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Not Dependent On Hydrology

It's not helping the rivers, the delta, the smelt, the salmon or anything else.

Apr 14, 2011


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APRIL 14 2011

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Not Dependent On Hydrology

We found the article below (Commentary on the Hearing in Fresno) that is critical of Congressman Tom McClintock and Westlands General Manager Thomas Birmingham's comments at the water hearing in Fresno.  The criticism is leveled in two main areas:  1) Number of people unemployed because of the man-made drought.  2) The comment that South-of-Delta water supply is not dependent on hydrology.  Regarding #1, the number of people left unemployed has been much debated and we'll let the economists try to figure it out.  All we know is that if you fallow 200-250,000 acres on the West Side, it's going to put a lot of people out of work, and the property taxes not paid and the sales taxes not paid are going to put a lot of other people out of work including teachers, police, waitresses, barbers, car salesmen, truckers...I could go on. 

The real purpose of this newsletter, however, is to address the other point being made about hydrology.  Tom Birmingham indicated that water supply is not dependent on hydrology.  The point he was trying to make was the point the hearing was trying to make:  the problem is not that there isn't enough water, it's that there's an over abundance of regulations.  The article goes on to say that "the size of our water use has brushed up against the size of our environment."  This would indicate that using any more developed water than we do now would be too damaging to the environment.  We can understand why people would come to this conclusion because it's all we ever hear from the enviros.  But, as Dan Walters pointed out in his recent article (California's Water Flow Squandered), all you have to do is watch the water flowing down the Sacramento River (or pick any other river of your choice) and out to sea to understand that it's water we could use for years if we had a place to store it.  This extra water isn't doing anyone any good, contrary to another point of the article that the water "was being used for another use that is also important to people."  We disagree.  It's not helping the rivers, the delta, the smelt, the salmon or anything else.  It's just going out to sea never to be seen again.  To quote Walters, "let's put that in another context.  The difference between California's having an adequate water supply and an inadequate supply is roughly 3 million acre-feet of water a year.  That's the equivalent of just 20 days of current Sacramento River flow."

This leads to another criticism in the article:  it's expensive(water storage).  This is true.  It is expensive to build a dam.  We've seen estimates that the Sites dam and the Temperance Flat dam combined would be about $4-billion.  Throw in a couple billion more and you can clean up the wastewater problem in the delta.  That's a lot of money, in fact, about 1/10th of the projected cost of high-speed rail (if you're inclined to believe the 40-60-billion cost estimate that many believe is way low).  Funny how that train money just seems to float around from all kinds of directions, and the same people who hate spending money for dams love spending ten times as much for trains.  Expensive must be in the eye of the beholder.  As we've said before, maybe that train can carry a lot of water to L.A.  Hope you enjoy the article below. 
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Commentary on the hearing in Fresno.

Oh for Pete’s sake. McClintock’s opening statement is just fact-free. Tens of thousands of families out of work from the drought? Well, yeah, maybe, if the coefficient before that is 0.0002(tens of thousands of families). But in English, we normally call that “two” thousand. He got his units wrong too. That’s jobs lost, not families unemployed. Are we back to fears of Chinese carrots? No amount of citing USDA crop statistics is going to change that, will it?
Whatever. McClintock is who he is. The more interesting statement came from Westlands manager Tom Birmingham.
At the bottom of page 2, he writes:
If any proposition should be made inarguable by the current situation, it would bethat the water supply for the numerous south-of-Delta Central Valley Project(“CVP”) agricultural water service contractors is not dependent on hydrology. [my emphasis]

This is it. This really is the heart of the difference between the two camps. The camps are roughly parallel to “abundance” Republicans and enviros, but I could name a bunch of stodgy district engineers who wouldn’t call themselves enviros but would be appalled at the statement that water supplies don’t depend on hydrology. I think Mr. Birmingham was setting himself up rhetorically for the remainder of his argument, that the real culprit was regulations. The real culprit is, of course, trade-offs.

Here’s the thing. We do have an extensive water collection and distribution system throughout the state, and it does provide a substantial buffer against any one year’s hydrology. What’s the saying? Canals move water through space; dams move water through time. We could build even more of a buffer. With very much money, we could store some more and plumb some more, so that Mr. Birmingham’s intake gates are full for an even higher percent of the time.

But. The size of our water use has brushed up against the size of our environment. Now, every new bit of capacity we buy is 1. expensive and 2. was being used for another use that is also important to people. Maybe those are just effete hippies that live in cities, but even so, those people want to know there are fish around and are willing to dedicate water to that use*. Those people, of whom there are many, have put in place some laws to make sure that happens. Mr. Birminham’s problem is not “regulations” that sprang into being from some bureaucrat. Mr. Birmingham’s problem is that many other people who vote want the same water to be used for the environment and expressed that want through their legislators. His other problem is that although we can build more buffer, we cannot use that buffer to withhold more water without the environment responding negatively, because we are at past the limits of environmental tolerance.

Right now, the worst thing that could happen to Westlands is for them to get the capacity they want (Sites, a Peripheral Canal, Temperance Flats) but have to pay for it. Again, the capacity they want is possible but no longer worth the cost, because constraints of the physical world (good damsites gone, costs of mitigating the environmental effects of taking the incremental water away from rivers and the Delta). This is the part that the abundance crowd keeps waving away. The full cost of water from new capacity would be more expensive than Westlands could afford to irrigate with. Their solution is that the rest of us should pay for some of it. In less broke times, that might have slipped through. These days, not so much. Their other option is that the environment should pay for it, by crashing and dying somewhere out of sight.

The conversation goes around and around this distinction: are we constrained by physical limits? It all boils down to that. It isn’t that enviros hate farmers and want them not to have any water. It is that every next piece of water comes with unacceptable trade-offs. (Actually, the fact that we have endangered species means that the last few pieces of water came with unacceptable trade-offs.) But people who argue for returning to abundance by changing our mindset or who say things like ‘our supply doesn’t depend on hydrology’ aren’t ready to talk about very concrete trade-offs. It’ll be a long repetitive conversation until they get there.
*This is a very human-centric utilitarian argument for environmental flows; I also hold a rights-based theory of water use that says that other creatures have a right to the environment they need to exist, but I’ll work off the utilitarian argument here.

**Which is why I think that MWD will get their small Peripheral Canal and ag won’t get a big Peripheral Canal. MWD can afford water that expensive; ag can’t.


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