Spiky Weather good cops and bad

Since it can no longer be ignored, it was inevitable that the impacts of Climate Change would emerge as the issue for public (as opposed to academic or policy) debate on how to manage water in California. That’s a good thing. No longer can Climate Change be dismissed as bad science, a myth, or a future generations’ problem, at least in this context. And it will get worse.

But it’s not clear that even intelligent arguments by people like Dan Walters and Jeffrey Mount about these impacts seem will change the basic problem of finding a politically executable policy to reconcile entrenched, not to say radical, pro-water supply/pro-environment positions that have been staked out for decades.

From what I can tell, at least for a relatively short now, Climate Change has two major impacts on California water policy vis-a-vis the Delta: the first - rising sea levels - is more easy to visualize. It unfolds slowly and as it does, the sea rises. This will 1/ intensify the threat of Delta flooding via higher water levels, and 2/ if the status quo (no tunnel) remains, force Delta landowners and state/federal taxpayers to reinforce and raise Delta levees, an expensive proposition, and 3/ make saltwater incursion into the Delta that much more difficult (and water/money-consuming) to push back against.

But it is the other impact of Climate Change - the harder to visualize, quicker, spikier, wetter - and drier - and warmer rain and snow dynamic that California’s water infrastructure is not well suited to control - that I want to focus on. First of all, Spiky Weather is already here - whereas rising sea levels are not, at least not impactfully so - and people are starting to be directly effected. So other people - smart, well-informed people - including the aforementioned Sacramento Bee writer Dan Walters and the Public Policy Institute of California’s (PPIC) Jeffrey Mount, have started writing more explicitly about the implications. Their thoughts appear to respectively be glass-half-empty, glass-half-full viewpoints of the spikier weather problem. But I wonder if in fact when seen together they are really a good cop/bad cop performance, unintended, perhaps, but nevertheless, just that.

Walters argues that the increasingly frequent pulses of rain and melted snowpack reduce the effectiveness of the state’s dams and reservoirs. The state can no longer assume that every year, deep snow packs high in the Sierras will gradually accumulate and then gradually melt, the meltwater collected behind dams. Spiky Weather isn’t playing along, and Walters argues that this necessitates the creation of ways to capture that water at lower elevations than the reservoirs sit. Walters mentions new low-elevation dams and reservoirs, but it is easy to see how his reasoning could underpin the case for the peripheral tunnels. It is not clear to me how Walters’ is not a variant on the “wasted water” argument that has been around since someone said that if any water from the Colorado River makes it to the Gulf of California, then it is being wasted. Just today, Sen. Feinstein, Rep. Nunes, et al once again made this argument.

Jeffrey Mount’s position about Spiky Weather helps to clarify what I mean by this. Mount (who, and I could be wrong, is a twin tunnels proponent himself) makes the argument that Spiky Weather is not entirely a negative for the state’s water system. The big pulses of water two or three times during the Spiky Weather rainy season have the useful effect of pushing the Delta’s salty water - especially saline during the current, extreme drought - out to the Bay. This “naturally-occurring” benefit of Climate Change means that water managers do not have to release water stored behind state’s dams in order to manage ecosystem health or migrating species’ needs. Instead, water stored behind dams can be released at optimal times, when it can be most efficiently delivered to its users, by which he presumably means human users. Mount’s position is implicitly status quo with respect to environmental laws and how this affects the uses of water. His position depends on their continuing enforcement.

A caveat is in order here. It needs to be noted that it is not terribly difficult to shift Mount’s argument to Walters’ - from using Spiky Weather pulses of valuable water to purge salinity from the Delta to bypassing it altogether in order to supply big AG in the San Joaquin Valley. Only time will tell whether the laws Mount’s scenario depends upon will hold, or whether they will die of a thousand cuts by the advocates of Walters’ argument. A few cuts have already been delivered. The Obama Administration’s decision to waste water in a different way by subsidizing farming in toxic landscapes like Westlands comes to mind and does not bode well at all. (Neither does the President’s recent agreement to supply rural, super-sunlight-rich India with American nuclear technology, but I digress.) The other increasing source of cuts is found in pleas like the one of Feinstein, Nunes, et al, which call for the loosening of environmental restrictions and increase in water exported from the Delta, being made now because of this ferocious drought.

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Unicorn Petting Zoo, Staten Island, 2025

Walters and Mount may be among the first to directly address the Spiky Weather problem, but have they also simply articulated new arguments for positions that are in reality quite complementary? They aren’t really opposed points of view, and it’s not hard to see how what they are saying will one day be seamlessly integrated into an updated version of PPIC’s managed retreat project. But morphing from the “wildlife-friendly agriculture,” “sandhill crane habitats,” “experimental islands” and “unicorn petting zoos” of the Delta’s managed retreat future that PPIC has illustrated in its work will be the real project. In the real project, the Delta is a landscape of tunnel access points and spoils mounds, salt water sloughs and brackish lagoons, security-guarded chain link-surrounded territories of risk-averse machines and infrastructures, Spiky Weather pulses and their gradual destruction of the fragile Delta settlement geography, enclaves for wealthy bird hunters, entire islands of riparian beauty and privilege for the 1%.

In this future, there will be little to no public access on an ever-diminishing landscape, and the Delta’s waterways will primarily serve a demographic of ecosystem scientists conducting research related to commitments that have long since been abandoned, sport fishermen chasing the new, salt-tolerant fish inhabiting the Delta, party boats, and party animals. What a shame to lose such a beautiful place. What a shame that it doesn’t have advocates in influential places arguing to make it more public, not more like an industrial waterfront.

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Posted by John Bass on 12 Feb 2015 | Comments (0)

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