Guest commentary: Restore the Delta responds to Secretary Laird’s speech

Secretary Laird’s truths are more truthiness, says Tim Stroshane, water policy analyst for Restore the Delta

Commentary written by Tim Stroshane, Restore the Delta

Restore the Delta logoOn behalf of Restore the Delta, we appreciate the opportunity from Maven’s Notebook to rebut State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird’s remarks on April 28. The Secretary aims to debunk myths while aiming to describe hard, even allegedly inescapable truths. Instead, he reveals the essential truthiness of the California Water Fix (also referred to here as “Tunnels”) project.

“Truthiness” is the belief that something is true from the gut, using life experiences or learnings to make something seem true.

Truth—distinct from truthiness—depends on facts. Secretary Laird uses a few stratagems in his remarks to bolster truthy statements, such as omitting facts in favor of appealing to his legislative and mayoral experiences in Santa Cruz, as well as employing straw men and exaggeration.

Rather than go myth-by-myth, truth-by-truth, let’s group Secretary Laird’s truthy remarks into ones where he omits facts and ones where he exaggerates and employs straw men.

Fortunately, Secretary Laird acknowledges that “the Delta ecosystem is incredibly stressed,” a statement for which there is no disagreement from Restore the Delta quarters. This “truth” is self-evident to us in the Delta, but a bitter pill the Secretary offers for Delta importing regions like Silicon Valley, Southern California, and San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. When he says forcefully, “I think this administration and everybody should take totally seriously the coequal goals that were enacted by the Legislature in 2009 of ecosystem health and water supply reliability,” we take him seriously.

But Secretary Laird omits the fact that the Legislature—at the same time it passed the co-equal goals—also set a statewide water policy mandate that importers reduce their reliance on the Delta for their future water needs. This policy also said they should invest in water recycling, storm water capture, local and regional self-sufficiency and regional supply coordination to meet future needs. All local, state, and federal government agencies are to comply with this statewide policy, along with the co-equal goals.

How does Secretary Laird resolve the apparent contradiction between reducing Delta reliance as state policy with promoting a massive and expensive Tunnels project that not only continues state and federal importers’ reliance on the Delta, but would expand their conveyance capacity to do so? The statewide debate about the meaning of reduced Delta reliance coexisting with improved “water supply reliability” must be reopened, and Restore the Delta is ready to take part.

The Delta is stressed because too much fresh water—itself critical habitat for a variety of listed species and collapsing food webs—is removed from the estuary beyond sustainable levels. A 2013 PPIC survey reported that scientists working in the Delta consider changes in flow and habitat the top overall causes of ecosystem stress in the Delta. They are most concerned about flow management as a future source of stress to Delta ecosystems. The survey found also that government officials and environmentalists are most closely aligned with scientists in their views, distinct from water contractors and other water industry stakeholders.

Secretary Laird brings up earthquake risk and the Delta’s levees, justifying the Tunnels as providing seismic insurance for Delta exports. The secretary omits concerns about what happens to the rest of the Delta’s levees. How does DWR interpret the fact that the August 2014 Napa quake (magnitude 6.0), just 47 miles from the small town of Isleton, caused no levee damage in the Delta? In addition to local contributions to Delta reclamation districts, state payments have greatly improved maintenance and condition of Delta levees since the 1990s. For these and other reasons, Delta residents and reclamation district officials think that the state unfairly overstates earthquake risk in the Delta.

On the other hand, Californians hear little about earthquake risk to other parts of California’s disparate water system. San Luis Reservoir is built immediately along the Ortigalita fault zone, yet there are proposals to raise its dam and expand its storage. According to DWR’s recent seismic loading criteria report on the State Water Project, the California Aqueduct and other State Water Project facilities face appreciable risk from the seismically active San Andreas Fault:

The California Aqueduct crosses the San Andreas fault at four places: Quail Lake, Anaverde Valley, Barrel Springs near Palmdale, and at Devil Canyon Powerplant. Other major fault crossings are the Garlock fault zone in the Tehachapi Mountains and the San Jacinto fault south of the San Bernardino Mountains. The West Branch also crosses the San Andreas fault, and the South Bay Aqueduct crosses the Calaveras fault. In addition to these major faults, numerous minor faults are crossed by various features of the Project. Furthermore, a number of other mapped faults terminate adjacent to the aqueduct and may or may not completely cross it. At other locations faults trend along-side and parallel to the aqueduct. And at still other locations, blind thrust faults that do not rupture to the surface underlie the SWP. All of these faults pose some level of hazard to the SWP.

Yet the Delta gets the most state government and media attention despite its 70-mile distance from the Hayward fault and closer, but less active small faults. It smells like a fear campaign to many of us in the Delta, including civil engineer Robert Pyke.

Secretary Laird also considers it a myth that the “37,000 pages” (there were more than 48,000 pages, actually) of environmental documentation on the Tunnels Project did not consider conveyance alternatives adequately. In fact, the environmental reports treated only 15 alternatives that were variations mainly on one theme—a Tunnels Project—and one alternative provided a through-Delta export corridor isolated from a migratory fish-freeway. The 2015 documents spent 8,000 pages strictly about just three alternative versions of California WaterFix. The actual 2013 description of how conveyance alternatives were winnowed down took up just 162 pages.

Missing from environmental documentation was a full evaluation of genuine alternatives reducing reliance on the Delta for future water needs, testing the performance of Delta flow criteria the Legislature had the State Water Board develop in 2010, or beefing up Delta levees to the Public Law 84-99 standard as called for in the 2011 Delta Economic Sustainability Plan.

A more confusing aspect of Secretary Laird’s remarks, and of California WaterFix messaging in general, is his (and others’) argument that the project would not increase water supplies, but would instead protect what Delta exports now occur, the goal being to “increase reliability” of these supplies. It’s an argument to “protect what we have,” so it sounds prudent and wise; a reliable water supply is like Mom and Apple Pie—it’s not something people should be against, should they?

When pealing back the thin skin of this argument, state and federal exports from the Delta possess two types of reliability. On one hand, there are contractual supplies when state and federal reservoirs fill; the projects make deliveries based on contract amounts. But in years when the reservoirs get low, contract supplies come up short as senior water right holders in the Central Valley get their water first. The state and federal water contractors then try to buy water transfers from the seniors north and south of the Delta.

If only contractual supplies were possible, the Tunnels would go unused or under-used in drier years. This would be a very inefficient way to treat a very expensive piece of engineered infrastructure, if it got built.

Water market transfers overcome that inefficiency, in theory. California WaterFix proponents know this, but they also know that water transfers are unpopular north of the Delta, especially when they bring water from north of the Delta to the south. The Tunnels project would help transfers occur more frequently across the Delta. Such transfers would enable the Tunnels to be used in drier years as well as wet, maximizing use of the tunnels and increasing overall water exports from the Delta.

Metropolitan Water District staff presentations to their governing board make the same case: the Met would get more water in dry years than at present. This sounds like an increase in supplies from the Tunnels to us. This purpose of the Tunnels project was omitted not only from Secretary Laird’s remarks, but from the purpose and need for the project in the recent environmental reports.

Secretary Laird protests that it is a myth that the Delta would become saltier under California WaterFix. We disagree, and so do the Tunnels project’s environmental reports, whose modeling results show that when fresher Sacramento River water is removed by Tunnels diversions, tidal salt water and salty San Joaquin River water will fill the channels in its place. In the northern, central and western Delta, water in the channels becomes saltier, as shown by California WaterFix’s own documents.

Don’t just take Restore the Delta’s word for it. Contra Costa Water District’s (CCWD) prime motive for negotiating its recent settlement with DWR about the Tunnels Project was the likelihood that salinity levels at its Mallard Slough, Old River, and Middle River diversion points would be too costly to treat for its customers when the Tunnels operated in the north Delta. DWR gave CCWD direct access to Sacramento River water from the Tunnels in the settlement when Tunnels operations cause salinity impacts.

CCWD’s settlement is a clear indictment of the fouling water quality impacts of the Tunnels Project on the Delta, which Secretary Laird omits from his remarks. Only the water quality of supplies exported from the Delta via the Tunnels and the south Delta pumps would improve.

Secretary Laird also states near his conclusion that “you’re dealing with reverse flows in the Delta and trying to eliminate them.” It is myth-information that California WaterFix would eliminate reverse flows from the Delta. Currently most reverse flows occur along Old and Middle River heading toward Banks and Jones pumping plants in the south Delta. The Tunnels project would reduce reverse flows in these channels, but would increase frequency of reverse flows along the Sacramento River and likely other sloughs and channels in the north Delta. The Tunnels will redistribute and not eliminate reverse flows from the Delta.

East Bay Municipal Utilities District protested last January to the State Water Resources Control Board that reverse flows will increase from Tunnels operations along the Sacramento River near its joint Freeport diversion with Sacramento County Water Agency. (The northernmost Tunnels diversion point is planned near Clarksburg a few miles downstream.) Secretary Laird omits this problem from his remarks.

Of course, the biggest omissions from Secretary Laird’s remarks are the cost and financing of the Tunnels Project. Major infrastructure projects in California often exceed their budgets. The east span of the Bay Bridge is a recent noteworthy example. At $16 billion, the Tunnels is already expensive before adding in bond interest and cost overruns. After ten years in the works, and four since its tunnels incarnation, the state has yet to complete a full cost benefit analysis, or produce a finance plan showing how each water contractor will contribute their share of project costs. This omission does not sit well with tax payers, or water rate payers in the urban districts throughout California that are expected to pay for the majority of the project.

As I mentioned the “truthiness” of Secretary Laird’s remarks stems not just from facts he omitted, but from his use of straw men and exaggeration. There are four of these.

“Doing nothing is not an option [because of population growth and climate change].…” No one seriously advocates that the state should do nothing about water problems Californians face, certainly not Restore the Delta. Secretary Laird posits a straw man here.  Once Californians got the drought message two years ago, they made great strides conserving water relative to 2013 usage. Neither California’s high tech nor agricultural economies faced significant threats from drought or conservation, save for mainly localized impacts; both continued to grow economically during the drought to date.  Two weeks after Secretary Laird’s remarks, Governor Brown has rightly made interim water conservation goals and strategies since 2014 permanent in California. That too is certainly not doing nothing, and Restore the Delta is glad of the governor’s action in this regard.

“All the water pumped from the Delta or its tributaries goes to southern California cities and the San Joaquin Valley farmers…[when] it also supplies the entire San Francisco Bay Area and a few of the coastal areas.” Here Secretary Laird exaggerates. Delta imports by Bay Area and coastal cities typically represent only a small share of total state and federal Delta exports each year, while Marin and Sonoma counties receive no Delta imports.  It is the Bay Area’s wealthy tax and ratepayer bases that are relevant to the Tunnels Project, something to which Restore the Delta pays attention. We have thousands of members each throughout Silicon Valley, Livermore Valley, and southern California. We organize and educate them about what regional water agencies like Zone 7, Santa Clara Valley Water District, and Metropolitan Water District are doing on the Tunnels Project and other matters.

“We can do without Delta deliveries….” No one advocates this position, period. It is a straw man. Instead, the Environmental Water Caucus, Restore the Delta and other friends and colleagues argue in the Sustainable Water Plan for California that California could get by with less Delta exports—as state water policy calls for. This plan (which like the state’s current water action plan is also an “all of the above” approach) contends that investments in regional self-sufficiency could create more than enough new water to make up for export reductions. Simultaneously, more through-Delta flows would help revive native Delta ecosystems and critical habitat with minimal statewide economic impacts.

“The Delta isn’t at a risk of some disaster or some disastrous consequence—it genuinely is….” Another straw man. Again, no one advocates this, least of all Delta residents, farmers, and public officials. We live with flood risk every winter and spring until the last spring snowmelt has passed. We know full well California and the Bay Area are earthquake country. We also know that vigilant maintenance and strategic investments to bolster our levees have and will continue to help Delta islands and the Delta economy, protect the state’s interest in moving stored water from the northern reservoirs to the south Delta export pumps, and resist rising tides from climate change.

Restore the Delta’s members could fan out to place these straw men in Delta corn and wheat fields, our vineyards and orchards, our processing tomato fields, and our schoolyards, our towns, and our backyards to ward off Delta ravens and crows.

Trouble is, our ravens and crows would pay them no mind, as should the rest of California.

Tim Stroshane is Restore the Delta’s policy analyst.

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