Scope + Environment + Economy = Sustainability
Emily Green has written a thoughtful, carefully supportive piece about the environmental rationale for the tunnel plan. I am moved to comment, but due to my respect for the author, reserve the right to amend my comments.
The case, and it does feel like a case, made in the Green article is a better-written version of one familiar to those who have followed recent California water announcements. It is useful and persuasive that the article takes the time to lay out a recent (c.1950-2010) history about the environmental implications of massive pumping out of the Delta.
Green’s line of discussion is similar to what is in my opinion the more persuasive of the arguments (another being about growth and the California myth of abundance) made by Gov. Brown in recent months: Diverting export water from the Sacramento River as soon as it enters the Delta will eliminate or limit the confusion of migrating fish who, inconveniently for farming, seasonally head “downstream” to the Tracy pumps, where they are decimated, instead of out to sea, where they are fruitful and prepare to multiply.
Intuitively at least, this premise seems to make sense, and is certainly politically effective. Green writes, “whether Brown has converted environmentalists or merely disarmed them remains unclear.” That is an interesting thought, as is this one, when Green writes that environmental advocates “better understand the cost of inaction,” but doesn’t explain what that cost might be. One could ask Why, but let’s stick to What are environmental advocates being singled out as needing to understand?
So this is where I have some criticism of Green’s piece. Perhaps due to limits to the length of the piece, Green does not get into questions of the scope of the water geography to be implicated. I think she missed an opportunity to describe some of the issues she thinks environmental advocates need to understand, which to dig in heels on and which to kick down the road. I would have carefully reflected on her thoughts in this matter.
I have no way of knowing whether it is the following issues or others to which Green refers, and she knows as well as anyone that these are not easily resolved matters:
Groundwater pumping regulation. As Green’s own excellent research and writing on the Cadiz groundwater pumping project portend, the unregulated pumping of groundwater in California is an environmental disaster in waiting.
It may be a different disaster in the Mojave than it would be in the San Joaquin Valley, but where will farmers there go, except back to the Delta, looking for more relatively cheap water for their farms and urban trading partners once the supply of cheap groundwater has been sucked dry?
Tunnel capacity upgrades. Should there be any, and if so, what assurances are there that the Sacramento River pumping facility will not be developed from 9,000 to 15,000 cubic feet per second capacity once the state arrives at the inevitable moment when the SJV and downstate urban water contractors start clamoring for more water?
What assurances are there to support the occasional statement that no additional water supply, only supply reliability, will be assured as part of the tunnel project? If environmental advocates are asked to understand that they may not get everything they want in a short time frame, shouldn’t contractors like Westlands, who threaten to pull out, be held to the same standard?
Commodified water. Water is an increasingly expensive commodity that will be traded to great profit by (I will go out on a limb and presume) increasing numbers of SJV landowners. We know that the relatively sparsely populated agricultural regions of California use 75% of developed water in the state. The other 25% of developed water serves something like 25 million people in the cities and suburbs.
So, back to scope: Are the state’s political leaders willing to discuss whether there any real policy limits to the ability of development interests in Southern California and the Bay Area (let’s not forget them, Northern Californians!) to buy increasing amounts of water from ostensibly agricultural land owners to feed their alchemical water turning to gold strategies in Antelope and Silicon Valley?
Infrastructure’s $25 to 50 billion price tag. Who will pay for the tunnels? Will it be proportional to the amount used, or to the number of users? David Zetland has some interesting things to say about this.
So does John Fleck, though John’s comments reflect a more optimistic viewpoint than David’s.
Environmental mitigation. Other than the purely intuitive sense that building a pair of 33 foot diameter tunnels under the Delta will help minimize turning smelt and salmon into grist, what assurances are there that any other environmental mitigation will occur there?
Because, as Mike Wade likes to point out, it is a public benefit, “the public” will be asked to come up with the billions of dollars needed for Delta environmental mitigation. But since this will ultimately be a question on a ballot, who’s to say that the public will say yes, and what in today’s political and economic environment gives anyone reason to think they will say yes? As Mike also likes to say, pronouncements about how much, but for some reason not about who pays, at this point in time are entirely speculation on the part of the author.
Perhaps it is a bit reptilian-brained on my part, but the economic argument of the truly scary unpredictability surrounding rising sea levels, rather than an environmental argument that is neither proven nor unlikely to ever be paid for, is much more palatable to me. Maybe it is even this future to which Green is alluding.
I am increasingly skeptical that long litigated environmental arguments can win public support once that support translates to billions of dollars. But if an environmental commitment is to be made into public policy, then it better be hammered out now, before the debate gets shifted to quenching some new thirst or thwarting new environmental and economic threats. That is, in my opinion, what advocates for the environment better understand.