In the Shadow of Catastrophe, II

If you didn’t see Part I, go check it out.

Go on, it’s only a thousand words, we’ll wait.

K, all caught up on just how precarious SoCal’s continued existence is?

Great, then on to solutions.

Solutions to the imminent collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been proposed since the State Water Project was inaugurated. The most well-known of these is the Peripheral Canal, which would divert Sacramento River water through or, as the name would suggest, around the Delta, to the tune of $3 to $17 BILLION, depending on who you’re asking. A ballot initiative to fund a peripheral canal was first proposed and defeated in 1982. A $11.14b water bond was defeated in 2010, and another is slated for the 2014 ballot, though it’ll likely be pushed to 2016. By which time it’ll hopefully be irrelevant, and Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan will be on its way to being a reality.

So, if it’s been an issue that people have known needs to be addressed for so long, why’s it never been solved?

Because money, of course.

On one hand, farmers and environmentalists and various other interest groups in the Delta have beaucoup bucks to throw at defeating these bills, and on the other, no one really wants to pay for it. It would certainly make water more expensive, but like car maintenance, the longer we don’t pay for it, the more expensive the project and our water will be later.

SWP water has doubled in the last ten years, and is expected to double again in the next ten, and people aren’t too excited about paying over and above what are already some of the highest water rates in the country.

The scarcity that’s driving the cost of SWP water up is both real, and legislated/judicial. We all know about the generally shorter and warmer winters and less precipitation going on these days, and whether you believe climate change is a result of human activity or not, the fact of the matter is that there’s been less snowpack in the Sierras at the end of spring for a dozen+ years running, which means that there’s less water in the Delta. Which has led to less, warmer, more algae-filled and even sometimes saltier Delta water, to which one little linchpin in particular in the whole web of life really takes exception.

Much more detailed (and better) description of Smeltgate than what I offer here. Pic: NYTimes

A better, more detailed description of Smeltgate than what I offer here.
Pic: NYTimes

These are Delta Smelt.

When they’re unhappy, the salmon that run in the Delta are unhappy, and as the Steelhead and Chinook are on the endangered list, Smelt have become the focal point of the ecological studies – and rage – in the Delta. In 2007, pumping allocations out of the Delta were throttled way-way back (think, half), in large part because of concern over these little buggers. A 2008 study supporting those allocation limitations stated that the Smelt, et al, were disastrously imperiled, so things were tight for a while, until Judge Oliver Wanger said in his 2011 appeal opinion that the study was carried out in “bad faith,” its findings “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful,” the science that underpinned them “sloppy,” and the testimony of biological experts “false.” The 2007 limits were reversed, water flowed and Wagner was a hero for a day. (To some – he’s a murdering thieving bastard to fish-lovers and Delta farmers, but he’s retiring so what does he care).

Anyway, this back-and-forth is par for the SWP course, with Delta farmers demanding enough water for their crops and stoking and flaming Smelty controversy, and Central Valley Project water people saying they don’t want to pay for all the water that goes to what they think are basically water libertines in SoCal, and SoCalers saying wtf we didn’t invent this mess we just live here and we need water and btw we don’t give a rat’s ass about those little fish or about your sunken farms.

Which, no, is not helpful. Any of it.

But that’s the way the issue’s been framed after all this time: you’re either all for killing off all 57 endangered species that live in/depend on the Delta, or you’re in favor of dust-bowlizing Southern California completely out of existence. There’s no real middle ground, and there hasn’t been much in the way of an alternative. And meanwhile, prices just go up. And up. Aaaannnndddd up.

If you’re wondering, amid all this, why there were no Smelt-protections built into the SWP to begin with, you’re forgetting what the environmental regulatory environment was like in the 1950s.

There wasn’t one.

We were post-war booming then, right, flexing all those third-industrial-revolution muscles, basking in the glory of having made the world safe for democracy, believing that the world was our proverbial oyster and that we could do no wrong, including environmental harm. Not entirely their fault – there wasn’t the same awareness or even knowledge as there is now of the impacts of the human stain on the environment. I mean, we were testing the effects of nuclear fallout on human beings only what, fifteen, twenty years before?

To put things in perspective: the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Which yes, was when Richard Nixon was President.

You know that if Tricky Dick was signing legislation for the environment, it was in prreeeetttty bad shape — and the SWP was designed fifteen years before that.

Which is why the Bay Delta Conservation Plan I mentioned earlier is such a great idea.

The BDCP is different because it addresses both water supply and environmental issues, and even goes so far as to call them “co-equal goals.”

Basically, two 25-foot-diameter tunnels would run 17 miles underneath* the Delta and all its messed up terrain and fragile levees, and connect with the existing aqueduct for the trip south. The tunnels are pared with a massive conservation plan that would, in addition to a host of other good things, restore about 145,000 acres of wetlands. (Remember, wetlands used to cover 500,000 acres, so that’s not too shabby.)

The other big problem with pre-BDCP water bonds is that as much as people say they want things to change, while they say they want secure water, they don’t want to pay for it (LATimes had a great story on this a few days ago). This hesitancy to pay an extra hundred bucks or so year is one of the ridiculous things about first-world entitlement: people will pay twice that each month for unlimited texting, or 20% faster internet, or the DirectTV sports package, or a few dozen bottles of smart water, but heaven forfend that the very thing that keeps us alive, that wars are fought over, today, still, cost you an extra few bucks a month.

Which is why Jerry Brown isn’t proposing that the BDCP go on the ballot. It’s about $24billion, $15b or so of which is construction of the tunnels, with the balance going to environmental projects. The Central Valley Project and the Metropolitian Water District of Southern California will split the cost of construction, passing it along to customers over 50 years. That comes to about $4 extra a month for the average household, and while times are tight, I know, that doesn’t seem likely to be any kind of back-breaking straw.

State and federal governments will sign on to come up with the money for the conservation side of things. Which they’ll do about half of. Maybe.

But still – that’s a lot better than what’s been done for the Delta lately. And what is likely to be done for it if the BDCP doesn’t fly.

Of course, even if ole Moonbeam gets all the required Federal permits to build in endangeredspeciesland, there’ll be Circumlocution-Office-worthy numbers of lawsuits and injunctions and every other legal instrument created by god and man brought down upon his and the BDCP’s head, intended to hold the project up for far longer than the 50 years it was slated to take in the first place. By which time we’ll all either be

a) dead,

b) in the post-Singularity age of spiritual machines and not in need of water, or

c) drinking desalinated ocean water or water distilled from the vapor out of the air or some other result of currently unimaginable technological advancement that nullifies the need for Delta water altogether.

Which latter hypothetical amounts, odd as it may seem, to the most optimistic argument against doing anything. But can we wait that long? Is it a good idea to bet that technology will outpace the cost of water in a decade, decade.5, which is how long tunnel construction is likely to take? Or will it be more like twenty years, or thirty-five, of doing nothing and hoping, like the good ole WASPs that got us into this mess, that by ignoring something we can negate its potential for harm, that we can deny it right out of existence?

Which kind of is what California in general, aside from just the Delta, is built on.  Mike Davis’s book The Ecology of Fear is a great take on how Los Angeles is “a city deliberately put in harm’s way by land developers, builders, and politicians, even as the incalculable toll of inevitable future catastrophe continues to accumulate,” but we can extend that out to the Golden State’s other big cities, too. Especially San Francisco, whose residents were praised across the globe for the speed with which they rebuilt their shaken and burned city in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. Which, like, maybe wasn’t the best thinking in the world, amirite?

Is this a picture, or what?
Panorama of SF in ruins, May 28, 1906.
Pic: Library of Congress

This is what I meant last week when I said the water industry deals with fundamental questions of human nature. Our intent is to control our surroundings, to mitigate risk, and we think that we’re able to do that with a fairly high degree of success. But two things belie this.

One: it’s only a gamble, and Mother Nature is the house. Pick any of the pipelines or canals that bring water to millions and millions of people in SoCal and trace it on a topo map for a few miles. It or one of its tributaries will cross a significant seismic fault. Most of this infrastructure is old enough to not be anywhere near “seismically sound,” and there are people whose job it is to determine whether it’s worth spending the money it would take to make these pipes and canals strong enough to withstand a 7 or 8 or 10.3 magnitude earthquake. Besides which, nature’s always got something bigger and better up her sleeve, and we usually only build to withstand the previous worst case scenario. Which is why “unforeseen disasters” keep breaking, right?

Anyway, the answer to whether saving lives is “worth” the money is always, “Yes – if you have it.” But we don’t have it. 

And – Two: we probably wouldn’t spend it if we did. We like shiny objects. We like shiny objects and we like lounging around and we like watching football and drinking beer and taking our families out to dinner and buying our girlfriends jewelry and doing things that make life seem pretty nice, or at least okay. Dealing with existential questions on the magnitude of “One” does not fit into that “nice” or “okay” model. We don’t want to be reminded of our fragility, of the fact that our continued existence is at the pleasure – nay, the whim – of Mother Nature. We want her sunshine, we want her good weather and nice beaches and lack of snow and decent fruit. But to lay some cash away to keep ourselves going in those places, against whatever rain she may send our way? Thanks but we’ll spend our money somewhere else.

We’ll spend it to build houses hanging over the edge of a cliff, or at the bottom of an active volcano, or on stilts above the ocean. Think about that, especially you post-Sandy East Coasters. Houses on stilts. Above the ocean.

Sticks versus the Atlantic Ocean.


Middle pic: Nat Geo

It seems crazy when you put it like that, but that’s what we do.

And it’s kind of nice to think that we’re all just gamblers. There is so much risk in everything we do that if you look at it, you wouldn’t do it. A friend of mine once asked me, about surfing, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get eaten by sharks?” I said it’s better odds than getting hit by a car on the freeway, and he said, “Not true. I may die on the freeway, but I can guarantee you the risk of me getting eaten by a shark is absolutely zero.”

“How’s that?”

“I don’t go in the ocean.”

We can pick and choose to control certain odds, but all in all, we’re just rolling craps. For the young and the old and the rich and the poor and the black and the white alike, the inscrutability and awesome indifference of nature levels any playing field you can come up with.

Remembering that we’re on “borrowed time” and that we’re all in this boat together reminds me to take it a little easier, to take myself and my million little plans and strategies a little less seriously.

Not that doing so keeps you from getting thirsty, though.

So, while I may not be doomsday prepping any time soon, keeping a little extra water around the house probably isn’t too bad an idea.

Anyway, now that you’re caught up** on the State Water Project and the current state of water in California – on the various hues and depths of the shadow of the catastrophe we Angelinos live in – let’s hear from you.

What shadows do you live in?

Do you worry about them?

Do you do anything about them?


*Kind-of-not-really. Look here for some of the more level-headed opposition.

** I know, I know, this isn’t the whole story. Nor is the SWP the only water issue in California. I’ve ignored a lot of history here that’s actually really really good context for the bitterness felt by both sides of this debate, such as the desiccation of Owens Valley and Mulholland’s Folly. Cadillac Desert is a good place to start if you’re interested in a great narrative of the wildest aspect of the West.

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3 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Catastrophe, II

  1. Jan says:

    A lot of good info here! A couple of corrections though. Sorry it’s so lengthy – I do tend to blab a lot 🙂

    The real reason the water issue hasn’t been addressed isn’t because “farmers and environmentalists and various other interest groups in the Delta have beaucoup bucks to throw at defeating these bills.” The Northern opponents to the tunnels have very little money and are fighting against the Goliath with all of the bucks – the Central Valley Corporate agribusiness owners and the water contractors who represent them. They are making millions and millions of dollars of profit by expanding farm acreage, profit from water resales, and soon fracking. They want more water and are funding the state water plan, the BDCP.

    As far as water rates, the agribusinesses are heavily subsidized. They have some of the cheapest water in the nation which is why they continue to expand acreage and profits.

    The scarcity of water is totally real. The legislation is only to force the water contractors to provide water needed to the rest of the state including the environment, commercial salmon fishermen, upstream users with riparian water rights and Delta farmers and communities. The Central Valley agribusinesses want to take the water away from the other users including the environment and it seems to-date they can only be stopped by lawsuits. The lawsuits aren’t making the water scarce. It is scarce and the lawsuits just keep the distribution of the water balanced according to law.

    When we talk about pumping allocations, remember there’s way more water “allocated” to the Central Valley farmers than exists even in the wettest years. Read to find out more.

    The BDCP isn’t a “great idea” – far from it. The BDCP “says” it addresses both water supply and environmental issues, and even goes so far as to call them “co-equal goals.” But in reality, it ignores the key part of the legislature’s mandate regarding the co-equal goals – to protect the Delta as a place, the communities, farms, and economies here. The BDCP does not do that. It will ruin the Delta economies, remove fertile farmland, destroy scenic waterways. There are way better alternatives being proposed. The state refuses to listen to them because once the tunnels are built, they can easily take more and more water and their plan removes any ability for legislation to stop them until there is no fresh water left, no salmon, no Delta farmland and no Delta communities.

    BTW – they are 40-foot diameter tunnels 30 miles long, not 25-foot 17 miles long.

    The conservation part of the plan will need to be paid for by bond funds before education, fire, police, etc. And these wetlands projects are unproven – i.e., it is more likely that the BDCP plan will eradicate all fish and fowl instead of help them. Very shabby.

    Most likely, now that the real economics are being published by independent experts (the return on investment is awful) coupled with the fact that the tunnels won’t produce any additional water (unless they “Owens Valley” the Delta), the BDCP produces no new storage, and will destroy the communities up North, the real alternatives will start being considered. The alternatives are cheaper, produce more water, and are better for the state. The alternatives do not keep putting the water into the hands of the big agribusiness owners for profit. Hence the pushback against a real plan.

    • ianprichard says:

      Thanks for your comments, Jan! These are great. And I think they speak to the confusion and difference of opinion surrounding the BDCP, and the Delta in general.

      I didn’t know that corporate agribusiness in your area was in such a state. I’ll work that correction in. Here in Ventura County, a lot of ag subsidies have gone away and growers – many of whom are still small(er) family-owned businesses that have been here for generations – buy water at the going imported rate and are thus being forced to plant higher and higher value crops, which often require more and better water, which just continues the cycle. That corporate “ag” interests are planning to frack and hope to secure water from the BDCP to do so is certainly disturbing.

      I really don’t see how the tunnels – whatever their diameter and length end up being, as I’m sure whatever they’re proposing now will change before any shovels hit the earth – will “ruin Delta economies.” The proposed tunnels would send 6000-9000cfs south. That’s not any more than SoCal gets now, and any attempt to “increase” our allocations would need twice that amount. I guess I simply don’t see it as so nefarious a plan, as if the 6-9k cfs is simply a “soft start,” so to speak, that will make it palatable to the general public to get the project started so that they can Owens Valley the Delta. But, you’re right – that’s obviously happened before, and I did not know that there were no stopgaps in place to ensure that no more than what the tunnels are ostensibly “sized for” is taken.

      Thanks again for the info, and especially for the links (the STDCA web site is great). I certainly have a lot more research to do…

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