WaterFix and the Myth of Reliability

Proponents of the Delta tunnels often claim that WaterFix ensures reliable water supplies. But what does “reliable” mean in this context? To help answer that question, here’s a thought experiment for staff and directors who agencies are considering paying for WaterFix: Would your agency agree to pay billions of dollars for WaterFix if it was expected to deliver an average of 4 million acre feet of water per year, less water than the Central Valley Project and State Water Project deliver on average today?

How you answer this question helps distinguish whether physical reliability or water supply reliability is what is most valued. But as discussed below, WaterFix does far less than most people think to improve either physical reliability or water supply reliability. 

Physical Reliability

Proponents of WaterFix argue that it will protect water supplies against an earthquake or flood in the Delta. An isolated facility in the Northern Delta would provide some measure of improved physical reliability against disaster, which is part of the reason why NRDC proposed our portfolio alternative in 2013. However, WaterFix does far less to improve physical reliability than most people assume. Keep in mind that:

  • California will need to continue to improve levee stability to protect Delta communities, infrastructure, and water supply. Even with the tunnels, more than half of the water from the Delta will continue to be pumped from the South Delta. And the State has estimated that more than 80% of the economic losses from a massive Delta Island failure would be from loss of life in the Delta and damage to transportation, energy, and other infrastructure; only 20% of the damage would be caused by water supply problems.
  • Delta levees appear to be in better shape than previously thought, and the state has continued to improve its ability to respond to a disaster in the Delta. MWD staff reported earlier this year that water exports would be back up within 6 months or less, even after a massive 20-island failure in the Delta during a critically dry year.
  • WaterFix does not address physical reliability along the 400-plus-mile California Aqueduct or throughout the water distribution system in Southern California. That’s why Los Angeles' Resilience by Design plan, developed by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and City staff, emphasizes that, "Increased use of local water reduces the risk posed by reliance on water imported via fault-crossing aqueducts. Initiatives to improve local water supplies through storm water capture, water conservation, water recycling, and San Fernando Valley Groundwater Basin contamination remediation provide the best possible protection and should be supported as fundamental earthquake resilience measures.”
  • Dr. David Sunding evaluated the economic benefits of improved physical reliability for the State of California in 2016, and he found that there were minimal economic benefits that were far outweighed by the project’s cost.

Water Supply Reliability

Proponents claim that WaterFix will prevent future reductions in water supply due to environmental degradation in the Delta. That’s not true. Consider that:

  • With the so-called pivot from the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan to the California WaterFix project, there are no regulatory assurances under the state or federal Endangered Species Acts that would prevent state or federal agencies in the future from requiring more stringent environmental protections for fish and wildlife that reduce water exports.  
  • The federal biological opinions for WaterFix either do not authorize operations of the tunnels (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) or only authorize operations through the year 2030 (National Marine Fisheries Service). Because there are no regulatory assurances, subsequent biological opinions could and likely will significantly reduce water exports. 
  • The State Water Resources Control Board is currently evaluating modifications to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan that are likely to significantly increase Delta outflow in the winter and spring months. WaterFix, in contrast, proposes to reduce Delta outflow in the winter and spring months. If the State Water Resources Control Board ultimately approves the petition to approve a change in point of diversion for WaterFix and adopt “appropriate flow criteria” pursuant to the Delta Reform Act, it should require improved environmental protections that reduce water supply compared to what is in the current permits. Yet water districts are being asked to approve the tunnels before the State Water Resources Control Board acts.
  • More than 23 lawsuits have been filed challenging the environmental permits for WaterFix under the federal Endangered Species Act, California Endangered Species Act, and California Environmental Quality Act. What are the odds that the State wins all of those cases?
  • WaterFix does not change the fact that California has highly variable precipitation and water supply will still be highly variable from year to year. But with WaterFix, water contractors will pay Wall Street every year for the billions of dollars that are borrowed to pay for the tunnels, including drought years where farmers and cities get little or no water supply from the Delta.

Everyone recognizes that the status quo in the Delta is awful for native fish and wildlife. After several years of drought and waiving environmental protections in the Delta to increase water supply, fish populations have collapsed. The federal agencies have reinitiated consultation under the Endangered Species Act, recognizing that current operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project are jeopardizing the continued existence of salmon and other endangered species.

Yet despite how bad conditions are in the Delta today, WaterFix is worse than the status quo for native fisheries. The NMFS biological opinion concludes that salmon survival through the Delta will be significantly lower with WaterFix than today because the new intakes will reduce flows in the lower Sacramento River, thereby reducing survival (and NMFS doesn’t adequately account for the adverse effects of increased predation, impingement on the massive fish screens, and reduced turbidity and worsened water quality in the Delta). The State’s incidental take statement admits that abundance of threatened Longfin smelt will be lower than today because of reductions in Delta outflow, even though populations of this historically abundant fish are nearly zero today. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service couldn’t even issue a biological opinion for operations that would not jeopardize the continued existence of Delta Smelt, which is not surprising since the project will worsen water quality, reduce turbidity, increase salinity, and reduce Delta outflow. 

And none of those conclusions even consider that the permits include a footnote allowing for WaterFix to operate with the same South Delta pumping levels and reverse flows as today in most months, undermining the argument that WaterFix would help address problems in the South Delta (and completely undermining the “fake baseline” used by MWD, which assumes there would be greater restrictions on South Delta pumping without WaterFix).  

With or without WaterFix, the best available science demonstrates that California needs to significantly reduce water diversions and increase the amount of water that flows through the Delta and into San Francisco Bay. 

How Do We Improve Reliability in a Sustainable, Cost-Effective Manner?

Turning back to that thought experiment, how would you answer the question of whether you would want to pay for this project if it was expected to deliver an average of 4 million acre feet of water per year?  

If your answer is yes, then you really value physical reliability. However, there are much cheaper ways to improve the physical reliability of the system, including improved levees in the Delta, increased local water supply storage and local supply development projects, and/or a smaller tunnel alternative like NRDC’s Portfolio Alternative.  

If your answer is no, then you are primarily looking for water supply reliability, which WaterFix does not provide. State law already requires water districts to reduce reliance on water from the Delta and invest in local and regional water supply projects, and many regions are responding. For instance, in Southern California, water districts already have identified local and regional water supply projects that will allow the economy to thrive with reduced water supply from the Bay-Delta estuary.  

Rather than spending $17 billion on WaterFix, California needs to prioritize investments in local and regional water supply projects, which improve both water supply reliability and physical reliability. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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