[env-trinity] High Country News August 22, 2005
bwl3 at comcast.net
Thu Sep 1 15:30:47 PDT 2005
Actually, the Bureau is contracting to deliver 1.5 million acre feet of more
developed water than exists, and controlled by it, rather than the 1
million mentioned in the article.
High Country News Vol. 37 No. 15 | August 22, 2005
Super-sized dam could be a cash register for California farmers
by Hilary Watts
New federal contracts give water districts more than they need
At a time when some dam engineers are biting the environmental bullet and
tearing down the concrete that once defined their existence, the Bureau of
Reclamation is trying to figure out how to make the largest dam in
California even bigger.
The Bureau is in the process of renewing its 25-year contracts with the more
than 200 water districts that receive water from the 20 dams and reservoirs
that make up the Central Valley Project, or CVP.
The Bureau has been able to make full deliveries to the districts in only 13
of the last 17 years. But late last year, Reclamation Chief John Keys
pledged to deliver full quantities to water districts under the new
contracts. At the same time, the Bureau has promised to meet growing urban
water demands and restore the San Francisco Bay Delta under the CALFED
program (HCN, 9/30/02: Delta Blues).
Doing all this will require expanding dams or developing other water
projects, all at taxpayer expense. Ironically, this could give water
districts more water than they can actually use, at incredibly cheap prices:
$15 for an acre-foot, or 325,851 gallons. Cities can pay between eight and
33 times that.
Although most irrigation districts say they just want to make their supplies
more reliable, some critics claim that the districts will be able to market
their extra water to thirsty cities. The watchdog organization Environmental
Working Group speculates in a March report that the new contracts "will set
up the districts to reap windfall profits by reselling water at much higher
More water than land
Essentially, Reclamation has committed to delivering about 1 million more
acre-feet of water than is available in the Central Valley Project today. To
capture that water, the agency is considering an array of possibilities:
enlarging either Shasta Dam near Redding, Los Vaqueros Dam in the San
Francisco Bay area, or Friant Dam near Fresno; or building a brand-new dam
northwest of Yuba City. The Bureau is also contemplating storing water on
islands in the Bay Delta or in underground aquifers.
The most likely option, because of its comparatively cheap cost, is raising
Shasta Dam. Currently, the reservoir can hold more than 4.5 million
acre-feet of water. Adding another 6.5 to 18.5 feet to the dam will increase
its storage capacity by 6 percent to 14 percent. The environmental impact
statement on the dam-raising should be finished by 2007.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of a taller Shasta Dam will be Westlands
Water District, arguably the largest agricultural district in the United
States. With more than 600,000 acres and nearly 600 farms, Westlands
receives 14 percent of the water in the CVP.
But to cope with dwindling supplies in dry years, Westlands, like many water
districts, has fallowed land and lined ditches with concrete. Farmers in
Westlands have already taken 11 percent of their land out of production, and
the Bureau of Reclamation is now considering fallowing another 39 percent
because it is contaminated with selenium (HCN, 4/14/03: Westlands farmers
Nonetheless, Westlands' new contract will guarantee it the same amount of
water it was promised 25 years ago. "That's the irony of all this," says Hal
Candee, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're
proposing to renew the contract at the full amount, while simultaneously the
same agency wants to take half the land out of production."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has long pushed to reform the CVP, has
raised concerns about the districts reselling their water. In a February
letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Miller asked whether the
government was essentially trying to "outsource the management of the CVP
water supply to current CVP contractors - who collect substantial personal
profits from sales."
Bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken says the view that water districts will sell
any excess water is "probably an illusion." He says, "No one is getting rich
selling CVP water."
Will water flow south?
The most likely customer for water is the Metropolitan Water District of
Southern California, which supplies water to 18 million people in Los
Angeles and San Diego. After California agreed in 2003 to end its overuse of
Colorado River water, the agency has been scouting out replacement supplies
within the state. Metropolitan has tried to lease Central Valley Project
water several times, though it has never actually completed a deal.
In 2002, Metropolitan signed a $125 per acre-foot deal with one CVP
customer, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District north of Sacramento. But the
agreement only allows Metropolitan to lease water from farmers whose rights
pre-date the water project - and only during drought years. Metropolitan is
still interested in pursuing actual CVP water.
"We'd consider any seller," says James Roberts, the chief deputy general
counsel for Metropolitan. One hurdle that has kept his agency from pursuing
CVP water more aggressively is the $50 to $60 per acre-foot fees the Bureau
would impose on such transfers. Those, he says, "would put that seller at
quite a disadvantage."
That's likely to change, however, as demand for water increases and the
market gets tighter during the next 25 years. Says Candee, "It's safe to say
that heavily subsidized CVP water is an extremely valuable asset for any
The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.
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