Facts Needed on Delta Sea Level Rise Projections

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla
Restore the Delta

Among many other things you will find in the fifth staff draft of the Delta Plan, issued last week, is the subsidence/earthquake/sea level rise mantra repeated over and over and over and OVER.

Roger Patterson of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), among others, is going around chanting the same mantra.

Facts hardly matter in the face of this kind of religious conviction.

But we’ll put some facts out there anyway. These are from the July 21 draft of the Delta Protection Commission’s Economic Sustainability Plan, Chapter 4 (“Flood, Earthquake and Sea-Level Rise Risk Management”) and Appendix D (“Clarification of Some Basic Issues with Regard to Delta Levees”).

Recent estimates of levee fragility rely on the Delta Risk Management Strategy (DRMS) Phase 1 report, which is based on older test borings and insufficient testing, and which doesn’t take into account ongoing improvements to Delta levees. (People in the Delta have not just been sitting around waiting for the rest of the state to decide what to do with their levees.) Use of decades-old data led to erroneously high failure probabilities. DRMS has been criticized by a number of reviewers, including an independent review panel assembled by the Cal-Fed Science Program.

The Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) notes that although there were many levee failures in earlier years, the majority resulted from overtopping, not collapse. “Improved flood management, in addition to other improvements in the levees, has significantly reduced the rate of failure. Today’s levees, which retain water 24 hours a day, have demonstrated an ability to withstand normal tidal and typical flood loadings regardless of their variability [in construction and composition].”

Regarding vulnerability to tides and floods, “High water elevations resulting from tides and floods can . . . be seen days or weeks in advance so that appropriate emergency measures can be taken. The probabilities of failure due to overtopping that are calculated in DRMS appear to be inconsistent with these realities.”

Regarding subsidence, it is worth remembering that this is a river delta with land protected by levees, and it is not abnormal for the land side to be lower than the water side. Interpretation of the data suggests that problems associated with subsidence, such as impaired drainage, are occurring on less than 14 percent of the area of the Delta; continued subsidence is not a Delta-wide problem.

And anyway, subsidence of even several more feet has little impact on the stability of levees that are already 20 to 30 feet high on the land side.

Sea level rise, meanwhile, can be addressed by routine maintenance of levees improved to the state and federal standards already in place for Delta levees.

But aren’t the Delta levees vulnerable to earthquakes? No more vulnerable than other portions of California through which water transfer infrastructure moves, and maybe less vulnerable.

“Meticulous work by Drexler et al. (2009) indicates that the oldest peat deposits [in the Delta] are in the order of 7,000 years old so that the underlying sands are at least this old.” These sands are not especially susceptible to liquifaction. “The repeated citing of levee deformations that were sustained in the Kobe and Christchurch earthquakes, which had higher ground motions and where levees were founded on very loose and recent alluvial soils, is not particularly helpful. However, although these case histories are not directly applicable to the Delta, they do illustrate that levees do not necessarily breach and release water, even when they are quite badly deformed. In fact, to the extent that the Delta levees are largely composed of peat [which is fibrous], they may be expected to perform better than levees in general under earthquake loadings.”

What about “sunny-day failures”? There has only been one in 30 years due to weaknesses in levees. Two other sunny-day failures in that period resulted from operation of the PG&E gas storage facility under a Delta island.

The Economic Sustainability Plan recommends reducing risks resulting from levee failure by building more robust levees; improving regular maintenance and monitoring; improving flood-fighting and emergency response; and improving preparedness for dealing with failures when they do occur. All this can be done at far less cost and with far less disruption than building a big canal or tunnel.

Much of the money to do the necessary work on Delta levees has already been allocated in voter-approved bond issues. So why hasn’t it been spent?

Patricia McBroom interviewed engineer Robert Pyke for her most recent posting on her blog, The California Spigot. Dr. Pyke, an expert on earthquake preparedness for dams and levees, did much of the analysis of levees for the ESP. In the interview, Pyke told McBroom that Delta levees “are the poor stepchild – the one critical feature in California that is still being neglected” even as CalTrans and public utilities in the East Bay and San Francisco spend billions on seismic upgrades to infrastructure.

Notes McBroom, “Many would argue that the delay can be traced to the state’s preoccupation with building [isolated conveyance]. If the levees can be retrofitted for earthquakes, one good reason for building the canal would be lost….”

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

The ability of wealthy interests to get what they want with respect to water extends all the way to using bonds to get California taxpayers to cover their projects, according to a two-part article by Lloyd Carter and Patrick Porgans.

In Part 1, Carter and Porgans show how

A few of California’s land rich billionaires – whose wealth, ultimately, depends on water – have had a significant role in using the “system” (tax-base revenue, credit rating, and natural resources) to promote and support issuances of tens of billions of dollars of General Obligation (GO) bonds to fund vested interest public works projects, particularly water and water-related grant programs which considerably enhance the value of their land. And the grant money, often used to build local water district infrastructure and help fund developers, is free. At the same time, they are having the public pay to increase their water supply, and are selling this water back to the public at astronomically high prices.

This strategy goes all the way back to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, father of the present governor, who sold Californians on the $1.75 billion cost of the State Water Project (SWP) in 1960 with the argument that the project would “pay for itself.” It has never paid for itself; General Obligation bonds are still being used to pay it off.

In the Part 2, the authors show how under Governor Schwarzenegger, “voters were persuaded to approve more than $40 billion in GO bonds, which will cost $80 billion to repay. According to the state’s Department of Finance director, for every dollar borrowed with General Obligation bonds two dollars must be paid back for interest and principal.”

(This includes Propositions 84 and 1E, which were supposed to include funds to pay for levee improvements and flood control projects. Disbursement of those funds has been delayed, as noted above.)

“Over time,” note Carter and Porgans, “that $80 billion will be repaid from the state’s deficit-ridden General Fund, and could trigger even more cuts of General Fund programs in future state budgets. However, Team Billionaire players are not telling that to voters as they stump for next year’s water bond.”

Case in point

To see this “you pay, we benefit” strategy up close, we only need to look at the July 29 meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), as reported by Restore the Delta’s Brett Baker.

One action the DSC took was to unanimously adopt an amended Delta Science Program contract, allowing the program to net an additional $75K of federal money coming from the US Fish and Wildlife Service budget.

If you have any interest in the Council’s financial housekeeping, check out a breakdown of their quarterly contracts here: http://deltacouncil.ca.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/Agenda_Item_4b_Quarterly_Contracts_Update.pdf

This spread sheet could use an additional column showing where this money came from. General obligation bonds? The General Fund? DWR’s budget? The sky? We are curious to know from where the $14M for the Delta Plan is coming.

Cliff Dahm gave his Lead Scientist’s report, referencing a recent article, “Economic Costs and Adaptations for alternative regulations of California’s Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta” available here: http://watershed.ucdavis.edu/pdf/Tanaka%20et%20al.%20Economic%20Costs%20and%20Adaptations.pdf

The abstract suggests that reductions in upstream and in-Delta diversions should be sought to allow increased levels of export pumping from the Delta.

Presumably, their model does not incorporate the energy costs of conveying water, or perhaps over estimates the economic benefit of having a green lawn in Palmdale; but regardless, there is that pesky water rights system we have in California, and we just don’t think this proposal is something that an almond grower in Colusa County is going to appreciate.

Get your shovel ready

Perhaps the most substantive undertaking of the Council thus far in its existence was agenda item 7: the East Bay Municipal Utilities District Aqueduct Protection Projects, which would entail levee improvement projects on Lower Roberts Island, Upper and Lower Jones Tract, as well as Palm and Orwood Tracts.

In a decision that will have an almost immediate impact on the landscape of the Delta, the DSC authorized 5 out of 10 projects proposed in response to the project solicitation package (PSP) designed to distribute funding from Proposition 1E funding. The other 5 proposals are currently under development and will be brought before the council in the coming months.

So that’s where some of that Prop. 1E money is going to be used.

But then the DSC turned to the matter of financing the Delta Plan. They heard from a panel with four members: Alan Highstreet (CH2MHill), Ellen Hanak (Public Policy Institute of California – PPIC), Richard Sykes (East Bay Municipal Utility District – EBMUD), James Nachbaur (Legislative Analyst’s Office -LAO), and David Bolland (Association of California Water Agencies – ACWA).

Hanak supported the concept of General Obligation funding for ecosystem restoration in the 2012 Water Bond, and promoted the development of a beneficiary and stressor pays framework for project and plan implementation. She went on to say, “We haven’t been charging ourselves, as a society, enough to cover the full costs, and that is what redressing the ecosystem damages is about.”

(This is a heck of a plan: Water contractors build a State Water Project, underestimate its true cost, and get the taxpayers to subsidize it for the next century. Some taxpayers will benefit from it – although not as much as the water contractors will. No one will worry about the environment. But if something comes up later that the water contractors didn’t anticipate, they’ll call the taxpayers “society” and get them to pay to mitigate it. This is a poor plan from an environmental and economic perspective, and elucidates why California is in such trouble financially while the environment continues to be degraded.)

Nachbaur discussed a public goods charge but made it clear that the LAO wasn’t recommending that as the most appropriate finance structure.

ACWA’s Boland presented principles that could have been called “why you should charge everyone but us for the implementation of the Delta Plan.”

Principle 1: Create Value

ACWA bemoans the regulatory structure that is emerging from the Delta plan, and implies that there should be a corresponding increase in supply to justify investment.

Principal 2: Develop Partnerships and Broaden Support.

ACWA is disapproving of the breadth and depth of DSC’s authority, and feels that required contribution to the implementation of the plan will result in decreased collaboration of State, Federal, local government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector efforts to accomplish the co-equal goals in the Delta. (As if they’ve been collaborating!)

Principle 3: Broaden the Financial Base

ACWA concludes that the plan should have a broader beneficiary focus and include as many interests as possible to decrease the financial reliance on water suppliers and users.

Principle 4: Implement “Beneficiary Pays” Appropriately

ACWA argues that as much burden should be placed on the General Fund as possible. “It is clear that substantial STATE GENERAL FUNDS and program funds, as well as a variety of federal funding sources must be brought to the table to finance these public benefits.” (Emphasis added.)

Principle 5: Support the 2012 Water bond (of course)

Social capital

A graduate student named Aracely Campa at Sac State has done a thesis in Public Policy and Administration called “The Bay Delta Conservation Plan: a mid-course evaluation measuring best practices in collaboration.” According to the abstract,

The main findings of the study demonstrated that key stakeholders are missing in the decision-making process. The data also indicated that the absence of key stakeholders increased the division between those actively at the table and those participating as “interested observers.” This has resulted in a decrease in social capital and a power imbalance among participants.

To save our readers a bit of trouble, we looked up “social capital.” Here’s one definition: Social capital refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems.

Yep. We have a stock plunge here.

And speaking of investing

In his August 9 blog post, water economist David Zetland fielded a question about investing in “productive agricultural land with water on site”-apparently almond farms. Zetland calls this a high risk strategy, for a variety of reasons.

But we don’t want to forget that for all the talk about feeding the world, some agricultural landowners really are investors first.

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