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


The Delta. Graphic adapted from BDCP documentation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacramento River

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of USDA - Flood Irrigated Field

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of USDA - Drip Irrigation on an Almond Orchard

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of USDA, Micro Sprinkler

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

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

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

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

Total Channel Control Water Distribution System

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

Modernizing water districts could produce huge water savings.

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

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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.”

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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