Oops, DWR Did It Again

WaterFix version 1 is hung out to dry.  There have been welcome announcements by the Newsom administration of a clean start on California water policy.  But on June 10, 2019, the Department of Water Resources posted “Why Delta Conveyance” to one of its many webpages, linked in DWR’s email listserve DWR Water News.  It appears that some of the messengers at DWR have set the dial back to the spin cycle.

Fast spin number 1 in “Why Delta Conveyance” reads:

According to the United States Geological Survey, there is a 72% chance of a 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake occurring in the Bay Area by 2043 that could cause levees in the Delta to fail, crippling the state’s ability to deliver clean water.”

Let’s unpack that.

  • There is a 72% chance of 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake occurring in the Bay Area by 2043.

Okay, that a plausible prediction, but we don’t have the reference from USGS. It would be really useful to have the reference, to see exactly what USGS predicted.  A reasonable suspicion is that the 72% figure refers to the likelihood of an earthquake occurring somewhere in the Bay Area, not somewhere that would specifically affect levees in the Delta.

  • A magnitude 6.7 earthquake “could cause levees in the Delta to fail.”

It is believable that an earthquake in the wrong place could cause levees to fail.  What’s not believable is that there’s a 72% percent chance that the predicted 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake will be in that place.  But that’s how that statement reads, or at least, that’s how one could read it.  If there is a report that says there is a 72% chance of a levee-breaking earthquake, then show us the report and show us the data.

  • If enough levees failed, the consequences could be “crippling the state’s ability to deliver clean water.

Well, if that means that levee failure could compromise the ability of the state to export water from the Delta for some undetermined period of time, depending on specifics, then yes, that is also believable.  Whether that would “crippl[e] the state’s ability to deliver clean water” depends on how many levees failed and where they failed, and how long it took to get them back on line.  (The speed of repair of the levee failure in the Jones tract in 2004 far exceeded expectations). It depends on where the water is coming from and going to.  It depends on what options there are now or that may be developed between today and 2043 to create alternative sources of supply for water that might be lost if Delta exports were compromised.  And it depends more generally on how one defines “cripple.”

It would also depend on whether the hundreds of miles of canals that move water south from the Delta would also survive the hypothetical earthquake that caused Delta levees to fail.  If those canals fail too, would levee failure be “crippling?”  Stated differently, if there were a tunnel under the Delta that got water to the head of canals that failed further south, would the investment in a tunnel have paid off?

Fast spin number 2 in “Why Delta Conveyance” reads:

Modernizing Delta conveyance would add additional points of diversion along the Sacramento River, increasing the operational flexibility of the SWP, therefore improving the reliability of deliveries to Californians. In 15 years of the 20 years from 1998 – 2018, the SWP delivered 75% or less of the permitted water.   Deliveries for eight of those years paint an even more concerning picture with deliveries at 50% or less.

Recently, the Newsom administration has told Delta advocates that a one-tunnel project would not be for the purpose of increasing diversions from the Delta.  Yet DWR’s blog defines “reliability” as the ability to divert more water from the Delta.

The blog’s lament of not meeting amounts of “permitted water” is not a situation that a tunnel would change.  There is almost never enough water that falls from the sky to make full deliveries of DWR’s bloated water right permits.  DWR’s permits are far back in line compared to older water rights.  DWR’s permits also anticipated diverting water from rivers on California’s north coast.  That hasn’t happened.  Diversion infrastructure in the Delta and south of the Delta, and restrictions on their use, do limit Delta diversions in many years.  But 75% of DWR’s permitted water is a good year for diversions by most any measure.  And less than 50% deliveries in eight years is not surprising, considering that eight years (2007-2009, 2012-2016) are generally considered to have been drought years.

Fresh evaluation or same old project with minty fresh scent?

One would like to think that the Newsom administration’s new “portfolio” approach to California water would include looking at Delta conveyance with diverse input and fresh eyes, including whether or not “alternative” conveyance makes sense.  But if the blog post “Why Delta Conveyance” is an indicator, the foremost question for DWR is what it can sell.  If that’s how it shakes out, look for new “fact sheets” that aren’t factual, and for new project branding to be the centerpiece of a new project definition.

One can only wish that DWR would get its stories straight and be honest about what any new conveyance project would do, before it lavishes the public with descriptions of how great it’s all going to be.

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