Diving into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (warning, water politics neepery)

One of the things I’ve been doing the last few weeks instead of important things like posting selfies or writing for this blog is trying to understand the implications of the drought on California. Researching the wildlife refuges for my refuge project just as the drought was really hitting its stride this winter brought the water issue to the center of my attention, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on how the drought is going to affect us (as residents of Silicon Valley and California), and about the birds I’m studying and photographing.

That has dropped me knee deep into California water politics without a pair of hip waders. At the center of these politics is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is politics-speak for a pair of tunnels to be dug under the delta to transfer water from north of the delta (where it is) to south of the delta (where it’s needed). Back in the 1980’s there was a plan called the Peripheral Canal to do something similar at ground level that was quite controversial and eventually rejected.

Water is a major issue in the state. Want to start a fight between northern and southern california? mention water. The northern half of the state looks at what southern california did to the Owens Valley and says “over my dead body”. The southern half of the state looks at the water and mutters “damn hippies….”. The farmers don’t care what happens to anything else as long as they get their water. The people who depend on the fishing industries that depend on the delta fish populations look at the farmers and think “chum….”.

It’s an incredibly complicated problem. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been digging into it, especially with the tunnel plan. I wanted to get a sense of how all of this was going to affect the birds and refuges, and whether the tunnel project was necessary, and if it was possible, and if it was a good idea.

I’m still not entirely sure. My sense of things right now are that (a) we’re screwed no matter what, (b) the tunnel project is incredibly complex and I’m unconvinced the state can build it successfully, and (c) if they can build it, it might well be a good thing — but I have caveats to that.

Want to dive in?

If you want to start dive into this yourself, you can start at the Bay Delta Conservation Plan project web site. The current draft plan and environmental impact reports tally well over 300 pages. 300 dense, geeky, stultifying pages.

Fortunately, there are others who are digging into this as well and sharing their info. The best source I’ve found to find out about all of this is Maven’s Notebook, so if you want a starting point for investigating this, here’s where to start.

Also, realize that the delta area isn’t the only place with water politics; the colorado river is another hotbed of distribution woes and challenges, and the problems there are a big issue with the ongoing problems of the Salton Sea. A good overview of this region and its water challenges was written up by National Geographic. A third location where there are issues is Lake Tahoe, and this week we heard our first politician publicly suggest that we should just pump water from the lake to cover the drought for the farmers. Expect that fight to continue in the future.

If the idea of reading 300+ pages of plan docs and EIR notes makes you want to poke your eyes out with an icepick, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, there are others doing that for us and publishing their results. The best one I’ve found so far is a formal review by the San Diego County Water Authority. As one of the customers for state water (and at the far/wrong end of all of the supply chains for water in the state they have a big stake in this and making sure it all works successfully. They also are one of the few actively building desalination capacity and are actively working on conservation and re-use projects, so they seem to be the group of experts who have their act together the best. They seem to be a good team to listen to about the problems and opportunities.

 My take on all of this

Enough deep background. That there’s that much will give you a sense just how big and complicated this issue is. I am not a water technology geek, nor will I play one on TV. Having said that, I’ve come out of the last couple of weeks of digging with some observations and talking points that I hope will help you at least start to understand some of the issues we and the state need to grapple with here. My opinions are subject to change — and likely to — as I continue to dig into this. Which I will, because, god help me, I’m finding this all quite fascinating.

There are some details and issues that I’ve found that I think aren’t getting much play in the rather superficial discussions being done on this project by the media. I’m shocked that the media isn’t covering this well. Shocked, I tell you.

  • The biggest thing being lost in most discussions is the timing of this project. The plan for the tunnel project is that it will take 15 years to plan and build it before the tunnels go online. 15 years, not from today, but from the day the plan is approved and funded.
  • That 15 year timeframe does not take into consideration legal challenges. There are going to be many lawsuits over this project that will slow down the approval process and delay the start of the project.
  • Assuming we get the normal delays in funding (it needs to be voted on, which implies 2016 at the earliest) and the usual rounds of legal delays and court challenges, if this thing breaks ground by 2020 I’ll be amazed. If it ever breaks ground. And there’s still 15 years from that date before water will flow.

This means, bluntly, that not only can the tunnel project not solve the drought we’re in, it’s unlikely to solve the next one either. Any attempt to tie the project to the current drought to get you to approve it is a lie. The tunnel project has to be considered as a project to solve problems for our children, or maybe their children.

Which raises the question: shouldn’t we be putting this time and energy and funding into shorter term projects that would have results sooner, even if they are smaller in scale? Should we be pushing harder into solar-powered desalinisation? More recycle/reuse? Funding better and more efficient irrigation techniques? (read the Salton Sea piece for some background on that).

A couple of weeks ago I was able to sit down with some people from various organizations including Audubon and the Nature Conservancy and one of the topics was water use in central coast california. A lot of new acreage has been put into wine grapes down there. It’s a major cash crop in the state. Many of the newer vineyards, though, have come online by drilling a deep well and using very inefficient irrigation techniques for the vines. As a result, water pulls out of the aquifer have grown massively, and the water table has dropped enough that shallow wells are now going dry. The area has put a moratorium on new wells while they figure this all out, but many homesteads with older shallow wells are screwed. It looks pretty clear that they didn’t try to get a handle on the problem until well after the amount of water being drawn from the aquifer is beyond the recharge capacity — so doing nothing continues the growing disaster.

Do we build the tunnel? Or do we fund things like helping these regional water authorities create standards for irrigation efficiency, and even subsidize farmers costs for installing these improved technologies?

To me, the tunnel project seems more and more a boondoggle. We’re looking at the state that gave us the new Bay Bridge (with broken bolts and leaks) and the Bullet Train project (which simple looks like a planning disaster waiting to be taken out behind the barn) now asking us to trust them to build an even more complicated and difficult project and assume they can. It’s hard for me to accept that.

Other notes from the San Diego evaluation

The San Diego water authority made some really interesting observations in their review:

  • They made it very clear the plan as it’s currently laid out has a lot of unknowns and assumptions and they don’t believe the current budget takes that into consideration. What this means: the cost is going to go up, probably by a lot.
  • They note that the plan assumes there may be as many as ten or 11 boring machines digging simultaneously, and it’s unclear if there are that many machines and dig teams available globally. This puts into question the timeframe planning, because if they have to stage some of the digs due to lack of available crews, that’ll lengthen the project time (and raise costs).
  • Nobody’s figured out how to manage the tailings from the dig, where to place them and how to transport them. There’s a massive amount of muck that’s going to be taken out of the ground that has to go somewhere. Some of it may well be contaminated.
  • Many engineering studies haven’t been done on the dig locations: they don’t know what’s down there that they’re going to dig through. A number of property owners have refused to cooperate on test bores and they’re relying on bores taken “close to” the tunnel locations, not the actual location. We only need to see some of the fun going on in Seattle right now to guess how this will go.
  • The plan on how to build intakes on the Sacramento River that won’t impact the protected fish species are still conceptual — in other words, the details of how to make them work are still being designed.

Impact on Nature

This tunnel project is really two tunnels side by side, each 44 feet in circumference. In reality, it’s five sets of tunnels, and where they meet will be a maintenance shaft and facility. One of those points is planned for Staten Island, which if you read this blog regularly you might know as a bird refuge area. it’s owned by Nature Conservancy and is used for farming in a way compatible with it’s primary purpose as winter habitat for geese and sandhill cranes. It’s a primary wintering spot for some specific populations of Aleutian Cackling Geese.

Needless to say, Nature Conservancy hasn’t approved this plan to turn a significant chunk of the island into a tunnel access point. That implies to me an impending fight over eminent domain acquisitions and lots of court squabbling, which means lawyers get rich and the project gets delayed. But assuming the project wins and does win access to the area, building this project implies digging end point pits for the digging machines, plus there need to be access roads and other infrastructure like water and electricity. The project area needs to be “de-watered” for the duration of the project, meaning it’ll get pumped dry. My estimate is at least half of the island would be turned into project space for the duration — 5-10 years? Afterward, the area is supposed to be mitigated back to preserve status, except for the permanent shaft access area, the access roads to the shaft, the electrical and other infrastructure needed to support the shaft… you get the idea.

In the meantime, the birds are supposed to go, where?

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The bottom line

So, yeah. my bottom line on all of this.

The tunnel project looks like a mega project that has taken on a life of its own. It’s scope is so big that once started it’s hard to stop. After all, we’ve invested so much in it already, it gets hard to decide not to push forward. That said, the scope of the project is immense, and the State of California hasn’t shown it can successfully build mega projects recently — look at the problems with the Bay Bridge and the Bullet Train. This project looks like the Bullet Train all over again: a good idea conceptually that in reality is expensive, high risk, low reward and probably unnecessary, and by the time we actually build it, the problem it’s due to solve is probably going to be solved (by necessity) in other ways, because if we wait for the tunnels to come online, the state is screwed big time.

The problem the tunnel is supposed to solve needs to be solved sooner than the tunnel is capable of. It’s better solved by putting funding and expertise into regionalized solutions, especially increased investment in desalinisation and recycling/reuse capabilities. We need to get more efficient at storing and transport. We probably need to increase our storage capacity with new and upgraded reservoirs. More important than all of that, though, is that there is a lot of possibility for reducing water usage in many regions, especially if we get serious about helping agriculture improve water usage efficiency in irrigation and perhaps in shifting to less water intense crops. Subsidizing agriculture’s adoption of better irrigation techniques seems to have a lot of potential.

The more I look at the tunnels, the less I like it. The basic concept is good, actually. The implementation scares the crap out of me. The opportunities for this project to scale in cost and time are massive. The risks are high, and there are way too many engineering unknowns at this point. And all to solve a problem that needs to be grappled today, when in fact, the tunnel project is a solution that won’t come online until kids being born now are in college. That, alone, should be enough to make us realize this is a boondoggle and we need to invest in other projects and solutions that may be smaller in scale, but have shorter-term returns on the investment.

To me, the tunnel project is a solution that’s lost track of the problem it was intended to solve.