual flow of six Sierra Nevada Rivers, including the Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus, Feather, Yuba and American. While the SWRCB must balance economic needs with ecosystem needs, those flow recommendations imply that all Delta water users, including state and federal water contractors, will have to significantly reduce use. As such, a coalition of water and power districts recently sent a letter to the SWRCB requesting a delay in further establishing the Delta flow criteria until the BDCP is further along.

Thus far, the BDCP has not taken the public trust flow recommendations into account, it has no plans for a cost-benefit analysis, and the cost per acre-foot of peripheral canal water is unknown. BDCP representatives did not respond to phone calls or email requests for information.

The California Aqueduct sends water south and uphill towards cities and farms. It was renamed the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct in December 1982.

According to Dave Paulson, Chief of the State Water Project’s (SWP) Cost Branch, there are several factors that make determining costs of conveyance difficult. First, conveyance costs vary annually based on the costs of power, operation, maintenance and new construction. Second, contractors are billed only for their share of the annual costs, and it’s difficult to project the impact of a potential BDCP program layered on these existing costs. Third, the total projected BDCP costs are undetermined, the repayment period is not defined, the share of transportation and conservation costs are unknown, and no preferred alternative has been presented.

However, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, which supplies drinking water to nearly 19 million people, has made estimates of its own.

According to MWD, water from the proposed conveyance system will cost the district $810 per-acre foot, on average. MWD pays, on average, $296 per acre-foot for Delta water, which implies that the project will increase costs without necessarily yielding a more reliable supply. By comparison, MWD conservation programs yield additional water for $118 per acre-foot.

“From a Southern California perspective, we don’t want more imported water,” said Conner Everts, Executive Director of Southern California Watershed Alliance. “We’re over-built, and we’re better off when we are forced to live within our means.”

State contractors on average pay $185 per acre-foot of water, and San Joaquin Valley contractors pay about $52 an acre-foot under the current contract, which expires in 2035.

The Capitol Building

The BDCP is also linked to the Delta Plan, which is supposed to establish a more reliable water supply while protecting the Delta ecosystem, as well. The difference? The 88-year Delta plan will contain legally enforceable regulatory policies. It sets deadlines for the completion of the BDCP and Delta flow objectives. To be included in the plan, the BDCP must meet certain requirements, including flow requirements and approval from the Department of Fish and Game.

The Delta Plan is in the fifth draft of seven, and thus far, more than 200 environmental organizations have criticized it for failing to take the doctrine of public trust into account.

“It’s nebulous. It’s vague. It doesn’t include a cost-benefit analysis, and it doesn’t deal with flow issues and public trust recommendations,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta. “They set themselves up as a super regulatory agency, the way it’s written, but it’s a plan without a plan. There are 12 recommended actions, 61 potential actions.”

The public can comment on the Delta Plan’s 2200-page environmental impact report until February 2, 2012. The sixth draft will be published in March.

In regards to the BDCP, Assemblywoman Alyson Huber (D-El Dorado Hills) and Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) are attempting to bring fiscal accountability to the BDCP process. This January, Huber re-introduced Assembly Bill 550, to prohibit the construction of a peripheral canal without a full fiscal analysis and a vote of the state legislature. The bill failed on a 5-7 vote, with seven votes needed for passage. “We have made great progress from last year, and I am still committed to pressing for a full fiscal analysis and a vote of the legislature before any Delta water conveyance program can move forward,” Huber said.

Wolk also recently issued a statement on the Delta. “I accept the Governor’s invitation to engage constructively to find a solution to restore the Delta and improve water supply reliability for the state. However, I don’t think it will require what the Governor described as an enormous project, a giant canal, and taking 100,000 acres of Delta farmland out of production,” she said. “But it will require supporting everyone’s effort to reduce reliance on the Delta as their primary source of water and relying more on sustainable regional water supplies.”

Budget Shortfall Sign at Tule Elk State Natural Reserve

Gov. Jerry Brown, in his 2012 state of the state address, expressed his support for the BDCP, but more recently indicated that he would support delaying the $11 billion water bond currently on the November ballot, saying an overhaul of the state’s water system can begin without voters approving borrowing this year.

Brown advocated the peripheral canal in his last term as governor, but it was defeated in a referendum in 1982. Notably, his father, former Gov. Edmund G. Pat Brown, helped develop the State Water Project, when he served from 1959 to 1967.

Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, the state’s budget woes present a formidable roadblock. The general bonds that fund large infrastructure projects are financed by state taxpayers who pay the interest and principal out of the General Fund. According to the state’s fiscal outlook, the General Fund cost for debt service on infrastructure bonds is currently $6 billion for 2010-11 and $7.2 billion for 2011-12, and will continue to rise until 2015. Funds from bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of the State Water Project.

Wonder what happened to water conservation? See the next article in this series: Water Conservation, Recycling and California’s Future.

God, the Earth and Ozone: Stockton’s Diocese pushes for clean air, pairing environmental advocacy with faith


Betsy Reifsnider's Office

A tall, brown-haired, soft-eyed woman sits back and laughs. On her office desk is a portrait of the Dalia Lama pasted next to Queen Elizabeth, and behind her desk hangs a green t-shirt that states, “Got Asthma?” It shows the lungs of a healthy child and the lungs of one in five children living in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most polluted places in the country. Betsy Reifsnider’s unassuming cubicle looks like many in the environmental activist realm, but she is working for the Catholic Church, specifically Stockton’s Diocese–and she is in the lead. As part of a growing national movement pairing ecology with faith, Reifsnider has the only paid Catholic environmental advocacy position in the nation. Continue reading

God, the Earth and Ozone: A Photo Essay. Stockton’s Catholic Church blends environmental activism with faith, leading the nation.


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As part of a national and international movement, Catholic leaders, the pope, bishops, parishioners and priests are taking a stand on climate change. The local community and the San Joaquin Valley stands to benefit, as new laws regarding air pollution and global warming are enforced, and the green movement brings new jobs to the area, improving the health of residents and hinting at a new future for Stockton.

Public Trust Recommendations & the Delta: How much water is that?


The Sacramento River

The Sacramento River

www.bilingualweekly.com | By Deanna Lynn Wulff

California’s Chinook salmon came back this fall, due in part to good ocean conditions and abundant water, but the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, is still in critical condition. “Thirty-three species are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner,” said Dr. Peter Moyle, associate director of UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “Many of these are salmon and trout species, and most of the species are found only in California, so they are part of our heritage. If they disappear, they are lost, not only to California, but to the world, forever.”California’s Bay-Delta covers 1300 square miles, is home to 750 species of plants and animals, and is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and flow into the San Francisco Bay.  But its ecosystem is collapsing.

Continue reading

The Delta Water Wars Heat Up


Photo by Bilingual Weekly

Photo by Bilingual Weekly of the Delta

www.bilingualweekly.com | By Deanna Lynn Wulff

(bw news) STOCKTON, CA – Stockton is ground zero for the nation’s biggest and most troubling water war – nearly 25 million Californians get their water from the Delta, which surrounds the city in an intricate pattern of rivers, farms and levees. But the Delta faces multifaceted environmental and political problems, which have led to the decline of fisheries, wildlife and water quality, and special interests are directing the dialogue away from resolution and restoration.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Lloyd G. Carter, former Fresno Bee reporter and President of the Save Our Streams Council. “I have watched this for 30 years. They’ve been searching for a solution to the Delta’s problems for decades. It’s what I call the phenomena of endless studies no results. We know what we have to do. Put water back into the Delta.” Continue reading

An Interview with California’s Secretary of Natural Resources – John Laird


http://www.bilingualweekly.com Special to bw by Deanna Lynn Wulff

John Laird

CALIFORNIA- John Laird has a pivotal and powerful position. As the new California Secretary of Natural Resources, he is at the center of controversial issues such as Delta water management and park and wildlife protection. Continue reading

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