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News from Restore the Delta; California Water Commission: Not Neutral

“. . .Who lined himself with hope,
Eating the air on promise of supply,
Flattering himself in project of a power
Much smaller than the smallest of his thoughts . . .”
― Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, I, iii

Not BDCP neutral
The odd case of the Water Commission
Drought preparedness – Not

Not BDCP neutral

In order for the water bond to be BDCP neutral, as its Delta legislative supporters insist that it is, it would need to do more that ensure that no bond money can be spent on tunnels and that no water contractors can get credit for any Delta habitat activities.

In order to be BDCP neutral, the water bond would need to ensure that no funding can be used for projects that facilitate continued reliance on exports that damage the Delta and the Bay-Delta Estuary. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is supposed to be a habitat conservation plan, and it will never succeed until export flows are reduced.

But in fact, up to half the funding in the water bond is designed to perpetuate a water storage and delivery system that California has outgrown. Given 21st century climate and environmental realities, making that system bigger is not going to make it better.

Legislators who favor building dams and reservoirs voted for this water bond because they want funding for public benefits associated with Temperance Flat Dam and Sites Reservoir (not that there is enough funding here for both). Promises, it appears, were made.

Meanwhile, large environmental organizations that supported the bond think they can influence the California Water Commission, which gets to decide how the money is spent, to consider giving some funding to groundwater storage instead. Jay Ziegler of The Nature Conservancy has noted that groundwater storage provides an 8 to 1 benefit over dams. He has said that his organization has “a high level of confidence” that the California Water Commission is going to choose groundwater storage projects over dams. This, while some California legislators, like Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Senator Cathleen Galgiani, were busy trying to get the Federal Government to help pay for the dams through a special resolution at 10 p.m. on the Friday night before the end of the legislative session.

One side or the other is deluded.

The words “dams” and “reservoirs” don’t appear in any chapter title in the water bond. You’ll have trouble finding the word “dam” at all. What you will read about is “projects” that will contribute to “Statewide Water System Operational Improvement.” Specifically, you see Sites Reservoir, and Temperance Flat listed. So what does that mean?

The “State Water Facilities” are described at Water Code §12934(d). Included are multipurpose dams and reservoirs and an extensive aqueduct system. The Water Code allows for the State Water Facilities to include “other additional facilities as the department deems necessary and desirable to meet local needs, including, but not restricted to, flood control, and to augment the supplies of water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. . . .” “Additional facilities” could include groundwater storage, but people weren’t thinking much about groundwater storage when the Burns-Porter Act authorizing the State Water Project was approved by voters in 1960.

Groundwater storage projects did get mentioned in the 2010 version of the water bond, and we find them in the current bond in Chapter 8 (“Statewide Water System Operational Improvement and Drought Preparedness”). But the deck is stacked against them. Here’s what the bond says about how the funds can be spent:

79753. (a) Funds allocated pursuant to this chapter may be expended solely for the following public benefits associated with water storage projects:

(1) Ecosystem improvements, including changing the timing of water diversions, improvements in flow conditions, temperature, or other benefits that contribute to restoration of aquatic ecosystems and native fish and wildlife, including those ecosystems and fish and wildlife in the Delta. (Translation: This storage can be operated to improve flows for the ecosystem, something fisheries agencies will require that water contractors do in order to operate the twin tunnels. Surface storage could be operated that way; groundwater storage, probably not.)

(2) Water quality improvements in the Delta, or in other river systems, that provide significant public trust resources, or that clean up and restore groundwater resources. (Compared to water quality improvements affecting the Delta and its tributary rivers, how competitive will groundwater clean up and restoration projects really be?)

(3) Flood control benefits, including, but not limited to, increases in flood reservation space in existing reservoirs by exchange for existing or increased water storage capacity in response to the effects of changing hydrology and decreasing snow pack on California’s water and flood management system. (Groundwater storage? Well, maybe.)

(4) Emergency response, including, but not limited to, securing emergency water supplies and flows for dilution and salinity repulsion following a natural disaster or act of terrorism. (Groundwater storage? Not likely.)

(5) Recreational purposes, including, but not limited to, those recreational pursuits generally associated with the outdoors. (Groundwater storage? Obviously not.)

These are the public benefits that the California Water Commission will be asked to use in considering how to spend the $2.7 billion in this chapter of the bond. Although they are supposed to consult with Fish and Wildlife, the Water Board, and DWR, the money is continuously appropriated to them.

So who are they?

The odd case of the Water Commission

We’re so accustomed to having the Resources Agency give birth to new committees and processes with members, staff, agendas, reports, and videotaped meetings, that no one paid much attention to the curious resurrection of the California Water Commission.

A California Water Commission was in place half a decade before the Burns-Porter Act was approved in 1960. Originally, the Water Commission had seven members selected for “their knowledge of, interest in, and experience with problems relating to the control, storage, and beneficial use of water.” For decades, its primary function was to support the State Water Project (SWP).

However, from the early 1990s until 2009, the California Water Commission existed only on paper. It had run out of things to do to support the SWP, and although it has some functions relative to DWR under the Water Code, DWR seems to have been managing fine without it.

Then came the 2009 water reform legislation, and the Water Commission itself was re-formed, purportedly for the purpose of determining public benefits of the storage projects in the 2010 water bond – the same storage projects we are seeing in the present water bond. The 2009 legislation provided an excuse to do what some policymakers apparently wanted to do anyway: expand the role of the California Water Commission in California water governance.

Governor Schwarzenegger wasted no time in making appointments to this commission that was supposed to determine public benefits of projects for which funding might not even be approved by voters. One difference between this and the original commission was the addition of two members chosen for their knowledge of the environment. But it hasn’t been hard for recent governors to find people with knowledge of the environment who don’t behave like environmentalists at all.

A group of people with a meeting schedule, a staff, and $100 per diem can always find something to do: especially those who are part of the agricultural industry that takes Delta water for exported crops; engineering firm members who want to build big infrastructure projects; union leaders looking for new infrastructure construction jobs; and private consultants who have years of experience greenwashing projects enabling one NGO in particular to manage a great deal of land in the Delta. (Go here to see who the members are and what they’ve been up to.) One of the things they have done is to formulate guidelines and proposed regulations for quantifying and managing public benefits of water supply projects, using the 2012 version of the water bond.

As the draft regulations stand right now (the November 2013 draft), the public benefits focus on water quality, ecosystem, and recreational benefits. It will be hard for groundwater storage to compete with surface storage projects that have water quality, ecosystem, and recreational benefits. We will echo our friend Jerry Cadagan and others by noting that it is hard to water ski in an underground aquifer.

Public comments submitted on the draft regulations (the most recent are from March 19, 2014) include only one mention of groundwater – this, from Friant Water Authority: “How will the public benefits of restored groundwater be differentiated from the non-public benefits that result from additional groundwater supply?” That’s an excellent question. Thinking about groundwater storage will require a major reevaluation of the idea of “public benefits” that taxpayers should fund.

Governor Brown just reappointed seven of the Water Commission members this past July and made one new appointment. With the exception of one lone environmentalist, is this a group that would be inclined to undertake a major change in course away from dams and reservoirs? Are these people who are prepared to fight a status quo that they are part of and that is backed by some of the most powerful political interests in the state, when they already have draft regulations that favor surface storage?

Drought preparedness – Not

We’ve explored the connection between the proposed surface storage and flows for fish and water quality before. (See the last section of our August 15, 2014 newsletter.) The people who want to build Sites Reservoir (referred to as NODOS, or “North-of-the-Delta Offstream Storage”) say that it would be operated in conjunction with Trinity, Shasta, Oroville and Folsom to provide increased water supply, meet instream flow requirements, and improve water quality.

We said in August, and we’ll say again, that it has always been clear that the contractors would try to find a way to compensate for taking too much water from the Delta by trying to coordinate BDCP with operation of increased upstream surface storage. Both Glenn Colusa Irrigation District (which wants Sites Reservoir) and Friant Water Authority (which wants Temperance Flat Dam) made it clear to the Water Commission this past July that these projects have benefits that are tied to BDCP and export levels.

To pencil out for exporters, BDCP needs to provide reliable levels of export flows in all years, and surface storage supporters plan to operate dams and reservoirs to provide that reliability. Together with money that would be available for “enhanced environmental flows,” the water bond gives exporters just about everything they need to keep gaming California’s fragile water system to benefit Delta exports.

The main purpose of the storage projects in the water bond is not to store water for drought preparedness. That’s just the story voters are getting. The purpose of these projects is to regulate flows to meet water quality requirements with a minimal reduction in Delta exports. And that purpose is inseparable from BDCP.

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  • Nick Di Croce
    October 8, 2014, 2:47 am

    This is a really good and well written decoding of the water bond language.

    It needs to get a wide distribution.