April 23, 2007 - From the April, 2007 issue

Ailing & Fragile, Bay-Delta Infrastructure Looms Large as Californians Debate State Water Policy

The dust had hardly settled on November's infrastructure bond campaign when the governor announced a new water plan including the construction of two major reservoirs. That plan set off a new round of dialogue on the eternal question of how to both protect the state's resources and provide reliable water. For an environmentalist's perspective on these issues-including the critical Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta-MIR was pleased to speak with Tom Graff, regional director for Environmental Defense.

Tom Graff

MIR carried an interview this year with Michael George and Ron Gastelum about the state and governor's water policy for California. What are your views on this subject?

The Gastelum/George interview focused on the governor's water plan and potential legislative responses, and they were more polite than I would be. I think the governor's water plan is significantly flawed in its emphasis on dams and surface storage. Dams are a sideshow; the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta should be center stage.

Even if they were to be authorized and constructed, Temperance Flat and Sites would make minor differences in the overall state water picture, in the former because it adds very little effective storage, in the latter because its benefits to consumptive water users, if any, depend on how it is operated and would only come into play if the issues surrounding Delta conveyance are resolved. The Delta's problems, however, are many and complex, and diverting attention and financial resources to extraneous matters helps no one other than those who have axes to grind in the case of the two reservoirs proposed or who would prefer that resolution of the Delta's issues be deferred as long as possible.

What is your assessment of the governor's plans for water?

Both the governor's plan-and the initiative that elements of the state's business community are plotting in case the Democrats block the governor's proposal-emphasize large additional subsidies to water, and energy, use. The state's last master builder, Governor Pat Brown, in authorizing the State Water Project, contracted with the project's water users to pay its capital and operating costs. Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal, on the other hand, would stick taxpayers, many of whom get no benefits from the projects, with an additional $6 billion of debt, rather than have water users pay for such projects as they believe to be beneficial.

The independent blue ribbon commission he has appointed to give him recommendations on the future of the Delta has the opportunity to get the pricing right. Water should not be made artificially cheap so that demand rises and ever more of it taken out of the Delta and the state's few remaining ecologically viable rivers and streams. In fact, prices of both water and energy should reflect all the costs of gathering, storing, delivering and treating the water, including the environmental costs (local and global).

California's economy can easily adjust, if voluntary water transfers are encouraged. Regulatory entities, including the SWRCB and the Department of Fish and Game, should be re-energized to protect public trust values and assure that water extractions are limited to levels that do not cause ecological crises such as the one we are currently experiencing in the Delta.

State water policy debates are not new. What are the obstacles to finding consensus on water policy at the state level?

I went back and looked at some of my old MIR interviews, and basically I believe that politicians-federal and state, Republican and Democrat-shy away from making people pay for what they're getting. In recent years the general obligation bonds have been the path of least resistance, and on the transportation side we're using these silly sales taxes to pay for things that ought to be paid for by the road users, and it's gotten us in a pickle. California recently adopted a set of creative programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet we will never meet our stated objectives if we keep under-pricing our uses of energy and water.

How does "paying one's way" fit into the state dialog regarding a new consensus on state water policy?

My hope is that the independent blue ribbon commission that the governor has appointed-since it's not directly worried about constituent reaction-will at least tell us what we all ought to hear, namely that we need to get the price right. And then it's up to the governor to use some of his popularity and sound business-market-oriented principles to pick up on those recommendations. Legislators should get on board too, especially those who are serious about protecting the environment from excessive diversions.

The Public Policy Institute of California issued its report on the Delta, and it said we have to have a conversation statewide about two things that have been the third rail in California politics: the Peripheral Canal and reductions in exports. Those exports have major ecological effects, and what I found most interesting about the PPIC report was that they said that substantially reduced Delta exports, if managed, would not have that big a statewide economic impact and localized impacts could be mitigated.

Does the new dialog about a Peripheral Canal differ much from the debate three decades ago?


I think it's early in the new dialog. Senator Simitian amended his bill to back off the canal for now. But I do think people see the effects of climate change in the Delta and the subsidence of the islands over the last few decades as reasons to take another look at the Peripheral Canal.

My view on this has been pretty consistent for over three decades: Environmental Defense led the environmental opposition to the Peripheral Canal in the 1970s and early 1980s not because it was an inherently bad plumbing scheme but because it was intended, at the time, to substantially increase exports from north to south with only vague environmental guarantees and no plan for who would pay for what facilities. It also didn't adequately account for the federal government's involvement. The federal government in those days was hanging back. (President Jimmy Carter had his water project "hit list" and was clamping down on the budgets of the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation-incidentally an approach that President Reagan and his successors continued, albeit with less fanfare and political blowback.) The federal government should be a key player this time as well, yet no one is talking about how its interests will be accommodated in what has evolved from the CalFed joint federal-state approach to a go-it-alone state initiative.

The key issue going forward is whether expanded exports continue to be the principal objective of the exporters or whether they would be willing to combine a fresh look at plumbing in the Delta with significantly reduced exports.

Elaborate on what you mean when you say "exports."

Water is taken from, mostly, the Sacramento River and then sent south to urban Southern California and the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. That movement of water has major environmental impacts. One is from the direct diversion of that water. Fish and larvae are sucked into the pumps that send the water south. If that diversion point were moved, there'd be different problems, but you might be able to design a better diversion point-in fact we probably should improve the ones we have now.

In addition, and probably even more importantly, removing water from the system has broader ecological impacts that are not limited to entrainment at the point of diversion. Those are more subtle. They have to do with how invasive species and toxics interact with reduced and altered stream and tidal flows. The ecologists who worked on the PPIC report and were engaged with the science program for CalFed have reported this. But it's difficult because some interests have an economic stake in cheap water and really don't want to deal with it.

To go all the way back to the 1970s, when we were negotiating with Jerry Brown and the Legislature, the one major environmental point that they wouldn't tackle was exports. I went back to some of the things I wrote in the 1970s, including one piece for the California Academy of Sciences on the environmental impact of increased diversions, and that was basically ignored.

You've joined the editorial advisory board of MIR's new sister publication, verdeXchange-a monthly newsletter dedicated to providing global access to green technology and innovation. What do you believe the defining green issues are in regard to water?

One place, and this is a big positive, is that a lot of water agencies are innovating in ways that often go beyond what the private sector has done. The Inland Empire Utilities Agency, which MIR featured recently, is probably the best example. I think one can look synergistically, as they have done, at waste reduction, water conservation, energy conservation and the deployment of supposed waste products from dairies as energy resources, all in one combined program, rather than attack each issue separately. I think that's a big area of innovation where we can meet several environmental objectives at once.

The best way the water system can meet greenhouse gas objectives is by looking at how much water is pumped and where and at what energy cost. The pumps over the Tehachapis are the state's largest consumers of electricity. Over time, we're going to have to look hard at how much water we want to lift over the hill and with what impacts on California's greenhouse gas emissions. Senator Perata and Assemblymember Wolk both have initiatives in this area.

Another old favorite of mine are the contracts to sell power generated at Hoover Dam. They're coming up again soon for renewal, I believe. Back in 1984 then-freshman Representative Barbara Boxer proposed auctioning that power. One of the things that was obvious then was that it requires a lot less energy to move water west from the Colorado than to move water over the hill from the north. It would require even less net energy if we put some energy recovery on the downside of the Colorado River Aqueduct. From both a water- and energy-efficiency point of view, we have to figure out a way to refill the MWD aqueduct from the Colorado. It's had a big hole in it for four years, and the celebrated Quantification Settlement Agreement notwithstanding, there's really no plan to fill it in the foreseeable future.


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