Just to follow up a little more, Jerry Meral made a comment that has attracted lots of attention, and some interesting thoughts from the UCD/PPIC group in a 4/29 tweeted re-post of a piece they had penned almost two years ago.
First, though - here’s what Meral is quoted as saying:
“BDCP is not about, and has never been about, saving the delta. The delta cannot be saved.”
The question of course is what exactly did he mean? The knowledgeable folks at UC Davis’s California Water Blog weighed in, and imply, perhaps, that Meral sort of misspoke. That what he meant to say was that it can’t be restored - not saved - and provide historical context to just how profoundly the Delta has been altered.
The UCD people know, and as I have brought up many times, the rhetoric about “restoring” the Delta that the UCD folks focus on is just that, a messaging tactic of pro-Delta groups.
A statement in the UCD piece:
The hardest part of moving forward is deciding where we want to go. Do we want to continue to have a Delta that has the species and ecological characteristics of a lake in southern Arkansas? Or do we want to restore estuarine ecological functions to support struggling native species?
Fortunately, these are not either/or questions. Indeed, trying to have all parts of the Delta serve all divergent objectives for this region cannot succeed. Some parts of the Delta can be restored to seasonal floodplain habitat, favoring rearing and spawning for native species (especially salmon).
Actually, this does frame the questions more or less as either/or. Either it’s habitat-first, or it’s nothing, because we need to be better stewards of Nature. Natural heritage always is foregrounded.
I don’t think so, but do the UCD people think we could just walk away from the Delta, and it would get along just fine? Walk away, and the place will evolve on more or less on its own, with little taxpayer expense, into a number of local ecosystems? Yolo Bypass, a flood plain for salmon; a (yes!) southern Arkansas lake in the Central Delta’s new waterscape of lagoons and remnant levees; brackish water estuarine habitat at the X2 line? Boutique organic farms amidst the tunnel muck plateaus in what remains of the picturesque North Delta, etc.?
That is my admittedly harsh take on the UCD piece and its re-tweeting. It skillfully and with nuance gets to the heart of Mr. Meral’s position - the space of the Delta will become more a natural than cultural heritage resource. This is both good and politically necessary. Whether they intend it to or not, this position aligns nicely with Meral’s.
It also suggests that in its subregions “[s]uccessful reconciliation in the Delta will leave some areas quite similar to their current condition, while guiding major transformations in other parts of the Delta.” Guided by omission or commission will be the question.
Given the anti-environmental, anti-tax trends that we are seeing in political discourse today, I would be very surprised if a billion dollars of public funding is directed toward serious investments in so-called “natural heritage,” in Delta habitat mitigation and construction, let alone four or more billion.
It doesn’t take money to usher in “major transformations,” after all. Just ask Kevin Knauss, who is I would guess a Fox News watcher, who wrote an interesting comment to a piece in the 4/30 SacBee piece about the Meral controversy.
“Some people don’t want to face the reality that Meral is right, the Delta can’t be saved. It was constructed with no plan other than to make money. A tunnel nor canal will kill the Delta. The people have killed the Delta by over farming and not allocating enough money to maintain the levees. The only thing that will survive in the end are the fish, which is tearing the whole process apart in the first place.”
That’s pretty clear, and accurately reflects the mix of fact and myth that swirl around the Delta and CA water debates.
Then there’s this bit about Meral, from Wyatt Buchanan’s piece in the 4/29 Chronicle (h/t Jerry Cadagan):
“The man who’s shepherding Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build massive water delivery tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is making big waves.
Jerry Meral, deputy secretary at the California Natural Resources Agency, said the tunnel plan - known technically as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP - won’t ultimately help the delta.
“[The] [p]roblem is that the stated objective of the intensely debated plan is to meet the “co-equal” goals of restoring the vast inland estuary while using its water to irrigate California farmland and quench the thirst of millions. Without the restoration goal, the plan would look like an overt water-grab.”
Yes, it would.
With the pragmatic knowledge and objective view of a military engineer or surveyor, the UCD piece points to a future that privileges natural heritage over cultural heritage in the Delta. Some of the most picturesque and settled parts of the Delta will be irreversibly transformed and forever jealously guarded against the ravages of climate change. A new collection of secured “facilities” with all the character of a Bakersfield parking lot, protected by chain link enclosures, guards and sodium halide lighting systems - all to the good of sport fishermen and real estate speculators, big agriculture, and environmental and water lawyers.
slightly edited, 4/30
Here is the problem of shepherding Delta water policy management strategy, illustrated to describe a messy geography with a simple imperative.
Today’s question is Why, if the Delta cannot be saved, as Jerry Meral apparently pronounced, are we going through this charade about co-equal goals?
Because environmental advocacy’s votes are needed to sustain the BDCP coalition perhaps?
Any discussion about what to do with water in the Delta has extents and limits. Defining these extents and limits is colored by interest and is an exercise in messaging tactics. A good example of this, as economist Jeffrey Michael describes, is the BDCP’s argument for doing limited cost-benefit work. BDCP needs to keep the extents and limits narrow.
Michael’s, of course. is also a narrative of extents and limits, but his would cover more expansive cost-benefit analysis, and certainly include analysis of “fortress levee” alternative.
That idea might develop something like this:
Phase 1/ 2016-25: Build Sherman Island forebay and tunnels to Tracy pumps
Phase 2/ 2016-30: Build primary perimeter setback levees on adjacent islands
Phase 3/ 2025-50: Build secondary perimeter setback levees on next concentric layer lower Delta islands
It is pretty clear that the BDCP doesn’t want to include such an alternative, not because fortressing the Delta would be significantly less costly than the twin-tunnel or NRDC alternatives (which it would), but because the Delta would remain a strategically important political entity. The tunnels would effectively neuter the Delta as a political space, and shift a great deal of power to the southern half of the state. I am surprised that Mr Meral, by saying the Delta was beyond repair, would get out in front of this so amateurishly.
But let’s be clear about a few facts:
Fortressing the Delta would also be every bit as certain to improve the health of the Delta ecosystem as would the tunnel approach to co-equality.
A Fortress Delta would be no more vulnerable to a big earthquake than would a pair of tunnels buried in 150 feet of sand and clay.
Fortress levees would one day save lives in the Delta’s land and water when the inevitable flood comes, but would protect both from rising sea levels.
Fortressing infrastructure would intrinsically create habitat in the very form of its setback levee’s water-side benches, and create at least as many jobs as twin tunnelling.
So why was moving water through the Delta’s surface, once the CAL-FED “preferred alternative,” rejected? Do the reasons have to do with science and environmental outcomes?
Not if you believe that the tunnels are likely to spell doom for migrating fish, as National Marine Fisheries Service and C-Win’s Carolee Krieger contend:
In terms of direct fisheries threats, the agency noted that the twin tunnels may work in malign concert with climate change to drive the endangered Sacramento winter-run chinook salmon to extinction. More broadly, states the letter, the diversions enabled by the tunnels could reduce the Sacramento’s flow to the point that salmon and other fish would find migration impossible.
The agency also observed that claims of the project’s environmental benefits are overblown, particularly in regard to the proposed restoration of 65,000 acres of fisheries and wildlife habitat. The fisheries service said such an effort is unlikely to succeed because it will be difficult to acquire all the needed land. Indeed, the letter notes, the Department of Water Resources has not provided any specific feasibility analysis to identify just how this land will be obtained, and at what cost. Rather, Water Resources blithely bases related analyses on the assumption the restoration will be successful; there are no “bounding analyses” examining the effects of the twin tunnels if habitat restoration does not proceed as planned.
So, what would the tunnel option do that no other alternative can? Move water around the Delta with minimized local resistance, minimal political complication and exposure to pollutant contamination. Tunnels can even be sized to one day convey much more water than is now being publicly discussed!
Tunnels avert messy land takings in difficult locations - though we’ll see whether the reality of building tunnels actually takes less land than would have a peripheral canal or fortress leveeing. The land the tunnel needs to take is less valuable, and more controllable, given its ownership, than would have been all of that land parallel and near to I-5.
That is why I called the tunnels the path of least resistance over a year ago.
Earthquakes! Climate Change! Locusts! BDCP’s messaging tactic is to frame the argument about a complex problem in the simplest Shock Doctrine-esque way possible.
“An immense amount of science has gone into the (plan), but we know there will always be scientific uncertainty,” said Charlton Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The only thing for certain is that if we do nothing, things will get worse from a conservation point of view.”
This tactic of claiming light speed is actually not moving is a common rhetorical device. “Doing nothing” is not what happens in the Delta. Ask San Joaquin Valley farmers if “nothing” is being done to address conservation. Ask environmental groups who support the Endangered Species Act and CEQA. What any of those groups want is less of the doing nothing that restricts their access to water.
The question is, the BCDP material benefits accrue most evidently to which side in this recently crafted principle of “good enough” scientific assessment? It is much easier to argue that those benefits accrue much more to Big Water than they do to the three-inch bait fish or the Delta ecosystem’s health.
Marijke van Warmerdam, Weather Forecast, 2000
Why is it that “doing nothing” is what Big Conservation want to call the many things that are now being done?
I certainly agree that the many things being done now are not reversing the degrading health of the Delta’s ecosystem. It may be that that die was cast 150 years ago, when the Delta was profoundly and forever altered via land reclamation. That’s why it is so difficult for me to accept the Eco-libertarian argument of Delta advocates.
But to go from doing those things that aren’t working to building a $20-50 billion dollar infrastructure that the state knows the beneficiaries can’t pay for (and the beneficiaries know this, too) - to a let’s build it, and see if it helps, policy - that is not a very convincing conservation strategy,
it was pretty clear that, as a quote by a Delta advocate in the CCT article reminds us,
“The new plan is still consistent with the National Academy of Science’s 2012 judgment that the [environmental] effect analysis is just a rationale for building tunnels, Barrigan-Parrilla said.”
Many things could be done in the Delta would be more harmful from a conservation point of view than the current version of doing nothing. For example, it is possible that political change could move the X2 line further into the Delta. The fast-forward version of this would simply be abandoning the Delta’s reclaimed polders to the vagaries of shrinking state and federal budgets, burrowing animals, rising sea levels and king floods.
My guess is that both - X2 line incursions and abandonment of costly environmental restoration projects - will happen, but the former will be a minor footnote, and the latter the key and likely outcome of the BDCP process.
I have come to understand it this way:
What would you do if you were a state assembly member in 2020, grappling with tight budgets and the slow realization that the global economy had relocated the middle class to Bangalore? How would you choose between spending $4B on Delta environmental restoration projects, or paying off a massive debt incurred from a $50B pair of tunnels?
Leo and Marianne Verriet’s house, dry and flood season views
This is why I support thinking of the Delta not as the physical and ideological playpen of a risk-averse technocracy, but as the Netherlands. That place has been around for many hundreds of years. Why can’t smart development contribute to a economically self-sustaining, new kind of Delta that everyone seems to want?
Derived from some writing I’m working on:
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a contested territory at the center of California’s water infrastructure, is another subject that science has studied for decades with little tangible effect.
A 2010 National Academies’ commission concluded what was already obvious: The Delta’s ecosystem was in freefall. There was no easy fix. Their findings were quickly forgotten, and other rhetorical approaches began to surface.
“We decided to embrace scientific uncertainty regarding the facility’s operation, water flows, habitat restoration and the response of fish,” said Karla Nemeth, Bay-Delta Conservation Plan program manager for the plan at the California Natural Resources Agency, in July 2012.
Recognizing that science will not provide the answer might be reasonable. It also all but guaranteed unfounded, self-serving utterances like this one:
“If we had intakes in the northern Delta and a way to convey those supplies to the existing aqueducts, as proposed by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, we could have diverted more supplies without impacting fish species such as Delta smelt,” said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors (...and in his spare time, professor of biogeochemistry, oceanography, hydrology, geomorphology, resource economics, marine biology, ecology, fluid mechanics, civil engineering, microbiogeochemistry, sociology, environmental science, computer simulation modeling, biological engineering, and hydrogeology…)
Catch what Karla and Terry did there?
As John Fleck observed at his blog, a new rhetorical tack.
Where is the science that proves that Mr Erlewine’s statement is based on anything more than a set of assumptions?
There is none. For the BDCP, science is now uncertain. Self-serving, self-referential logic takes its place.
Major props to John Fleck, who directed me to Daniel Sarewitz and first wrote about the Erlewine take -
Carolee Krieger has an oped piece in today’s Fresno Bee that sums up the case for not spending tens of millions of dollars on an unproven selenium extraction facility and instead “retiring” westside ag land.
“Not only is this [land fallowing] the best approach; according to the U. S. Geological Survey, it’s the single effective solution. The agency has stated unequivocally that reducing irrigation is the only way to eliminate drainage problems on the westside.”
Soon, the obligatory response from advocates of SJV agriculture will appear, making their by now familiar two major points:
1/ The feds are obliged to “provide drainage services” to the westside’s toxic domain. From the westside’s point of view, this is just the government spending money doing what they said they would do decades ago.
2/ Taking productive farmland out of production will raise the cost of food families put on their dinner tables.
Both of these points may be objectively accurate, but that does not mean that they are morally valid.
Just yesterday, the Westlands Water District advised its constituents that they should plan for receiving 20% of the irrigation water they want. Blaming endangered fish, this advice went out with the caveat that this was how it was, but now how it should be. “This notice is not intended to suggest that a 20 percent allocation is either reasonable or acceptable,” Westlands officials said.
“We will never forget,” or something to that effect. We will unmake environmental protection laws to suit our purposes, said Mark Cowin:
“These ongoing crises will continue to reveal themselves until we fundamentally change the way we manage the delta,” Mark Cowin of the California Department of Water Resources told reporters during a media briefing last week.
Or until we fundamentally change the way we manage toxic farmland, Mark…
The question of course is Who will give up their water so that WWD can have more of it? Show of hands, please? Hmmm ... no one seems anxious to help WWD out. The fish haven’t been heard from. Yes, scarcity is another reason why land retirement makes good sense.
Another is that good form of libertarianism. One WWD farmer read the writing on the wall prospectively (every crisis is an opportunity, after all), and has shown initiative in the face of scarcity, has had his ag pack turn on him. This is unacceptable.
I recently interviewed a representative of this farmer. According to him, the farm was getting only 10% of the water it needed to farm everything. So, after crunching some numbers, he decided to change course, and spent years in the permitting process for a proposed photovoltaic farm development on just 20 acres of his several hundred.
Well, the proposal was effectively scuttled by a lawsuit based on a specious interpretation of the Williamson Act.
Sabotaged by no less an entity than the oligarchs at the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
I’d like to know where WWD’s Birmingham and CFWC’s Mike Wade stand on the idea of farm institutions eating their own.
Broadening the extent of the territory involved, and in that context, I want to ask a question:
Whose responsibility is it to clean up groundwater contaminated by dosing land with immense amounts of animal waste, pesticides and herbicides, all in the name of cheap tomatoes? The industries, called farming, that have done the dosing? The government? No one, since people “choose” to live in impoverished communities?
Would public opinion be more opinionated if the contaminated groundwater was in Marin County, with the prodigious amounts of digital animation at Skywalker Ranch being the offending culprit?
Would public opinion be more opinionated if the offending agricultural element was piles of cow manure at the edge of a pricey subdivision in Laguna?
“Providing drainage services” to the westside is just the tip of the iceberg. Carolee Krieder knows this.
The impacts of large scale industrial polluting masking as pastoral farming are somehow not on the radar screen of the body politic. Why is this persistent myth of a bygone idea of American life permitted such deference in the face of such obvious flaws?