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“Fixing” the game

After wandering for awhile in the realm of optimistic speculation, consultants got down to Chapter 9, Alternatives to Take.  The Endangered Species Act requires them to consider whether there is a way to harm fewer fish and other species, but for purposes of the BDCP Administrative Draft, any alternative must be “practicable”— i.e. the exporters must be willing to pay for it.   (Consideration of “take alternatives” in the environmental documents – the EIR/EIS – will be different.)

The analysis assumes that construction starts in 2015, and that operation begins in 2025 and continues to 2075.  The permits would expire in 2065, but the facility is assumed to have a 50-year life, so the analysis assumes that the permits would be extended.  (More optimism in the face of uncertainty.)

Economic benefits fall into three categories:  water supply, water quality, and seismic risk reduction.

Urban benefits include avoiding future shortages and avoiding some investment needs.  For Metropolitan Water District, for instance, the analysis considered what Delta water might be worth compared to other local supplies – groundwater recovery, local surface water, recycling water, seawater desalination (presumably at current costs and with current levels of technology).

The analysis pegs the 2012 urban demand at just over 5 MAF  and assumes that by 2050, that demand grows by 1 MAF.  Population and conservation will both grow, cancelling each other out, according to analysts.  Even implementing BDCP, the analysis forecasts an urban shortage of 1.6 MAF in a dry year.  According to Dr. David Sunding, BDCP just keeps things where they are.  No new water for urban ratepayers.

Dr. Michael pointed out that the analysis rises and falls on urban water assumptions, which are based on faulty assumptions about urban population growth.  The analysis uses 2006-07 regional transportation plans, which have been updated twice since then.  Those analyses were controversial, with aggressive growth assumptions that were shown by the 2010 census to be too high.

Current projections show 5 million fewer people in the water demand area by 2050.  Dr. Michael noted that projections made in 2012 are now the basis of housing and transportation planning, and he suggested that Sunding use those when revising the plan.

On the subject of agricultural water supply benefits, those are problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the difficulty of predicting how much water we will actually have to share in California as climate fluctuates.  Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research noted that the analysis assumes that frequency of dry and critically dry years will not increase, which could have a major impact on the assumed benefits of BDCP.

The analysis assumes that BDCP would reduce the need for agricultural capital system investments and for fallowing.  San Joaquin Valley deliveries of 3.5 MAF rather than the higher amount proposed by BDCP would require fallowing 200,000 acres. But a sizable amount of San Joaquin Valley farmland, including 100,000 acres just in Westlands, has already been taken out of production because it has become too salty to farm.  This salting up of valley farmland is just going to get worse, and the demand for fresh water to flush it will increase.

Meanwhile, BDCP proposes to turn 146,000 acres of Delta farmland over to habitat protection and restoration – a permanent loss of prime farmland in one area for a temporary benefit to compromised farmland elsewhere.

BDCP is claiming benefits for improving water quality by reducing the salinity of export water.  Exporters may indeed get higher quality water, but at the expense of fish, agriculture, and urban users in the Delta, the Estuary, and the Bay.

Dr. Michael complimented Dr. Sunding on the economic analysis and said he wished it had been done three or four years ago when BDCP alternatives were first being developed.  He said that the earthquake analysis was done correctly, with reduction in seismic risk representing just 2% of economic benefits; this is NOT an important justification for building the tunnels (although you wouldn’t know that from the exaggerated weight it still gets in the BDCP brochure).  He noted that tunnels do not provide full insurance against an earthquake causing dozens of islands to flood and fail.  For that, we need levee investment alternatives that would create a more resilient delta.

(Said Dr. Meral, “If you can demonstrate that USGS estimates of earthquake threats are exaggerated, we’d like to know about that.”  Someone will be getting back to him on that subject.)

BDCP will continue to rely on South Delta diversions up to 51% of the time, so there is no overall reduction in seismic risk unless Delta levees are upgraded – something BDCP does not propose to do.

There was a lot more: questions about inconsistent discount rates, jeopardy to habitat for critical species, absence of actual mitigation proposals, and whether the fish agencies can even issue permits if the project is not fully funded prior to groundbreaking.

The suggestion to put the whole matter to a popular vote got vocal support from the audience.

To summarize . . . the water contractors MAY have a good reason to pay for about two-thirds of the BDCP – the Peripheral Tunnel part, for which the design is only 10% complete – IF the conservation part is good enough to make the fisheries agencies issue “take” permits and stop restricting exports, which so far it isn’t.  (We’ll report on that later.)  Or the contractors may NOT have a good reason to pay, depending on how much water they can get and how much it is going to cost their ratepayers, over the next 50 years, in the face of climate uncertainties.  For about a third of the money they need for this bundle of assumptions, they’ll be going to taxpayers for public funding.

We’ll just conclude here with a comment on the matter of Grand Visions.  If you’ve visited Hoover Dam, you’ve seen the monuments to the visionary engineers and politicians who created this wonder of the modern world.  Maybe you also noticed the “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead, which is now somewhere between “drought” and “critical storage level.”  You might wonder why it didn’t occur to these dam-building visionaries that the future could bring droughts, reduced flows into Lake Mead, or dramatic increases in the number of people using the water.  Even visionaries don’t think of everything.  So it behooves us all to keep pointing out to BDCP planners all the ways that the Peripheral Tunnels vision doesn’t make sense in either the short term or in some visionary future.

Winged figure from Hoover Dam.
Winged figure from Hoover Dam.

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