Commentary: Water Uber Alles?

sac-deltaAn article last week on Fox News called this is a “man-made disaster,” arguing “the Golden State’s misguided environmental policies allow much-needed freshwater to flow straight into the Pacific.”

They write, “In an average year, California gets enough snow and rain to put 200 million acres under a foot of water, but environmental opposition to dams over the last several decades has allowed the majority of the freshwater to flow into the ocean, even as the state’s population exploded to nearly 40 million people. The current drought has left farms parched and residents under strict water consumption orders, but some say it didn’t have to be that way.”

“This is a man-made disaster,” said Bonner Cohen, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Southern California is an arid part of the world where droughts — even severe droughts — are commonplace, and knowing this, you’d think the government of California would have included this mathematical certainty in its disaster preparedness planning, but the government has done nothing, not even store rain, as the population has continued to grow.”

While the Fox News article goes on to question the effectiveness of environmental policies, it does lead us to the key question, which is whether California’s focus now and in the future should be on maximizing the collection of water – regardless of possible environmental implications.

The Sacramento Bee editorial earlier this week suggests that Governor Brown “should keep in mind that it won’t be acceptable to give up its environmental goals.”

Writes the Bee, Governor Brown needs to demonstrate to “the public that his approach won’t degenerate into a water grab for Southern California and the Central Valley.”

They note that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (or BDCP) had two goals.  First, a supply of water for Southern California and the Central Valley while, at the same time, restoring “the Delta ecosystem to save endangered species, such as salmon and Delta smelt.”

The Fox News article, citing UC Davis biologist Peter Moyle, argues that, while the release of the water to the delta was supposed to save endangered fish populations, “so far the fish population has decreased.”

“Prepare for the extinction of the Delta Smelt in the wild,” UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle said. “The population today may be too low to sustain itself,” Professor Moyle said. “Fish ready to spawn have to find one another in a big area. If spawning is successful, there have to be enough eggs and larvae that some individuals survive to become the next generation of spawners.”

Jim Burling of the Pacific Legal Foundation said that “while water diversions have not helped endangered fish populations, the policies are devastating to people, produce and the economy.”

“The plan is not doing anything for the fish and causing a lot of pain for farmers and farm workers,” he said. “The impact of these policies on people should be considered.”

However, the full plan hasn’t been implemented.

According to the Bee, “The proposition was that two 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels, built under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, would do a better job of moving water from north to south, and mitigate the damage from pumps that reverse the flow of the Delta and kill fish.

“Meanwhile, habitat was to be restored via a 50-year plan for conservation. Water agencies would help pick up the tab, because, with the restoration in progress, the variable flow they get now – tightened by federal agencies and courts any time an endangered fish appears to be threatened – would be less prone to interruption.”

However, Governor Brown wants to uncouple the two goals, “because the state hasn’t been able to convince federal biologists that its plan will restore the fish and wildlife that are now struggling for survival in the Delta. And if the biologists are unconvinced, the feds won’t issue the 50-year permits.”

Politics are at play, and “[r]estoring the Delta has been a critical selling point to many Northern Californians, who helped defeat a 1982 plan to build a peripheral canal there. Water agencies also need to see that the new plan will be worth their while.”

The Bee further notes, “The Brown administration says it is deeply committed to the co-equal goals, but separating the twin tunnels from habitat restoration would create a path to successfully implement the project.”

The federal government is not convinced and they have “severely criticized the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.”

The EPA said that “the plan would harm water quality and aquatic life, and increase pollution.” Instead, they recommended an alternative plan that would allow for “greater freshwater flows through the Delta.”

However, the Bee notes that the National Marine Fisheries questioned whether the plan would help fish populations recover.

The Bee notes, “Scientific analyses have been unable to predict the health of the Delta in the next 50 years, with variables of climate change, sea level rise and seismic activity. As some fish populations drop to dangerous levels, assessing the Delta’s future has proven to be nearly impossible. But by shortening the time frame from 50 years to 10 years, analyzing the tunnels’ impact would be easier to foresee.”

The Bee argues, “The Delta’s fragile ecological health is clear; we don’t need to parse its declining state with more studies. But a focused, coordinated approach to restore habitat to help endangered and threatened species recover should be part of the governor’s new plan.”

In the meantime, we would like to see the formulation of a longer term water strategy for California.  We have to assume that the drought has the potential to last far longer than recent previous droughts and, if such a dire forecast proves unfounded, at least we will have the plan in place for the next serious drought.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Frankly

    In commedian Albert Brooks’s book 2030 LA has a 9.2 earthquake and because both the state and the Federal government is fully leveraged (government retirees having won their legal battles to force governments to keep paying their millionaire pensions, and tax increases out of the question because of the Laffer Curve effect), LA is sold to the Chinese.

    While the plot is all fiction and unlikley, it does point to a common recurring theme of government failing to fund adequate protection from environmental impacts to residents after directing copious funding to protect residents from impacting  the environment.

    We wring our hands over the plight of every weed and bug, but seem to forget, ignore or deny that the human animal also requires investment in protection.

        1. hpierce

          BP… we used jacksmelt (4-6 inches long) for bait fishing off Coyote Point breakwater … caught a leopard shark once… beautiful… he wasn’t “hooked”, but got tangled in my line… I was ~ 13.  Got the shark untangled, and released, with no injury to folk or fish.  Still vivid memory.  Leopard sharks are very cool.

        2. Barack Palin

          Coyote Point, that was my neck of the woods.  I grew up in San Mateo, used to fish near the San Mateo bridge and Coyote Point.  Another good fishing place was behind the drive-in theaters near the Showboat in Burlingame.

          I basically lived on the golf course at Coyote Point, in fact I worked there as a starter fresh out high school.  You know, one of those minimum paying jobs that I was so thankful to get and helped me get a start in the working world.

          One of my memories of Coyote Point was while riding my bike on the dike really early in the morning to go to the golf course I looked out and saw a Japanese DC-8 freighter swamped out in the bay. I had no idea it had happened the night before and thought I was the first to see it.

      1. DanH

        Californians may not live from eating Delta Smelt. In a couple of years the smelt will be living only as a preserved gene pool in a state funded hatchery and aquarium. Meanwhile, Californians can subsist on Two Buck Chuck and Smokehouse Almonds for a while.

  2. DanH

    I disagree with Governor Brown. Realistic environmental goals including habitat restoration in the Delta should not be pursued separately from the Alternative Conveyance (Delta tunnels). Environmental support of the Delta, the bay and indeed the entire Sacramento/San Joaquin watershed should be as much a goal as a stable water extraction from the system.

    Governor Brown sees his legacy as a continuation of the Pat Brown legacy including advanced development of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. Environmental effects of these water export facilities has never been of major concern in their design.

    It all began with US settlers of the 1860’s  buying subdivided swampland cheap in the California Delta. They hired Chinese laborers to build peat block levees to drain their land. They farmed food for San Francisco and Sacramento. They hired clam shell dredges to build more massive earthen levees. The Delta tule marshes were drained and  the land subsided below sea level. Huge dams were built on the Sacramento River and Chinook Salmon would need hatchery facilities to avoid extinction. Water flow on the San Joaquin River was cut to zero and the San Joaquin Chinook went extinct in 1945. Commercial fishing in the Delta could not be sustained regardless of reductions in catch and was outlawed in 1958. Farming in the drained Central Valley flourished and fed the nation.

    Now Fox News wants all of the water taken from the Delta for irrigating corporate farms.

    There is a possibility that a new water conveyance system could be engineered would improve reliability of water exports from the Delta and provide substantial environmental benefits.  Such a system would require a larger variety and dispersion of water intakes and careful management of water extraction times and quantities. The idea was briefly considered by Governor Schwarzenegger’s rigged Bay Delta Conservation Plan but dismissed as too expensive.  The proposed cheap, twin tunnel, focused input alternative conveyance (Peripheral Canal underground) idea is nowhere near that. It serves only the needs of Central Valley farmers.

    1. hpierce

      Am suspecting we are getting dangerously close to a system where all surface and groundwater will be declared “public property” to be apportioned as the government “sees fit”.  I can envision where the City of Davis is compelled to pump “its” groundwater to the Sac River, to be diverted to SoCal, and pass on its “river” rights for the same purpose.

      1. DanH

        Historically and to the present day the the “government” sees fit to take water from our Yolo county rivers and streams and sell it cheap to farmers near Lancaster (that’s the Mojave Desert).

        1. Robert Canning

          I’m not sure what water you are talking about in Yolo. For instance the water behind Monticello Dam is Yolo County water that goes to Solano County (Budweiser, for instance). Indian Valley Reservoir holds water for Yolo County. Cache Creek water is used by riparian users in the Capay Valley and elsewhere in Yolo County.

          Most of the water in Yolo County stays in Yolo County.

      2. hpierce

        Got thinking some more… if we do go to a “common water” model, perhaps we should charge folk upon whose property rain falls, if they use it instead of making it available downstream… nah, that is too variable…

        1. Robert Canning

          I’m not sure that private interests “own” water rights. The constitution of the state says that water is to be put to beneficial uses, with the highest priority drinking water for the people. Most of the water rights in the state are controlled by the Water Resources Control Board except for those in watersheds like the Tuolumne River where the water rights were developed prior to the Board’s inception. Even though water rights can be “perfected” and can become licenses, those can be challenged in court and water can be taken away from a user who does not meet the standard. The best example of this is the Mono Basin where perfected water rights of the City of Los Angeles were modified by the Supreme Court in the 1980’s in the public trust doctrine cases. In Yolo County, the Solano Water Agency was dissuaded from appealing the Putah Creek decision because other agencies believed it might impart a public trust doctrine in Central Valley. Private companies don’t own the water they use – they may buy it from others, or have rights to it because they have land it flows through (riparian rights) but they don’t “own” it.

  3. DurantFan

    Food for Thought: Can the West Coast  Learn From and Apply an East Coast Regional, Multi-State Solution to the Bay-Delta System?

    The  Bay-Delta and its drainage system (essentially the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers) lie entirely within the State of California, where an unpredictable and  semi-arid  Mediterranean climate dominates.  The setting of this unique west coast resource  differs significantly  from Chesapeake Bay, a similiarly-sized east coast resource.  There,  many heavily populated states share a regional responsibility to protect “their Bay” and its multi-rivered drainage system in a region where rainfall is adequate to abundant..


    1. DanH

      No, California has yet to establish a single agency to manage interests of the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed as an environmental/economic region. The morass of competing federal, state, county, metropolitan, and private interests are unmanageable. It’s like herding cats. The state’s water brokers like it that way and have no incentive to change a good thing.

      1. Robert Canning

        Just think of it as: “Water runs uphill to money.” And where does most of the $$ in this state lie? Southern California. Who has the most legislators? And where does most of the water come from? Northern California.

        This is a bit simplistic but aptly describes the major political context of water in the state.

  4. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    California has yet to establish a single agency to manage interests of the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed as an environmental/economic region.

    In a few weeks the PUC is going to make a major announcement  on that very subject.

  5. tribeUSA

    Five things that can help:

    (1) Further dredge dam reservoirs that are silting up; and raise the height of some dams, where feasible and not a huge environmental cost (a small environmental cost may need to be accepted).

    (2) Increase R&D and incentives for goundwater banking.

    (3) Setback levees in some areas that are “sweet spots” for groundwater recharge.

    (4) Increase R&D and incentives for cheaper/less energy intensive desalination; especially southern California Coast (from San Diego thru Los Angeles and up to Santa Barbara).

    (5) Enforce the entire USA border with Mexico. Tighten the spigot such that no more than 100,000 make it across the border illegally each year. California and the USA have enough population, why do we want higher population leading to ever greater constraints on finite resources. Increase foreign aid for family planning; free condoms for all.


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