Peripheral Canal, a giant tunnel or something, says new report

May 30, 2012 9:00pm
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•  PPIC report says threats to state’s water systems need to be addressed now

•  ‘Water use efficiency is increasing in all sectors’

Threats to the water systems in California need to be addressed now if the state’s economy is to grow in the face of droughts and water shortages caused by a changing climate, says a report released Wednesday evening by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Innovations in water management such as more efficient use of water, water markets, reuse of highly treated wastewater, and underground storage, or water "banking" have helped the state cope with a finite supply of water and an ever-growing population, the report says. The continued expansion of these tools will allow California to manage future water shortages. It says.

One solution, says the report, is either a peripheral canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or a gigantic tunnel beneath it to siphon much of the water out of the Sacramento River before it can enter the Delta and send it into the State Water Project and Central Valley Project irrigation systems.

But the PPIC report says the price tag on such a project is growing. “Cost estimates have increased to roughly $14 billion — not including the costs of financing and added operational expenses,” the PPIC report says. “Some water users may find it too costly. High-level state leadership will be essential to broker any new conveyance deal, because the various stakeholders are having difficulty finding common ground,” it notes dryly.

The authors point to key trends — expected to persist — that they say shed light on the role of water in the economy:

• Agricultural water use has declined since the 1980s. Farmers have improved irrigation efficiency and shifted toward crops that generate more value and profits per volume of water used, such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, and plants for horticultural use. Although agriculture is highly dependent on irrigation water — which accounts for about three-quarters of all business and residential use — it is now a small share of the state's economy. Agriculture and related manufacturing make up just 2 percent of state GDP and 4 percent of all jobs.

• Urban water use has leveled off since the mid-1990s despite population growth. Appliances such as low-flow showers and toilets have generated much of the savings in water use. There is still considerable room for increased conservation among California households, particularly in landscaping, which accounts for at least half of all urban water use, the report says.

Demand for environmental water is growing, it says. Although meeting environmental demands for water poses a funding challenge, there are numerous economic benefits. Healthy watersheds help make California a desirable place to live and work, making it possible to attract and retain a highly productive workforce and businesses that create jobs. They also support commercial and recreational fisheries and other forms of recreation, as well as allowing cities to save millions of dollars annually in water treatment costs.

"California's economy is less dependent on large volumes of water for production," says Ellen Hanak, PPIC senior policy fellow and one of the report's 15 authors. "Water use efficiency is increasing in all sectors, and there is considerable opportunity to build on this progress."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the primary concerns about water are neither periodic drought nor long-term decline in water availability from climate change, the report says. California has the ability to manage water shortages by using surface reservoirs and groundwater basins to "bank" water for dry years, and tools such as drought conservation programs and water markets to voluntarily reallocate water.

Of greater concern, the report says, are:

• Catastrophic disruptions in the water supply. Many parts of the water system — particularly the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — “are vulnerable to earthquakes,” it claims. Delta levee failures in late summer, autumn, or any time of drought — when there is little fresh water in the watershed — could draw in salt water from San Francisco Bay, potentially ending water exports for up to two years, it warns.

Other water supply networks around the state are also at risk. This is a particular concern when urban systems rely heavily on a single source of vulnerable supplies, as in San Francisco, San Mateo, and parts of Alameda, Contra Costa, and Ventura Counties.

Steps that can reduce risk include seismic upgrading, diversifying water supply sources, and building connections between utilities so that they can share supplies, if needed.

Long-term uncertainty discourages business and infrastructure investments. The biggest single source of unreliability is the Delta, given its importance as a supply source for much of the state. “To reduce uncertainty, it is essential that the debate be resolved about whether to build new conveyance to route water under or around the Delta or implement an alternative solution,” says PPIC.

Other worries in the report include:

• Declining groundwater basins. Groundwater accounts for roughly a third of agricultural and urban water use statewide, but in many parts of rural California it is not managed effectively. As a result, more water is pumped out than is replenished and nitrates from fertilizer seep into the aquifers. “This is a particularly acute problem in the Tulare Basin — covering large parts of Fresno, Kern, Tulare, and Kings counties — and the Salinas Basin in Monterey County,” says PPIC. The lack of effective regulation of groundwater threatens the long-term viability of agricultural production and raises the cost of drinking water treatment.

• Increasing risk of catastrophic floods. Flood protection is chronically and “woefully” underfunded, the report contends. Federal and state policies allow new development in floodplains without requiring adequate flood protection. Yet a large flood in the Sacramento area would endanger thousands of people and destroy tens of billions of dollars in property. Climate change is projected to increase flood risk inland because of faster snowmelt and in coastal areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, as sea levels rise.

"As great as these challenges may seem, they do not need to limit California's growth if we take actions to manage water wisely," says co-author Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and adjunct policy fellow at PPIC. "Many of the changes needed to secure future prosperity require proactive leadership — from policymakers and from the business community."

Money for the report was provided by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.

About the authors of the report

In addition to Hanak and Lund, the report's authors are Barton "Buzz" Thompson, Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law at Stanford Law School and Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford; W. Bowman Cutter, associate professor of economics at Pomona College; Brian Gray, professor of law at the UC Hastings College of Law; David Houston, managing director and head of the Water Infrastructure Group at Citigroup Global Markets; Richard Howitt, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis; Katrina Jessoe, assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis; Gary Libecap, distinguished professor of corporate environmental management at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and Department of Economics at UC Santa Barbara; Josué Medellín-Azuara, research scientist at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Sheila Olmstead, fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.; Daniel Sumner, Frank H. Buck, Jr. Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis and director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center; David Sunding, Thomas J. Graff Professor of Natural Resource Economics and Policy at UC Berkeley; Brian Thomas, managing director for Public Financial Management; and Robert Wilkinson, adjunct professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara.

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Comments on this story

Joseph A. Yacura 6/1/12 2:57 PM
I enjoyed reading your above article. The rapid depletion of ground water in the U.S. is at a critical stage. This silent crisis needs to receive more attention from articles like yours. Our very ability to raise food at an affordable price for the U.S. consumer is being challenged. Our company, WiSA America (, is trying to address this issue. We are the exclusive representatives for WiSA (Advanced Precision Irrigation Management Systems) that provides a new high level of irrigation efficiency to commercial farmers. WiSA has been in business for over 13 years and has over 500 installations worldwide. Systems are installed in Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, France and now the U.S.(World wide there are over 225,000 acres utilizing WiSA systems to improve the quality of their crops and to reduce water, energy, chemicals and labor by up to 30% through precision irrigation.) We introduced WiSA to the U.S. market at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA on Feb 14, 2012. Since then we have installed systems in Texas, Ca. Nebraska and Florida. AS of today, the crops in the U.S utilizing a WiSA system include wine grapes, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pistachios and water melons. As more growers adopt this new sensor based wireless technology, the effect of commercial farm irrigation on existing water supplies will be reduced. Thank you for bring this crisis forward to a broader audience. Joseph A Yacura M (201) 923 1776 M (707) 331 5916

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