In California, drought is the new normal.
Delta Tunnel proponents have tried to convince urban and agricultural water exporters that massive water deliveries will be available for capture and export to dry regions from big storm events.
Just one problem with that plan.
With less and less Sierra snowpack to melt, and fewer rainstorm events, there is no reliable water source for the Big Gulp. If constructed, using the Delta Tunnels at full capacity, 9,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), would only be possible during limited storm events, a huge waste of money for a project with a $17 billion price tag.
Most scientists agree that the key to fixing the ecological problems of the Delta is to allow more water to flow through it. Rains will be needed with less and less snowmelt to freshen the estuary. The concept of restoring natural flows is part of the Delta Protection Act of 2009 passed by the California Legislature.
Fresh water flow is critical to protect fish species, stop the intrusion of saltwater from the Bay, and to flush out pollutants and salts that accumulate in the Delta.
What Climate Scientists Predict
As the climate changes, California will get hotter and dryer, causing more rain than snow. We must plan for this reduced snowpack. In fact, the western U.S. will lose most of its snowpack by the end of the century.
The Delta watershed is in decline and climate science tells us to expect less snowpack in the future. According to the U.S. Geological Service, we will get 17 percent less runoff in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds by 2020.
Climate change will cause dramatic changes in timing and amount of river flows, which means there will be dramatic changes to water resource system operations.
To prevent toxic algal blooms in the Delta, more water will need to flush out the system each summer to protect endangered species, drinking water supplies, and the communities of the Delta.
Sea levels will rise pushing saltwater further east, potentially harming Bay Area and Delta farming communities, groundwater quality, and ecosystem health. Mitigation will be needed to protect Bay and Delta communities from these impacts.
Extreme weather events like floods and droughts will become more problematic and expensive to recover from.
The tunnels do nothing to solve these problems.
Climate Changes Are Already Measurable
Summers in California are getting hotter
In each decade since 1970, average summer temperatures have warmed about 0.45°F (0.25°C).
Forest Fires are Increasing Statewide
Since the 1970s, the number of forest fires on public lands in the West has increased 500 percent.
Snowfall Reduced in Sierra Nevada Mountains
During the winter of 2014-2015, just 6.5 percent of precipitation that fell on Lake Tahoe was in the form of snow. Decades ago it was closer to a 50-50 mix.
Algal blooms in the Delta
During the summer of 2016, algal blooms spread across the Delta. Without more water flowing through the Delta, these outbreaks are expected to become a permanent feature of the Delta. This year’s outbreak threatened water supplies to the Santa Clara Valley who were forced to draw from Coyote Lake and Anderson Reservoir, once the backup water supply for the region.
What Are the Plans for Sea Level Rise?
When John Laird, Chairman, California Natural Resources Agency, was asked this question directly on KQED FORUM on July 27, 2016, he admitted sea level rise mitigation will become a “massive public works event.”
“…there are many, many, many things we have to do for resiliency on sea level rise. And if in fact, over the next 90 years, it gets to 5 feet in California, in the Bay, you’re going to have to do marshy wetlands and different things as well, maybe even retreat of certain buildings in certain places or certain dams and dikes in concert with it [Delta Tunnels] just to deal with safety. And you have all your infrastructure whether it’s roads, whether it’s water systems that are gravity flow to the current sea level, whether its sewer systems that are a lot of times force main to the current level. All of those are effected, so it’s going to be a massive public works event….every local government across the Bay Area is starting to think about this, and has to think about it, and has to include it incorporate it into their planning and even their infrastructure projects now.”
The Public Policy Institute of California has said management decisions due to sea level rise will need to be made in the Bay Area first, before deciding how to manage the Delta.
But spending $17 million on the Delta Tunnels will waste money that could be spent for climate change mitigation for the San Francisco Bay region, for the four million people who live in the five Delta counties, and for urban water sustainability projects around the state.
If we are faced with severe sea level rise and we do no mitigation, it is now predicted that the new Delta intakes will be under saltwater. The current pumps, according to the engineering report for the Delta tunnels, could accommodate all but the highest sea level rise projections in 100 years. And if the worse projections come to pass for sea level rise, we will have serious problems by mid-century.
So why spend $17 billion for a stranded asset? The lead engineer for CA WaterFix recently stated in testimony that the Delta tunnels have a lifespan of only 100 years. But the CA WaterFix lead operations officer testified they have only planned for 18 inches of sea level rise based on the first year of impact – 2030. That means, the Bay-Delta may be dealing with sea level rise impacts before the project is even finished. KCET describes the Delta Tunnels as “teetering on the edge of obsolescence before the first shovel of earth is dug.”
With interest and operation costs, the tunnels will in reality cost $50 to $60 billion. If they were only operable for 30 years, costs passed on to ratepayers and taxpayers could be as high as $2 billion per year – for no additional water.
We need to redirect that money and invest in mitigation projects that protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta now.
We are still managing our water systems for the 20th-century climate and continuing to export too much water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The current system is designed for the stable climate of the past. But that era is now over.
Spending $17 billion on the Delta Tunnels is a terrible waste of public investment money.
We need major public investments now to shore up the SF Bay-Delta communities for climate change and we need to develop sustainable water management and use practices like the ones outlined in the 2015 report by the Environmental Water Caucus, “A Sustainable Water Plan for California.”
Science: The Unusual Nature of Recent Snowpack Declines in the North American Cordillera
Scientific American: Climate Change Fingerprints Are All Over California Wildfires
KQED: Warming at Alarming Rate, Lake Tahoe Reflects Rapid Sierra Climate Change
Various Reports: The Pacific Institute
Delta Tunnel Project Under Scrutiny as Hearings Begin – KQED Forum
KCET: New Sea Level Rise Study Calls Delta Tunnels Into Doubt
August 2016 Testimony, State Water Resources Control Board, Change in Point of Diversion/CA WaterFix Hearings