“Not every dream grows on every land, so you got to watch out!”
— Israelmore Ayivor
What do we want? Water! When do we want it? Now!
Recently we got an inside peek at a rural Kern County water district’s decision whether to participate in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District was asked by Kern County Water Agency, the State Water Project’s second largest water service contractor, whether the District would participate in the Tunnels project or not.
In addition to its role as a state water contractor, Kern County Water Agency is Kern County’s water wholesaler. It takes what water it receives on behalf of Kern County, then turns around and sells the water to its “member units.”
Tehachapi-Cummings is one such member unit, a retail agency that sells water directly to water-using customers in its service area, including the towns of Tehachapi and Keene (where the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers union is located) in the southern Sierra Nevada. The District’s pipeline from the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant south of Bakersfield uses four pumping plants to lift supplies from Edmonston at 1,350 feet of elevation to Tehachapi at an elevation of about 3,970 feet, a defiance of gravity of over 2,600 feet.
The pipeline can deliver a contractual amount of up to 9,930 acre-feet a year to over 14,000 people in the district’s service area. Many residents in the area also rely on groundwater while some farms and ranches in the area rely on imported surface water.
Planning for the BDCP began in 2006, and by late 2008, Kern County Water Agency approached Tehachapi-Cummings about contributing funds for planning the conservation plan and its tunnels project. The District consented in November 2008 to pay an initial $340,000 from its State Water Project fund for its share of BDCP planning. Almost exactly a year later, the District board decided to terminate further funding when Kern County Water Agency requested that the District pay nearly $250,000 more—its share of another $100 million state water contractors were asking their customers to pony up to help complete BDCP’s environmental reports and modeling effort. To date, the District has apparently paid only the initial $340,000.
Because of a clause in its initial funding agreement, the District could still have the option to participate in BDCP despite rejecting additional planning funds for the project.
On November 19th, John Martin, Tehachapi-Cummings’ general manager, showed his Board cost and expected yield data for the Tunnels project to the District. He presented them with two cost analyses based on the confusing scenarios we in the Delta are so familiar with: the “Low Outflow” and “High Outflow” scenarios—confusing because “Low Outflow” translates into “High Exports” while “High Outflow” means “Low Exports” in BDCP-speak.
Martin informed the Board in his staff report that “it is possible that environmental conditions in the Delta will result in the SWP operating under a high-outflow scenario, which would result in substantially lower export yields for the water districts receiving BDCP water. KCWA has declared that it will not participate in BDCP under a high-outflow scenario and that low-outflow yields (maximum exports) must be assured for the duration of the contract extension for KCWA to participate.” The contract extensions are proposed to last 50 years.
The cost figures Martin provided his Board match the spike many analysts have anticipated would result from financing the Tunnels project. While the District’s existing imported water supply from Kern costs them about $202 per acre-foot, the incremental cost of Tunnels water would be about $484 an acre-foot; blending the costs would increase their per-unit imported water cost overall by 36 percent, to about $275 an acre-foot.
The “high outflow” (low export) scenario, which Kern says it would opt out of, would nonetheless result in higher costs of their existing supply: an increase from $202 to $228, or about 11 percent, without adding in the Tunnels’ costs yet.
Adding injury to the insult of this cost increase, Tehachapi-Cummings’ base supplies from the State Water Project would decrease by about 1,100 acre-feet per year.
On top of that the Tunnels project cost under the “high outflow” scenario would be about $1,010 per acre-foot for less than half the water supply the Tunnels might yield under the “low outflow/high exports” scenario—just 2,100 acre-feet, down from 4,350. The blended cost per acre-foot for the District would rise to $358 per acre-foot, an increase of about 77 percent over the low-outflow base supply cost and about 57 percent over the high-outflow base.
The BDCP bottom line: John Martin’s analysis for the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District demonstrates that the Tunnels project works economically only if the Bay- Delta estuary is destroyed in the process (through applying the “low outflow” (high export) scenario.) And he clearly states that Kern County Water Agency expects to back out of the Tunnels project if more exports are not forthcoming from the Delta.
Moreover, Mr. Martin told his board, “Please notice that under the high-outflow scenario, our baseline Table A [contract amount] goes down (8,799 AF compared with 9,930). The district’s demand has reached a level where that supply of imported water will not be enough.”
Protecting the Delta as part of BDCP means the Tunnels project does not pencil out for anyone hoping to get supplies from the project. They would get less water than they now receive, and pay more for the privilege.
On December 19th, the District Board unanimously approved a motion to participate in BDCP at the 100 percent level (relative to its current contract amount). Before the Board voted, Mr. Martin reminded his board that “in the past the Board has declined to participate in the project.” And he assured them this time that “this decision is non-binding.”
California still overachieving at water consumption and underachieving at water conservation
Californians saved just 9.8 percent in November 2014’s water consumption results over the year before, State Water Resources Control Board staff revealed at the Board’s January 6th meeting in Sacramento.
Governor Jerry Brown has urged Californians to save 20 percent in the water use, and the Legislature established long-term statewide conservation goals by 2020 that cities reduce their water use by 20 percent over 2009 usage.
While an improvement over October’s 6.8 percent savings over 2013, November was a dry month statewide, and conservation efforts that month were lower than the rates in August (11.5%) and September (10.2%), months where residential landscape demand is usually higher.
November average residential conservation statewide was estimated by state officials at 89 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) compared with 99 gpcd a year ago. While an improvement, this is still high. Staff member Raphael Maestro told the Board that “55 gpcd is the performance standard for indoor use,” he said, “and 40 water suppliers already report less” around the state, including Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Monterey.
Maestro acknowledged that in places where high per capita usage figures combines with low percentage reductions in water use “raises questions about factors inhibiting conservation response.” While many water providers in California have mandatory restrictions in place, those restrictions vary widely by what they restrict and how much they affect their customers’ behavior. Day of use limits, daily use caps, drought-period water rates, ordinances banning outdoor landscaping all may reduce water use, but they may be difficult to compare, let alone measure.
Water conserved from the nearly 400 retail urban water suppliers between June and November 2014 amounted to about 322,200 acre-feet, according to Maestro. This is about the same volume of tidal water that daily ebbs and flows in the Delta, or about the same amount of water used by two typical California households in a year. It’s also less than one-tenth of the capacity of Lake Oroville in the State Water Project (about 3.5 million acre-feet).
It isn’t very much water for all the supposed effort going into water conservation during 2014. The new year is off to a dry start after tantalizing storms hit California in early last December. This raises questions about whether the State Water Board has been aggressive enough in touting water conservation. It raises even more questions as to whether retail water agencies are truly interested in promoting water conservation programs because they make money from selling water.
State Water Board officials, who issued statewide emergency conservation regulations in 2014, are anxious about 2015. Upon hearing western San Joaquin Valley water attorneys express their fears about reduced crop yields, continuing unemployment among farm workers, and stingy water allocations from the federal Central Valley Project, Board chair Felicia Marcus said that she expects “we will be spending a lot of time together this year.”
The Board’s staff presentation was by no means a comprehensive update on the drought response. No data on agricultural water conservation was presented, nor is any available yet from the State Water Board. No data on precipitation, reservoir storage, water rates, groundwater pumping, or snowpack was provided as context for the need or incentive to conserve.
Enthusiastic in her praise of data received, Board chair Felicia Marcus requested that staff generate charts on urban landscape irrigation conservation results. The data generated by the State Water Board relies on water suppliers’ billing data reported to the state. Customer meters measure only total water use at the property line, not types of use by individual customers.
Currently, the state does not require suppliers to estimate residential landscape consumption, even though researchers believe that landscape irrigation accounts for about 40 percent of total residential water use on average statewide. Landscaping is also where some of the biggest savings in residential water use can be had.
The State Water Board manages a web site that reports state water conservation efforts by urban water supplier, and makes available spreadsheets and charts of its data, at http://drinc.ca.gov/dnn/Applications/UrbanWaterR-GPCD.aspx.
We had Tim Stroshane, RTD’s water policy analyst, obtain charts for the big urban centers of major regions of California, as well as some of the more water-hogging wealthy cities in the Golden State.
There is wide variation in water use by the biggest cities throughout California. Their climates may be warmer or cooler, their water rights more senior or junior, or their land use patterns more dense (like San Francisco’s) where there is less landscaping on a per capita basis. In general, coastal cities tend to have lower per capita residential water use than Central Valley cities.
Our sampling of wealthy California cities indicates that many of their high-income residents are less responsive to the need to conserve. Although Palo Alto and Los Altos in Santa Clara County, and Newport Beach in Orange County, tend to more closely track their low regional averages than other wealthy cities in California, Beverly Hills, where almond king Stewart Resnick of Paramount Farming resides, had residential water use rates twice the South Coast regional and statewide averages for November 2014.
BACKGROUND NOTES – We are including link to charts here for readers to compare how cities do. In addition to coastal cities, there is much variance between larger San Joaquin Valley cities. Some that are shown here have historically had no water metering, such as Fresno, Folsom, and Sacramento. Locally, we find interesting the comparison of Lodi with Stockton, the latter whose per capita water use is much lower than Lodi’s.
It is also worth noting that Bakersfield’s per capita water use is still in November 2014 nearly twice the Tulare Lake basin average as well as the state average. Even with this slow response in Bakersfield, the seat of the Kern County Water Agency, the San Joaquin Valley’s overall urban water conservation picture is one of generally responding to the drought. The trend in reduced per capita water use is downward throughout the valley.
Drought of ideas
A drought of diverse ideas, viewpoints, and especially meaningful action about managing drought and California’s and the Delta’s water problems has plagued the state since before the Bay-Delta Accord of 1995.
The propagation of conventional wisdom about water management here is like the “ridiculously resilient” high pressure system blocking storms from reaching California. It is a belief system that stymies substantive debate and prevents real protection of the Delta economy and its endangered ecosystems.
Fortunately, this seemingly impregnable ridge of conventional wisdom and inaction showed signs of weakening last Monday, January 12th, at a public workshop (video online at http://www.ppic.org/main/event.asp?i=1623) on “Managing Drought” convened in Sacramento by the Public Policy Institute of California as the state enters its fourth consecutive year of actual water drought.
Mike Anderson, state climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources, opened the day by asking, “is today’s drought a harbinger of the future?” A careful listener could hear between his powerpoint slides that the answer was an unequivocal “yes.”
“We have more variable weather than anywhere else in the United States,” he said. Our rain comes in bunches, and about half of it typically comes from December through February. Without any of those storms, California can quickly descend into drought.
“Nine of the first 14 years of the 21st century are below this average,” Anderson said ominously, adding that “five of the lowest Sacramento River runoff years in recorded history [since 1895] have occurred since 2001.”
The Sacramento River is the key river delivering supplies for export from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley, parts of the South Bay Area, and southern California.
“We need to think about variability in our climate and what it means to our water system,” Anderson concluded.
The conventional wisdom ridge impairs one’s ability to think anew about our water system. It is buttressed by regular and abundant funding from the Stephen D. Bechtel Foundation and the Resource Legacy Fund to Public Policy Institute celebrity researchers. These funders also invest in the event’s cosponsor, the recently created California Water Foundation. Like greenhouse gas emissions trapping heat and raising global temperatures, their generous grants to selected scholars reinforce belief in the need to increase exports from the Delta, to take more water from northern California to rebuild the long-overdrafted groundwater basins of the San Joaquin Valley, to “build trust” across competing water interests, to reduce environmental regulation allegedly causing reduced Delta exports, to cut deals on much needed San Joaquin River flows, and to determine which ecosystems and endangered species should be allowed to survive in California’s water future.
Barton Thompson, a PPIC associate and Stanford law professor (with an uncanny resemblance to John Huston’s character Noah Cross in the film, Chinatown), moderated a panel of state legislators. He ingratiatingly called them a “legislative dream team” for their roles in passage of groundwater management legislation and the water bond in 2014. He asked a la Ryan Seacrest, “What will you do next?”
Neither Assembly member Anthony Rendon (63rd district, southeast Los Angeles County) nor Senator Lois Wolk (3rd district, Delta counties, and Sonoma and Napa counties) accepted Thompson’s fawning invitation to high-five. They agreed that water bond funding is merely a down payment—on everything. Rendon indicated that there are $20 billion in drinking water needs but the water bond provides just $1 billion toward that funding gap.
Senator Jean Fuller (16th district, Kern, Tulare, and San Bernardino counties), in quasi Dr. Strangelove manner, urged upon her audience “smaller efforts toward conservation, to get people to value water in different ways,” such as “getting rid of landscaping as our population grows” and “facilitating the water market through flexibility.” She envisioned that someday there will be “a water building like the ISO building, finding water to deliver throughout the state.” We suppose she would site it in Bakersfield, the water capital of agricultural California. (The ISO building to which she referred is a control center for the “independent system operator” that manages California’s electricity market. Unfettered operation of the electricity market nearly drove the ISO bankrupt in the statewide power crisis of 2001. “Dream team”: Quite the fantasist, she is.)
The conventional wisdom ridge stood proud, upright.
Some attorneys think that the new groundwater sustainability laws may launch a race to adjudicate groundwater basins to head off the formation or authority of local groundwater sustainability agencies. Thompson asked his dream team about this.
Senator Fuller said coyly, “eventually we will have to face that issue,” but tried in vain to switch the topic to reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). “We will have groundwater adjudication before CEQA reform,” quipped Mr. Levine. The ridge cracked once more, the crevice enlarged. Senator Fuller acquiesced, stating, “most adjudications are never less than 10 years, so how can we streamline the process?”
The conventional wisdom ridge had at last allowed a “brainstorm” through: the idea of groundwater adjudication has entered California water policy discourse. Yet the drought of ideas continued blocking from discussion the fact that 150 million acre-feet of Central Valley surface water rights chases about 29 million acre-feet of average flows.
Thompson asked his dream team whether the Legislature could “facilitate vision dialogue,” whatever that is. They took it as asking about their key policy ideas.
Assembly member Rendon, from urban Los Angeles County, said “the shift has to be an emphasis on local resources. The big systems [like the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project] are from a bygone era, and it is plain that we don’t have that level of investment coming from Washington DC any more. The solutions need to focus on recycling and groundwater clean-up,” he said. He understands the need for self-sufficiency.
Mr. Rendon’s “brainstorm” slipped past the high pressure ridge of conventional wisdom, only to be challenged shortly. His idea comes partly from the Delta Reform Act of 2009, where the Legislature requires importers of water to reduce their take from the Delta and rely more on recycling and local self-sufficiency in supplies.
On a later panel, Joe McIlvaine of Paramount Farming Corporation (whose principal owner is almond and pistachio maven Stewart Resnick) scoffed at local self-sufficiency. “Kern County has few localized water resources,” he said, adding, “That requires that the issue be looked at as a big, complex system, not localized [water supply].” Never should we mind that Kern County, once home to hundreds of artesian, free-flowing groundwater wells, is a center of the state’s groundwater overdraft problems, and has been since the early 20th century.
So a key question briefly scaled the conventional wisdom ridge: how will California secure its future water supplies if it reduces reliance on Delta imports? Even former Metropolitan Water District strategist Tim Quinn, now with the Association of California Water Agencies, acknowledged that “the coequal goals” of greater water supply reliability coupled with ecosystem protection and recovery “are the best policy, but none of us know how to put it into action.” For a moment, the conventional wisdom ridge in favor of inaction righted itself, steadfast once again.
Then University of California at Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle (and a lesser PPIC celebrity) pointed directly to the public trust doctrine and fish and game laws that can protect fish species at risk of extinction from drought, saying “if we don’t protect them, no one else will.” The ridge weakened again—another brainstorm passed through the fissure, and the idea of the public trust briefly swam upstream.
But PPIC celebrity Ellen Hanak wrested back control of the conversation from actually enforcing such laws by asking her panelists, “What do you think of active ways to acquire water for ecosystems?” (The water bond has limited funds for that purpose.)
The original plan to which Hanak alluded to acquire water for fish was called the “Environmental Water Account.” That plan “didn’t really work out all that well,” admitted Tim Quinn, one of the scheme’s authors. The ridge audibly cleaved; a belief system cracked, yet held: Mr. Moyle did not comment on Hanak’s question. (If we have to buy water for fish, the fish will always lose.)
The conventional wisdom ridge holds strong the idea that greater water supply reliability is needed—except that the projects already don’t provide much water when needed in dry years. While Susan Mulligan of Calleguas Municipal Water District and Jill Duerig of Alameda County Zone 7 Water Agency both hope the Governor’s tunnels project gets built, their agencies cannot wait around for the State Water Project to solve its problems. Turf removal is proving successful at conserving scarce local supplies long term. In Duerig’s case, Zone 7 hopes to join an intertie project with San Francisco, Santa Clara Valley, and other East Bay water agencies to reduce reliance on the Delta while helping her agency get through drought.
Yet another crack in the conventional wisdom ridge appeared as State Water Resources Control Board chair Felicia Marcus said, “No one except the locals can make certain connections, like use of gray water” or the kinds of interties of which Jill Duerig spoke. “We inch toward the right water for the right job,” she said.
Ms. Marcus spoke favorably about adjudications, “because of the data comprehension” that comes from ensuring water rights are certain. But her Board only has meaningful jurisdiction over surface water rights issued after 1914; her remark could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of adjudicating surface water; maybe not. If the coming year brings more drought, she expressed hope against hope that “I’d like more light than heat.”
Finally, Ms. Marcus acknowledged that last year she and State Water Board executive director Tom Howard “were afraid of losing salinity control in the Delta.” This fear surely holds for 2015’s dry outlook. State and federal upstream reservoirs must release enough water to the Delta to keep salt water away from the export pumps—it is vital to what reliability the two systems still enjoy. Otherwise, they would have to release precious supplies to simply eliminate the salt and re-freshen the Delta, supplies that would be lost to cities and farms.
“That was a big deal, and it needs to be talked about more,” she insisted. “No one would have gotten water from the Delta” if the Bureau and DWR used up all their reservoir storage exporting water south of the Delta, and there wasn’t enough left to keep salty tidal water from filling the Delta. The biological opinions were not the problem for exports in 2014 that some would have us believe, she implied.
In 2015, Ms. Marcus concluded, “I hope to make progress on reality-based conversations with many of you,” nodding to those gathered at the Sheraton that sunny Monday. “I hope to keep momentum up for ways to solve water problems. There are more pieces to it than just the coequal goals.”
Significantly, no one on January 12th spoke approvingly of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, when it was mentioned at all. Its Tunnels project would take water from the north Delta above the usual tidal reach and render obsolete the need for the very salinity control Ms. Marcus and Mr. Howard fought to protect last year.
And so, as with our daily prayers for rain and snow, we find glimmers of hope for an end to the drought of ideas in California.