Delta Challenges Workshop, part 1: Delta land use, levees, and agricultural economics

DWR Delta Minor Slough #5 sliderboxFour former Delta lead scientists take on a challenge: Describe the Delta’s challenges, complexities, and controversies in just 20 pages

The mission, should you choose to accept it, is this, they said: “Prepare a report in which they will describe concisely why the Delta is such a complex system, what is known with confidence about the major stressors and stressor interactions, why so much uncertainty exists despite the considerable knowledge that has been generated over the past four decades, what the disagreements are, and the compelling reasons for why all of this matters to policy-makers and the public.” And as if that isn’t enough: do it in only 15 to 20 pages. And get it done in 30 days.

Mission impossible?  Oh, yeah.  But astonishingly, the four former Delta lead scientists accepted the challenge, descending upon their former stomping grounds, laptops in hand, for a one-day workshop in Sacramento on March 16: Dr. Samuel Luoma, the first Lead Scientist for the Bay-Delta Science Program from 2000 to 2003; Dr. Johnnie Moore, the Lead Scientist from 2004 to 2006; Dr. Michael Healey, the Lead Scientist from 2007 to 2008; and Dr. Clifford N. Dahm, Lead Scientist from 2008 to 2012. The workshop was led by Dr. Peter Goodwin, the current Delta Lead Scientist.

Lead Scientists 1Dr. Goodwin began by noting that the workshop was been convened at the direct request of both the Department of Interior and the California Department of Natural Resources here. He then introduced Letty Belin, senior counsel for the Secretary of the Interior, who shed some insight into why the lead scientists had been called back to the Delta and been handed this seemingly impossible mission.

Letty Belin noted that the federal agencies sent a request last July for a workshop to review existing information and prepare a summary analysis of the long-term effects of continuing the course of actions in the Delta. “The coequal goals of continued reliable water supply for the state and restoring the Bay Delta ecosystem health are the law of this state, and they have been driving the Obama Administration,” she said. “The only way we can possibly achieve those goals is if policy making and science advance hand in hand.

Letty Belin
Letty Belin, Department of the Interior

There’s absolutely no way we can address the coequal goals and make progress in the Delta without understanding the science and following the science, but then we have the problem that there’s an awful lot of the science,” she continued. “None of us can really fathom it all and it’s getting very hard to distill out what are the core and most important issues that an interested member of the public, that policy makers, that anyone and everyone who cares about the Bay Delta, what is it that we need to understand.”

That’s really what this is about, is hoping that we can build on and extract the wisdom of those of you that have been the lead scientists in the Bay Delta, and the other experts we’ll be hearing from,” Ms. Belin said.

Karla Nemeth from the California Natural Resources Agency said that over the course of the last six year to ten years, there’s been a renewed focus on the Delta and how it is managed. “That certainly includes how we bring science better into the discussion and how we bring science more appropriately and specifically into decision making on how we manage that system,” she said.

Karla Nemeth
Karla Nemeth, CA Natural Resources Agency

I think one of the most interesting challenges about working in the Delta is that it’s very difficult to bring people together around a shared set of facts,” Ms. Nemeth said. “We very much need the scientific community to help us interact with the general public and a very well informed public about those shared set of facts in the Delta and how they are changing, particularly as we learn more about climate change and other stressors on the system. That is our goal with the panel and is to tap the knowledge of California and all those folks with great history in the Delta to get us to the next chapter on what are our shared set of facts on the challenges that face us in the Delta.”

Dr. Peter Goodwin then added some remarks. “The overarching purpose of this workshop is to capture, very succinctly, the essence of the challenges facing the Bay Delta,” he said. “We know an awful lot about this system from the science perspective, and indeed some of the most innovative estuarine research anywhere in the world has been conducted right here. But this is a very large system, it’s a very complex system and it’s a very dynamic system. It’s also a system that’s in great peril; there are species at risk and the loss of biodiversity here as has recently been published, is one of the highest in the world. Water supply is at risk, and people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk. And amazingly, this is not widely understood beyond California.”

Dr. Goodwin
Dr. Peter Goodwin

The myth is California water is not complicated; it’s just contentious, and it’s contentious because the stakes are so high and all we do, if we’d just work better together, we’d solve the problem,” Dr. Goodwin said. “So this workshop is meant to develop the anecdote to this misperception.”

Dr. Goodwin noted that some might feel that there are some items missing on the agenda; the panelists were chosen by the lead scientists as to whom they wanted to hear from at the workshop.

Seated on the first panel was Erik Vink of the Delta Protection Commission who gave an overview of Delta land use and demographics; David Mraz with the Department of Water Resources who discussed levees, and Dr. Richard Howitt with UC Davis who gave presentation on Delta agricultural economics.

ERIK VINK, Delta Protection Commission
Delta Land Use and Demographics

Primary and Secondary Zones
Primary and Secondary Zones

Erik Vink set the stage for the upcoming presentation with a brief rundown of Delta land use and demographics. He first began by explaining that the Delta Protection Commission is the state agency with responsibility for local land use in the primary zone of the Delta. “We’ve been around for 20 years, and we were the state’s first Delta agency,” he said.

He noted that his numbers were sourced from the Commission’s Economic Sustainability Plan. Some of the numbers draw the distinction between the primary zone and the secondary zone, the combination of which is the legal Delta and was established in statute decades ago, he said. Approximately two-thirds of the legal Delta acreage is in the primary zone, the remainder is in the secondary zone.

1_1 Vink, Erik - Delta Land Use and Demographics_Page_3There are six Delta Counties: San Joaquin, Sacramento, Contra Costa, Solano, Yolo, and Alameda. The majority of the Delta is within San Joaquin County; Alameda is often forgotten but they have a little sliver of the Delta as well, he noted.

The primary land use in the Delta is agriculture,” said Mr. Vink. “Just under 500,000 acres of cultivated land. The overwhelming majority of that is classified as prime agricultural land by the state of California, so it’s very high quality agricultural land. There’s a little bit of grazing land in the Delta, but it’s almost entirely cultivated.”

In 2009, the top crops were corn, alfalfa, tomatoes, wheat, and wine grapes which accounted for 60% of the cultivated land. “The top crops in the Delta is a bit of a moving target,” he said. “I don’t expect that they would look a lot different today, but certainly there’s movement amongst crop categories.”

Agricultural output from the Delta is just under $800 million leaving the farm, he said. “The trends in agricultural land use are the same as the trends everywhere – an increase in higher value crops, wine grapes, deciduous crops, a lot of those are fruit trees, nut trees as well, and higher value row crops and then a decrease in the lower value crops. This is not different from anywhere else in California.”

DWR Delta birds & patterns #7Mr. Vink then gave numbers sourced from the Department of Conservation’s land use survey data. “They’ve classified 9% of the legal Delta as what they call ‘other land’, which in this case is really a proxy for natural lands and lands that are not agricultural. Any restored lands, any land that moving towards restoration, or in some cases, land that might be moving away from agriculture and towards urbanization would fall under this category.”

Recreation is the basis for the natural land economy in the Delta with 12 million visitor days annually,” he said. “Most of those related to boating and fishing recreational uses, and $250 million annually is spent for recreational purposes in the Delta.”

DWR Homes behind levee StocktonThe surrounding area of the Delta is urban, encompassing portions of the cities of Sacramento, West Sacramento, and Stockton, as well as many other smaller communities in the periphery. “Ten percent of the legal Delta is classified as urban,” he said. “Population is close to 575,000 residents … The numbers are not jumping quite as rapidly as they were during the 1990s and even during the decade of 2000, but they are still increasing. They will be expected to increase more as we make our way out of this recession we’ve been digging out of and these cities continue to add additional populations; some of that will be within the secondary zone of the Delta.”

The population in the primary zone of the Delta has been relatively constant at 12,000 residents and that’s really been unchanged for a couple of decades,” he said. “The population throughout the legal Delta, almost entirely in the secondary zone, pretty much looks like California; it’s slightly more Caucasian and slightly less Hispanic, with slightly larger Asian and African American populations.”

Delta vineyard #3 07-2008As for future trends, there is a trend towards higher value agriculture as is the trend throughout the state of California, Mr. Vink said. Population increases for the secondary zone are hard to determine as the Department of Finance tends to aggregate the numbers countywide, but we’re certain to see population increase in the secondary zone, he said.

There will be a decrease in agricultural acreage both as restoration increases and as population increases, because as population increases, urbanization of land will largely come from agricultural land uses in the secondary zone,” he said.

DAVE MRAZ, Department of Water Resources
Delta Levee Issues

Dave MrazDave Mraz said the first question he was asked for was to describe two or three points about the Delta that make it a complex system. “The Delta is a tidal system that has suffered from land subsidence and is protected on a daily basis by those little thin ribbons of land that rise above the water surface,” he said. “It’s a pretty small belt and we don’t have a pair of suspenders on that.”

Most people think of levees as dry land that are above the natural river system and only get wet in flood conditions, Mr. Mraz said. “The Delta is not like that,” he said. “We call them islands and that conjures up this vision of land that’s raised up above the sea level with beautiful mountains on it and all that; but these are not islands, they are more polders. Polders are bowls in the estuary that are surrounded by very fragile levees.

More than just about any other place in California, the health of the agriculture industry, infrastructure, population, and recreation depends upon the levee system for continuing our ability to continue to derive benefit,” he pointed out. “Not many places are in that critical situation.”

“The levee system that is so critical for all the things that we get out of the Delta and expect from the Delta is really in a state of dynamic equilibrium,” he said. “The forces are coming to bear on those levees – over the last 100 years, we’ve had floods, we’ve had beavers, we’ve had poor operation, sediment, consolidation, the one thing we haven’t had is an earthquake, so that’s still coming. Sea level rise and climate change are going to make very significant differences in how the levee system must respond.”

Mr. Mraz noted that further upstream, the levees in the Central Valley have federal dollars to make changes. “All of those changes rush the water through their system and bring it down into the Delta, and increase the stage in the Delta,” he said. “The folks that are working on the State Plan of Flood Control are ignoring the fact that their changes upstream will result in higher stage in the Delta and they see no problems.”

Mr. Mraz said he was asked about conflicts and contradictions. “I think probably the thing that we’ve all seen is that there are no common goals, no single vision for the Delta,” he said. “If you’re in agriculture, you have one vision; if you’re a water purveyor, you have another, if you’re looking at the ecosystem, there’s a third vision, and if you get all of them together, there are probably four or five different visions that will come out of that meeting. How do you get consensus on moving forward?

DWR Delta hwy 4 bridge #6There are also contradictions between the missions and the needs of the federal agencies, he said. “We’ve been working with the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the two big players in the Delta for a number of years,” he said. “The Corps mission is flood control and ecosystem and the Bureau’s mission is water supply and ecosystem. You try and get one of those organizations to take a look at the whole range of benefits and impacts, and you just cannot get concurrence.”

Most recently, we’ve talked with the Corps of the Engineers all the way back to Washington trying to get water supply benefits counted in the federal benefits that would accrue to the nation through managing the levee system,” he continued. “They absolutely refuse because it’s not a part of their mission statement. They can take into consideration flood control, ecosystem, and navigation, but water supply is out. In the Delta, water supply is absolutely key.”

Mr. Mraz then listed the critical uncertainties moving forward. “First is sustainability of the Delta itself,” he said. “How are we going to continue use and derive the benefit from the system in the future? I mentioned already sea level rise and climate change, seismic environment, continuing daily onslaught of wind and waves, settlement and consolidation – all of those things require that somebody be out there on a regular daily basis to monitor the levees, evaluate their health and take appropriate action when it’s needed.”

A Day in the Delta June 2013 #66And lastly there is funding. “The Delta levee system has gone through cycles of funding,” he said. “The state provides a large portion of the funding that is necessary to operate and maintain and improve the levee system. As anybody who’s got responsibility for a large budget, the legislature is very concerned about how those dollars are used and they are looking for cutting back, cutting back, cutting back. I can certainly appreciate it, but we operate the levee system and we maintain about 700 miles for right around $12 million a year, and that’s a huge bargain, but even that level of funding is uncertain. Does it come from an assessment district, does it come from continuing passage of bonds, does it come from a general fund or does it just come from the agricultural income from the islands themselves.”

The levee system is certainly complex, each island is its own little fiefdom, trying to get two islands to work together is really tough,” he said. “Nobody wants to give up their rights on their islands, but it’s a system that we have to maintain and plan for as we move into the future.”

Sam Luoma asked that besides the $12 million, does any other agency put money in for maintenance?

The state is the primary source,” Mr. Mraz replied. “I believe there’s some money that comes into the Delta from the Bureau because they run their water through it, but it’s a pretty small number. I believe it’s mostly in the form of payments to Reclamation Districts. There’s nothing that comes in from the Corps of Engineers.”

Mr. Mraz is asked if the $12 million is paid by DWR or is that paid by the water districts?

That’s just the DWR component,” he clarified. “The local agencies have to spend the first $1000 per levee mile and then 25% of all eligible costs over and above that, and of course, there are costs associated with maintenance of the levee that are not eligible for reimbursement.”

Delta agricultural economics

Dr. HowittRichard Howitt began by noting that much of his analytic work is done in conjunction with his colleagues at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “I want to take an economic perspective, but you have to remember, somebody labeled us a hundred years ago ‘a dismal science’, so don’t me expect to start off with cheery stuff,” he said.

The Delta is dynamic physically, biologically, and also economically,” he said. “We have not got sweetness and light in the interactions between the major economic players here, which I’ve characterized them as agriculture, environmental quality, and conveyance.”

The normal process is to be conflict and that’s standard,” he said. “What you do with this is you have to make trade-offs, so we have to think up mechanisms by which we can make trade-offs. This is, of course, what the coequal goals say. The coequal goals say you’ve got 50/50 trade-offs between ecosystem-environment, and water supply. I’m not sure where the Delta economy is coming in there. I think it should be a three way tradeoff because the Delta economy is important.”

From an economic view, there’s a tremendous asymmetry of knowledge,” he said. “I can tell you pretty closely what it would cost to cut back diversions to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California in water supplies. I can tell you very precisely if you allowed islands to stay flooded in certain places and put agriculture out of operation on those islands. What I cannot tell you is – lets pick a hypothetical – what would be the actual cost if we were going to maintain the population of Delta smelt without question. And so what we have is a system where we have to balance public budgets, but it seems to be we have a tremendous knowledge asymmetry on how to do it.

1_3 Howitt, Richard - Delta Ag Econ-2_Page_3He then presented a map from a study he did on the Delta economy. “I went to Dunn and Bradstreet and asked them their major businesses and then we geolocated them on the map,” he said. “Every dot is a major business, whether it’s selling grapes, beer, or a concrete contractor, it’s there. The really interesting thing is where the businesses are not.”

He noted that the green areas on the map are areas that his colleagues at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences identified as having questionable resuscitation value. “We took a cold hearted economic perspective of this and said if theses levees collapse, what would the cost be of repairing the levees and resuscitating the island, versus its value once it’s resuscitated. This is the tough question that has to be asked if we’re going to solve the Delta. Otherwise we just go on this perpetual rotary dance and keeping asking for public monies. We have to have science with a purpose and science driving towards a policy solution.”

DWR Delta pipelines #1One of the toughest questions is can we afford to fix all the levees, he said. “First problem is the fish don’t have any money,” he said. “I’m serious about this. They need a lot of money to stabilize them and there are no revenues for the environment, and there’s the problem. And because of that, you’re always balancing public money against private flows.

The Delta lacks an adequate tax base to pay for their own levee improvements, Mr. Howitt said. “The trouble is that there the really valuable agriculture – the agriculture that can pay for levee improvements – is all taking place out on the edges of the Delta. Where the levees are most at risk are where the lowest value agriculture is, so if you apply the scriptures of Prop 218 to local tax ordinances, it’s going to be I think extremely difficult to come up with internal tax base sufficient to maintain and improve those levees, given the rising sea levels.”

The real money is from the 5 million acre-feet that are exported from the Delta by the conveyors – Or 6 MAF if you ask them, 3 MAF if you ask the ecologists,” Dr. Howitt said. “It’s real money so from an economist point of view, the Delta has to take advantage of being the critical hub and saying we want to stay as a viable economy. Part of our viable economy is to recognize that we are transfer hub and money flows through us and we are entitled to a proportion of that. What proportion of that is an interesting question.

1_3 Howitt, Richard - Delta Ag Econ-2_Page_5If the money is going to really come from the exporters, then perhaps we should look at conveyance facilities, because the current conveyance facilities are at risk,” he said, presenting a slide from a study done by Bill Fleenor at the Center for Watershed Sciences on salinity levels. “You can drive down 5 and see all the posters worrying about salinity, but interesting thing, at the minute there’s only one study being done and to the doom and gloom guys, it’s not that bad.” He explained that the bars show different alternatives between conveyance and sea level rise, noting that the light hatch bars represent the worst of the world. “These are the levels that result in different parts of the Delta, and the only place that’s really hit hard is the west. Point: There has been one study done so far and it doesn’t look as if a dual conveyance system is going to trash the Delta agriculture.”

1_3 Howitt, Richard - Delta Ag Econ-2_Page_6Dr. Howitt then presented a slide from another study of potential long-run Delta economy losses which considered a 1 foot sea level rise. “We said we’re not going to repair these islands, we’re going to do triage on these islands, and the revenue impacts are not that great, except the big revenue impacts come when you flood the islands. And you have to compare these big impacts with the costs of strengthening those levees so they won’t flood. Jobs are significantly gained on the islands but not killers, we’re talking here about a quarter of a million dollars and so it’s a game. These possible solutions to reconciling the coequal goals – politically maybe they’re really hard, but economically they are not going to kill us.”

Dr. Howitt said he would like the panel to think about the marginal productivity of these policies. “We have these incredible range of alternatives – how to work out which ones we should be focusing on,” he said. “The other thing is we have to think of equity as well as efficiency when making equity decisions on the levees. It’s really important to take into account the sense of a place in the Delta, and how people feel about that place. We mustn’t rush over their feelings. However, triage I think is absolutely necessary. We’ve had CalFed, we’ve had the idea that we cannot fix everything because we don’t have the dollars, therefore how are we going to buy it. But equity as well as efficiency is important.”

We want to have a balance if we’re going to have a stable Delta,” said Dr. Howitt. “It has to be economically stable so you have to look at money flows as well as ecological flows of energy and biology. And this leads us to this concept that we’ve got to balance mitigation to the existing Delta occupants and people with prevention in terms of public policies.”

That, from a cold-hearted, dismal viewpoint, is my discussion,” he concluded.

Discussion period

The scientists then asked questions of the panelists.

Dr. Mike Healey
Dr. Mike Healey

Dr. Healey asked, if the overall value of agriculture is about 3% of the state’s economy and the Delta is a tiny fraction of that, does that mean Dr. Howitt is saying that we shouldn’t worry about Delta lands?

In a nutshell, you should worry about them, but you might have to give them up,” he replied. “The question is that if you can’t fix it all, which bits do you not fix? Generally speaking, you don’t fix the bits that have the least impact on the economy and the least impact on population. And the inevitable conclusion if you look at my map, is that those are those islands in the west and the center; they are the ones with the lowest value soil because of course you’ve had oxidation in some cases down to the base clay layer, so if you look at the crops grown on them, you’ll find that the highest value crop is corn, and there’s a lot of pasture.”

Dr. Healey noted that some of the analyses suggest that the flooded islands would become excellent habitat for non-native species; is that included in the analysis?

Yes, it certainly should be,” Dr. Howitt replied. “If you decide to go down that track, and even you don’t decide to, nature may push you down that track, or earthquakes would. We should know how to manage flooded islands to prevent them from becoming habitats for invasive species and make them ecologically valuable or at least benign.”

Sam and Johnnie
Dr. Sam Luoma and Dr. Johnnie Moore

Dr. Johnnie Moore asked how one might go about setting up a policy for triage … how do you get out of those crisis responses and set up a system that is responsive when you need it, but doesn’t completely overwhelm everything else that you have to do?

The Delta Stewardship Council is embarking on a levee investment strategy, developing the prioritization of Delta levee improvements, and we’re all very interested in the what the outcome will be of that,” said Erik Vink. “I don’t think there is any question that there should be some sort of system in place that creates a prioritization, but we want to make sure that in that effort to create a prioritization that the operation of the system as a system is not lost in that. I would worry about a prioritization that puts too much emphasis on individual islands and assets, land values, property values or conveyance values attributed to those individual islands. That’s certainly important. The system operates as a system, break one link in that system and it could have cascading effects elsewhere.”

The other point is that if we identify this as a problem that we need to solve immediately, it does seem incredibly daunting, but in terms of the improvements made to the system over the last generation, the state really stepped up its funding and its partnership with local levee maintaining agencies,” continued Mr. Vink. “If we can continue that incremental progress in another generation, another generation and a half, we can make substantial and extremely significant improvements to the system, so it’s always my caution when the results of the levee investment strategy come out, whatever the cost of the fix is isn’t something that we have to magically come up with overnight. Even if we could come up with the resources overnight, we don’t have the human resources and the materials and all of that to make those improvements immediately.”

What we want to avoid is what happened with Jones Tract,” said Dr. Howitt. “I’m told that our previous Governor landed on the levee in his helicopter and said ‘fix it’ and that’s what happened and $20 million was spent. … that decision had to be made right then and there. We should start building a body of knowledge, because that decision may have to be made tomorrow, and very quickly, literally in a matter of hours. … So, like it or not, we have to have a set of criteria and they must not be purely financial and value based; they have to be take into account the whole system, which includes both the Delta economy, values, and ecosystem.”

Erik Vink discussion
Erik Vink and Dave Mraz

Erik Vink noted that most Delta islands are farmed and agriculture is practically the only economic use. “There certainly is being money spent to make improvements to those levee systems in the Central Delta. I would imagine those levee improvements can be entirely justified based on the value of maintaining the export system, and I think those levees are fairly critical to maintaining the water export system that we have in the south Delta. So I don’t know that there’s a huge mismatch currently about the amount being spent.”

One of the scientists notes that if current islands become open water bodies, existing levees would then be faced with large bodies of water that can generate fetch and a lot of energy, creating a major expense for shoring up those levees now exposed to a very different hydrodynamic system. Have you been considering these costs?

One of the things you’ll hear the engineers in the Delta talk about is that the levee system is really that, it’s a system, and when you lose one levee, you flood an island, and that’s bad for that island, but it’s also bad for every island that’s around it,” Mr. Mraz said. “There are aquifers that go underneath the sloughs and rivers that have been silted in over time so that they are not producing hydrostatic pressure to a great extent when the rivers are flowing normally. But those same areas are cultivated on the island, so when you flood an island, now this aquifer that had been sitting high and dry inside that island is now surcharged with water, which means that your destabilizing the levees on the adjacent islands for everything that’s attached to that aquifer … it’s under high pressure. Add to that the fetch length … You’d have that condition in the deep Delta, where right now the fetch length is a quarter of a mile across the slough, so it does make a huge difference, so that’s one of the things that goes into the thought for recovering islands wherever they happen now.”

Am I correct then the places where this triage strategy runs up against the other opinions lies in our insufficient understanding this levee as a system concept,” said Dr. Luoma. “If the whole system collapses either in terms of conveyance or one island after another cascading, those are outcomes that would go well beyond what we anticipate, so is that the big hole in knowledge?

“From my perspective, I’ve been in the Delta for 14 years, and from day one, the engineers that operate and maintain the system out there have been impressing upon me the fact that the Delta levee system is just that, you need all of them operating the way that they are in order to preserve the benefits that we get,” said Dave Mraz. “So the knowledge is out there that if you lose one island, the impacts are greater than just what you see on that one island. Maybe quantifying it hasn’t been done as well as it could, but I think the knowledge is there.”

Erik Vink discussion 2
Erik Vink

A levee investment strategy very well could be a triage outcome, but that doesn’t mean that you only fix levees on 20 islands and you let the remainder go,” said Erik Vink. “You could and should determine where the initial priorities are placed on making those improvements, and creating those strengthened modern levees, and then over time, work through those needed improvements to get to the less critical areas. We would certainly argue for that as an outcome of the levee investment strategy, not that you would just write off a number of islands, but you create a priority list and you start on your most important priorities first.”

A scientist asks how sea level rise is being addressed in maintenance and improvement planning for the Delta.

The way that I’m looking at it is it’s going to happen gradually enough that it’s going to show up in the historic record and our hydrologic predictions, so about every ten years, we’re looking at updating the hydrology for the Delta, we expect to see increases in stage, and we’ve worked on those increases in stage over time,” said Dave Mraz. “Just an example of what it takes to raise the levees by six inches, in 1983, the federal government said you have to achieve the HMP standard, and for the next 25 years, we tried that and it wasn’t until recently and the outpouring of tens of millions of dollars that we were able to get most of the islands – I won’t say all of the islands because I think there’s still some that are below by HMP – just raise them by six inches. It takes a long time and it take a lot of work, because at the same time you are putting material on, foundations are responding by settling and consolidating, so we’re planning, but it’s going to be a long term effort.”

Mr. Mraz notes that raising a thousand miles of levees 6” by 16 feet would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Dr. Howitt notes that sea level rise will influence the X2 interface between freshwater and saltwater. “The salinity is going to move up the river, which means the number of days that you will be able to divert water of a certain quality through the system is going to go down, and the inevitable conclusion is to have a high quality diversion point moved further up river. Because one thing about levees, they don’t move … ”

One of the scientists asks about setback levees.

Dave Mraz discussionDave Mraz said that the problem with setback levees in the Delta are the necessary foundation improvements. “That’s very expensive – you’re talking dynamic peat compaction or soil mixing, and the numbers that came out of the DRMS study is about $26 million per levee mile. When you look at the system we have set up where the local interests pay 10-25% and they’ve got levee systems that are 20 miles to go around an island, the costs are just way beyond their ability to cost-share that.”

Erik Vink suggests there’d be few takers for setback levees. “If that’s a desired outcome and a state policy or a goal to utilize more setback levees, then I think the way to encourage that is to bump up the funding the state provides and maybe provide other incentives, as it’s not just the cost, it’s the cost of the land that goes out of production that is provided to the outward side of the levee system.”

A scientist asks the panel what other issues should be considered.

Erik Vink notes that although the population numbers are not huge, there are residents who live and conduct business within the interior Delta. “All of these efforts we’re discussing have an impact upon them. We have incredible cultural and historic human based values within communities in the Delta, our legacy communities in the Delta, and those are all important factors as well. I talk primarily about agriculture and recreation as a key economic drivers of the economy of the Delta, but the levee system also protects very significant state infrastructure, state highways, local road networks, significant energy infrastructure, gas pipelines, electric transmission facilities that move through the Delta and are protected by these island levees, so those need to be factored in as well.”

Dave Mraz says in regards to the Delta as a place, there’s a real symbiosis between the local communities, the agricultural folks and the levee system. “The farming operations and go around and inspect the levees on a daily basis; they recognize changes and problems as they are developing, they contact the engineers and get them out there to deal with the problems before they become levee failures. I’ve been bragging a little bit about the fact that we’ve not had a failure in the Delta since Jones Tract, well I found out just a couple of days ago that it’s not because our levee system is so good; it’s probably more attributable to the fact that we have people out there watching and maintaining it. … the reduction in fragility isn’t attributable to piling more dirt on; a lot of it has to do with the people who are out there in the Delta, committed to preserving the islands.”

Dr. Richard Howitt discussionDr. Howitt said he’s relatively optimistic for agriculture and the legacy communities in the Delta. “They have a very vibrant, expanding agriculture all around the edge of the Delta, and it’s steadily going towards higher value crops. It’s got very close proximity to the Bay Area, and so the comparative advantage for growing specialty vegetables is significant. I think we’re going to have a growing agricultural production there, which would have associated with it jobs and secondary impacts.”

Erik Vink agreed, and noted that the Delta legacy communities face the same challenges as other rural communities around the state. “The beauty of the Delta is that it’s a region that’s in close proximity to very large Metropolitan areas in many respects, but it is sort of an unknown landscape. It’s a little difficult for people to figure out how to get to it and what to do once they are there, and the Commission as well as our partner agency, the Delta Conservancy, is working on efforts to help bolster Delta communities and their ability to benefit from recreational and tourism related uses in the Delta.”

One of the scientists asks Dr. Howitt if utility analysis can be used to incorporate non-monetary values, such as cultural or ecological values, into the analysis?

That’s extremely hard and it goes back to what I think is one of the central problems is the asymmetry of knowledge, of knowing what the payoff is with different ecological policies,” responded Dr. Howitt. “I personally would prefer to put them in as constraints on the economic system rather than trying to come up with a value for salmon or a value for an old historic house. I’d rather say these are some absolute constraints, that we must have these preserved, we must keep them viable, and therefore we need to do the following modifications, and then we can tell you what those are costing you. So rather than say, yes a certain type of fish is worth a certain amount or a certain type of habitat is worth a certain amount, is to say it costs you this to keep them in existence. Is that the way you want to spend your collective money?”

At the conclusion of the panel session, each participant was given a chance to share some final thoughts.

Dave Mraz: “I think probably the main place to focus this on defining a single set of goals and objectives with the federal government to investigate as it looks at the Delta and Delta services. If we can get them to agree that the water supply is really of interest to the national economy, and then to incorporate that into their ability to help the Delta, I think that would be a huge step forward.”

Erik Vink: “Those levee improvements are really critical to everything that is really Delta as a place. It’s critically important to the agriculture, to the maintenance of Delta communities, the Delta economy relies upon it as well. And I’m still really gathering the background for why there was federal involvement in the past in support of the levee system and why that’s largely disappeared. It sure would be nice to have federal assistance in recognizing the value of maintaining Delta levees, not only to this region but to the rest of the state of California and even the national and international significance of the water that goes through the Delta.”

Dr. Richard Howitt: “Since we’re not going to get everything we want, we’re going to have to make tradeoffs, and I would love to see those tradeoffs made mostly on science rather than politics although both are important. So I would encourage you to try and look at integrated science, because if science stays in its disciplinary silos, it has a very hard time making a trade-off, but if you have an integrated project, where you have engineering and ecology working together, then you have a chance of making a tradeoff between say, fish and health and exports, so I would make a push for integrated science rather than purely disciplinary science.

For more information …

For workshop agenda, materials, and webex recordings, click here.

Coming up tomorrow …

John Leahigh, Dan Cayan, Fran Spivy-Weber, Joe Grindstaff, and Dr. Richard Howitt discuss water supply reliability and its challenges.

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