California’s Water Package – One Big “Diversion”?


California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) this week announced an initial allocation of 5 percent of total contracted water deliveries to the State Water Project (SWP) contractors for 2010. This is the lowest percentage since the SWP began delivering water in 1967.

At least that’s the forecast at this early point of the season. By comparison, the initial figure for 2009 of 15 percent was eventually increased to a final allocation of 40 percent in May. Nevertheless, it’s a sign that California is entering its fourth year of drought, and heightens the debate over saving a dying Delta versus diverting more water to southern California.

Demonstrating the direness of the situation, Central Valley farmers have resorted to posting signs in their untended fields and orchards just off Interstate 5 that read “Congress Created Dustbowl” to dramatize the negative impacts incurred by the agricultural industry. No matter which level of government is to blame, water shortages mean less productivity, fewer jobs and higher food prices across the country.

The California legislature last month attempted to mitigate the problem by passing (and the governor signed into law) The Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010. This historic water package included an $11.14 billion general obligation bond proposal that would provide funding for California’s aging water infrastructure and for projects and programs to address the state’s ecosystem and water supply issues. But that measure must be approved by voters in the November 2010 election, leaving uncertain the appropriations for a number of key water storage and conservation projects.

The package did establish a new legal framework for Delta management, emphasizing the coequal goals of “providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.” Moreover, it will reform the policy and governance for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by redefining the role of the Delta Protection Commission (DPC), creating a new Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy and launching the Delta Stewardship Council (Council) as an independent state agency.

Assemblymember Jared Huffman, chair of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and a key figure in the passage of the Delta water legislation, is naturally optimistic. “This suite of reforms deals with things to reduce our dependence on the Delta, stabilize water supplies as well as building more reliability to address future challenges, like population increases and climate change.” Huffman admits the legislation is “not perfect, but a vast upgrade.”

At the center of the California Delta/water debate is the prospect of a peripheral canal-type project that would move surplus water southward.

At the behest of The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) , the Department of Water Resources has prepared five different options that would divert 15,000 cubic feet of water per second through or around the Delta at an estimated cost of $7-$15 billion.

Unlike the Delta Stewardship Council, the BDCP is already in place and working to promote the recovery of endangered, threatened and sensitive fish and wildlife species and their habitats in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while protecting and restoring water supplies. A canal, also known as a “diversion,” is a cornerstone of the conceptual water conveyance options.

One of the more moderate scenarios, the West Alignment, calls for the construction of 38 miles of canal, combined with a 17-mile tunnel. The most costly option, the Through Delta alignment, would construct 12 miles of canal, in conjunction with 66 miles of levee retrofits and setbacks.

The All Tunnel option would create a 36-mile tunnel with two bores, each measuring 33 feet in diameter; big enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. According to DWR, the tunnels would be constructed using two proven technologies, an “earth-pressure balance” (EPB) or a “slurry method” or a combination of the two. The Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District this fall used the EPB method in the construction of a new sewer line in Natomas, California. By contrast, that project required a 144-inch-diameter pipe (less than half the size of the one proposed by the DWR), traveling a mere three-mile distance. More important, it doesn’t pass under a sensitive ecosystem like the Delta, the largest estuary on America’s western coastline.

The Department of Water Resources points out that these scenarios are preliminary and subject to environmental review process. And the BDCP has much work to do before a decision is made on whether a conveyance facility is even needed. Assemblymember Huffman is comforted that any decision will be based on hard science provided by the state Department of Fish & Game and the DWR. “We’re going to have this debate in the context of a suite of much more rigorous protections for the Delta and its fisheries, thanks to this legislation.”

Sierra Club California wouldn’t object to a canal, so long as it demonstrably improved the environment in the Delta, according to Jim Metropulos, senior advocate. “A canal should be small, work for water reliability and actually lessen the amount of water exports from the Delta.”

Contrary to Huffman’s assurances, Metropulos says language in the legislation regarding the determination of in-stream flow needs for species in the Delta – the key scientific data undergirding Delta protections – is unenforceable. Huffman admits to weaknesses in the bill and wishes it would have had a “stronger authority over local governments and agencies in land use planning, especially in the primary and secondary zones of the Delta.” Huffman plans to introduce legislation next year to bolster a number of purported deficiencies in the water legislation.

Still on the matter of a proposed conveyance facility he offers, “If people are going to propose a new Delta conveyance, and points of diversion, the bar just got raised fairly dramatically for what that is going to look like.”

Assemblymember Alyson Huber, representing California’s 10th District, hopes to raise the bar.

In the last days of California’s seventh extraordinary session, Huber proposed AB13, which would “prohibit the construction of a peripheral canal … unless expressly authorized by the Legislature.” Although the measure died in the Rules Committee, Huber plans to reintroduce the bill in January.

“(Legislators) will have a lot of explaining to do if they vote against this bill,” says Huber. “Just trying to grab more water from northern California doesn’t address the public policy question of do we want to continue to shift water to develop the desert.”

In the meantime, California’s agricultural industry is flagging due to deficient water supplies. This year, according to the DWR, contractors have requested 100 percent of the maximum contractual amount allowed – 4,171,996 acre-feet. While the initial 2010 allocation is only 5 percent of that amount, actual deliveries are expected to increase during the year once actual hydrologic and water supply conditions are known. The State Water Project contractors provide water to more than 25 million California residents and more than 750,000 acres of farmland.

The initial allocation figure, according to the DWR, reflects the low carryover storage levels in the state’s major reservoirs, ongoing drought conditions and federally mandated environmental restrictions on water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered fish species in the Delta.

“It’s important to do as much as we can to conserve water,” said DWR Director Lester Snow in an interview with Capital Public Radio. “We need to make sure that transfers are made available to those areas that are most impacted. And we want to encourage and actually help fund efforts for communities to diversify their water supplies.”

The federal government is not sitting idly by either.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in November that through the president’s economic recovery plan, “Interior is investing over $400 million in modernizing California’s water infrastructure, of which over $40 million is going directly to drought relief.”

Interior has joined with five other federal agencies in signing a Memorandum of Understanding that “re-establishes federal leadership on California Bay Delta issues, including active involvement in ongoing state efforts, such as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, to help provide an assured water supply while restoring the environmental integrity of the Bay Delta.”

In addition, Interior and the Commerce and Agriculture Departments have asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct additional scientific analysis of the California Bay Delta ecosystem. The NAS is slated to publish its first report in March 2010.

By that time, Assemblymembers Huffman and Huber will have introduced their new legislative pieces, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will be further along in its planning, and the governor well on his way to deciding which four appointees will be named to the newly established seven-member Delta Stewardship Council.

With luck, this spring there may be fewer “Dustbowl” signs along I-5 as well.