[env-trinity] Water crisis has parallels with financial meltdown

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Sat Jan 31 10:16:34 PST 2009

Water crisis has parallels with financial meltdown
Contra Costa Times - 1/11/09
By Mike Taugher
To understand how California reached its current water crisis, one could look for an analogy in the financial meltdown.


In both cases, credit or water once flowed easily: Four of the five years of highest water deliveries from the Delta's two massive pumping plants were 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. 


In both cases, lax regulatory oversight was a factor in the collapse that followed: The state Department of Water Resources never obtained an endangered-species permit required under state law, and the two federal permits it and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operated under were invalidated by a judge who found them ineffective and weak.


And in both cases, a bubble formed and burst: By 2007, record pumping levels had contributed to an ecological collapse that in turn led to a court order to slow the pumps.


Although the causes for the collapse of Delta smelt, salmon and other fish species are complex and hotly debated, the fact is that state water managers, given a loose rein by regulators, cranked up pumps in recent years and the fish species that were supposed to be protected - especially Delta smelt - collapsed. 


By the time courts stepped in, drastic measures were in order. 


Water agencies, under a microscope and facing the threat of further cutbacks and shortages, point to other causes for the Delta's demise. They argue that the collapse is not their fault, or at least not entirely their fault.


They may be partly right. Scientists are investigating the possibility that ammonia discharged from Sacramento's sewer treatment plant might be contributing to the problems, for example, and no one disputes the role invasive clams, plants and fish are having on the delicate ecological balance in the Delta, the West Coast's largest natural estuary. 


But the biological analysis that accompanied federal regulators' latest permit, issued last month under court order, concluded that pumping operations lie close to the root of the Delta's problems and the near extinction of Delta smelt.


It emphasized that the pumps not only kill fish directly, they also have a dramatic effect on the Delta's flow of water - the hydrodynamics. And that influences everything.


So, while pollution, introduced species, habitat quality, food availability and other "stressors" are contributing to the Delta's environmental meltdown, "the extent to which these factors adversely affect Delta smelt is related to hydrodynamic conditions in the Delta, which in turn are controlled to a large extent by (state and federal water project) operations," the analysis concluded.


In other words, the other factors that water agencies point to as overlooked contributors to the Delta's demise are, in fact, made worse by agency operations.

The permit has alarmed water agencies because it will cut water deliveries to farms and cities throughout the state below the record levels of recent years. And it comes after two dry years, depleted reservoirs and concern that 2009 could be a third consecutive year without much rain or snow.


Water agencies are also concerned that further restrictions in the coming months might further crimp the water supply. A second permit, to protect salmon and steelhead, is due in March and another Delta fish, longfin smelt, is being considered for listing under state and federal endangered species laws.


As with the financial meltdown, the bursting of a bubble - whether in house prices or water deliveries - is causing pain.


Southern California cities have become more dependent on the Delta as the region's Colorado River supplies were cut due to drought and a 2003 agreement to adhere to the limits set in a 1922 compact with other states.


Meanwhile, major new reservoirs such as the Kern Water Bank near Bakersfield and Diamond Valley lake in Riverside County, which were largely filled with Delta water in the recent boom years, are being drawn down rapidly. 


A recent study by a Berkeley consulting firm pegged the cost of restrictions at more than $500 million a year, a cost that could soar to $3 billion in a prolonged drought. Most of that would be felt in Southern California, where water rates could rise and residents see an increased likelihood of water rationing, the study said.

Rationing is possible as early as this summer, depending on the weather, of course. And water agencies are supporting costly fixes that would run into the billions, despite the more than $4 billion spent since 2000 for a plan now largely seen as mostly failed.


How bad is it?


We're looking at what could be "a water supply and delivery crisis the likes of which Californians have not seen in decades," said the state's top water official, Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow.


He might be right.#


Tough choices on Delta await state officials
Contra Costa Times - 1/12/09
By Mike Taugher

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?#




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