Key hearing for water project starts this week
By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
Posted Jul. 23, 2016 at 5:11 PM
When testimony begins Tuesday in a months-long hearing that could decide the fate of the $15 billion Delta water tunnels, amid all the acronyms and complexities and water-wonk jargon there will be a simple, consistent theme:
Or lack thereof.
Written statements submitted in advance of the hearing — which one advocacy group says may be the most important of its kind for decades to come — show that state officials will base their case for the $15 billion tunnels in part on an assertion that they have been good stewards of the Delta in the past, and that they can be trusted to divert water into the tunnels while still preserving water quality downstream in the fragile estuary.
They will say that they have met a complicated suite of standards nearly 99 percent of the time dating back to 1978.
“I think we would consider that to be pretty darned good,” said John Leahigh, who heads the operation of the State Water Project for the Department of Water Resources.
Delta activists will counter that with persistent salt invasions in the south Delta, and the temporary weakening of the water quality standards during the drought — 20-year-old standards which are already considered obsolete as several Delta fish species careen toward extinction — the state’s record isn’t as strong as the numbers suggest.
“The state’s trust value in the Delta is, like, zero,” said third-generation Delta farmer Mike Robinson. “There’s nothing there. They can make all the promises they want. They’re not going to follow through.”
A juggling act
The vast state and federal water projects, which deliver Northern California rain and snowmelt to cities and farms from the Bay Area to San Diego, are jointly responsible for keeping the Delta fresh. They do so by releasing water from upstream reservoirs, flows which repel saltwater that would otherwise encroach on the Delta from San Francisco Bay. Project operators can also improve conditions by slashing exports from their giant pumps near Tracy.
Meeting the standards is a juggling act. There are more than 20 compliance stations all across the Delta. Winds, tides and diversions by other water users make it even trickier.
However, adding up all of the standards, and all of the days when they apply, state officials calculated a 98.9 percent overall compliance rate.
Here’s where the tunnels come into play. The 35-mile tunnels would reroute some water before it ever reaches the heart of the Delta, sending it directly to the export pumps. This is supposed to be good for fish, which are often sucked into the pumps. It would also safeguard a portion of the state’s water supply should Delta levees fail.
A third benefit, state officials say, is that the tunnels would give them more flexibility in meeting water quality standards, because they would have multiple ways to divert Delta water.
Leahigh has predicted, in fact, that with the tunnels in place, compliance with the water quality rules will be as good — perhaps better — than in the past.
A deeper look
But again, the quality of the government’s track record varies depends on who you ask. Critics raise these points:
• The state’s success rates include the wettest of years, when there’s plenty of water for everyone and it’s usually easier to satisfy the standards.
• It also includes the past few drought years when many of the standards were temporarily weakened on an emergency basis. That is allowed under state water law and helped to preserve precious water in depleted reservoirs. But Delta advocates say it’s misleading to say a standard was met when, in fact, the bar was lowered.
• State officials have acknowledged that the standards could be bypassed again in the future, with the tunnels in place, if extraordinary droughts occur. And that, critics say, makes it impossible to claim that the tunnels won’t harm other users, because how the tunnels will be operated during droughts remains an open question.
• Even before they were weakened during the drought, the standards were considered inadequate for the health of the Delta ecosystem (state water officials are beginning a separate process to revise the rules, but that likely won’t be complete until after the tunnels are decided upon).
• And while a 98.9 percent compliance rate sounds good, the 1.1 percent includes salty hot spots in the south Delta where hundreds of water-quality violations have been reported over the past several years. Last year alone, a record 400 violations took place at three monitoring stations.
For context, that’s still a 63 percent compliance rate.
“But the notion of how often violations occur overall really doesn’t address the issue,” said Stockton attorney John Herrick, who represents south Delta farmers. “If you’re trying to analyze whether the doctor’s treatment is beneficial or not, and he says it’s beneficial because your heart stopped for only an hour over the last three years, you’re still dead after the first time.”
Too much salt
State officials say they have little control over salt in the south Delta, the sources of which are controversial and are still being studied. Particularly during a drought, the shriveled San Joaquin River doesn’t provide much fresh water to dilute that portion of the Delta.
The State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights and must ultimately approve the tunnels, issued a cease and desist order requiring the state and federal projects to address the violations. The order was issued in 2006 and revised in 2010, but the violations continue today.
Salt is bad for crops, though it’s difficult for south Delta farmers to quantify the harm over the years. Mary Hildebrand, who farms along the San Joaquin River near Manteca, said many growers have switched to more salt-tolerant crops in an effort to avoid losses.
“There are places where the salt is completely out of control, and I think we do have some reduced yields,” she said.
To be sure, Delta farmers sometimes benefit from the water projects. Fresh water from reservoirs flows through the estuary all summer; historically, before the dams were built, saltwater from the Bay crept deep into the Delta late in the dry years.
In the 1960s, if you got your hands wet they would become chapped or cracked because there was so much salt in the water, farmer Robinson said.
That’s no excuse for not meeting water quality standards today, he quickly added.
Dozens of agencies and groups plan to participate in the upcoming hearings, including the city of Stockton, which is concerned that the tunnels might harm water quality at its new $220 million Delta drinking water plant.
There won’t be a decision anytime soon. The proceedings have been divided into two parts, and the first part alone is expected to last at least two months.
But after years of tunnels talk, Delta farmers won’t be caught flat-footed.
“People are revved up,” Hildebrand said, “and ready to fight.”