California Needs to Come up with a Water Plan to Accommodate State’s Needs

by John Garamendi

We need to think in a comprehensive way about water in California. The controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP)1 is an outdated and destructive plumbing system. It does not create any new water nor does it provide the water and the ecological protection that the Golden State must have. California and the federal government must set aside this big, expensive, destructive plumbing plan and immediately move forward with a comprehensive approach that includes:

1) Conservation,

2) Recycling,

3) The creation of new storage systems,

4) Fix the Delta – right sized conveyance, levee improvements, and habitat restoration,

5) Science driven process,

6) Protection of existing water rights.

This combination of projects constitutes a comprehensive water plan for the state.

Through a comprehensive plan that brings all stakeholders to the table, California can solve its water needs, and it can avoid the continuous water wars that have long divided our state. Unfortunately, California is once again embroiled in a bitter water war brought about by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the most recent attempt to fix California’s water supply. After more than five years of study and over $200,000,000 spent on consultants, the process has become bogged down and turned into another battle pitting north vs. south, water exporters vs. environmentalists, and senior water right holders vs. new comers. A classic California water brawl is in full bloom.

The BDCP water plan for California is to take water out of the Sacramento River just south of Sacramento and put it into two tunnels each 40 miles long, 40 feet in diameter and with a potential capacity of moving 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). While the current proposal is set up to move 9000 cfs, the twin tunnels have a much larger capacity therefore setting the system up for future expansion. Pumping would also continue directly from the southern Delta at the Tracy pumps. The system will be able to deliver up to 5.3 million acre feet of water to the pumps in Tracy and then on to the San Joaquin Valley farmers and Los Angeles.

So what is wrong with the BDCP? It is not a water plan for California. It does not create one gallon of new water. It does not solve the long term needs of the state. With a minimum estimated construction and operating cost over 50 years of $24.5 billion, it is an extraordinarily expensive plumbing system dressed up with a coating of habitat restoration. The plan simply takes water from one region and delivers it to another while tearing up acres of prime agricultural farm land in the process. All of this while stoking the fire of divisiveness over water that has plagued our state for years.

A quick look at the water flow in the Sacramento River over the last two decades shows that approximately six months out of the year there is somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand cubic feet per second (cfs) of water flowing in the Sacramento River. The BDCP proposal has the potential to suck the river dry and destroy the largest delta estuary on the west coast of the Western Hemisphere. Critical habitat for dozens of fish species like salmon, striped bass, and sturgeon would be threatened. These fish and the water they live in are crucial for jobs, agriculture and fishing businesses, and the region’s economy.

We should never build a water system that has such destructive potential. It is never safe to assume that ecological concerns will trump greed and thirst. We should keep in mind that in 2012 the U.S. House of Representatives voted on H.R. 1837, the euphemistically titled Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Reliability Act. The bill passed by a vote of 246 to 175 and swept away all environmental protections for the Delta while stealing 800,000 acre feet of water from the aquatic environment. Luckily, the legislation was derailed in the U.S. Senate, but H.R. 1837 in one form or another is likely to return in future legislative battles.

California must move beyond a patched plumbing system. We need to think about what California really needs, and what it needs is a comprehensive water plan. Big changes are coming that threaten our water supply and our economy. A short list of these challenges include: climate change and related weather events, population growth, world food supplies, and earthquakes.

Climate change is real and its effect on California will be significant. The Colorado River Basin is in a prolonged drought, and likely to be much drier in the future. Based on today’s water flows, the water in the Colorado River is oversubscribed by a third and projections indicate less water in the future. This is a big, big problem for the seven states that rely on the river, and especially for Southern California.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Central Valley, and the coastal ranges will also be drastically impacted by climate change. We know that the timing of the precipitation is going to change and the snow is already melting earlier. As a result, the snowpack is moving up the mountains and while it may be deeper at the higher altitudes, the amount of land it covers is greatly reduced. It’s the lower snowpack that has the greatest volumes of water and if that continues to recede, we will have less and less water. The 2009 “California Water Plan,” published by the California Department of Water Resources, estimates that the snow pack will decrease 25-40 percent by 2050.2 We must also anticipate more severe storms and flooding. All of this means the natural and man-made storage systems will hold less water. Putting the denial of scientific facts aside, California has to deal with the reality of climate change and its water policy implications.

We know California’s population will continue to grow and therefore, the demand for water will increase. We know the world will be very hungry in the future, and we know that the role of agriculture in California is going to be exceedingly important. California agriculture not only fills our own desire for diverse and nutritious foods, but it will also continue to meet basic food needs for people around the world and will continue to serve as an essential component of our nation’s economy.

We know the Delta is in serious trouble. The fish species are threatened with extinction and a total collapse of the estuary ecosystem is possible if the current water pumping program continues. Rising sea levels and deferred maintenance threaten the Delta levees which protect nearly 500,000 people, thousands of acres of valuable farm land, and miles of critical highways, gas and water transmission lines, and water delivery channels. Major upgrades are needed.

For these reasons, California must take off its blinders and expand its scope when thinking about ways to manage its water supply. It must be a holistic approach that is applied to every project that will impact the water needs of all Californians.

John Garamendi is the Third District Representative in the US House of Representatives

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2 thoughts on “California Needs to Come up with a Water Plan to Accommodate State’s Needs”

  1. davehart

    Well, this is why I was willing to walk precincts in Vacaville for John Garamendi. He isn’t saying moving water from north to south is a bad idea, but, if we are going to do it, we’d better have the big picture. Given the congressional district John is representing, it would have been easy for him to take the cartoonish easy way out and say “Hell, no!” to any kind of conveyance systems.

    I am partial to big infrastructure projects because by their nature they embody Big Thinking. Big Thinking needs to be strategic to keep us out of Big Trouble and that’s why I think this article is so spot on. As John says here, “California must take off its blinders and expand its scope when thinking about ways to manage its water supply.” Big Engineering should not be confused for Big Thinking that is strategic and takes in the whole picture. I would like to see a really comprehensive Water Plan with 100 year planning horizon. John Garamendi is asking for that and anything less will lead to more mistrust and divisive politics. Thanks for the first class leadership, John Garamendi.

  2. Don Shor

    CalFed, which has evolved into the BDCP, represents a massive amount of ‘big thinking.’ It has involved top scientists, and the consensus across the interest groups and researchers is that the BDCP is the best way forward. At this point it’s at the final-draft, detail stage. Because they don’t like some of the compromises, and because of vociferous opposition by some Delta interests, Delta representatives have largely taken positions opposing the whole process at this point. They are fighting a losing battle.
    This has been a very long, detailed process of involving all the stakeholders and coming up with a compromise solution that guarantees flows to the Delta while still providing water supplies to the other interests in the state.
    Unfortunately, representatives including Lois Wolk and John Garamendi are now isolated in the process. They are doing their jobs in opposing BDCP — it would be political suicide for either of them to support it. But they are outvoted and outnumbered on this issue. I disagree with Garamendi on this.

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