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Water Solutions or Magical Thinking

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By Ron Stork, Sr. Policy Advocate, Friends of the River


The House of Representatives seems to live in a world disconnected from the real world but, in doing so, seeks to remake it. Subcommittee on Water & Power Chair Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) continues to speak and write about his vision of an era of abundance where great new brimful reservoirs provide plentiful and cheap water and electricity for our farms and families.

In his world, the annoying voices of economists that speak of the realities of the law of diminishing returns from damming---and re-damming---the same rivers are not heard. In the Congressman's world, the life within rivers can be re-created by industrial reproduction and rearing in hatcheries, and the beauty of natural waterscapes can be replaced by the military discipline of concrete dams and still reservoirs and be banished to aging photographs.

Tom's on a roll too. He's persuaded the House to de-designate wild & scenic rivers to make room for reservoirs, and he and his colleagues have introduced bills to authorize huge dams and reservoirs without the slightest attention to the pesky rules laid down by President Ronald Reagan---you know, like waiting for agency review and recommendations or bothering with any notion of who will pay for them or how they will be paid for.

A cop on the beat?

The State Water Resources Control Board is little known to the general public but could be the "decider" about where scarce state water resources go when nature's water bounty is in short supply. As this winter's endless parade of blue-sky days followed last year's similar parade, the Board stepped up. Water-rights holders were notified that curtailments could be coming (particularly for the holders of junior rights), and after the Governor's drought-emergency proclamation, delta pumping (with occasional exceptions for some rainy days) was limited to health-and-safety deliveries for urban contractors. If this Spring stays dry, expect the Board to be at the center of action and controversy as water users in this state fight over the scarce supply.

When the rains fail and the reservoirs shrink to critical levels, it helps to have some good groundwater to rely on. Of course that means that you haven't used it all up in the good times to support the unsustainable dreams of the "era of abundance." Some parts of the state have abused their groundwater, having poisoned it and overpumped it. So, even legislators and officials in the state capital are beginning to realize that there need to be cops on the beat to ensure that groundwater is there, when needed, for times of drought. If that view continues to develop, local governments could be asked to assume this beat. And when they don't, the State Water Resources Control Board would have to step in. It hasn't happened yet, but it might. For now groundwater is regulated like a limitless "magic" resource.
The third branch of government

When asked to identify the three branches of the Federal government, most civics-challenged Americans have a hard time answering the question. Yet these Federal branches of government do exist. And there's been some news from the Federal (and state) judiciary recently that can help shape the fate of rivers and the life they sustain.

After years of challenge from the powerful water districts of the San Joaquin Valley and of the south state, the Federal Appeals court in San Francisco has affirmed the biological opinion to protect the endangered delta smelt from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the operation of the state and federal delta projects. Expect more action by the Congress to overturn this decision. In the meantime the drought and adverse habitat conditions in the delta continue to take their toll on this and other California native fish.

Some court decisions are more difficult to size up. Back in the mid 1990s the state of California ceded control of the Kern Water Bank to groundwater banking authorities controlled by powerful Southern California and local Kern County interests. One of the effects of this was to free Southern California developers from state restrictions on planting housing tracts in the desert dependent on on-and-off-again state water. There was also the potential to affect other groundwater users near the groundwater bank. It was this latter effect that caused a state trial judge to rule that the state failed to consider the environmental impacts of such a transfer. So now the litigants have been ordered to meet and confer. My guess is that the vision of limitless water and ever-growing development in the south state will be hard to give up. Magical thinking is usually more alluring than reality.

And Friends of the River's legal team is staying busy too---in this case laying the groundwork for legal action as well as engaging in the litigation itself. Friends of the River is an important part of just one of the legal teams from all sides of the spectrum challenging the Delta Stewardship Council's adoption of the yet-to-be-defined Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP)---often just called the delta tunnels. The team has already filed a series of comment letters to the BDCP and more are expected. The team is also preparing for the main action (briefs on the merits) of the Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity litigation against the Corps of Engineers War on Nature against riverside vegetation on leveed rivers. More on all of this in future River Advocates.

Changing the rules for the big guys

The new House of Representatives is not just interested in seizing water in the Delta needed for fisheries and other water users (HR 3964). Last week, they also voted to prevent Federal agencies, which have long had the ability to require water projects to be compatible with their land management plans, from doing so (HR 3189). Friends of the River, along with a host of others, opposed this measure, but the House majority apparently favors an "anything goes" style of water-project development on public lands. It must be that "era of abundance" thing again. I wonder if they ever considered that healthy rivers and streams should be part of an era of abundance too. (link to our opposition letter)

Fortunately, the floor debate was spirited and a bit embarrassing for the supporters of HR 3189---the sponsor of the bill opposed the bill in the end. Hopefully, that means the Senate will show more respect to long-standing institutional protections to some of our nation's more cherished waterways. Whether they will after the next election will be up to the voters, so this one is not over. It seldom is.

[object Object]Temperance Flat Dam Feasibility Report:
Full Of Voodoo Economics And Wishful Thinking
Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Project Manager

The Bureau of Reclamation recently released its Upper San Joaquin River Basin Storage Investigation Draft Feasibility Report, which focuses on the proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River Gorge near Fresno.

As one would expect from an agency that operates some of the largest dams in California, the Bureau claims the Temperance Flat Dam " be economically feasible, because the estimated benefits exceed the estimated costs..." But much of the feasibility report appears to be based in part on voodoo economics and sheer wishful thinking.

The proposed 665-foot high Temperance Flat Dam is proposed for construction upstream of Millerton Reservoir in the scenic San Joaquin River Gorge. This is probably the top dam project in California pushed by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. A so called "drought relief" bill recently passed by the House of Representatives authorizes construction of the dam, but makes no attempt to provide federal funding. If approved by California voters, a water bond on the November 2014 ballot could pay up to 50% of the dam's costs for whatever public benefits it may provide.

The bottom line is that the Temperance Flat Dam will produce little additional water, will cost billions of dollars, and drown a scenic river canyon recommended for federal Wild & Scenic protection.

Here are just a few of the key issues associated with the Temperance Flat Dam:

Water Supply – Although capable of storing more than 1.3 million acre feet of water, the Bureau admits that the dam will only provide a paltry 61,000 to 76,000 acre feet of water annually for agricultural and municipal use. This is because nine major dams already capture most of the San Joaquin's annual flow. Under all operating scenarios, the dam's water supply benefits are considerably less than the cost to provide those benefits.

Cost – The Bureau claims that the dam's estimated price tag has decreased 22% since 2008, to a bargain basement construction price of $2.6 billion. No one but the Bureau believes that it can build a 665-foot high dam for less than $4 billion. In comparison, the Bureau estimates that the proposed Auburn Dam on the American River, of similar height as Temperance Flat but incorporating a more expensive double arch concrete design, will cost at least $5 billion to build.

[object Object]Fish Benefits – The Bureau claims that Temperance Flat will provide more benefits for San Joaquin River salmon than it provides in additional water supplies for the Central Valley's corporate farms and water-wasting cities. This is the new Bureau paradigm – that dams, which have brought the Central Valley's wild populations of salmon to the brink of extinction, will somehow be constructed and operated to restore these fisheries. Ecosystem "enhancement" for salmon represents the lion's share of the non-reimbursable annual cost for the dam, to be paid by federal and state taxpayers (likely via passage of the water bond in November). Buried deep in the feasibility report is the Bureau's admission that measuring fishery benefits is "especially uncertain." Even in the best scenario, the dam will only increase salmon by less than 5% and at least two of the four operation alternatives examined by the Bureau have a negative impact on salmon.

Environmental and Cultural Impacts – The Bureau admits that the dam will have long-term unavoidable adverse impacts on riverine habitat, botanical resources and wetlands, wildlife and habitat, cultural resources, and scenery. Up to 5,000 acres of public land would be flooded by the dam, adversely impacting 24 sensitive, threatened, or endangered wildlife species. The reservoir will also drown several miles of trails popular for public recreation and used for Native American cultural interpretation and outdoor education in the scenic San Joaquin River Gorge. The segment of the San Joaquin River Gorge threatened by the dam was recommended for National Wild & Scenic River protection by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in recognition of the river's outstanding scenic, recreational, and historical/cultural values.

San Joaquin Dam SitePower Loss – The proposed dam will flood two existing PG&E hydroelectric power plants with a combined generating capacity of up to 195 megawatts. Since the new dam will generate less power from its proposed 160-megawatt plan than PG&E's existing powerhouses, it will be a net energy loser. The Bureau identifies this as a long-term unavoidable adverse impact.

Unresolved Issues – How climate change may affect the performance of the Temperance Flat Dam is "uncertain," according to the Bureau. The agency lists numerous other risks and uncertainties in the feasibility report, including such fundamental issues like cost estimates, the willingness of non-federal cost sharing partners and beneficiaries to pay their share of the multi-billion dollar dam, future changes in water system operations, difficulty in predicting salmon survival, consultation with Native Americans, and coordination with the BLM in regard to its National Wild & Scenic River recommendation for the San Joaquin River Gorge.

Friends of the River is reviewing the draft Feasibility Report to prepare detailed comments and an alert for our membership (the Bureau is accepting public comments through April 18, 2014). To review the draft Feasibility Report online, visit: . The Bureau plans to release a full environmental review of the Temperance Flat Dam project later in 2014.

Stan Backlund

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