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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.”
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.
(Stockton, CA) – In an effort to stop over 1 trillion gallons of water that are loss from household leaks every year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) has created a movement to thwart the waste with a Fix a Leak Week with the ongoing We’re for Water campaign.