$17 billion Delta water tunnels project faces critical MWD vote

After 11 years of planning, a massive tunnels project touted as a solution to the state’s vulnerable water supply faces its biggest test  Tuesday.

The 38-member board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the largest supplier of treated water in the United States delivering water to agencies serving 19 million people — is scheduled to vote on the $17 billion California WaterFix.

Metropolitan’s staff has waged a campaign in favor of the project for years and is recommending its board ratify the environmental review and also pay 26 percent of the cost, amounting to $4.3 billion. MWD’s wholesale water rates charged to 26 Southern California retail water districts and cities would rise 4.5 percent annually during the 18-year construction period, but the agency says WaterFix only accounts for 1 percent of the increase, with inflation accounting for the rest.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Department of Water Resources say the project will make water supplies more reliable, stabilize water flow and protect endangered fish species. The project would include installing three intakes north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and building two, 35-mile concrete diversion tunnels that would move water more efficiently into the State Water Project for cities and the federal Central Valley Project used by farmers. …

Read the full article from the Press-Enterprise

Water Wars Rage Over Where to Spend Bond Money

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirAfter a 35-year stalemate stalled new California water storage projects, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders agreed in 2014 to include $2.7 billion for such needs as part of Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond approved in a landslide by voters later that year.

The then-raging drought persuaded Democrats to go along with major water storage creation plans after blocking new projects since California completed its last dam in 1979. Many Republicans saw the opposition as a back-door way for environmentalists to squeeze state farmers to limit agricultural pollution and protect native species, and to slow growth in urban areas.

Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council scoffed at these claims. They say encouraging water conservation is always a good goal in an arid state, and argue that state and federal laws that protect threatened species need to be fully followed.

This sharp disagreement reflects how water politics have long been fraught in the Golden State. And now that the California Water Commission must choose which of 12 qualified proposed projects to fund with the $2.7 billion kitty, officials’ decisions are sure to be buffeted once again by regional interests (Northern vs. Southern California), economic interests (farmers vs. developers) and environmentalists’ interests. With the 12 projects estimated to cost about $13.1 billion – $10 billion-plus more than what is available – some key water stakeholders are sure to end up unhappy. Some districts will be forced to seek all or nearly all funding from other sources, starting with their customers.

Greens quick to start push for preferred project

The 12 projects were unveiled last week. The water commission must make its final decision by June 2018.

Environmentalists wasted no time identifying their favorite project: The Contra Costa Water District’s proposal to increase the storage capacity at its Los Vaqueros reservoir by more than 70 percent – going from 160,000 acre-feet to 275,000 acre-feet. Contra Costa officials say the additional capacity could meet the yearly needs of 1.4 million people.

But that isn’t why the $914 million project already has the strong support of several environmental groups – including the Planning and Conservation League, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. It’s because a chunk of the water would go to threatened Central Valley wetland refuges to shore up their fragile ecosystems, long a goal of state greens.

To boost the case for the proposal, Contra Costa water officials have lined up the formal support – and promises of funding help – from 12 other Bay Area water districts, which see the additional storage as “drought insurance.”

The most costly proposed projects are to build a $5 billion dam in Colusa County and a $3 billion dam in Fresno County.

Most of the projects proposed for Southern California are less ambitious. The exception is from the city of San Diego, which is asking for the water commission to help cover the $1.2 billion cost of a plant to recycle wastewater with advanced technology that makes it fully safe to mix with conventional water supplies. Officials believe the plant can supply one-third of city needs by 2035.

The project won final approval at San Diego City Hall in 2014, two weeks after Proposition 1 passed.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California orders closer look at these 93 dams after Oroville crisis

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

California officials have ordered owners of 93 dams to reinspect their flood-control spillways following the Oroville Dam crisis, saying the spillways need a closer look following a preliminary review.

The list released by the Department of Water Resources includes some of the largest dams in California, such as the New Exchequer Dam on the Merced River, New Bullards Bar on the Yuba River, and Lake Almanor Dam on the Feather River in Plumas County. Each holds back reservoirs roughly the size of Folsom Lake, which can store about 977,000 acre-feet of water.

Also on the list is New Don Pedro Dam, on the Tuolumne River, which is about twice the size of Folsom and contains the sixth largest reservoir in California.

DWR’s list also features scores of obscure facilities, including two owned along the American River by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District: Ice House and Union Valley dams.

The 93 dams represent less than 10 percent of the 1,250 dams overseen by the Department of Water Resources’ dam safety division. …

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California’s drought might never be over for farmers

After a particularly soppy winter refilled California’s gasping reservoirs and swelled the Sierra Nevada snowpack — to 175 percent above its historical average, in some spots — grateful residents hailed the end of a dry spell that stretched back six years. Governor Jerry Brown has declared that the state’s drought is mostly over, though he cautions that “conservation must remain a way of life.”

DroughtBut for the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, which covers roughly 400 miles from north to south and averages about 50 miles in width, water poverty continues — and in their case, the drought is mostly man-made. While the rain and snow have eased general water-use rules in place during the drought, California farmers continue to operate under strict environmental-regulatory constraints that have left this land parched.

For example, fresh water needed by farmers will still be diverted into the San Francisco Bay — 1.4 trillion gallons from 2008 through last spring — to protect the Delta smelt, a three-inch baitfish that has landed on the Endangered Species List and now gets preferential political treatment over farmers. The smelt’s defenders fear that the pumps that move critical water supplies to farmers could harm its chances for survival. So the fresh water is dumped into the ocean instead. To no avail, as it turns out: Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, told National Geographic that a survey that netted only six delta smelt is “further proof that redirecting water from human use to environmental use in the name of helping the fish is not working.”

It’s possible that as much as half of the water that is impounded in the state’s systems of dams and reservoirs and flows through its network of aqueducts, canals and pipelines gets diverted for an environmental agenda. Smelt protection is a federal policy. But California has the largest representation in Washington of any state. Why couldn’t this politically powerful delegation apply pressure in the right places to fix the problem? Maybe because most of California’s Senate and House members side with the environmental agenda over human needs.

State regulations also hold back the extraction of water, including a “groundwater sustainability plan” that when fully implemented will limit the volume of underground water that farmers can pump. Historically, landowners have had the right to determine how much water they pull out of the ground.

The state has also failed to address its glaring shortage of water infrastructure. California’s aqueducts and storage facilities simply cannot handle the volume of water needed to keep the Golden State sated over the long term. The California Farm Water Coalition says the state has a “broken water system” that creates “the risk of permanent water shortages during even the wettest of years, and ever-escalating disaster during multi-year droughts” if it’s not repaired.

Two years ago, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond to improve this situation. The funds would be spent on “surface and groundwater storage,” “water supply management and conveyance,” and “drought relief.” As much as $2.7 billion was earmarked for “water storage projects, dams, and reservoirs.” But critics say that California is sitting on needed projects.

The San Joaquin Valley is called the “breadbasket” and “food basket of the world” for good reason. Its 20,000 square miles produce 8 percent of the nation’s agriculture output by value, about a quarter of its food, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and 40 percent of the fruits, nuts, and other table foods consumed in this country. It’s an indispensable resource.

Despite the valley’s importance, Congressman Devin Nunes believes that environmentalists want to drive farmers out of it through water deprivation. With the San Joaquin Valley now in its third decade of a government-caused water shortage, it’s hard to argue with the Republican, whose valley district is home to nearly 4,000 farms. He’s met with the extreme Greens and seen their plans, which are disastrous for his constituents.

Thousands still forced from homes by flooding in California tech hub

As reported by Reuters:

The mucky water flooding a section of San Jose in Northern California forced officials on Wednesday to widen the area under mandatory evacuation orders, with about 14,000 people barred from returning to their homes following drenching rains.

San Jose, a hub of high-tech Silicon Valley, suffered major flooding on Tuesday triggering evacuation orders when Coyote Creek overran its banks, swamping the Rock Springs neighborhood. Water at some sites engulfed the entire first floor of residences while in other places it reached waist-high.

Officials said the city of about 1 million residents has not seen a flood approaching this magnitude since 1997.

The gush of water inundating San Jose flowed down from the Anderson Reservoir, which was pushed to overflowing by a rainstorm that pounded Northern California from Sunday to Tuesday, officials said. …

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Warnings About Oroville Dam Ignored 12 Years Ago

Oroville Dam 2SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento Bee story published Monday succinctly described the disaster unfolding at the nation’s tallest dam, where flaws in the Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway are forcing water onto the earthen emergency spillway. Threats of a spillway collapse led to mandatory evacuations throughout Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties Sunday.

“Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert, one that could damage the structure during a major flood and threaten downstream communities,” according to the Bee. “That flaw is the dam’s emergency spillway, which empties onto a bare dirt hillside adjacent to the earthen-fill dam.” The torrent of water could erode the unprotected hillside, undermine the emergency spillway’s foundation and lead to a catastrophic failure.

The amazing thing is that the news report was first published Nov. 27, 2005. The Bee’s Monday publication was a reprint, given the relevance of the report nearly a dozen years later. It provides necessary context after another news organization revealed that three environmental groups at the time had urged state and federal officials to line the emergency spillway with concrete to avoid the kind of problems on display this week.

A dozen years ago, the dam was going through a 50-year relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League argued in their filings that the 1960s-era dam “did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway” and threaten flooding in communities down river, according to the Mercury News, which broke the story this week.

State and federal officials brushed off the suggestion at the time, arguing that the likelihood of such an event was slim and that it would be too costly to complete those improvements. The dam received its relicensing and the matter faded away. State water officials have been consumed more by drought issues than flood possibilities in the ensuing dozen years. But given the accuracy of the environmental groups’ predictions, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what happened.

At a news conference near Lake Oroville Monday, “the state’s top water officials brushed aside questions” about that old report and didn’t address assurances from a top state water official in 2005 that “(o)ur facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event,” according to the latest Bee report.

The news story revealed another troubling piece of the puzzle: Congress had authorized the construction of a smaller dam on the Yuba River near Marysville, which is down river from Oroville. The Oroville Dam’s operating plan was predicated, in part, on the construction of this other dam, which would take pressure off the larger facility. But it was never built. In the view of critics, this serves as a touchstone for much that is wrong with California’s water policy.

Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for spending so much time defying the new Trump administration “that it forgot to do the things government is supposed to do, like maintain infrastructure.” The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season, he added, would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams but the Brown administration was more focused on building a $68-billion high-speed rail line, dealing with immigration issues and boosting public-employee compensation.

That’s a harsh assessment, but there’s much evidence to support the theory of ongoing state neglect. There are available water-bond funds, yet the state government has been lackadaisical at best about spending them. Many of its priorities are about environmental restoration rather than dam protection and there’s been little appetite in the Capitol to build new storage facilities.

Indeed, the governor has been more focused on removing dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon border than on shoring up the linchpin of the State Water Project – the system of levees and dams that directs water from the Sacramento Valley southward.

The Brown administration, which had vowed to fight against Donald Trump on his climate, immigration and other policies, nevertheless asked the president Friday to declare parts of California a disaster area, thus opening up a floodgate of federal aid. But there are other federal policies that the Trump administration could consider that would help protect residents living within the shadow of Oroville and other California dams.

For instance, current mortgage rules regarding flood insurance discourage people who live in the shadow of large dams from purchasing flood insurance policies. Federal lending rules require such insurance for owners of property in flood plains, but flood-protection systems such as dams and levees usually remove the floodplain designation from those areas. Without pressure from mortgage companies, owners typically avoid the insurance, figuring there’s little chance of a dam failure.

“Properties that would be designated as located within a flood plain but for a flood protection system like dams and levees – residual risk areas – should be subject to the mandatory purchase requirement,” argues the SmarterSafer Coalition, which includes the R Street Institute, in a recent study analyzing the federal flood insurance program. Those areas would, of course, have rates that “clearly reflect the decreased risk the properties face as a result of the dam or levee.”

Such an insurance system wouldn’t ensure that state and federal authorities repair their dams and levees in a timely manner, but it would offer a level of economic protection for people who are now sitting in motel rooms, watching the news and wondering whether they’ll have anything left if the Oroville Dam spillway gives way. Furthermore, it would protect taxpayers, who typically pay for the aid after a natural disaster strikes.

For now, watching and waiting is all that most Northern California residents can do. Once the crisis passes, there will be intense pressure on the state government to make repairs to Oroville Dam and others across the state. But news reports make clear that state officials were warned about the very problems now unfolding.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Race Against Rain: Oroville Dam Must Drain 50 Feet by Wednesday

Oroville DamOfficials are releasing water from the Oroville Dam, the nation’s highest, at the astonishing rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second, with the goal of lowering the lake’s elevation by 50 feet before a week of rain and snow hits the region Wednesday.

At a press conference Sunday night, law enforcement and California Department of Water Resources officials announced that they had released enough water to stop flow over the emergency spillway, reducing the risk of erosion and structural collapse. The lake dropped below its maximum height of 901 feet above sea level, and was continuing to subside, officials reported.

However, water was continuing to flow into the lake behind the dam at a rate of 40,000 cubic feet per second, the result of runoff and snow melt from weeks of heavy precipitation after five years of drought. As a result, the dam would need to be drained as quickly as possible over the next 72 hours. The maximum release rate is about 150,000 cubic feet per second, though officials are reluctant to release water down the main spillway at that rate because of the risk of structural damage.

Already, the main concrete spillway has developed a large hole, which officials estimate will cost $100 to $200 million to fix. The adjacent emergency spillway, which drains onto an unpaved hillside of soil, rocks and trees, has also developed a hole  that could result in structural failure and that officials may have to plug by dropping rocks from helicopters. If the emergency spillway does collapse, it could lose 30 feet in height, releasing a wall of water into the Feather River below, which drains into the Sacramento River. That poses a severe risk to communities below the dam, including the state capital of Sacramento.

Officials issued an emergency evacuation order Sunday afternoon, warning that the emergency spillway was expected to collapse within an hour. That led to massive traffic jams as residents drove northward towards Chico. Though the spillway remains intact for now, nearly 200,000 residents from Oroville and surrounding communities remain under evacuation.

California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency order Sunday evening and indicated that the state was managing the relief effort.

Officials also said they were cooperating with the federal government. Separately, Gov. Brown had asked President Donald Trump for federal emergency relief funds to address damage to the state done by storms earlier this year.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

This piece was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Despite Heavy Rains, California Water Restrictions Remain in Place

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirDrought-busting levels of rain and snow have put pressure to lift emergency restrictions on usage, but California regulators declined to ease up on the longstanding curbs.

“Amid the ongoing succession of storms, water managers up and down the state are urging regulators in Sacramento to permanently cancel historic, emergency drought rules that have been in place for 18 months,” U-T San Diego reported late last month. “It’s an escalation of their ongoing opposition to these restrictions, which already have been eased considerably since homeowners and businesses were first forced to cut consumption by a statewide average of 25 percent. California doesn’t have an official definition for statewide drought, leaving it up to the governor’s discretion on when to announce an end to that designation.”

Swift, uneven progress

But in a new report, the State Water Resources Control Board insisted that the drought’s persistent impact had to be mitigated further before any changes could be considered. “Some reservoirs remain critically low and groundwater storage remains depleted in many areas due to the continued impact of prolonged drought,” they concluded, according to the Sacramento Bee. “Precipitation cannot be counted on to continue, and snowpack levels, while above average for the current time of year, are subject to rapid reductions as seen in 2016 and before.” While the extraordinary rules imposed to conserve water were on track to expire at the end of this month, the board planned to extend them 270 days into the future.

The caution struck a contrast to the swiftness of California’s transformation from dry to wet. “According to the U.S. drought monitor website,” HotAir noted, “there are no areas of exceptional drought left in the state.” Updated data, the site observed, “indicates that one year ago 64 percent of the state was considered to be under either extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the two highest categories. Now, largely thanks to the storms over the past month, that figure has dropped to 2 percent.”

Continued challenges

Water districts have now had to scramble to figure out how to store what could be excess water if the new trends continue. Although the pathway to new storage initiatives has been cleared and funded, the state’s bureaucratic process will add extra time. “In 2014, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond, including $2.7 billion for storage projects, to provide funding to water projects and programs throughout the state,” KXTV recalled. “Since then, government agencies across the state have been developing the process for accepting proposals.” This month, the station added, “the Water Commission will consider bids on numerous water storage projects across the state.”

And milder drought conditions have persisted. “Overall, the monitor … showed 51 percent of California remains in some form of drought, but that’s down from just over 57 percent last week and compares with 81 percent three months ago,” CNBC reported. And in a twist adding an unexpected layer of politics to the fraught question of resource management in the most beleaguered parts of the state, some Central Valley water officials became the focus of a misspending scandal. “An irrigation district in Central California’s prime farming region gave its employees free housing, interest-free loans and credit cards that the workers used to buy tickets for concerts and professional sports games, possibly breaking the law,” said state officials according to NBC Bay Area. “Employees at Panoche Water District based in Firebaugh used the credit cards to buy season tickets to Raiders and Oakland A’s games and attend a Katy Perry concert, officials said.”

The long view

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has kept a focus on what regulatory framework will persist even after all drought conditions have been adequately mitigated. “Brown has asked the state agency to design new conservation rules for water districts that will stay in place regardless of whether California is in drought,” according to U-T San Diego. “In the long run, the governor and state regulators are moving forward with their plan to establish permanent usage budgets tailored to each water district, as well as a suite of other regulations governing water consumption. The new rules are expected to include caps for both indoor use and outdoor water use, taking into consideration differences in weather patterns and other factors from one geographic region to another.”

Emergency release of water from Oroville Dam escalates

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

As water Thursday night rose toward the brim of the reservoir behind the damaged spillway of Oroville Dam, state officials braced for the unprecedented: having to open the emergency outlet of the tallest dam in the United States, which could have untold ecological consequences.

The trouble started Tuesday in the midst of relentless rainstorms, as a section of the concrete spillway that later grew to more than 200 feet wide and 30 feet deep collapsed, frothing the Feather River below like chocolate syrup, so thick with mud and debris that those toiling to save millions of salmon at the hatchery below could hardly see two inches beneath the surface.

Officials stopped releases to inspect the problem but runoff kept the reservoir rising. On Thursday morning, officials increased the flow. The fissure ballooned outward, sending coffee-colored water gushing down the adjacent hillside. …

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Less than 1 percent of California now in ‘extreme’ drought

As reported by CNBC:

Storms in the past week helped bring rain and snow to California, resulting in a “significantly improved” drought picture for the state, the U.S. Drought Monitor said Thursday.

As a result, the latest monitor shows just 47 percent of California being designated at some level of drought intensity. Last week that figure was just over 50 percent and three months ago it stood at 73 percent.

While Northern California is essentially free of drought conditions, there are various levels of drought still in the state’s southern and central areas. Yet the latest map showed major improvement for several southern counties.

“In California, the cumulative effect of several months of abundant precipitation has significantly improved drought conditions across the state,” the monitor said. …

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