Investigative Report

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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.

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.

.

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.”

CDC study explores role of drugs, drive-by shootings, and other crimes in gang homicides


 

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If you missed it: The State of the Union Address


Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address

United States Capitol Washington, D.C. 9:10 P.M. ET

State of the Union Address

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The 2011 Top 10 Stories Most Read


As we begin 2012, Bilingual Weekly’s newsroom extracted the top 10 most read stories during the last 352 days.  Please note that the top 10 stories were not selected by the Bilingual Weekly’s staff, our team ran the http://www.bilingualweekly.com English website’s analytics’ report which evaluates the hits received daily and it ranked each story from the highest number of hits to the lowest ranking in local news coverage. The following stories are briefs of the top 10 stories you, our readers clicked on.

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State Controller Continues to find Discrepancy’s in Cities throughout California


Motebello, CA  – State Controller John Chiang today released his final review  of the City of Montebello, exposing possible pension spiking, payroll errors, a loose petty cash drawer, and systemic problems in the City’s internal controls of its Finances.

 

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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

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