Incredibly, the BDCP does not provide any additional water to the Contractors and does not include any storage. Currently the BDCP position is that their proposed operations will result in the existing level of exports, plus or minus 10 percent, but that number would go down if listed species do not recover as hoped in a process known as "adaptive management". Adaptive management can be a legitimate process but unless it is well planned out in advance it is little more than "if it doesn't work, we'll try something else". And the BDCP consciously excludes any actions outside the Delta and additional storage. The BDCP proponents blithely say "conveyance now, storage later", but the current drought has shown conclusively that conveyance and storage cannot be separated. Metropolitan further says, correctly, that they do not need more storage because they have done a good job of adding storage since the last major drought, but many of the agricultural Contractors, especially Westlands, desperately need more storage. The San Luis Unit was added to the Central Valley Project because of excessive groundwater overdrafts, but project water has largely served to expand plantings rather than to recharge the groundwater basins, and in every drought the water table is drawn down more and more. This can be seen in the figure below which is taken from presentation by Prof.Jay Famiglietti to the Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee. The water table recovers slightly in between droughts but the overall trend is downwards to oblivion.
The main physical element of the BDCP, officially called Conservation Measure No. 1, consists of facilities to allow the diversion of up to 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the Sacramento River in the North Delta. These proposed facilities comprise three intake structures, pipelines and tunnels leading to an intermediate forebay, and twin 40-foot diameter tunnels from that forebay to a reconfigured Clifton Court Forebay. The proponents of the BDCP argue that this will allow more flexible operations with the North Delta intakes being used when Delta smelt are observed near the South Delta pumps, and the South Delta pumps being used when critical salmon runs are passing the North Delta intakes, but that is likely quite secondary to Metropolitan's quest for higher quality water. Indeed, the BDCP's own analyses show that their planned operations tend to reduce Delta water quality, so Metropolitan gets slightly higher water quality at the expense of Delta farmers and water districts. The BDCP proponents also talk about taking more water at periods of high flow and less at periods of low flow in accordance with the "Big Gulp, Little Sip" approach, but that is only true because there is less water to take at periods of low flow. In fact BDCP's own analyses show that in some months more water will be taken in summer under their proposed operations than is the case at present.
The BDCP also contains some twenty additional conservation measures, but many of these are useless. For example, new tidal marshes do little good when improperly located and without increased through Delta flows. The end result is that the BDCP proponents have never been able to produce an "effects analysis" that works. Generally speaking, there may be some improvement in the prospects for Delta smelt, but the prospects for some critical salmon runs will be more problematic. Two recent review of the latest "effects analysis" by panels for The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers and through the Delta Science Program for the BDCP itself, conclude that the "effects analysis" is incomplete and inconsistent. This after seven years and $250 million plus.
The BDCP has been developed over a period of seven years at a cost of $250 million plus, all borne by the Contractors' ratepayers. It is described in a draft plan and a public draft EIR/EIS that total some 40,000 pages in length. It might be churlish, but is not inaccurate, to suggest that the consultants must be being paid by the page.
The stated reason for developing the BDCP is the goal of obtaining "incidental take permits" under the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, that would allow unfettered operation of the water projects for a period of 50 years. In theory these permits allow the project operators to "take" or kill limited numbers of listed fish species as long as the overall population of that species is recovering rather than facing extinction. In practice these permits might be subject to just as many court challenges as the existing Biological Opinions, which they would replace. For the agricultural Contractors, and in particular the Westlands Water District, this is likely also the real reason that they are pursuing the BDCP, because, as previously mentioned, the fact that the current Biological Opinions require that the pumps be shut down as necessary to protect the Delta smelt, a two-inch long fish, drives them nuts . For the urban Contactors, and in particular the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the real reason for pursuing the BDCP is that they want to grab the better quality water from the Sacramento River in the North Delta . This is important to Metropolitan because they need the highest quality water that they can lay their hands on to blend with salty Colorado River Water.
The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project were both developed during the period when natural resources were thought to be relatively unlimited and the emphasis was on extracting natural resources to the maximum extent possible. However, as the population of California has grown, it has become more apparent that the particular natural resource of water is both variable and limited. This is reflected in what Dr. Jeff Hart refers to as the ascendency of the poets over the pioneers. This nascent ascendency of the poets led to the California Legislature giving concern for the Delta ecosystem equal weight with providing water for export for the first time in the Delta Reform Act of 2009. This act established the "co-equal goals", which had been developed by the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, as state law. The "co-equal goals" were supposed to be fleshed out by the Delta Stewardship Council, which was were tasked with "including quantified or otherwise measurable targets associated with achieving the objectives of the Delta Plan", to which the "co-equal goals" are central, but the Council choked on doing this, presumably for fear of offending one party or another. The Council has nonetheless been sued by seven different parties over its Delta Plan. In the meantime, the water exporters (officially known as the Contractors), in conjunction with the California Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation, have been proceeding on a parallel track with the development of the felicitously named Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).
The above figure also shows in-Delta, upstream and export diversions from the Delta watershed in four different colors. Dark blue, on the bottom, is in-Delta use. Next up is a lighter blue or lavender, which are upstream diversions. Taken as a whole, these represent the greatest use of water in the watershed. They include diversions through the Hetch-Hetchy and Mokelumne Aqueducts for urban use in the San Francisco Bay Area, the left pointing blue arrow in the figure to the right, but these diversions are relatively small. The Big Daddy of upstream diversions is the diversion of the San Joaquin River at Friant Dam into the Friant-Kern Canal, the fat blue arrow pointing down in the figure on the right. This diversion literally dried up the San Joaquin River for 75 miles downstream, but now, under a court supervised settlement, efforts are underway to restore that stretch of the river. But a consequence of low flows and agricultural runoff is that the water quality in the lower San Joaquin River where it enters the Delta is very poor. In fact water quality adequate for farming in the Central and South Delta is only maintained as a result of sucking water across the Delta for exports by the South Delta pumping plants of the State Water Project (the Banks pumping plant) and the federal Central Valley Project (the Jones pumping plant). The diversion by the Banks and Jones (or Tracy, as it is called in the legend) pumping plants are shown as yellow and red bars in the figure above. These are not the largest diversions, but they may be the straw that broke the camel's back. But note that in 1983 and 1998, exports were lower than usual because there was nowhere to put the water and some might say that water was wasted to the ocean.
A good summary of the current situation would be that the current system for water conveyance and storage in California, which would do Rube Goldberg, a 1900 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley in mining engineering, proud, is that is works in wet years or periods of high flow, but it does not work in dry years or periods of low flow. In periods of low flow, water exports from the South Delta are limited not only by the general lack of water and water quality considerations but also by Biological Opinions written under the terms of the Federal Endangered Species Act that are intended to protect both Delta smelt and listed salmon runs. It is fair to say that this drives the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley nuts! The fishermen, on the other hand, suggest that it is the farmers who are nuts to plant permanent crops in the rain shadow of the Coast Ranges without having adequate storage to get through a 3-year drought, let alone a 6-year drought. Just in the last century California has, but for a single wet year or even a single wet month, suffered through at least two 6-year droughts, and studies of both tree rings and sediment cores suggest that even longer droughts have occurred in the recent past. While the combination of State, Federal and locally owned reservoirs that are part of the overall system provide some storage in addition to flood control and hydropower benefits, they are primarily operated on an annual basis and only have enough reserve storage for, at best, a two-year dry period. Thus, in longer dry periods there is intense competition between farmers and fishermen or environmental needs over the limited amounts of available water.
The above figures indicate that under the terms of the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act salmon populations were supposed to have been doubled, as a matter of State and Federal policy, whereas in fact they have declined. But, in the same time period, plantings of almond trees in the San Joaquin Valley have doubled! That might makes sense for the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in the short term since almonds are a very profitable crop, but there is some question about whether these plantings are sustainable. See California's Thirsty Almonds and California Drought Worse for Almonds.
No, not if you value our natural environment and the Bay Delta ecosystem and all the native fish species that used to thrive in the largest estuary on the west coat of the Americas. While the little Delta smelt gets a lot of attention (and its picture on our home page)
and it is "the canary in the coal mine", an indicator of the health of the ecosystem of the Bay Delta Estuary, what in many ways is more important is the health of the salmon and steelhead that were, and still are, critical to the way of life of the native Americans, to early European settlers and to present day recreational and commercial fishermen. Indeed salmon are an important part of the natural history of California. But salmon and steelhead runs that used to number in the millions have been reduced to a trickle. There are multiple reasons for this, but there is little question that dragging water across the Delta to the pumps in the South Delta and excessive extractions of water during periods of low flows is a significant contributor. This decline is shown for both winter and spring run salmon in the two figures that follow, taken from a recent letter to the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife from an State advisory committee.
It is often said that the basic problem in California water management is that two-thirds of the precipitation falls in the northern half of the State while two-thirds of the population live in the southern half of the State. What is usually neglected, however, is that precipitation is not evenly distributed over time but tends to come in bunches of wetter than normal years and then bunches of drier than normal years (droughts). This is just as important as the geographical distribution of precipitation. But note that earlier last century a decent amount of water passed out of the Delta to the Bay and the Ocean, even in dry years (the green bars). But now in periods of drought very little water passes through the Bay to the Ocean.
This decline is accompanied by land subsidence, which is irreversible and does not recover at all, even with recharge of groundwater levels. See the study of land subsidence along the Delta-Mendota Canal by Michelle Sneed and others from the US Geological Survey. And, read this very good newspaper article from the San Jose Mercury News by Lisa M. Kreiger California Drought: San Joaquin Valley sinking as farmers race to tap aquifer.
Ultimately, unless much more water that is surplus over current demand is extracted in wet years and used to recharge these groundwater basins, the water table will fall all the way to China where it will meet up with the large percentage of the almond crop that is exported to China as snack food.
For some fascinating history that explains how we got to the present situation, read How the Trinity River Lost Its Water by Dane Durham and the books Battling the Inland Sea, by Robert Kelley, and The King of California, by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman.
For an excellent account of recent findings on climate variability in California read The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam (which covers floods as well as droughts - this year droughts are bigger news. But next year?
29702. The Legislature further finds and declares that the basic goals of the state for the Delta are the following: (a) Achieve the two coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.