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.

Posted by John Bass on 21 Aug 2012 | Comments (3)


I find interesting commonalities in this writing and a Community Reserve we have in Punjab which is known as the ‘Keshopur Community Chhamb Reserve’ that is close to India-Pakistan border in the state of Punjab. The Asian Development bank is investing money there in the form of infrastructure development. However, whenever it makes me think on these investments when I visit the area and I find farmers pumping out water from ground there and on the other hand there are the fish contractors where The government of Punjab intends to create the reserve as an International tourism center there, additionally an interpretation center, have community programs, for further studies and research and inviting international tourists,I strongly feel what a conflict that’s on while vividly observing on one side there being an investment, a huge loan from the bank to the Government of India and to the state of Punjab and a fear, lest all these investments turn into further liabilities. Deeper analysis and evaluation is needed as said rightly, “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”.
Very well written with deeper insight! Congratulations!

John, re: Respect. Right back at you. And thank you for picking this up in such a thoughtful way. If I had more time, this response would dignify your elegant post. And it would be shorter. For lack of time, here is a rushed but earnest effort:

Re: “when Green writes that environmental advocates ‘better understand the cost of inaction,’ but doesn’t explain what that cost might be.” Arg. Didn’t I? One point of the piece was to refer back to the poor state of knowledge in 1982 about the impact of the South Delta pumps on migrating fish. The better understanding about the crash of fisheries was the central thread. I took no position on this, but did pluck it out of the myriad issues for discussion, because it struck me as so remarkable that NOAA was identifying what might be a workable solution. Not caving as it seemed to me after many interviews, but circling a potential compromise.

There was no place in this piece to discuss Delta water in the wider context of California policy on groundwater, but this is an important theme and I’m glad that you brought it up. There is an expectation that above and beyond meeting active needs of farms and cities, Delta flows should also recharge exhausted aquifers in the Central Valley and So Cal. Nowhere is our water accountancy more screwy than between surface and groundwater. There are many question marks here and standards for efficiency that need to be settled.

Capacity upgrades: There are no guarantees that Metropolitan, Kern, Westlands or any of a number of water contractors will settle for the pumping capacity recommendations made by the National Marine Fisheries Service. But a line has been drawn as to what might serve farmers and fish.

Exporting water companies are being held to the uncertainty rule, but they don’t like it. How much is bluster and how much is Boswell-worthy screw you and the Delta too territory, I don’t know. But Westlands, Kern etc. haven’t walked out. It’s like that on this issue. It can feel like a win when people Don’t Walk Out.

Fascinating point about water trades but beyond my scope for the HCN piece about what the NMFS thought might be doable.

Environmental mitigation. Big area. As it was presented at the Brown press conference, I think by Mark Cowin of the Department of Water Resources, the capacity of the tunnel had to do with meeting gravity flow requirements.  I haven’t tested the remarks. But when William Stelle was pointed about demanding “time outs” as the NMFS kept flagging proposed intake pumping capacity for the tunnels until it was reduced from 15kcfs to 9, this was striking. That became the story.

As for long-promised restoration of Delta wetlands, the funds for this appear to be in the long-postponed 2008 water bond, now slated for the ballot in 2014. As in so many categories, it’s under a To Be Announced category. So far the intimation seems to be that the $11bn bond is up for some serious tweaking. Various water exporters expected to pay for the tunnels say they will pay for immediate construction damage mitigation, but wider restoration will have to come from the bond or other sources. More question marks.

I particularly understand the frustration of conservationists who see billions slated for this kind of project but no sign of billions to, say, fix leaking urban pipes, or convert farms to drip, or increase local water harvesting, or step up lawn removal. I wake up every day wondering if I haven’t wasted the last 4 years devoted to undoing So Cal lawn culture. In choosing whether to get out of bed or not, I remember a Q & A with Gary Snyder and some doubter in which the doubter asked Snyder: The world’s circling the drain. Why bother? And Snyder answered, “Character.” But my own hobby horse wasn’t the focus of the HCN report. That focus, that again fresh moment, was zeroing in on what appeared a watershed moment for NMFS and the tunnels and a strategy for salmon. Will it work? That wasn’t the point. The idea that it might was.

Certainly environmentalists are worried about restoration commitments attached to BDCP and the 2008 water bills evaporating. Even if the money’s there, there’s the additional problem that, to paraphrase NRDC’s Kate Poole, “you can restore a flood plain all you want but you have to flood it at some point.”

Back to realpolitik: If this thing is built, who will man the pumps? We are promised scientists, but will it be a CH2M Hill engineer or a NOAA or USFWS biologist? Do scientists even condescend to real world solutions? I don’t know. You can read the command chain/decision tree charts until your eyes explode from acronym fatigue, but Stelle is insistent that water quality and flow needs for fish will not be ignored, and there will be appropriate scientists in the right place. His tenacity seemed more credible after reading his defense of the ESA before the 112th Congress.

Agree with your last point!

What about the National Science Foundation report, and it’s recommendations to minimize impacts to fish?  Why is no one discussing the plans adherence to the recommendations?  We paid for the damn report, so someone should be using it.

Add a comment

  1. Please enter the word you see in the image below:
  2. Remember my personal information

  3. Notify me of follow-up comments?