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Tunnel Vision: This Water Plan Might Make a Splash in the Delta

February 20, 2019
by Glen Martin
Cartoon of Donald Trump, Ryan Zinke, and Jerry Brown Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta // Dept. of Water Resources; Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, Sec. of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Donald Trump // DonkeyHotey, Flickr

A long-debated water plan that could change the course—literally—of water in California, will be up for a vote by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) next month. Originally scheduled for November, the vote has been postponed until December 11, per California Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newson’s request. If it passes, the Bay Delta Plan could be a win for environmentalists; by restricting flows to farms and cities throughout California, the plan would redirect freshwater to the San Joaquin River, its tributaries, and the delta it shares with the Sacramento River.

An associated project, known as the California WaterFix, would have to meet the standards of the Bay Delta Plan and includes the construction of two massive delivery tunnels around the delta, the current source for much of the water transported to Southern California farms and cities. Advocates say the tunnels will safeguard the state’s water supplies, which are currently vulnerable to both natural catastrophe and overexploitation. Risks include failing levees, earthquakes, and salt water intrusion due to a combination of drought and rising sea level. Many environmentalists, however, also worry that the tunnels could prove to be an even more effective way of depriving the Delta of freshwater.

Does the Bay Delta Plan signal the end of the Water Wars, a mere armistice—or the launching point for new battles?

CALIFORNIA contributor Glen Martin spent nearly two decades covering the environment for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written extensively about water policy in the state. In advance of the upcoming vote, we asked him to run down the background and the specifics of the plan for readers. – The Editors

The way it was

To understand the Bay Delta Plan, it’s necessary to look at how the state’s rivers and estuaries functioned in a natural state.

Before Euro-American settlement, the interior of California was a vast connected watershed. Multiple streams drained from the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, joining with the San Joaquin River in the south and the Sacramento River in the north. These two great rivers met at their common delta adjacent to San Francisco Bay, creating the largest estuary on what is now the western continental United States. The Bay-Delta was a biological engine of immense productivity, supporting massive runs of salmon that migrated up both the Sacramento and San Joaquin systems, as well as myriad other fish, including two species of sturgeon, steelhead trout, and Delta smelt. The marshes teemed with hundreds of millions of waterfowl and provided prime habitat for tule elk and grizzlies.

Map of the bay area
Courtesy of the USGS

Today, the Central Valley and its associated watercourses are more like a massive plumbing scheme. Virtually every major river has been dammed, piped, tapped, and diverted. The San Joaquin River largely disappears for much of its course because of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. The Sacramento River still has robust flows, but much of its water is shunted from the Delta to Southern California cities and corporate farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The Delta’s biological richness was once directly dependent on generous freshwater flows, which merged with incoming saltwater from San Francisco Bay. This mixing created the expansive brackish “lens” required for any estuarine food web. If freshwater inflows to an estuary are cut, fish and wildlife decline—which is exactly what happened with the Bay-Delta.

While environmentalists decry the diversions and demand more freshwater for the estuary, farmers and many urban planners say that the benefits—a thriving agricultural sector and adequate water for Los Angeles and other south state cities—are sufficient justification for the current system.

A brief history of the Water Wars

For more than 30 years, water battles between agribusiness and conservationists have played out in the courts and the media. California’s cities also have weighed in, their alliances largely dictated by the source of their water supplies and the political leanings of their residents.

State and federal policies figure heavily in the conflict. Typically, more water has gone to agriculture during Republican administrations, while environment-friendly water-sharing agreements emerge when Democrats are in power.

But the conflict has never been definitively resolved. Water is California’s war without end, both sides unable to claim victory and constitutionally indisposed to surrender—or even compromise. At times there have been serious negotiations and even tentative agreements: a plan to restore some flows and wildlife habitat to the San Joaquin River, for example. But virtually all the deals either fell apart or were never fully implemented.

The Bay-Delta Plan: a Solomonic deal

Over the past several years a Brown administration proposal known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan has made stuttering progress toward implementation and an enforced peace.

Map of water tunnels neat Sacramento
Map of the proposed tunnels for the California Water Fix

No simple scheme, it would essentially use two gigantic tunnels to transport water from the Sacramento River around the Delta to south state farms and cities—dividing water among farms, cities, and the Delta and implementing significant restoration provisions for wildlife and fisheries habitat.

Advocates say the project will protect both fish and water supplies. Because both the state and federal projects take water directly from the Delta, a large levee-collapsing earthquake or any significant sea level rise could allow salt water from San Francisco Bay to engulf pump intakes, halting all water transport to the south. Opponents say the project would simply make it easier for farms and cities to grab the lion’s share of the water.

It’s the kind of Solomonic deal that thrills none of the parties involved, which may be its strongest selling point. When confronted with a wicked problem, the best possible solution may be the one that rewards—and punishes—everyone more or less equally.

The Bay Delta Plan took a significant hit over the summer when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke criticized it as unfair to farmers. And Zinke’s boss, President Donald Trump, tweeted that water designated for the Delta was “a waste” because it couldn’t be used to fight wildfires—an unorthodox perspective at best, given that there’s no practical way to transport the hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water that flow through the Delta every year.

A new ally for the farmers?

In any case, Zinke’s and Trump’s responses were somewhat predictable. What wasn’t expected was a subsequent declaration by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) opposing the Bay Delta Plan, positioning the agency on the side of Central Valley growers.

The move was based on simple pragmatism. San Francisco gets its water from Hetch Hetchy reservoir on the Tuolumne River, a major tributary of the San Joaquin River, which, as noted, shares its delta with the Sacramento River. Thus, any deal which could diminish flows to San Joaquin watershed users could theoretically cut supplies to San Francisco, along with multiple other water agencies the SFPUC serves.

Still, the announcement was decidedly un-San Franciscan. And it rankled San Francisco County Supervisors, who, in October, unanimously approved a resolution by Supervisor Aaron Peskin directing the SFPUC to oppose the Trump administration and stand in support of the Bay Delta Plan.

Photo of an above ground aquifer
Courtesy Department of Water Resources

That “mostly symbolic” resolution holds no real force, however; the SFPUC is largely independent and has made no indication of backtracking. Indeed, its alliance with Big Ag strengthens the hand of Bay Delta Plan opponents considerably. So, is the end of the Water Wars in sight? Will agribusiness, their conservative allies—and now, the SFPUC—send environmentalists and the Brown administration fleeing in a panicked rout?

Unlikely, says Peter Gleick, a Cal alum and the president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a water-oriented think tank.

“In California, water is a never-ending story with a constantly shifting set of actors and positions,” Gleick adds. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the endgame.”

Question the status quo

Gleick says the SFPUC’s position isn’t surprising, given their mandate: to deliver safe, reliable, and affordable water to their customers.

“I think you can make the argument that you could achieve [water access for SFPUC customers] even while reducing withdrawals from California’s rivers and addressing the devastating [environmental] impacts those withdrawals have had in the past,” Gleick says.

But it’s clear that things will have to be done differently to achieve those ends, says Gleick—such as aggressive conservation measures, aquifer recharge, storm water capture, wastewater recycling, and greater development of local sources.

“And that’s the heart of the fight,” says Gleick. “Doing things differently.”

Meanwhile, says Gleick, there’s no doubt that the Trump administration is attempting to deep-six increased water transfers to California’s fish and wildlife. “There’s intense pressure from the federal government to roll back environmental protections everywhere. We see it with deregulation, with the people who are appointed, with Trump’s elimination of science advisory boards. So it’s not surprising that [Trump] is trying to throw a monkey wrench into California’s water battles.”

What’s really going on?

Despite the drama playing out in the media, the utility commission’s latest shift may be more stalling tactic than long-term strategy—at least according to Sally Thompson, a Berkeley associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, who sees the SFPUC’s position as an indirect request for additional time rather than an attempt to kill the Bay Delta Plan outright.

“There’s a lot of momentum for Bay-Delta ecosystem restoration, and I don’t see this ‘coalition’ of farmers and the SFPUC being able to overturn that,” Thompson says. “It could, however, delay the process. That may not be good for the Bay-Delta in the short-to-mid-term, but it may reflect some basic realities of water infrastructure. We had 150 years of development predicated on diverting water to the south state. It’s hard to see how we could change things fast.”

Underwater photo of fish in the delta
Delta fish // Courtesy Department of Water Resources

The low-hanging fruit for water savings in San Francisco is efficiency, she says, something the city already pursues through mandated low-flush toilets and irrigation with recycled wastewater in some city parks. While even greater efficiency could be achieved with implementation of storm water capture and stringent water conservation codes for all new buildings, it could take years.

So, what happens if Bay-Delta restoration begins moving forward at a rapid clip, and deliveries of Tuolumne water to the SFPUC are abruptly reduced?

“The de facto result of significant water cuts to the SFPUC [from implementation of the Bay Delta Plan] could be a hard landing, but not necessarily for San Francisco,” says Thompson. “The agency [also] transfers water to [27 suburban water agencies in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties], and I think that’s where you’d see the reductions.”

Efforts in sustainability

Opinions are converging on practical approaches to sustainable water use in California, says Ted Grantham, an adjunct professor at Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Land fallowing, most notably, may be necessary in the western San Joaquin Valley, says Grantham. There, hundreds of thousands of acres of land are currently being irrigated from both the government delivery projects and local aquifers, straining the state’s limited water resources and flushing toxic selenium from the soil into the San Joaquin River—and ultimately the Bay-Delta. Fallowing would both save water and stop selenium pollution.

KISS: Keep It Scientific, Stupid

Meanwhile, Trump administration efforts to muddy California’s water issues remain problematic simply because they undermine the basic scientific process.

“California has a long tradition of employing science to make and support informed policy,” says Roger Bales, adjunct professor civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley. “Unfortunately, the pronouncements coming out of Washington are motivated by politics, not science…We need to base our decisions on science, not the next election cycle. And I think California’s elected and agency leaders understand that, and won’t be swayed [by Trump]. ”

Further tweaking of the plan is assured even as it moves toward adoption. Earlier this month, the State Water Resources Control Board granted a request from Brown and Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom for a 34-day period to negotiate voluntary settlements with San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts. Irrigators hailed the delay, and the SFPUC gave its tacit approval—which piqued the suspicions of environmentalists, who fretted that ‘voluntary agreements’ could only result in less water for the Delta.

In the final analysis, it seems likely the State Water Board will adopt the Bay Delta Plan in December. The final flow requirements for the Tuolumne and other rivers, however, are not confirmed. Nor is it certain that Gavin Newsom will push the Delta Tunnels forward; the governor-elect has issued tepid statements of support for the plan in the past while indicating he wants to cut project costs.

All of this is happening as California moves deeper into an epoch of accelerating climate change, a trend that will likely make our semi-arid state even drier and diminish already limited water supplies. If fully implemented, the Bay Delta Plan will almost surely prove “better” than the status quo. It’s unlikely, however, to give the fish, farms, and cities of the future all the water they need.

**CORRECTION: This article erroneously stated that the Bay Delta Plan is part of the California WaterFix, a Brown administration effort to construct two large water conveyance tunnels around the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. The two programs are separate. The California WaterFix is supported by the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bay Delta Plan establishes water quality standards and protections through the authority of the State Water Resources Control Board. However, the conveyance tunnels proposed under the California WaterFix would have to meet standards established by any final Bay Delta Plan adopted by the Water Resources Board.

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