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Doug Obegi’s Blog

An Additional 391 Billion Gallons of Water from the Delta Isn't "More Water"?

Doug Obegi

Posted November 21, 2011

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A week ago, Tom Birmingham, the general manager of the Westlands Water District, wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which stated,

“The public agencies that depend on this water system are not trying to take more water out of the Delta. We are trying to secure the same amount of water as we used to have and that has been promised to us under law.”

Mr. Birmingham’s definition of “not trying to take more water out of the Delta” would make George Orwell proud because, in fact, BDCP is proposing to take a lot more water from the Delta, more than they used to have, and more than is promised to them under law. 

As the chart below shows, under the water contractors’ proposal for BDCP, long term average water exports from the Delta by the CVP and SWP (part of it through a peripheral canal) would be nearly 6 million acre feet per year.

That’s a lot more water than what the CVP and SWP have historically exported from the Delta.  From 1980-2000, the average level of water exports from the Delta was 4.9 million acre feet.   With current protections for salmon and other endangered species in place, on average the Central Valley Project and State Water Project can export approximately 4.9 million acre feet of water per year out of the Delta.  Of course, if that’s the average, in wetter years they can export a lot more; we saw this in 2011, when even with protections for listed species the projects exported more than 6.5 million acre feet of water, the highest ever levels of water exports from of the Delta.  Thus, even with protections for salmon and endangered species, water exports are approximately equal to the long term average.  Today, the export contractors are receiving, as Mr. Birmingham puts it “the same amount of water as we used to have.”


Admittedly, several decades ago, the water allocation for the 600 farmers served by Westlands was typically 100%,  But back then, the 19 million people served by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California took a lot less water from the Delta.  For instance, the initial 2011 allocation for Metropolitan is more than 1.146 million acre feet, and this amount is likely to increase substantially if 2011 is an average or wet year; however Metropolitan's 1996 allocation was just over 738,000 acre feet. I’m guessing that Metropolitan does not want to have “the same amount of water as we used to have,” as it would be a lot less than it receives today. 

So the latest proposal is for BDCP to take about 391 billion gallons a year (1.2 million acre feet of water) more from the Delta.   That’s a nearly 20% increase over current pumping levels – or what Mr. Birmingham calls “not trying to take more water out of the Delta.” 

Heck, even the flawed BDCP effects analysis admits that BDCP will “[i]ncrease total amount of water exports” (of course, they describe increased water exports as a conservation measure).  It seems that the contractors would like to return to the unsustainable level of water exports in the 2000s, when massive increases in Delta exports led to the collapse of delta smelt and other fisheries in the Delta.  I don’t begrudge the water contractors advocating for their own interests, but the fact that their interests are narrower than the public interest is precisely why they should not be permittees and should not be given a privileged role in implementing BDCP (as my colleague Barry Nelson wrote recently). 

Finally, there’s the question of what “has been promised to us under law.”  Westlands Water District has a contract for up to 1.15 million acre feet.  The key point there is that their contract, like the contracts for other CVP and SWP contractors, is for “up to” a maximum amount, with no liability if the CVP and SWP deliver less. The Westlands contract is very explicit that they are unlikely to receive that amount of water in most years.  The U.S. hasn’t breached its contract with Westlands, because Westlands wasn’t promised under law more than they are getting today. 

The reality is that water supplies in the Bay-Delta watershed are massively oversubscribed, with more water rights than there is water. In addition, in 2010 the State Water Resources Control Board concluded that, “The best available science suggests that current flows are insufficient to protect public trust resources,” and the Board recommended providing additional flows beyond the existing protections for salmon and other endangered species. 

Maybe it’s time for an honest conversation about what the purpose of BDCP really is: is it to significantly increase water exports from the Delta, or is it to increase the physical reliability of exports?  In light of the scientific evidence that current environmental flows are inadequate, focusing on the physical reliability of the system, rather than significantly increasing exports, seems more likely to succeed; together with investments in local and regional water supplies like water recycling, improved efficiency, and stormwater capture, that BDCP project could reduce reliance on water exports from the Delta and help California achieve a 21st century water policy.  

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ChrisNov 22 2011 11:05 AM

Doug, you hit the nail on the head.
The song remains the same as it was during the first attempt to build a peripheral canal.
If the BDCP was unencumbered by the undue influence of water exporters I suspect the answer to your question would become obvious.
Mr. Birmingham seems to subscribe to the school of thought that says if you repeat a lie enough times it will be believable.
BDCP never was about fish or "saving" the delta. It is and always has been about money and the redistribution of wealth.

MikeNov 22 2011 01:26 PM

Is it wrong to sign a contract and then expect it to be fulfilled? Most people realize that they are committing themselves to the conditions of a contract when they affix their name to it and they plan for the future according to those conditions. In the case of farmers receiving water that flows through the Delta, seeds are planted and workers are hired to nurture a crop to harvest. Once harvested, the crop may move in several different channels that ultimately end up with the consumer. During this process the lives of millions of people are touched. Is this wrong?

BDCP critics seem to focus on a single train of thought---halting water deliveries and keeping the water flowing through the Delta to the ocean. Yet, those who have worked for years in making BDCP a reality have had a multi-pronged approach that includes a return to contracted deliveries of water in a manner that does not harm the Delta. Ecosystem benefits to the Delta are an important part of the BDCP. Is this wrong?

Individuals who brush aside the resulting benefits to these water deliveries cry out against the BDCP and offer no alternative, other than a one-sided approach to California's water issues that serves no one but themselves. Their alternative ignores the lives of millions of people who rely on a food supply that is produced from these water deliveries.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

ChrisNov 22 2011 01:59 PM

Is it wrong to sign a contract and then expect it to be fulfilled? No

Is it wise to plant permanent crops when your water contract has no guarantee's of quantity or timing from year to year ?

Is it wrong to take prime farmland in the delta out of production to build a conveyance to irrigate marginal lands polluted with selenium ?

I'm a BDCP critic Mike.
My focus is NOT halting water deliveries. Don't get me wrong, that would be nice but it is no more likely than restoring Hetch Hetchy.
My focus is to return to the original premis of only diverting SURPLUS water.
Determining the needs of the estuary and by default defining what is actually surplus is the question that has not been adequately addressed.
A BDCP controlled by water contractors will never have the courage to give an honest answer to this .

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