Planning and Conservation League Symposium: What’s next for the Delta?

2014bannerWhat’s next for the Delta?  ‘Enquiring minds want to know,’” began Martha Davis, moderator for the closing plenary session of the Planning and Conservation League’s 2014 Symposium: Water for Life: Towards and Equitable and Sustainable Water Future for California.

The underlying question for this afternoon’s panel is whether we’re on a convergence path for solutions for the Bay Delta crisis.  Our panelists will address the different approaches that are underway that are being advanced to achieve the coequal goals of restoring the Delta and improving the water supply reliability for the state of California while at the same time protecting the Delta as an evolving place, and they will also provide their views on what will happen next.”

On the panel are Paul Helliker, Deputy Director with the Department of Water Resources; Doug Obegi, Staff Attorney with NRDC; Jonas Minton, Water Policy Advisor for the Planning & Conservation League; and Don Nottoli, five-term Sacramento County Supervisor.  Each of the panelists began by giving a short presentation.

Paul Helliker, Deputy Director with the Department of Water Resources

Paul 1Paul Helliker started the panel session off with a brief overview of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. “First of all, what are we worried about here? We’re worried about water supplies for the state, 25 million people, and 3 million acres of farmland rely on the Delta for water supply in California,” he said.  “The two biggest systems that deliver that are the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is to work on the centerpiece of that system, which is the Delta.”

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_03He then presented a slide depicting the predictions for how climate change could affect snowpack in the Sierras.  “I think we’re down at 12% of average right now for the snowpack, so these predictions seem to be coming true sooner than we anticipated when we did this projection back in 2010,” he said.  “But this is part of what the future may hold in store in addition to where we are now.  The snowpack in California stores about as much water as all the major reservoirs along the Sierra Nevada, so if that’s going to come as rain and not snow, then we’re going to have to figure out what we do to store that, plus what are we going to do if that all comes in big storms and floods that we have to deal with as a result of that.”

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_04He then presented a slide depicting subsidence in the Delta and said, “Another thing that we have to worry about with those floods are the islands in the Delta that are below sea level, and the levees that surround those which are not really engineered to withstand the water that they have to withstand – they are not really levees, they are really dams,” he said, noting that levees typically withstand water during high flows but these levees withstand water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, much as a dam does.  “As sea level rises and as the elevation of the islands continue to drop because of oxidation of the soil, that pressure on those fragile levees is going to increase.”

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_05Two-thirds of the water in the state falls north of Sacramento and two-thirds of it is used south of Sacramento, but if flows primarily from the Sacramento River down the channels in the middle of the Delta to the pump stations, he explained.  “If we lose those levees, it’s going to change the hydraulic configuration in ways that could be pretty dramatic and disastrous for the water supply for the state,” he said, presenting a slide showing where levees have failed in the Delta, “and for over the past 75 years, we’ve seen a number of levees fail, most recently the Jones Tract in 2004.  The good news is we have emergency supplies deployed throughout the Delta for those situations where we might face some major disasters.”

Under the Delta levees program, DWR has been funding maintenance of those levees so they are becoming more durable, Mr. Helliker said.  “But if there’s a major earthquake or floods or sea level rise continues to provide higher levels of pressure on those levees, there’s a big risk there of failure and if that happens, then we’re going to see large amounts of salt water come in from the bay and replace that empty space that’s currently above the surface of the land,” he said.  “If it’s a big storm, it’s going to be freshwater, but after that storm passes, we’re likely going to see salt water and what we’re finding this year is that we have to be careful about the salinity that’s encroaching in the Delta so that we don’t compromise our ability to use that water for all the uses that we make of it, including saving water for cold water pool and releases to provide temperature control in the upstream reaches, so that’s one of the challenges we have right now is making sure we have enough water for all the needs.”

Aquatic species have been declining over time, he explained, noting that they did pickup in the mid 2000s but the drought in 2007-08-09 had a major impact on populations.

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_07So with that, what do we do to try and resolve that problem, given all of the various factors that cause problems for the species,” he said.  “One solution that we’ve proposed, one of many things that we want to do on water systems throughout the state, but specifically with respect to the Delta, something that Chuck Bonham, the DFW Director says has been on their departments priority list since the 1960s is to change the way that we run water through the Delta.  What we have is a conservation plan proposed under the state and federal endangered species acts, and a permit request to build a conveyance facility, to change or add a point of diversion for water that would be delivered from the Delta to the north end of the Delta for a variety of reasons, to benefit the species in the Delta, and then coupled with that, significant habitat restoration to reverse what happened over the past 50 years of changing wetland habitat to agricultural habitat in the Delta and the consequences associated with that.”  He noted that the plan proposes 100,000 acres of direct conversion of properties purchased from willing sellers and another 45,000 acres of farmland protected under easements for habitat values.

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_08Mr. Helliker then presented a slide of the tunnel alignment, noting that it’s a 50-year plan, and the facility proposed are two twin tunnels, 40 feet in diameter and 150 feet below the surface.  He said that the alignment had been changed to minimize impacts on properties, reduced the number of shafts to the tunnels, and other things to reduce the impacts of the project.  “The system would be 9000 cfs per second, with three intakes, two tunnels, and a set of state of the art fish screens that would be on the north part of the Delta, which would be dramatically better than the ones we have on the south end of the Delta.”

Out of the 100,000 acres of habitat proposed, 65,000 would be tidal habitat and 10,000 would be floodplain habitat, he said.  “We had an experiment last year that showed that we can have some pretty significant benefits for salmon rearing by flooding floodplains and allowing the salmon to rear on a flooded floodplain rather than in the main stem of the channels in the Delta, so we know that that’s going to work, we just need to do it on a larger scale,” he said.

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_10He then presented a slide which drew a comparison between the peripheral canal proposed in 1982 and the current proposed twin tunnels.  “The peripheral canal was designed to take water not just from the Sacramento Valley, but also from the North Coast, so that’s why it was 21,000 cfs,” said Mr. Helliker.  “The pumps we have now are only 15,000 cfs.  We’re only proposing a 9000 cfs facility now, so it’s not actually going to increase the capacity from the Delta, it’s just going to change the way we move water through the Delta.”

In 1982, we didn’t have a habitat conservation approach, but we do this time, he said.  The tunnel will cost $25 billion over 50 years; $16 billion of that would be for the tunnels, and $6.9 is for habitat restoration, he said.  “The water users are going to pay for the tunnels and taxpayers will pay for the rest, and we think that’s appropriate because we’re going to be benefitting the ecosystem that will be beneficial for all Californians, and those who are going to use the water can pay for that facility.”

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_12He then presented a table from Chapter 9 of the BDCP which compared the costs and benefits of the different alternatives, pointing out that it does include the 3000 cfs alternative that the NRDC and others wanted DWR to analyze.  He noted that the cost on the chart was for a two tunnel version.  “We also have a cost for a one-tunnel version which is about $2 billion less expensive but would actually turn that into a positive number, but it would still be a lot smaller than the net benefits of the two proposed alternatives,” said Mr. Helliker.  “As for the other alternatives, you might ask why we aren’t building the 15,000 cfs canal, because it actually has a $12 billion benefit cost ratio, and that’s because there are other things that we need to be concerned about like what impacts does it have on the species compared to the proposal.”

WhatsNextfortheDelta-PaulHelliker_Page_14On Friday, the Governor released the California Water Action Plan, he said.  “The Governor has announced what he wants to do for the next five years, and it’s a fairly ambitious agenda that includes a whole host of things that people have asked us to include in the BDCP, but since the BDCP is only a permit request under the Endangered Species Act, it’s really not appropriate or possible to include these things,” said Mr. Helliker, noting that the plan includes local projects, conservation, additional storage, we’re also looking at groundwater, the water board has a proposed policy there, flood management, water quality benefits and so on, and so this is to complement what we’re doing with the BDCP.

Doug Obegi, Natural Resources Defense Council

Doug 1“I’m going to give you a different perspective from the state, but we actually agree on a lot of things,” began Doug Obegi.  “Just to put this in perspective, one of the things that we always lose sight of us that we use so much water in California, and there’s nothing like a drought to make you realize just how precious that is and how scare it really is in many years.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_02Over time we’ve dramatically increased how much water we’ve taken out of the Delta,” he said, presenting a table showing the trends and uses of diversions from the Delta watershed.  “That was continuing unabated until NRDC and a coalition of sport and commercial fishing groups and Native American tribe filed suit back in 2004, after seeing a bunch of native species collapsing in the Delta.  We won our case and the court imposed some pumping restrictions that said we can’t take as much as we used to at the highest levels in the 2000s, but we can still take a lot of water.  We can take as much as we did on average in the 80s and 90s today.”

Taking that much water out of the Delta has had huge consequences for the natural environment, said Mr. Obegi.  “There are a lot of different species listed under the Endangered Species Act and it’s not just the tiny “bait” fish that you might read about in the right wing newspapers,” he said.  “It’s about salmon, and it’s about salmon fishing jobs, and that’s part of the reason why I spend so much time trying to get to a solution in the Delta that works for people and the environment.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_05The state’s plan includes three massive new intakes at 3000 cfs each, he said.  “Just a to put a little bit of scale on that, imagine a basketball filled with water, and imagine 3000 of those filled with water – that’s 3000 cfs,” he said, noting there would be three of those intakes.  “It would be two tunnels going under the Delta, taking that water down to the existing pumps in the south Delta.  Also a lot of money spent on habitat restoration – more than 100,000 acres.”

I spent two years of my life in Judge Wanger’s courtroom fighting with the Department and others about protections at the existing pumps, and I can tell you that the existing pumps are in a crappy place and it is really bad for fish,” said Mr. Obegi.  “But the question is whether the solution actually is better for people and the environment, and from NRDC’s perspective, it comes down to three basic questions: does this really improve reliability of water, does it really improve the ecosystem, and is it financially affordable and cost effective.  From my perspective, the state’s proposal doesn’t meet any of those tests.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_07In terms of reliability, there’s no question that having the new intake will increase flexibility, he said.  “But even with that large 9000 cfs facility, you’re still taking half of your water from the existing pumps, and in the dry years, when you’re really concerned about levee failures, you’re taking 2/3rds of it from the existing pumps, so investing in levees is obviously going to have to be something we have to continue doing, and paying to do so is a cost that we have to figure out how to pay for.” He noted that there were also concerns about whether a tunnel is actually more seismically safe.

The biggest issue from my perspective is what they are proposing right now doesn’t meet the requirements of the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, which the legislature declared was the gold standard of ecosystem recovery back in 2009 under that Delta Reform legislation that NRDC supported, he said.  “The proposal doesn’t use the operating rules that the fish agencies developed in 2012 because that would mean taking less water than today,” he said.  “All of the modeling that’s come out, even the modeling that the consultant for the agencies has done shows that salmon survival through the Delta will actually be worse, that we’ll see reduced abundance of salmon, and that we’ll see continued declines of a number of other species.”

It’s pretty clear to us that flow is not the only problem in the Delta – far from it,” Mr. Obegi said.  “We have water quality problems, we have habitat problems, but dealing with flow, flow is the master variable, and if we don’t get flow right, none of the rest of the pieces will come together.”

Mr. Obegi spoke of how, before he attended law school, he worked on fisheries conservation in the ocean.  “I’ve made friends with a lot of salmon fishermen,” he said.  “And it really is one of my points of pride that I get to work with fishermen today on a proposal to try and protect salmon fisheries so that we have that in the future, because it is thousands of jobs across the state, and it is part of our heritage. Long before we had irrigated agriculture, we used to have salmon canneries in Fresno.  We had salmon canneries all up and down the coast.  It’s an important part of our heritage, it’s an important part of our communities and it’s something we should sustain.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_10The biggest questions, ultimately, are the financial ones, he said.  “We are talking about a $25 billion proposal right now,” he said.  “They estimate that the contractors will pay for $16.8 billion, by my count it would be a lot higher than that.  There’s a bunch of different funding challenges out there that are real concerns and that the LAO and independent advisors have looked at and raised concerns – not necessarily fatal flaws but real concerns.  Each of these contractors has to borrow through bonds to pay for this project.  You’re talking about something like over $1 billion over a year to pay for it, and in a year like this when you’re getting no water from the Delta, you still have to pay that billion dollars as a contractor.”

There are also real concerns about cost overruns, he said.  “If you’ve seen the cost of the Bay Bridge, you might not be so excited about seeing a sticker price of $25 billion and wondering what the final sticker price is going to be,” he said.  “Will the state and feds really be able to pay for that $8 or $9 billion of public funding that’s supposed to come in and how much of that really is mitigation for the project’s effects versus really conservation of a species? … Will the urban customers be asked to subsidize ag?  Right now, most of the agricultural customers don’t even pay for the existing costs of their infrastructure.  The CVP customers owe nearly one billion dollars since 1960 for the costs of their infrastructure.  They don’t pay any interest on it, and still haven’t paid for it.  Can they afford to borrow another $9 or $10 billion? And the last one, particularly crucial in a year like this when we see the communities in Southern California that have reduced reliance on the Delta and are doing better in drought – the money you pay for BDCP is money you can’t spend on local supplies.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_12So NRDC looked at the situation and said, let’s look at something smaller, he said.  “We do think a new facility could be part of that solution, but a smaller facility with protective pumping rules, levee improvements and less habitat restoration, coupled with investments in local supplies and local storage south of the Delta, we think pencils out,” said Mr. Obegi.  “Unfortunately, it’s not included in the EIS/EIR, it’s not in the range of alternatives; we strongly disagree with that but nothing we can do about that right now.  But by our count, it actually outperforms in terms of both water supply and the finances, as well as the political support and the ability to get something actually built.

For Southern California, every billion dollars spent in the Delta creates jobs in the Delta, but it doesn’t create jobs in the local community, whereas investing in water recycling, conservation, stormwater capture, creates jobs in your community, creates water in your community, and creates local green infrastructure, local parks, particularly in places like LA that are so park-starved, he said.

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_15The reality is these communities are starting to make those investments,” he said.  “Los Angeles really does want to reduce how much water they use from the Delta, but it takes money, and that costs, through rates, and can particularly can hit disadvantaged communities as we heard earlier, and finding a way to afford a solution that is fair and equitable is really tough.  I think LA’s on the right track but again, the costs are real.”

We’re not going to get any water this year from the Delta for the most part,” he said.  “Doubling down on that investment is a real significant risk, and it’s places like Southern California and Orange County that have reduced their reliance on the Delta that are not having to do mandatory conservation because they are in so much better shape.  There’s obviously more we all need to do, but I think it’s a real step forward that they learned from that last drought and that all of us, both agricultural and urban, also have to do.”

BDCP Presentation for PCL Feb 2014_Page_17Ultimately, there’s much more water available from these other sources – conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater remediation – than we’ve ever taken from the Delta or the Colorado River and if we make those kinds of investments we can reduce reliance on the Delta, improve our water supply reliability, and protect the environment,” he said.  “ And it’s not just us – it’s local districts in Southern California who are making and planning those investments, and we need to make sure that they can afford to make those investments.”

Jonas Minton, Planning and Conservation League

Jonas 1Jonas Minton began by saying he’s not saying he’s getting jaded, but he’s been through several of these processes already.  “The other day, my wife was asking me what I want to accomplish before I retired.  Is there anything else?  So I thought about it because I am retiring, so I am thinking if there’s anything I want to wrap up, and so I only have to the year 2034 when I will be leaving, so when I look at BDCP, I go well, that’s interesting and good luck to everybody working on it. It does get frustrating,” he said.  “People work hard on it, but you just see generations going through there.”

Mr. Minton then spoke about how the Coalition for Delta Water Projects came to be.  “I’m sitting around with Jason Peltier, who many of you know is the assistant manager at Westlands awhile ago, and we were discussing who is going to sue who and whose turn was it to sue the other one next, and finally Jason says, ‘Dammit!  I’m tired of this.  We gotta do something now!’ And if you know Jason, that’s how he is.  And I ask, what are you talking about? And Jason says, ‘yeah, we’re going to fight about all these other things, but is there anything we can accomplish in the meantime?’”

That was an interesting thought, so shortly thereafter, a few other people also said that’s an interesting question, so CSAC gave us their conference room, and we invited everybody in to see if maybe there are three or four projects that we could actually agree on in the Delta.  Just put it out there.  DWR was very kind to find a mediator for about $35,000 and we brought people together,” said Mr. Minton.

I had some ideas of projects and I said, I think I’ll just shut up.  So that was an unusual meeting.  [laughter] And we said, ‘You guys got any ideas?’ ‘Yeah, we have ideas.’  First rule was that you had to leave BDCP out of the room.  That’s why we had the mediator – so we wouldn’t kill ourselves and strictly enforce that rule.  So other things we might agree on, good things for the Delta.  We gave everyone a month to come back with write-ups.  After six half day meetings, at the end, 34 fairly prominent opinion leaders in water: the assistant general managers of Westlands, Metropolitan, Contra Costa, Supervisors from each of the Delta counties, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla – how many letters have you seen signed by Barbara Barrigan-Parilla from Restore the Delta and Jason Pelteir?  [chuckle] Unanimously supporting moving 43 projects forward.”

There were three categories of projects: habitat, Delta as a place, and levees, he said.  Each project had to have a map and the support of the landowners and counties.  “Forty three projects with that kind of mix, and I will say that it’s an ongoing process, but projects are starting to move,” he said.  “Contra Costa Water District with their canal intake combined with Dutch Slough, there was a synergy of action there, each was blocking the other from proceeding, there were valid reasons, but they got together and worked it out, they did some sequencing of moving projects forward so that they both can proceed.  The levee projects, I’m thrilled that DWR is acting very responsibly. They are due to issue their next funding for Delta levees that will be out shortly and we are very hopeful and it looks pretty good that they are going to be giving special attention to key levees in the Delta, so all good stuff.

I really want to thank Paul Helliker for that,” said Mr. Minton.  “He’s been a leader.  When he came to DWR, we have some different views on other projects, but he’s able to work with folks and say hey, where we can agree, let’s move things forward and actually get things done on the ground.”

Jonas Minton said he’s learned three things from all of this.  “First one is, cut to the chase.  Don’t wait until the end to deal with the toughest issues, like who is going to pay for what and those sorts of things.  We had people identify what the sticking issue was right from the get go.”

My second lesson is, and I don’t mean to be pejorative about it, but these all have to be supported by the technical and biological analyses and they have to go through everything else, but if it takes 8 years and a couple of 100 million dollars to try and explain and justify to people, maybe it’s not the right way,” he said.  “I know that bigger projects take more, but you have to have something that makes sense, and if it doesn’t, maybe it’s time to go back.”

“The last lesson I have out of this which is most important and probably the hardest for me was to ask people rather than telling people – Asking them, involving them,” he said, noting that when he’s talked to people who have succeeded at projects, they have listened, they’ve heard, and had that kind of iterative process.

These other issues are going to go on and they have to go on, and I appreciate that those processes are important, but I’m glad that before I retire, a whole bunch of these projects are going to get built,” concluded Mr. Minton.

Don Nottoli, Sacramento County Supervisor

Don 1I find it at times difficult to stomach the descriptions that are made and how grim a picture that is painted about the Delta – If the floods and sea level rise won’t get it, it will be an earthquake of some sort,” Don Nottoli began.  “There’s no doubt that there’s risk involved certainly in anything we do, but as we look at the Delta and it’s 1100 miles of levees, you have a fragile system that obviously in any given year can be certainly under the siege of high water levels and certainly weather, and there is the need to continuously invest in our levees, not only from the standpoint of the coequal goals, but also from the standpoint from what they offer in water supply reliability, and protection for the lands and the environments that lie behind the levees, but that grim picture is not totally reflective of the Delta.”

It gets down to that analysis of if we want to do this project, what the costs are going to be and what the benefits are going to be,” he said.  “But the Delta that I know is not just ‘a place,’ but a place where people live, where they make their lives, where they have for generations, where they make their homes, and where they produce a tremendous amount of agricultural food and fiber not only for this region but for the state and the nation and around the world.  It’s also a wonderful place from the standpoint of the environment, treasured for its fisheries, and it’s a place of great beauty.  I describe it as a place of majesty and wonder.”

Several hundred thousand residents reside in the legal Delta, and many millions more appreciate it,” said Mr. Nottoli, “and yet I do recognize that there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of appreciation, not only for the Delta and what it means to water reliability or unique ecosystem, but also what it means to California, to the west coast of the Americas, and certainly to the people who live there and who I believe have been good stewards of the not only the lands but of the environment over the generations since California was first settled and even before that.”

As a long-term local official, he’s come to know many of the residents of the delta, and he’s had the chance to sit on panels and get to know people who appreciate the Delta from a variety of perspectives, he said.  “It is a very treasured and yet fragile place and so the ongoing discussion is focused not only on moving water either through in or around the Delta, but also what do we do to help the fisheries recover, to work to protect the species, and also what we do to protect the agricultural production, but also the recreation and enjoyment of the Delta, … so I think it’s important to make that ongoing investment.”

The proposal I certainly take exception to is the twin tunnels, Mr. Nottoli said.  “I do think that that massive project and its impacts on the landscape, the people, and the environment could be avoided.  Even with the benefits that are noted in that large document, I think what that document only says is that it’s going to have a lasting and significant impact, and yes it will produce some good results to address certain issues, but I do believe there are better ways.”

The lands that the BDCP would conserve or acquire are in a lot of cases lands that have been productively farmed for many years, he said.  “I think that any approach to either convert and/or idle or change the landscape needs to be approached very cautiously,” he said.  “It’s not just 100,000 acres or 145,000 acres, it’s the impacts.  If you look at the entirety of the Delta, where you have about 700,000, 715,000 acres in total, and you take a full one-sixth of that, that I believe will forever change a lot of the underpinnings for the culture and the ongoing life, the agricultural structure and the recreational structure.  I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t predict with certainty, but I do believe that over that 50 year period, if that amount of acreage is converted, and it will change into something else.  There may be benefits in other categories, but as it relates to the Delta towns and communities, the counties and the Northern California region, it will change in some negative ways the ability for those communities to thrive and prosper as we all want to in our respective communities.”

The short-term and near-term project effort is one that is well-founded, and what it says is that a diverse number of folks can come together and find common ground, he said.  “Our point from a local perspective is that BDCP, for whatever merits it may or may not have, doesn’t create any new water,” he said.  “If we’re going to look at ways to either create water or to store it or to manage it, that is where the local jurisdictions are really beginning to put their emphasis.”

It’s all about saying no,” he said.  “We may say no to this big project over here, but we do believe we need to be a part of the solution and that coming to the table with people in the process that they took with the Delta projects coalition, that’s not only where you begin but ultimately that’s where you end up in a place where you find consensus and you find success.”

Finding a sustainable yield is obviously very politically charged, he said.  “But I would just say that it is something we recognize that having clean water flows through the Delta is important to the fisheries, to the Bay, it’s important to the farmers in the Delta, it’s important to the water projects that move water to the Central Valley and Southern California, but we also need to come to a point to recognize that it’s not an unlimited amount.  Not upstream, nor in the ability to move through the Delta.”

We need to do a combination of things – there’s not really one key answer, he said.  “We do not subscribe, certainly from the County’s perspective, that replumbing the Delta is the answer.  And in my view as a local elected official and having done this now in my 20th year, plumbing is destiny.  It’s destiny in the sense that if you build it, you are going to use it.  And if people get thirsty enough, wherever that’s at, if it’s to move water supply, with all the assurances in place and everybody’s best efforts and commitments at the time, I think in years like this, you’ll see what a crisis will drive people to have a conversation about.”

From a local perspective, we support the effort to invest in levees and to do local projects both not only in the Delta, but certainly south and north of the Delta, and that working together we can find consensus, but the BDCP’s tunnels are really a nonstarter for those of us at the local level, he said.  “But we do want to be a part of the solution and recognize the coequal goals and the importance of water reliability to the people of this state as well as the fragile ecosystem and the need for it to be addressed.”

We’re going to be challenged in this drought year and so going forward, we look forward to working with the folks and hopefully we can find solutions that will hopefully be cost effective and ones that will have lasting impact on our ability to manage our water in way that is smart but also provides benefits to the environment and certainly the people, not only in the Delta but the state of California,” concluded Mr. Nottoli.

Discussion highlights

Martha 1I think one of the things that’s so powerful about where we are today is in some respects, we’re moving into the get real, and I think that’s the work that Jonas and others are doing in terms of where can we actually make something happen, rather than talk about making improvements in the Delta.  On the other hand, we still have the big picture, what is the bigger fix and we still don’t have a consensus on the solution,” said Martha Davis.  “So I’d like to go down through the row and have you talk about in the context of what you’re trying to accomplish in the solutions, how does the current circumstances were in challenge us, and where might be the opportunities to push forward on areas of consensus?

Paul Helliker:

2013 was the driest year on record, and 2014 is starting off even worse, so we are in an unprecedented situation here.  1977 – we wish we were in 1977, it was a great year compared to this year.  But in 1924-1931, what we saw then was salinity intrusion far into the Delta that we are not seeing now mainly because we have the reservoirs that we’ve been able to store water in during wetter times that now is available during drier times, so that’s one situation that has changed over the past 70 years, and we are not facing the prospect of water supply being so salty that you can’t use it on any agricultural uses or municipal uses.  …The other thing that’s happened since the 90s is that we do have a lot more resilience built into the system because of the fact that we have additional water supply storage in various parts of the state, …  

During those wet times, we need to be able to move that water if we do have storage.  If we build more storage, we have to be able to use that storage and if we can’t move it because we continue to have problems with species decline in the Delta and with the way that we move water through the Delta, than it’s not going to benefit us at all.  If you look at the projections of population increases, they are going up significantly, so I think we’re going to need solutions on all fronts, including conveyance.  … We have heard from NRDC and John Garamendi and others that they do believe that we do have find a way to move water differently through the Delta, given that we probably will continue to do so.  I’m heartened by the fact that we do see a need there, it’s just a matter of what is the right size.”

Doug Obegi:

I think it’s hard to predict how people are going to respond to the drought, in part because this could be the last year of the drought, or this could be the first year of the next ten years, like Australia.  And that is one of the real difficulties about drought is that it is unfolding in slow motion and you never know when it’s over until you can look back on it.  I agree with Paul that one of the big differences we’ve seen from this drought  77-78 is that we are much more resilient, or 87-92, because we’ve invested in conservation and local storage and water recycling and we have these huge opportunities to do a lot more.  … I think there is a growing consensus, particularly as people around the state see that Southern California is the one part of the state that is not imposing mandatory rationing because of these prior investments. 

In 2011, I was in federal court arguing over protections for salmon and Delta smelt with the Bureau of Reclamation and DWR had to come up to the judge and say you know what, we’ve stopped pumping entirely because there’s no place to put water. We’ve completely filled every reservoir and for the first time that I know of, we actually turned off the pumps entirely.  They never get turned off under the biological opinions but there was no place to put water.  So I think that’s changed our perspective on the idea that local storage is important.  I think north of the Delta storage, big new reservoirs – that’s always going to be environmentally contentious.  But south of Delta storage so you can take more in wet years – we took record amounts in 2011, more than we ever have before, there’s a possibility to take more in a safe way in really wet years.  But that has to be paired with taking less in dry in that big gulp, little sip. 

The biological science is very clear that we have to take less water from the Delta. The political science is far from clear.  And that’s the real challenge.”

Jonas Minton:

Here’s my prediction for 2014.  People are going to scramble.  It’s real time adaptive management on an almost hourly basis.  Do you open those cross channel gates or do you close them?  Does anybody see some fish coming?  It’s almost like that.  What’s the governor said about it?  Here’s what he said.  Well we hope in 2014 we’ll make some progress on BDCP.  That was his statement in the state of the state speech.  He doesn’t want to get too involved in it this year so it’s going to simmer, just going to be up there bubbling and there’s a time period for comments that may be extended and so forth.  What’s interesting to me is not 2014 but 2015.  Already one of the things that they are focused on quite rightfully is what do you do with carryover storage if you have any at all for next year?  What do you do with fall run salmon which will be an immediate issue, what do you with the other fish species, and what do you do for water supplies next year?

I do disagree that I don’t think this is an urban issue.  I don’t think it’s the urban drivers as Doug said. Cities are learning to get by with less and they will continue to do so.  The untapped resources are more than enough to accommodate their population increase.  It’s about ag, folks.  And that’s where it gets interesting in 2015.  If it stays dry, you go with a 0 allocation, they are going to try and draw on groundwater aquifers that are sinking literally beneath their feet.  They talk about subsidence of Delta levees, how about the subsidence in the Central Valley already affecting some of the canals and distribution systems, so what does the private sector, what do the ags do if next year is dry. What does that do to the balance and is that the time when we really start thinking about do we have an agriculture that needs those quantities of water in the driest years to maintain their investments or do we go in other directions. 

The last thing I think is going to be interesting and brought into focus is Westlands financial consultants said that the total package costs for BDCP could be as much as $67 billion, $67 billion some paid for by contractors, some by the public, some from where I’m not sure exactly where, and that’s now you’re talking real money, and the question is where do we invest that much money.   Some plumbing for the times when water may be there in the future? Or more recycling for water that is a pretty drought proof supply? Habitat projects that people agree on versus ones they are going to fight over, that’s where it’s coming down to for the nub.”

Don Nottoli:

This year we may get a chance to experience what dead pool in Folsom Lake is and in Folsom Reservoir, and as a local elected official, one who represents Sacramento County, that’s certainly a concern for our residents and for the broader impact that it has on all of the downstream users. … The American River, for those who have seen it in recent days is certainly at one of the lowest levels ever for this time of year.  In discussions about the water bonds, I ask where is that we make that investment?  What do we do individually and collectively in our communities, but then more broadly if we’re going to prepare ourselves for whatever may come?…  It seems to me that the Governor’s water action plan has smart investments in the way we personally use water and conserve and recycle.  I think there are investments that we can make in storage and some of the systems that would help us better manage and provide for water in a way that helps us both in agriculture and the environment.  …

I do think that this is going to be something that in time we will come to a crossroads and then we make some choices about how we go forward with BDCP and other long term things, as well as what we do in our communities and in our state as far as agriculture and business investment and growing communities with a growing population.  I think we are living in interesting times and we are all part of that conversation.”

Audience question: Paul, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the portfolio alternative … it seems there is a certain resistance within DWR to really explore broad alternatives to projects.  I’d appreciate your comments on why the EIR didn’t really deal with the portfolio approach as an alternative.

Paul Helliker:

We did actually deal with the component of the portfolio proposal that is relevant to the BDCP and the conveyance issue.  On that table that I put up there, we did analyze the 3000 cfs alternative, and compared that to the alternatives in the BDCP.  The BDCP is focused on what do we need to do to change the way we move water through the Delta and what do we need to do to try and restore the Delta ecosystem.  Other projects around the state that are local supply projects and are really more relevant to local planning efforts.  We can support those with money from bond measures with Integrated Regional Water Management, for example.  Storage is more of an issue, it can be both local and also statewide, but all of the other elements that are in the portfolio proposal – and by the way, we didn’t include those in the cost of the analysis for comparison purposes, but there’s no doubt that we need to do those.  That’s why they are in the Governor’s water action plan, that’s why they are part of the planning process that we’re in the middle of, but it’s not relevant to a habitat conservation plan and a proposal under the Endangered Species Act which is what the BDCP is.  That’s why we’ve been clear from the very beginning that the need we have is this one last component of the State Water Project to be fixed, because of all the risks that are associated with it and that’s what it’s all about, set in the context of all the other actions that we do need to take around the state to plan for the future.”

Doug Obegi:

I think we have a difference of opinion about what the proper scope of the BDCP should be.  Obviously if you go back, the CalFed EIR included investments in local supplies.  I do appreciate the Department coming forward and admitting that the alternative that they included, that 3000 cfs, is a two tunnel, not a one tunnel, and it is $3 billion more expensive than what they had originally responded to San Diego County Water Authority and others about.  They acknowledged that they made that $3 billion mistake and that they owned up to is a good thing, but ultimately whether it’s from the contractors point of view with their lawsuit over the Delta Plan saying that you have to show how you meet water supply if you reduce flow from the diversion as a CEQA matter, whether you look at it as a statewide investment and look at that at the programmatic level, there’s obviously five or six different ways you could include this as part of an EIS/EIR.  Ultimately that was a path they decided not to take.

In closing …

I look at the 2014 drought that we’re in right now, I look at what’s coming in 2015 if we don’t get rain, and I would argue that everything that these panelists have agreed upon on the issue of ‘we’re all in this together’ and we need to build more resiliency in the system through water efficiency and local water supply development will come home in spades,” said Martha Davis.  “Because at the end of the day when you’re faced with zero allocations and you’re going to be faced with the overdraft in the groundwater basins as well, I think it restructures the very essence of the way we use water, both in the agricultural and in the urban settings.  With that kind of a shock wave going  through the system, it’s going to be very interesting to see if a lot of the recommendations that relate to the improvements and how we better manage water supplies will come back around and then inform these ongoing efforts to address the Bay Delta problem.”

For more information …

Panel 1



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