[env-trinity] What IS the Peripheral Canal ?

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Sun Jan 18 08:06:18 PST 2009

There are a number of unanswered questions about the Peripheral Canal.  Some have asked me if I would support one and I ask them what is it?    There seem to be a number of perspectives on what the PC really is.  See article below and Barry Nelson's blog (NRDC) below for some clarification to confuse you more about WHAT IS THE PERIPHERAL CANAL?

There are also some issues of honesty regarding some who support a PC, according to the article below.

I personally would probably support a pipeline of very limited capacity solely for urban water use, if it were concurrent with SIGNIFICANT reductions in Delta (and Trinity) water exports.

For now, it's my understanding that the PC in DWR's plans and cost estimates consists of a big unlined dirt ditch that in some places, goes below sea level.  I don't see how that is going to increase reliability in the future world of earthquakes and rising sea levels.

Tom Stokely
V/FAX 530-926-9727
tstokely at att.net

Tough choices on Delta await state officials
By Mike Taugher
Contra Costa Times Staff Writer
Posted: 01/12/2009 07:53:08 PM PST
Pushing hard to build a new canal around the Delta, the Schwarzenegger administration rarely misses an opportunity to point out how rickety California's water system has become.
And in their zeal to get the expensive and controversial aqueduct built, they occasionally exaggerate.
For example, when federal regulators imposed new rules last month to protect endangered fish, the state's water agency announced, "Delta Water Exports Could Be Reduced By Up to 50 Percent Under New Federal Biological Opinion."
It was an alarmist and inflated claim. But state water officials know the more dire the situation appears, the more support they will get to divert billions of gallons of water around, instead of through, the Delta.
In fact, the water cuts are significant only when compared to the record-breaking pumping of recent years. Even then, the 50 percent figure represents a theoretical worst case, not a certainty or even a likelihood.
Still, no one can deny that California faces tough decisions in the coming months and years. The Delta, as a living estuary, has been pushed to the breaking point by an increase in water pumping and other stressors. And the demand for Delta water continues to grow - it is a growing state that has lost water supplies in the Colorado River to drought and interstate agreements.
2009 looks to be the year policymakers have to grapple with the Delta's central dilemma: How much water can be taken from it for the state's cities and farms and should the flow come through the Delta or go around it? And a related but rarely uttered question: How much environmental damage in the West Coast's largest estuary is acceptable?
For the governor and many water agencies, the answer is to build a canal around the Delta even though no one knows how it would be built or operated.
In general, a canal would provide cleaner water and it would eliminate the state's reliance on fragile levees to channel water to pumps near Tracy that kill millions of fish every year.
With the status quo clearly not working, the idea has at least qualified support from many of the state's water agencies, The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Fish and Game, and a panel of outside experts that have been working under the auspices of the Public Policy Institute of California.
The flip side is that the canal would reduce water flowing through the Delta, affecting threatened wildlife there, increasing the concentration of pollutants and possibly causing stagnation. Delta landowners fear that building the canal would evaporate state funding for maintaining Delta levees and islands.
Delta residents, Contra Costa County supervisors and others are lining up against it.
The issue is moving forward mostly in two plans.
One, known as Delta Vision, has been forwarded to Schwarzenegger. It includes a peripheral canal in a sweeping package of water supply and environmental initiatives that was put together by, among others, leading opponents of the original Peripheral Canal, which voters rejected in 1982.
Schwarzenegger's advisers have endorsed most of the package, but it is unclear how it would be implemented.
The other plan, known as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, is a narrower strategy still being negotiated among water users and regulators with strong guidance from the administration. It is meant to get regulatory approval for a canal.
Details - especially how big it would be and how it would be used - have yet to be defined, which hasn't stopped many from declaring they are for it or against it.
In effect, the battle lines are being drawn but no one knows what the fight is about.
Would anyone oppose the canal if it were made into a pipeline that was too small to substantially diminish Delta water flows?
What if a large, credibly regulated canal took small amounts of water in most years, but in high-water years took more to refill Southern California reservoirs?
Would water users support a small canal? Would they support a big one that was not used much?
Would such a tightly controlled big canal make economic sense? Could it be credibly regulated in a state where water interests have long had the power to get their own way? One of the biggest questions has hardly been addressed: How much water can the Delta lose without damaging it?
"The peripheral canal is the narcotic to keep you from thinking about the tough decisions that need to be made," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a leading voice in Congress on western water issues
The water supply available to a canal might not be as much as users hope.
Federal biologists are now requiring more water to flow through the Delta in wet years to protect Delta smelt habitat. That's water that could otherwise be moved south and stored.
Biologists could require that more water flow through the Delta, not the canal, to help the struggling salmon population.
Nevertheless, the Schwarzenegger administration appears convinced that the canal is the way to go and state officials have taken every opportunity to remind reporters and the general public about the need for a "comprehensive" fix.
Which goes back to that "50 percent" reduction.
That applies only to state, as opposed to federal, water contractors in dry years. And it assumes regulators crack down hard any time there's a judgment call to be made.
To be fair, the Department of Water Resources also gave reporters a more realistic number: a 17 percent reduction due to the federal biologists' ruling. That's what the agency says would be the most likely loss of water for state and federal water agencies in average years.
Even that figure is inflated. The state calculated it by assuming that without the new permit water agencies would pump more water than they ever have - 6.4 million acre-feet. Charts distributed by the agency showed contractors most likely would get about 5.3 million acre-feet in an average year.
That is still significantly less than the 6 million acre-feet taken from the Delta in recent years, but it is not a whole lot less than deliveries before 2000, the year that a new Delta water strategy was adopted and pumping increased sharply.
In effect, it turns out, the courts and court-ordered environmental protections so far have only modestly turned back the clock on Delta pumping. But more restrictions are possible.
Can a growing state accept those limits? Can it get around them with a canal and reservoirs? What further regulatory cutbacks might be ordered?
So many questions. Might they be answered this year?
Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or mtaugher at bayareanewsgroup.com.

A Tale of Two Peripheral Canals. Or is it Three?
  Barry Nelson
  Western Water Project Director, San Francisco 
  Blog | About
  Posted January 8, 2009 
On Tuesday, the Sacramento Bee reported that The Nature Conservancy has conditionally endorsed a Peripheral Canal. News about the canal always travels fast. It's one of the most controversial projects in the contentious history of California water. 

The canal is designed to divert water from the Sacramento River, just south of the state capital, and divert it around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the enormous state and federal water pumps on the Delta's southern edge.  A previous proposal for the canal was rejected by California voters in 1982.  Margins in Northern California, driven by fears of thirsty Central Valley and Southern California water users, reached historic levels.  For example, 97 percent of Marin County voters pulled the lever against the canal.  For the next 25 years, the canal was ignored.  It became a third rail of California water policy. 

So what's changed to revive this debate?  Two things.  First, our understanding of the risks facing the Delta has changed.  Second, the canal is now more mirage than reality - more a concept than a concrete proposal.  Let's take these changes one at a time.   

Since 1982, remarkably little analysis or critical thinking has been applied to the Peripheral Canal concept.  As we learned more about changes in the Delta, the estuary's environment, climate change, water quality, alternative water supplies and more, no one analyzed how a canal would perform.   Little thought was given regarding why one would want to build a canal in the first place. 

This changed in 2007, when the Public Policy Institute of California released an influential report called "Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta". That report built on work done by U.C. Davis professor Jeff Mount, which concluded that there is a 2/3 probability of a catastrophic failure of Delta levees by 2050.  These risks are increasing over time, driven by ongoing land subsidence, inadequate levee maintenance, increasing earthquake risk and ongoing sea level rise.  The failure of levees on a dozen Delta islands would be a sobering event for hundreds of thousands of Delta residents, for water users South of the Delta, and for the environment.  PPIC suggested that a canal could be needed, not to increase water diversions, but rather to decrease the risk of a long-term shut down in Delta pumping as a result of levee failures.  This effort helped shape the Delta Vision Task Force's work on a comprehensive Delta plan. 

Second, today, there is no single canal proposal.  In fact, there is a remarkable diversity of ideas about a canal.  On the one hand, PPIC suggested that a canal could help reduce the risks posed by earthquakes and sea level rise.  In its final Strategic Plan  the Delta Vision Task Force agreed in concept, and called for strong new protections for the estuary and a new governance entity to ensure that a canal would be operated in a responsible manner.  Neither PPIC nor Delta Vision anticipated that a canal would produce much, if any, new water supply.  In fact, both suggested that a reduction in diversions might be needed.  They envisioned a canal designed to increase reliability, not supply, with major new environmental protections.  This is the kind of canal the Nature Conservancy has in mind.

On the other hand, last April, the Department of Water Resources released its own preliminary analysis of a canal.  The project analyzed by DWR was very different from that envisioned by PPIC and Delta Vision.  It did not include new standards to protect the Delta.  In fact, it relied on weakening and violating existing environmental standards. It would, according to DWR, lead to a dramatic increase in pumping.  This version of the project would cause major impacts to the Delta environment, water quality and Delta agriculture.  It would drain upstream reservoirs, leaving little or no cold water to meet the needs of spawning salmon.   This Peripheral Canal could lead to extinctions and the permanent closure of California's salmon fishery. 

These very different versions of the Peripheral Canal are just the tip of the iceberg.  Some have proposed that the "canal" should actually be a pipeline. Others have advocated a thousand-foot wide unlined canal built below sea level on subsided Delta islands.  Still others have suggested an alignment on the West side of the Delta, with a massive tunnel under the Western Delta to deliver water to the pumps.  Some have argued for "dual conveyance" - pumping through both a new canal and the existing intakes in the southern Delta.  Others insist on "full isolation."  Yet another proposal calls for armoring levees and separating Delta channels.  Delta Vision has called for a new agency to regulate a canal.  That proposal, however, is opposed by water users south of the Delta. 

Finally, after years of study and negotiations, EBMUD is currently building a (much smaller) canal around the Delta - called the Freeport Project.  In this case, the hard work paid off.  As unlikely as it seems, no one sued to stop EBMUD's project. 

In short, today, the Peripheral Canal is in the eye of the beholder.  Different canal proposals would have dramatically different implications in terms of cost, yield, benefits and impacts.  Nearly every stakeholder group could find in this list a version of the canal to oppose.

Given this tremendous uncertainty, it's not a surprise that the debate about the "Peripheral Canal" is often unproductive.  Without specific projects and careful analysis, this debate is often founded in hunches, history and near-religious faith.  Moving this discussion in a more productive direction will require three things - all of which are clearly outlined in the Delta Vision Strategic Plan.

First, we need clarity regarding the purpose of a change in the Delta conveyance system.  A canal designed to increase reliability and help restore ecosystem health would look very different from one designed to increase diversions.  These different projects would have different costs, impacts and benefits.  Specifically, water users South of the Delta should abandon the outdated assumption that a canal would automatically result in more water pumped from the Delta.  And California must make a dramatic investment in the "virtual river" - consisting of conservation, water recycling, urban stormwater capture and groundwater management.  These tools can help California meet its future water needs without more diversions from damaged ecosystems like the Delta. 

Second, careful scientific analysis must address the unanswered questions regarding Delta conveyance identified by the Delta Vision Task Force.  The Task Force concluded that a meaningful, final decision on conveyance is not possible until we answer these tough questions.  How much water would be diverted?  How would the project affect the Delta environment, water quality and salmon runs?  How would the canal's massive fish screens - which would be the world's largest - perform?  What new environmental standards would be put in place?  Would those standards include new protections called for by Delta Vision?  How would the facility fit into a strategy to restore ecosystem health and protect Delta residents and infrastructure?   These answers matter, particularly for a facility that could cost $20 billion and take 20 years to build.  Water users, regulators, environmentalists, fishermen, the Delta community and others can't judge a canal accurately without answers to these questions.  The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan  process, which is currently studying a canal, has not yet indicated if or how it will address these unanswered questions or incorporate key Delta Vision recommendations.  

 Third, the legislature must reform the agencies that manage the Delta, as recommended by the Task Force, with particular attention to reforming the regulation of the state and federal water projects.  Those projects have, in recent years, been operated with little regard to the needs of the Delta environment or the requirements of state and federal law.  That's why a federal judge stepped in, as a result of a lawsuit brought by NRDC, ordering the projects to comply with the ESA.  In another lawsuit, a state judge has ruled that the projects are violating California's ESA.  There are other violations as well.  Governance reform is essential to reestablishing trust that any Delta facility would be operated responsibly. 

The Delta Vision Task Force's Strategic Plan includes a detailed framework in each of these three areas.  The Task Force, however, has no implementation authority.  It is now up to the Governor, the legislature, state and federal agencies, and stakeholders to determine if this promising plan will be implemented or if it will simply gather dust. 

No one defends the status quo in the Delta.  The current levees are inadequate.  Urban development in the Delta is putting more and more people at risk of flooding. The Delta ecosystem is crashing, in large part because of excessive water diversions.  That's the devil we know.  On the other hand, we know remarkably little about a Peripheral Canal. No one believes that a canal alone could solve all of the Delta's problems.  Most importantly, to date, no one has produced a detailed, credible proposal that meets the test laid out by the Delta Vision Task Force. 

The quickest road to failure in the Delta would be a premature fight over an ill-defined Peripheral Canal.  Such a debate would be more faith-based than fact-driven and would inevitably lead to gridlock.  We've been here before. 

The past several decades are littered with efforts that failed to resolve the issues in the Delta.  Our new understanding of the Delta, however, shows that the stakes are higher this time.  Extinction is permanent.  As is sea level rise.  And a massive levee failure event could unalterably change the Delta and threaten thousands of residents.  If the Delta Vision effort fails, we may not have another chance.  

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