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The Bay-Delta and a New Era of Water Solutions

Barry Nelson

Posted March 12, 2013

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Half a century ago, the State of California built the State Water Project.  It was a bold project, spanning two thirds of the state, from Oroville Dam on the Feather River to San Diego.  Today, the State Project provides over two million acre-feet of water annually to farms and cities.  The SWP defies gravity, pumping water 2,000 vertical feet over the Tehachapi Mountains to reach Southern California residents.  The project was a remarkable accomplishment, undertaken during the golden age of traditional water infrastructure. 

Today, California is engaged in a critical debate, focused in the Bay-Delta, regarding what kind of water solutions will best serve the state in the 21st century. To understand this debate, it’s important to start with a short history of water infrastructure over the past three quarters of a century. 

78 years ago, the era of large dams began just a few miles from California’s border, with the completion of Hoover Dam, which also provides water and power for California.  That dam sparked one of humankind’s greatest building booms.  Today, California’s dam safety program regulates over 1,200 dams. Around the globe, according to the World Commission on Dams, there are now 45,000 large dams, most of which were built from the 1930s to the 1970s.  During the 1970s, the global dam building era reached its zenith, with two to three new dams begun each day.  Dams, however, are only one of the most visible technologies used in these ambitious water projects, which also include water pipelines and canals criss-crossing much of the West and drier regions in many countries.  These water projects represent an enormous investment in traditional water infrastructure.  The question facing California today is whether building more of that kind of infrastructure is the best solution today.

In the Delta, the debate regarding the best solutions to meet California’s needs is focused on the preliminary BDCP proposal to build two 35 mile-long tunnels under the Delta, each 40 feet in diameter, as part of a project costing $18 billion or more.  This is also a bold project - longer and larger than the Chunnel.  Six weeks ago, Northern and Southern California water agencies, business leaders and environmental groups, including NRDC, proposed a broader portfolio-based conceptual alternative to BDCP’s current narrow focus on a Delta facility and habitat restoration.  Unlike the current BDCP focus, the portfolio approach would include investments in other tools, like levees, South of Delta storage, water recycling, conservation and more. 

The differences between these two proposals highlight the differences between the world California faced 75 years ago and the world today.   Here are a few of those differences – and a short summary of why the portfolio approach may prove to be the right one.   

We’re Fresh Out of Rivers:  The dam building era came at a significant environmental cost – like a dry San Joaquin River and decimated salmon runs.  But like them or not, the water projects built during the past century produce millions of acre-feet of water each year for farms and cities across the state.  However, we’re facing a problem today that we didn’t face 75 years ago - we’re out of rivers.  The 1200 dams in California have squeezed most of the available water out of the state’s rivers.  From the Klamath in the North to the Colorado in the South, California’s rivers are tapped out.  Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that we are pumping too much water from the state’s largest river system – the Bay-Delta.  Today, we should be planning to divert less from the Bay-Delta, not more.  That’s why the state has adopted a policy to reduce reliance on Bay-Delta supplies.  These very real limits should inform decisions about infrastructure investments to meet needs in the future.  When you’re out of rivers, it’s time to look for new solutions.                                                    

A New Virtual River of Water Supplies:  Over the past two decades, water agencies across the state have pioneered new, ambitious strategies to developing new supplies.   California water agencies have built millions of acre-feet of groundwater storage.  They’re cleaning up tainted aquifers, building the world’s largest water recycling facility, capturing urban stormwater and meeting the needs of growth without additional water.  And across the state, water agencies are planning to do more – reducing and even eliminating their use of imported water.  Several years ago, one water leader admonished me to stop calling these “alternative” water supplies.  “Those”, she told me, “are our agency’s future supplies.   They work.  They’re affordable.  They’re not an alternative.”  Together, these proven tools offer the potential to produce as much water as we export from the Bay-Delta or from the Colorado River.  This virtual river of water supply was unimaginable in the 1930s.  Investments in these tools are a major component of the portfolio approach. 

A High-Tech, Interconnected World:  Technology is revolutionizing the solutions available in many sectors in our society.  From high-tech membranes that can squeeze contaminants out of tainted groundwater to weather-based irrigation controllers that allow satellite data to run sprinklers, technology is creating water management opportunities that were unimaginable just a decade ago.  Given California’s role as a global leader in innovation, technology is likely to keep creating new ways to save water.  Our rivers may be overtapped, but ongoing innovation will allow us to tap into new water supplies in the future.

Re-operating Existing Infrastructure:  The vast network of water infrastructure that makes a California water map look like a plate of spaghetti also represents an opportunity.  Many of those water systems were designed as stand-along projects to serve one community, often ignoring the community next door.  Smart water managers know that we have an opportunity to improve the use of underutilized water infrastructure -- squeezing more benefits from our existing investments.  Surface storage can be re-operated in conjunction with groundwater basins and expanded floodplains.  Water agencies can collaborate to use the recycling facility of one agency to provide water to store in the groundwater aquifer of a neighbor.  Improved integration of stovepiped water agencies and infrastructure can produce cost-effective benefits.  The portfolio approach also encourages a focus in this area. 

A Changing Climate:  We now know that climate change may make California a somewhat drier and more drought-prone state.  California water leaders should beware of planning to squeeze more water from drying river systems.  However, investments in strategies like efficiency and water recycling are largely unaffected by a warming climate.  In fact, because it may require even more water to keep a thirsty lawn green in the future, the savings from water efficient landscaping could grow over time.

The Environment:  Hoover Dam was completed nearly 40 years before the first Earth Day.  In the 40 years since that landmark launch of the modern environmental movement our understanding of the price of poorly conceived water projects has increased dramatically.   Today, the public values the protection of natural resources and recognizes that the health of our environment has important implications for our economy and our quality of life.  Nothing demonstrates that connection more clearly than the thousands of jobs in the salmon fishing community that rely on a healthy Bay-Delta.  Today, managers understand that working with natural systems can often yield better results.  The portfolio approach, for example, is founded on the best available science regarding the flow needs of the Bay-Delta.    

Economics:  The primary reason why California and the nation are no longer building many old-fashioned dams is simple.  Economists and water managers know that the alternatives work better in most cases.  Groundwater storage, for example, is cheaper and faster to build than old-school dams.  Water conservation is more affordable and reliable than betting on more water from an overtapped Bay-Delta system.  In Southern California communities like Santa Monica and Los Angeles, investments in local supplies reduce the use of imported water and save local residents money.  Central Valley farmers are on the market buying water from neighbors – at a lower cost than new supplies from traditional water development.  More and more, economics is pointing to new solutions.  Unfortunately, the water policy debate often ignores – or avoids – credible economic analysis. 

These examples show that the challenges California faces today are different from those in the 1930s.  The solutions available to us now are different as well.  That’s why the portfolio approach is so promising.  It reflects the way modern water agencies plan to meet the challenges their communities face today. 

Don’t take my word for it.  Take a look at your water agency’s plan to meet their needs over the coming quarter century.  Odds are that plan will reflect the same focus seen in the portfolio-based alternative – a diverse water supply investment plan, rather than a focus on a single “silver bullet” piece of infrastructure.

This trend toward portfolio-based solutions is well understood in the water world.  That’s why this new conceptual alternative is attracting such broad interest.  Our hope and request is that the BDCP process will analyze this alternative side-by-side with the project BDCP is currently focused on, to determine which performs better.   

We will need major investments to provide the water California will need in the 21st century.  But the best infrastructure investments today are likely to be different from those in the last century.

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Mike WadeMar 13 2013 01:15 PM

The portfolio approach championed by NRDC and a minority of other water interest groups glaringly ignores the effects the plan would have on San Joaquin Valley farmers. An undersized tunnel through the Delta with a capacity to transport up to 3,000 cubic feet per second would rob 750,000 acres of the world's best farmland of its water supply (, resulting in lost jobs for thousands of workers and a reduced supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in local grocery stores grown by California farmers.

The alternative tunnel would cut water supplies by a third that is currently delivered to 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians. An analysis of a single tunnel reveals that multiple shortcomings, including a lack of science to support its plan. That analysis can be found at

Barry Nelson writes about the local and regional projects associated with NRDC's alternative plan as if they are something new, which is contrary to reality. Water users are already implementing conservation and management practices to make the best use of their water supplies. Farmers are included in this group with the increased use of micro irrigation and other technology innovations.

Simply put, the NRDC portfolio approach does not provide a secure water future for California.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Keith Anthony FreitasMar 16 2013 02:11 PM


Some smart guys think that water is a body of contention, as if they are caretakers or exclusive holders of the right to manage it. Let me tell you smart kids that water management is something God and the Forces of Nature Control and only them.

Neither the farmers nor the Urban-its have control over water ....... They merely play with the perception of power over the resource to one up each other. The reality is that water is fickle and as such needs to be respected for its divinity and not it's ability to create cash or power, but ultimately Boys and Girls were all concerned more about the almighty dollar than showing reverence and humility for the life sustaining life force that is AKA WATER.

Kevin ScottMar 16 2013 02:33 PM

Water Wars Continued:

Like the Civil War ! Water is a thing that will divide us humans some day; as we are all really just seeking a balance of sustainability. But as the civil war created riff's between brother and sister of the same blood lines, so to will the water wars create great blood loss, and regret on both sides of sun valley.

Now that the war is in its 30th year farmers wander why me ? and Urban-it's scream why not you ! ........ While it will become one fight only to be told through the history books some of us in the battle field will suffer over a battle with useless outcomes.

Fighting over such a reverent asset as water is like spiting in the face of God him/her self. The price we small family farmers are paying is watching our ground water tables being sucked straight to the ocean floor and all the while seeing no delta fix that a small sucker fish being nothing more useless to an eco system than a pone in the water game used to sanitize an unnatural conclusion.

Once all the water is gone/contaminated or lost to the ocean we can all sit back and yell over the sky or the wind or maybe the sun.... yea... lets fight over the sun. The utility companies have already started this fight we just need to pick a side and jump in.


Payback from nature is coming to all of us ........

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