Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.


Jeff Michael says:

Assume that they are right about the 700,000 acre feet of additional water supply. What would it cost? The state puts tunnels debt service at $1.2 billion per year over 40 years. Divide that debt service by 700k acre feet, and you get over $1,700 per acre foot.

Can that possibly make sense for farmers that currently pay less than $100 per acre foot and complain bitterly in dry years when they pay $300 per acre foot for supplemental supplies?

A typical crop takes 3 feet of water, a little above $5,000 per acre at $1,700 per acre foot. Average gross revenue per irrigated acre for Fresno County farmland is a little under $4,000 per acre, and typical net profit is 20-40% of revenue, $1,500 net profit per acre is excellent. At BDCP water prices, farming in Fresno is unprofitable, it isn’t even close. This math will be hidden, because BDCP will spread the cost over all the exported water, not just the incremental supply. So farming on average might still be profitable with BDCP, but it will be significantly less profitable than it is under the current system. Farmers are much better off dealing with the problems with the current system. While the water is not as reliable as they would like, it is cheap. Devin Nunes is right that BDCP is a terrible deal for Valley ag. The benefits are low, and the costs are extreme. And if you consider the losses to Delta agriculture from BDCP, which is also part of Valley agriculture, it really makes no sense for California farming.

This financial reality is why more and more Valley farmers have soured on the BDCP despite their instinct to support water infrastructure.

The best way to increase agricultural water supplies in the Valley is for urban areas to develop alternative water supplies that increase the state’s water supply. This will reduce their demand for imported water and free up supplies for agriculture.

Mark Grossi says:

Thank you, Jeff. For those who don’t follow this issue closely, Jeffrey Michael is an economist and director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of Pacific.

JO says:

Mr. Grossi,
Would it be possible for the Bee to do a series on what these alternative water supplies may entail? Alternative water supplies may mean different things to different people. When I hear alternative water supplies I think water reclamation, surface storage, water banks, water conservation. Perhaps it would be an opportune time for such a series.

Deirdre Des Jardins says:

It also may be a bit of misdirection to imply that South of Delta Ag contractors would see an extra 700,000 af of water.

I believe the figure of 700,000 extra acre feet would be the maximum possible extra exports for both the CVP and SWP. The Bureau of Reclamation would get about half of any increased water exports, and possibly less during an extended drought, where the state’s priority would be to supply urban users in Southern California. So there would be at most 350,000 af for all CVP uses, and likely significantly less once the State Water Board sets outflow requirements and looks at the over-allocation of the Sacramento River.

Santa Clara Valley Water District, the wildlife refuges, and the Exchange Contractors would be first in line for any additional water supplies. South of Delta Ag contractors would get what was left over, in exchange for high fixed costs per acre.

A water availability analysis, which is required by the Delta Reform Act, does not just protect the environment. It also protects the water districts and water contractors that would be investing in a huge, multi-billion dollar project.

Of particular importance are potential cutbacks in deliveries during droughts. As South of Delta contractors know, this hits them first.

Growers need to ask themselves, could I pay $100 an acre O&M costs this year? What about next year? What if there is another multi-year drought?

Robert Pyke says:

Mark, you should be thankful that your computer crashed when you tried to download the draft BDCP documents. In addition to the fact that the BDCP does not pencil out, as Jeff Michaels has noted, the other arguments for it do not hold water and the draft documents are just bafflegab. I’ll just note three points.

Although the BDCP has never conducted a proper comparison of alternatives, the current Appendix 9.A of the BDCP indicates that of the alternatives that they have studied, Alternate F, a modification of Russ Brown’s Delta Corridors Concept, has the highest benefit to cost ratio, not the twin tunnels alternative, but it is ruled out on a technicality.

The claim that restoration of the ecosystem is the linchpin of the BDCP is partly true – it is intended to win incidental take permits that will perhaps be more flexible than the current Biological Opinions, and would have allowed more pumping into the San Luis Reservoir this year. The problem is that winning those incidental take permits requires showing substantial improvement in the life expectancies of listed fish species and so far the BDCP consultants have not been able to do that. Rather they have been ridiculed by successive review panels.

The oft-repeated assertion that the twin tunnels are needed because the Delta levee system will dissolve or explode in an earthquake is a total red herring and indicates that its proponents either don’t have good arguments to support it, or don’t want to expose was their real arguments are (basically better water quality for the Metropolitan Water District.)

Well, I’ll allow myself a fourth point. This is not from the documents or in Mark Cowin’s presentation, but Jerry Meral is not the right person to direct an effort like this. Jerry is looking for a deal, not a solution. Your readers in the San Joaquin valley should be demanding real solutions, not just more wheeling and dealing.

Jan McCleery says:

Hi Mark – I agree with JO. It would be great to see a series on the alternatives. Many are being proposed. I particularly like what Dr. Jeff Michaels proposed in his blog including that desal in the south could replace the costly pumping of water up and over the Tehachapi Mountains.

There are a list of alternative plans proposed by various groups and people on the right side panel of under “BDCP Alternatives”. The goal should be regional self-sufficiency and include recycling, recharging ground water (re-operation and conjuctive use) and conservation. NOT continuing to take too much fresh water out of the Delta.

For the Delta, simply cutting back to the 1990’s level of exporting and improving the fish screening/structure of Clifton Court Forebay would solve 99 percent of the problem. The growth in water needs in the 90’s to now have been primarily due to agriculture expansion – more almond acreage in the desert to export to Asia and the rest of the world. Plus 4% due to LA’s loss of some Colorado River water. But most due to Central Valley westside/near I-5 expansion and too much cotton. If the revenue from exporting almonds and cotton is so important to the state, other sources of water are needed. We can’t afford to so negatively impact communities, economies, farming, recreation and fishing in the north and commercial salmon fishing off the entire coast of California and Oregon.

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