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Delta Flows: December 19, 2013

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
– Czeslaw Milosz


Water poker

Without at all minimizing the hardships that many Californians may experience if drought projections for 2014 are borne out, we want to note that as of December 18, 2013, Southern California’s Castaic Lake reservoir is at 88% of capacity, and Southern California’s Pyramid Lake reservoir is at 97% of capacity.

Central Valley reservoirs, by contrast – those serving California’s agricultural heartland – are alarmingly low. Most of these reservoirs lie behind dams built on rivers that used to sustain a complex natural environment, rivers on which fish have relied from time immemorial. And aquifers, the ancient underground reservoirs that agriculture is accustomed to using for backup, are alarmingly depleted. Some cannot be recovered at all.

Among those facing hard choices right now are those who decide what crops to grow and where to grow them. Of course, pressure is being applied to and by Congressional representatives to have a drought declared and to loosen fisheries protections to make more water available for agriculture. But some growers must understand that it isn’t smart to keep gambling that more water can be wrung every year from our over-subscribed system, no matter how much political pressure is applied. And tunnels cannot make rain either.

Habitat restoration not as advertised on the Trinity

In their effort to secure a right to keep taking the water they want from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) advocates are going around talking about the benefits of habitat restoration for recovering endangered fish and other species. BDCP includes restoration of tidal and nontidal marsh, channel margins, and riparian and grassland natural communities. We already know that prime agricultural land will be sacrificed for some of this questionable habitat. Now we’re hearing from scientists that nine key species may be hurt rather than helped by BDCP: three runs of Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, green and white sturgeon, steelhead, and greater sandhill cranes.

So we were interested to hear about another government project that was supposed to help fish by restoring habitat. It doesn’t seem to be working for the fish, and it isn’t doing the rest of the community much good, either. This project is on the Trinity River.

Toward the end of the 20th century, people began to understand that California’s big water projects that were so beneficial for agriculture and urban growth were harming the environment. The federal Central Valley Project (CVP) had dammed rivers all over the state. The 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) mandated changes in management of the federal Central Valley Project, particularly for the protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish and wildlife. We hear a lot about the effect of CVPIA projects on the San Joaquin River, but the Act also covers other areas of the state, including Northern California, where the Bureau of Reclamation’s Trinity River Division northwest of Redding operates Trinity Dam.

A variety of federal, State, and local agencies, along with the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes, have been working on a Trinity River Restoration Program, pursuant to a U.S. Department of Interior Record of Decision (ROD) in 2000 “to restore and maintain the Trinity River’s anadromous fishery resources.” This includes Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey.

Now you’d think that restoration work on the Trinity River and its tributaries would be a good way to create habitat for salmon. But the Bureau of Reclamation has been arguing that there is no causal linkage between the construction and operation of the Trinity River Division and habitat on any tributary below the North Fork of the Trinity River. So the Restoration Program gets $15 million per year, but it isn’t getting much bang for the bucks it is spending. At best $500,000 goes into watersheds.

The Record of Decision goal for increases in habitat for juvenile salmon is at least 400%. For the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent so far, the actual increases in habitat have been 1.2% to 1.6% a year at base flows. The kinds of small watershed projects that have proven successful in the past (as well as providing local employment) are only funded at 25% of what is needed. Most of the money is going for larger projects on the mainstem of the Trinity River that aren’t doing much good, according to the Restoration Program’s Science Advisory Board.

Points out Tom Stokely, who represents environmental organizations as a member of the Trinity River Adaptive Management Working Group, ten years into the program and at the current rate of $3 million per year for funding, it will take 385 years to meet the goal for increases in habitat.

Meanwhile, the Trinity mainstem habitat projects haven’t been good for the community as a whole (meaning people and fish).

• Boat launching access has been reduced.
• Favorite holes used by salmon and adult steelhead have filled in with gravel.
• Favorite adult steelhead fishing areas no longer exist.
• A private agricultural water system has been damaged.
• Landowners have lost river banks.
• Summer water turbidity has increased.
• The projects have created noise and truck traffic.
• The projects have led to the expansion of noxious weeds, an impact that is not being adequately mitigated.
• The projects have made the river shallower, requiring boaters to drag boats across the gravel bars at low flows, sometimes stepping on salmon nests (redds).

We can expect some of the same kinds of impacts with BDCP’s habitat restoration in the Delta.

We’re not against habitat restoration. We’re just opposed to the kind that involves large, institutionalized government programs that cost lots of money but don’t produce much in the way of results. Smaller, local projects can often be more effective. We will look at some of those in a future issue of Delta Flows.

Financial red flags

Fisheries agencies have produced “red flag” documents detailing their doubts about whether BDCP can actually deliver on its promises for ecosystem restoration.

Now, as a public service (in other words, without being compensated by interests on either side of the discussion), Steven Kasower of Strategic Economic Applications Company has analyzed publically available documents and identified 11 Financial Red Flags that should be considered by water contractors’ Boards of Directors as they consider whether to provide the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) with any additional funding. Here’s our abbreviated version of Kasower’s analysis:

1. In 2007, BDCP thought they could have this whole thing ready to go, including permitting, for $153.5 million. In 2011, they went back to contractors for another $100 million to complete the plan. Now they are asking for an addition $1.2 billion, which will bring total preconstruction costs to about 10 times the original estimate. That doesn’t include any funds that might be necessary to prepare a revised EIR/EIS, to go through the Water Board permitting process, or to defend against the inevitable lawsuits.

2. Contractors should expect cost overruns. Seven years ago, the estimate for the then-canal was $3.8 billion. Now we’re at $15 billion, and that is without complete geotechnical information. (Kasower doesn’t mention it, but one of the reasons they can’t get that information is because DWR still hasn’t met the legal requirements to get on a lot of private land in the Delta.) What geotechnical data they do have doesn’t go deep enough, and consultants have suggested that boring through an area with natural gas wells could be a challenge.

3. BDCP proponents have improperly excluded the costs of debt serve reserves, working capital, and underwriting fees, an additional cost of up to $1 billion.

4. Planners haven’t estimated what the costs of goods and services will be in future years when the construction actually occurs.

5. BDCP proponents have overestimated the benefits by misrepresenting what deliveries will likely be if the tunnels are NOT built.

6. Proponents are “significantly” underestimating the cost of water from the project. Instead of an inflation-adjusted cost of $300-$400 per acre foot, economist Dr. Rodney Smith, using less optimistic assumptions, suggests that an inflation-adjusted range of $625-$890 per acre foot is more reasonable. Drought conditions will add cost uncertainty.

7. Agricultural contractors may withdraw from the project, leaving urban agencies to foot more of the bill, which some agencies have indicated they will not do.

8. Bond underwriters will likely require “step up” provisions ensuring that if some exporters can’t pay their share, other will be obligated to cover the costs.

9. Bond underwriters will likely require water contractors that are wholesalers, like Metropolitan Water District, to have take-or-pay contracts with their member agencies so that some can’t pursue local projects to reduce their demand for MWD water, thereby increasing rates for other member agencies.

10. It isn’t certain who will be financially liable for capital costs of land acquisition and habitat restoration, funding that must be assured in order for BDCP to receive permits as a Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Communities Conservation Plan (HCP/NCCP). Federal funding and state bond funding are both uncertain. Also, ongoing operations and maintenance costs for restored habitat will have to be covered by ratepayers, an annual obligation that the Brattle Group estimated to be in the range of $2.59 million.

11. Water contractors who commit to paying the costs of BDCP will have less money to pay for local projects such as conservation, water recycling, desalination, and groundwater cleanup that could provide drought-proof water supplies.

To all our supporters who keep firing off words of truth like pistol shots, the staff of Restore the Delta wishes you and yours Happy Holidays! May peace, good health, and sustainable prosperity be your good fortune in 2014.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla
Jane Wagner-Tyack
Stina Va
Javier Padilla Reyes

Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Phil Frame
    December 19, 2013, 10:15 pm

    The mention of Fracking for Oil never seems to be mentioned . I have a gut feeling that the water wholesalers are looking for extra water to sell to the big oil companies and not necessarily for Ag or residential purposes only and that is why the big push for the tunnels. Yes or No ??

  • Bob Panzer
    December 19, 2013, 11:53 pm

    We know that one of the key players supporting the tunnels is Kern County Water Agency, which would need huge gulps to frack.