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There’s a Better Solution to the Delta Tunnels
The SF Bay-Delta estuary is durable and sustainable. It is a jewel in the rough that needs some polishing. What the Delta needs is restored water flows and levee upgrades. With these improvements, the Delta can become a place where sustainable agriculture and a sustainable environment can thrive together.
1. Strengthen the existing Delta levees
Strengthening existing Delta levees is a far more efficient and cost effective way to ensure water reliability for the state and preserve environmental and economic stability to the greater Delta, as levees protect water supply and quality. Upgrade costs for robust levees are $2-4 billion according to the Delta Protection Commission. In stark contrast, the CA Water Fix Delta tunnels could cost $60 billion when interest, administration, research, operation, and maintenance fees are taken into account to the $17 billion construction cost.
The levees will need rehabilitation even if the CA Water Fix Delta tunnels were built, as there is $20 billion in infrastructure (railroads, gas lines, power facilities, public highways), and 4 million people in the Delta who need protection. Recent studies by the Delta Protection Commission indicate that if a hypothetical catastrophe were to occur, 80% of the cost and 100% of the loss of life would occur within the Delta.
2. Follow advice of state experts: Reduce the amount of water taken from the Delta, & Retire toxic farmland
• California needs to acknowledge the over subscription of the water system, and start a true accounting that determines how much water is really available.
• Water exports of safe yields should only happen during wet periods, not dry periods.
• Investments need to be made to retire drainage-impaired agricultural lands in the Central Valley.
Instead of destroying the Delta to feed the water demands of billionaires’ mega-farms and desert developments, let’s end the myth of “surplus” water.
Let’s retire toxic lands that do not drain properly and that are unsuitable for farming. Much of Delta water goes to dry, polluted land that drains into rivers. Retiring these lands would save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet per year in water. We could do this by buying out these farms and helping their owners convert the land to profitable solar or wind energy production. Rather than planting water dependent permanent crops, let’s return to the requirement that field crops dependent on Delta “surplus” water are left uncultivated during dry periods. It makes no sense to jeopardize farming on prime Delta farmland and surrounding areas to subsidize irrigation of impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that by the nature of being irrigated pollute vast quantities of ground and surface water.
3. Increase natural flows of fresh water through the Delta
Water that flows to the ocean is not wasted. It is what gives life to fisheries that support the ocean food chain. Fresh water flows are critical to the survival of this state’s salmon fishery, as salmon migrate from the estuary’s watersheds, through the bay to the sea, and also help to flush out pollutants.
The State Water Board and State and Federal fishery agencies have repeatedly stated that Delta outflows must be significantly increased if the estuary’s historic fisheries are going to survive.
Extra water can be exported through the existing pumps if state-of-art fish screens are installed by the water takers as promised. Further studies could be conducted to see if reconfiguring the existing pumps at their current location, or another location that allows fresh water to flow through the Delta, would provide benefits to fisheries.
4. Increase reliance on local water supply and improve water capture & storage
California needs to fix and upgrade its local water and wastewater systems. We need to remove old plumbing and replace it with low-flow options and implement new devices that tell users how much water they’re using. In addition, 10-20% of municipal water supplies are lost through water main breaks; we should invest in the installation of wireless underground systems that track these breaks for fast repair. Most importantly, we should prioritize funds to repair and upgrade aging underground water delivery systems, which would gain over 500,000 acre feet of water annually.
We need to invest in new infrastructure that capture, recycle, and store water locally. Installing cisterns can result in the capture and storage of sudden or intense rains on public business and residential properties across our communities.
We need to provide incentives to homeowners and industry users to switch to drought-resistant landscaping, crops, or technology. Incentives to help farmers save water by installing drip irrigation everywhere can reduce agricultural water use from 80% to 60%.
These investments are crucial to making our water systems more reliable and must be prioritized. The development and installation of more efficient and innovative technologies can also create more reliable jobs. Cities across California are planning to diversify their water supply sources because local sources are the most cost effective and reliable. Besides submerging cities in debt, the Delta tunnels would threaten to undermine these important local investments because it would increase dependence on outside water exports from the Delta estuary, which is already oversubscribed. Furthermore, the tunnels would fail to make more water for the system.
Learn more about water solutions:
Report: The Environmental Water Caucus’s Sustainable Water Plan for California (2015)
Handout: 2016 Real Solutions for a Sustainable California, on alternative investments we can make to the Delta Tunnels
Watch our PowerPoint video for some ideas!
Report: The Cost of Alternative Water Supply and Efficiency Options in California (2016)
A note about desalination:
We have other ways of producing more water that are environmentally friendly. Years from now when the technology is environmentally friendly, it could work.
Saudi Arabia desalination plants use 1.5 million bbl of oil per day, more than the daily oil consumption of the UK. https://t.co/MBJdyqLtrj
— Peter Gleick (@PeterGleick) July 11, 2016