The multiple functioning bypass

...the following probably belabors thoughts begun in the previous post…edited 11:30PM 12/8…

I began the blog with the intention of staying focused on the Delta. But in my discipline, understanding the limits of a problem depends on knowing its extents. Staying focused requires good peripheral vision.

This is the only way to begin to understand interrelationships in a complex natural and cultural ecology. And to imagine possible solutions. That is why the Grasslands Bypass Project was so intriguing, since it seemed a promising hybrid of remediation and production, at least it did in my imagination.

Legal issues and facts are part of this ecology. Mike Wade provided a record that pretty convincingly answers the legal question of whose responsibility it is to “provide drainage services” to the owners of the salt-laden land he represents. It seems that responsibility falls to the alternately despised and depended upon government.

It falls to the technical and spatial apparatuses and budgetary capacity of government to find ways to implement this charge. But in this context (as in many others in these anti-tax days) its agencies are in a most difficult bind, well-expressed by USBR Commissioner Keys in 2005:

Seven action alternatives are evaluated in the Draft EIS.  The alternatives can be grouped by their final discharge location - Delta, ocean and in-valley evaporation.  Four alternatives - Delta discharge at one of two potential locations, ocean discharge, and in-valley evaporation, provide drainage service to all 379,000 acres of land that require it.  Three additional alternatives combine in-valley evaporation with varying levels of land retirement.  Land retirement, defined as removal of lands from irrigated agricultural production, would reduce drainwater production and thus reduce the size of the in-valley treatment and disposal facilities.  The alternatives would cease irrigation on 92,600, 194,000 and 308,000 acres respectively, reducing drainage production from 70,000 acre-feet per year to 61,000, 45,000 and 27,000 acre-feet respectively.


The estimated construction costs identified in the draft EIS of the alternatives range from $589 million to $918 million.  On a present worth basis, which is the combined construction and annual operation, maintenance and rehabilitation costs presented as a one time cost, three full-service alternatives - Ocean Disposal, Delta - Chipps Island, and In-Valley Disposal are nearly identical at about $562 million.  The In-Valley Disposal with Land Retirement alternatives range from $626 million up to $857 million on a present worth basis.  All of the alternatives exceed the spending limit authorized under the San Luis Act.

That last sentence is worth reading twice, in a post-2008 economy. Thanks to Chris Gulick for sending the link.

The extents of the Delta’s ecology applied here means that it is inevitable that the water and toxicity issues of the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin must be understood as they impact policy making for the Delta. These extents eventually scope back to the limits of the Delta, and to a less public rationale for why a peripheral canal or tunnel is inevitable.

The Grasslands Bypass Project is extolled as an example of a successful experiment at controlling selenium in Salt Slough and managed wetlands in the area just downstream from the Westlands Water District. An EPA article, titled Grasslands Bypass Project Reduced Selenium in San Joaquin Basin may be technically true, but is highly misleading.

Yes, the drainage infrastructure reroutes toxic water around Salt Slough and the managed wetlands, but it does this by concentrating it in Mud Slough. It is a useful and to a degree successful experiment that foreshadows what a rerouting infrastructure writ large might be in the Delta.

From a 1998 UC report:

The Grasslands Bypass Project in the western San Joaquin Valley of California was conceived as a means of diverting selenium-contaminated agricultural drainage water from fresh water channels serving Grassland wetlands.


Sediment selenium concentrations are anticipated to increase in Mud Slough as a result of increased selenium concentration and loading, and to decrease in Salt Slough, which no longer conveys selenium-contaminated agricultural drainage.


So, the question remains: okay, you created a way to isolate it, but what do you do with the stuff you’ve collected?

Microcosmically (I know, but it should be a word), is Salt Slough the canal/tunnel, and Mud Slough the Delta?

I increasingly have the sense that the (unspoken, but perhaps equally important) function of the tunnel/canal would be no more about ensuring water security for CVP and SWP clients than it would be about bypassing the selenium-, boron-, and mercury-laced waste water to be deposited in the (South?) Delta.

The government must “provide drainage services,” and dumping back into the Delta from the South Valley is definitely the cheapest option if one doesn’t include the cost of the Delta’s bypass infrastructure, which is say $15-30 billion dollars.

It’s a win-win for everyone but Delta folks, and they know it.

Treating the Delta as a drain was the original plan, after all. It remains arguably the least expensive one, just to let the San Luis Drain do what it was intended to do in the first place, which was to dump west side drain water into the “Contra Costa Delta.”

Three types of bypassing function are in play in or near the Delta.

1/ The Yolo Bypass is a time-based function related to flood control. It has the happy side benefit of providing lots of seasonal marsh habitat.

2/ The Grasslands Bypass Project separates and collects toxic water and allows the perception of improvement elsewhere in the form of measurable reduction of selenium’s presence. I like happy side benefits, and wanted so much to like this project, but it is very possibly a smokescreen. Allowing postponement of inevitable solutions that don’t involve taking hundreds of thousands of acres of ag land on the westside out of production benefits everyone scrambling to find a final solution when all of the choices suck.

3/ Bypassing in the Delta via a canal or tunnel would depend on a three-dimensional system of siphons, where two entirely separate systems of water, one headed around and out, one headed in, are allowed to move independently of each other.

Bypassing is usually a form of reactive problem-solving. That seems to be so for these three case studies.

And as the Fresno Bee reports today, bypassing is not without its local tensions and economic challenges on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley/Tulare Basin, just as it is in the Delta.

As for judging the extent of costs involved with draining selenium into the Delta (or any of the other alternatives) and creating a bypass to avoid its reintroduction into the export water supply, I await the cost-benefit analysis Jeff Michael has repeatedly asked for.

Posted by John Bass on 08 Dec 2011 | Comments (10)


The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

Isaiah 9:2

The author’s speculation, one which he admits to never having seen or heard, that a tunnel/canal would allow CVP/SWP contractors to avoid “selenium-, boron-, and mercury-laced waste water” is a new one to me. I’ve never heard that stated in any conversations, hearings or read it in any written testimony. While the Grasslands Bypass Project only involves the drainage from 100,000 acres, the potential of applying what we learn from it to other farm areas is significant. 

From 1995 to 2010 the drainage water in the San Joaquin River dropped by75%, from 54,500 AF to 14,500 AF. Likewise, the following reduction were achieved: selenium/87%, salt/72% and boron/64%. 

Where is it all going? Part of the reduction is the result of on-farm irrigation practices that have reduced the amount of drainage water. Nearly all of the 100,000 acres is now under drip or micro-irrigation systems. Public water agencies are also committed to this process and have converted 10 miles of canals to either concrete or underground pipelines.

The Panoche Drainage District established the San Joaquin River Salinity Management Program (SJRSMP) in 1998 to divert drainage water from the river to what has become 6,000 acres of forage grasses and other crops that can tolerate the higher salt levels in the drainage water.

The comment that “the drainage infrastructure reroutes toxic water around Salt Slough, but it does this by concentrating it in Mud Slough” fails to accurately describe the process. Rather, the reduced drainage from the farmland goes to the SJRSMP lands with the remaining portion rerouted, under permit, through Mud Slough to the San Joaquin River.  This final amount will ultimately be eliminated through treatment and disposal as intended by the project.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Glad I could help you out, Chris…

I did think going into writing this that I would be another one extolling the Grasslands project. With respect to dealing with the limits of the issue, Grasslands seems to do a pretty good job. But that is only part of the story.

Mike, thank you for bringing up the forage lands part of the program. I did know about the salt-tolerant re-purposed agriculture aspect of the program, and should have mentioned it since it is perhaps its most interesting part.

I am happy to amend my comments as I become more fully informed about Grasslands.

In your view is the project is economically and geographically scalable? That is, can its 100,000 acres of salinity management lands equaling 6,000 acres of low-value forage lands be multiplied by a factor of 10 or more? Do you think the program is pointing to a self-sustaining solution to comprehensively remediate selenium, boron, etc. through the entire sub-region? That would be very good news.

In the end I suppose all is doable given proper economic exchange and subsidy. Perhaps that is what you were referring to in a previous comment where you wrote that “[t]reatment costs could be shared with urban water suppliers in exchange for a share of the agricultural water districts’ Central Valley Project (CVP) supply.”

As for Mud Slough, I will grant that I perhaps did not fully describe aspects of the process described above, but am confident that my citation of sources are accurate insofar as they describe it. Not included was a whole description about how water flow speeds through Mud Slough must be minimized so as not to re-suspend settled material. Material that must one day be dredged we can only suppose.

And as for my initial speculation about the tunnel/canal, water security for the CVP/SWP and waste water - I would argue such a rationale is implicit among those who operate deep in the weeds about water security issues and therefore unnecessary to make part of any public discussion. Hence my desire to do so.

Feel free to disagree or point to the absence of any public record evidence of this - we won’t know whether my presumption is accurate or not for fifty years anyway.

Here’s a little light reading for you John.

Think of it like heart surgery John.
You don’t want the doctor to tell you he did a “pretty good” job.It reminds me of the old saying: The operation was a success but the patient died.
Look at the numbers supplied by Mike Wade.
“From 1995 to 2010 the drainage water in the San Joaquin River dropped by75%, from 54,500 AF to 14,500 AF. Likewise, the following reduction were achieved: selenium/87%, salt/72% and boron/64%.”
They eliminated 3/4 of the flow yet the salt and boron were NOT reduced by 3/4. The selenium went down 12% by volume.
Is this not a classic example of picking the low hanging fruit ?
It took 17 years for a 12% reduction by volume.
How many years do they need to eliminate the other 88% ?
They are a year into a 10 year free pass.
What are the odds ?
Here’s another brilliant idea by USBR :

We don’t need 9 years or 50 years to spot a fail.
USBR is in a no win situation.
If they admit failure then what ?
Mike Wade’s numbers don’t lie, it’s all a matter of how you interpret them.

John Bass—-The more that can be done to disseminate the facts, the better the discussion. Unfortunately, some individuals will acknowledge the facts while others will choose to either reject the numbers or twist them into irrational statements.

You asked whether I thought the Project “is economically and geographically scalable?” It may be and it is our belief that the Project will ultimately provide needed information to determine that viability. Will this same process be used in other areas? We will just have to wait and see but so far the costs seem to be less than other options for the Bureau of Reclamation. In the meantime, other water districts are dealing with the drainage issue through policies that restrict their farmers from allowing any drainage from leaving their fields.  Some of those policies go back decades.  One of those is Westlands Water District, a fact that very few people may realize.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Chris Gulick—-I’m not sure how you arrived at your conclusion but here are the facts:
Drainage has been reduced by 75 percent (with 25 percent of the original amount still being discharged)
Selenium reduced by 87 percent (13 percent of the original amount still being discharged)
Salt reduced by 72 percent (28 percent of the original amount still being discharged)
Boron reduced by 64 percent (36 percent of the original amount still being discharged)

Constituents in the drainage water are not all assimilated equally by the plants that it is used to irrigate, which is why the remainders are different.  Nonetheless, they are all much lower that the figures you assumed them to be.  It is regrettable that what I wrote was misunderstood.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Mike, one of us is missing something I’ll agree.
Asssuming an equal distribution of pollutants in each gallon of water, if you reduce the amount discharged by 3/4 then 3/4 of the pollutants should be eliminated by definition.

According to the numbers you offer salt and boron are present in higher concentrations in the remaining 1/4 that is still discharged even if only by a small percentage.

The only real success is in reducing volume.
Overall reductions in salt and boron are up, not down, if you look at the concentration per gallon discharged.
As for Selenium, if you subtract 75% from 87% (your numbers, not mine) to account for the reduction in volume discharged you are left with a “Real World” reduction of 12%.
So, of the remaining 25% of runoff still discharged to the river you have effectively reduced the concentration of Selenium by 12% in 17 years.
While it is laudable that the volume has been reduced, the pollutants are still there.
If the project was meeting it’s goals it wouldn’t need a 10 year free pass and they wouldn’t be getting sued for declaratory and injunctive relief for not achieving the water quality required by the EPA.
You may not like the conclusions I’ve drawn Mike,but,math is math.

Chris…I think you’re making this more difficult than it is.  Let’s try it another way.  Selenium load went from 11,875 pounds to 1,601 pounds, an 87 percent reduction in absolute selenium, which is a greater reduction percentage-wise than the volume of drainage water discharged – 75 percent.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Mike,we’re saying the same thing, we’re just drawing different conclusions.Let’s try using a simple example.
If you have 1 gallon of water that contains 1 pound of selenium and you subtract 75% you will have 1 quart of water with 1/4 pound of selenium remaining. The 3/4 of a pound of selenium that is no longer discharged is directly atributable to the fact that the volume was reduced by 3/4.
Using your numbers: Of the 87% reduction achieved 75% can be atributed to reduction in flow I.E. 12% is the actual gain.
What happened to the 87% Mike ?
Did a plant assimilate it or is it resident in the sediment on the bottom of Mud Slough ?
Or perhaps it is percolating into the soil of the SJRSMP lands.
As per the norm, you focused exclusively on the success of reducing selenium by a larger percentage (12%) than the percentage of flow reduction achieved.
How do you reconcile the numbers for salt( up 3% by volume) and boron (up 11% by volume) ? 
Are you saying this is a good trade off ?
It looks to me like the solution is found in eliminating runoff altogether.
Short of this, not irrigating impaired land would be the obvious alternative. No ?

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