California Water Policy

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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.

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.

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