Category Archives: Peripheral Canal

R-squared = seventy million.

Looks to me like people’s opinions about the water bond dovetail very closely with whether they want a peripheral canal or not.  People may have other supporting reasons, but if I could only have one piece of information from which to predict someone’s opinion about the water bond, I’d ask whether that person wanted the peripheral canal to be built.

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I write this blog just for him.

Dave Simmons left another comment below, one I promised to address. This has been a talking point recently, so I’m glad to get a chance to think about it.

But seriously, I don’t know about Salmon but the smelt are on a death spiral no matter what happens to us they will continue to decline. Because even the most respected scientists point to the fact that it is probably a combination of factors that is effecting them. The whole picture is not being looked at. No one really seems to focus the smelts’ myriad of other problems. How can you solve any problem when you are only willing to look at one narrow view of the situation. It is easy to just blame the farmers. Radical environmentalists have know to be wrong before. I sure as heck don’t trust them. They have their own agenda.

It is amazing to me that you can be so certain that it is the farmers that are the ones at fault. Is it easy for you to overlook the sewage wastewater pollution, numerous non native species, acres of wetlands gone, pharmaceuticals and the latest pytheriods (sp) form urban sources and many other stressors? In fact, it is getting to something like 95% of the life in the delta isn’t native! But you are sure it is the export pumps and your willing to have us “strangled” to find out. It maybe to late for the fish by then. I say we need to find and fix the problems and not “strangle” people till we find the right problem. Today it is us. Tomorrow it might be you!!!

I don’t know anyone who thinks that the pumps are the whole problem or the only problem. Every knowledgeable person would agree that the fisheries collapse in the Delta is a combination of pumps, invasive species, habitat destruction, wastewater discharge, pesticide run-off from farms and lawns, ocean conditions. The smelt collapse is a problem with multiple causes. The pumps are a conspicuous cause, possibly the predominant cause, but certainly not the only one. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is not because of causes, or because of blaming farmers, or casting moral judgments. The reason the judge is ordering a pumping regime is because of remedies. Look at all those likely causes. The pumps are the only one with an available remedy. They’re the only part that we can control today. The other causes are exactly the kind that are hard to fix; widely distributed small effects that become a problem in the aggregate.

People are working on fixing those other causes. There’s a couple billion dollars in the water bond for habitat restoration, but habitat restoration and reversing invasive species will take years. Mr. Simmons is right; part of the solution will ‘come for me’. I live in Sac and expect my sewer bills to go up tens of dollars a month, as they should. But that won’t happen fast. We can slow the pumps today.

Right now, the pumps are the only dial we can turn to save fish species in the Delta. It is definitely true that we should be (and are) addressing the other causes. But I want to point out, it is not wrong to control the one contributing cause we can control. That’s the fallacy in the talking point: ‘the pumps aren’t the whole problem, so we shouldn’t turn off the pumps!’. The law field of torts has spent a lot of time thinking about causation, including multiple contributing causes. That’s nice, because it means that I don’t have to. From the linked Wikipedia page:

Concurrent Actual Causes
Suppose that two actors’ negligent acts combine to produce one set of damages, where but for either of their negligent acts, no damage would have occurred at all. This is two negligences contributing to a single cause, as distinguished from two separate negligences contributing to two successive or separate causes. These are “concurrent actual causes.” In such cases, courts have held both defendants liable for their negligent acts.

Right. Where more than one thing causes the problem, all the causes are responsible.  I said I hate analogies, so I’m being a big hypocrite by offering one. Because I’m ashamed, I’ll put it beneath the fold.

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Filed under Agriculture, Peripheral Canal

Co-equally bad.

This op-ed by MWD pretty well sums up my reasons for supporting the Peripheral Canal, even though some of the other people supporting the Peripheral Canal are politicking in terrible ways.  I can believe that the studies that show the benefit of the Peripheral Canal are artifically inflated, and still think that LA will need water from the north after they max out every local option.  (I have no interest in a Peripheral Canal to delay the inevitable salt death of Westlands.  Retire the west side, says I.)

I don’t think the dual-function Delta is working.  Right now it is neither a healthy ecosystem nor adequate conveyance.  I think of a canal as a way to separate those.  Conveyance would be covered.  But I think it offers a chance to let an ecosystem just be an ecosystem (if not a mostly farming and human habitation ecosystem).  I know some of you are scared that the Canal will take everything and no water will trickle out to the Delta.  Considering the history of water in the state, that’s not a ridiculous scare-tale.  But I don’t think it is inevitable either (in a “plumbing is destiny” way).   I wouldn’t suggest that you trust DWR’s good word, although I don’t think DWR leadership is crossing their fingers behind their backs when they talk about Delta stewardship.  (I think they mostly mean what they present to the public.)  But there are more options now, laws to protect smelt and salmon.  A judge could enforce those in a universe with a Peripheral Canal, just like one is enforcing those laws in a world without a Peripheral Canal.  I know.  That’s not much.  But it can hardly be worse for the Delta as living place than what we’re doing now.


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Seven feet of sea level rise.

A clear and scary post on sea level rise, with explicit recommendations.  Sadly, the authors have some ridiculous east coast bias, and didn’t even talk about the Delta, instead talking about effects of sea level rise on states like “Mississippi” and “Florida” and “Vietnam”.  Whatever.  They list several take away lessons that I’ll apply to somewhere important, since they couldn’t be bothered.

Immediately prohibit the construction of high-rise buildings and major infrastructure in areas vulnerable to future sea level rise. Buildings placed in future hazardous zones should be small and movable — or disposable.

This isn’t about the Delta, but I’ve been enjoying watching the cliff crumble under this apartment building in SF.

Remember, y’all.  As sea level rises, we”re not just talking about overtopping and inundation.  We’re talking about more extreme tides, higher storm surges and more wave energy all the time.  You remember your pressure triangle behind dams, right? (Go down to pg 40 for the figures.)  And how the force exerted is a function of depth?   I’ll let you figure out what this means for Delta levees by yourself.

Relocation of buildings and infrastructure should be a guiding philosophy. Instead of making major repairs on infrastructure such as bridges, water supply, and sewer and drainage systems, when major maintenance is needed, go the extra mile and place them out of reach of the sea. In our view, no new sewer and water lines should be introduced to zones that will be adversely affected by sea level rise in the next 50 years.

This one is interesting because it makes me wonder at the Peripheral Canal route, and how the engineers are planning to handle this.  It also makes me remember Prof. Lund telling the Delta Vision panel not to spend any money on Through-Delta Conveyance.

Stop government assistance for oceanfront rebuilding. … Those who invest in vulnerable coastal areas need to assume responsibility for that decision. If you stay, you pay.

This is why I have no love for in-Delta residents.  I know they’re in a really hard place and that their way of life is at stake.  That sucks.  But the sea is going to reclaim a lot of the Delta (faster if the earthquake comes first), and I don’t want to throw a couple billion dollars into maintaining it as is before the Pacific takes it.  It would be one thing if they could do that with their own money, but they can’t.  The only thing I can imagine being stable against seas that are going to rise seven feet in a hundred years is some sort of estuarine marsh-type thing.

Get the Corps off the shore. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, more or less by default, is the government agency in charge of much of the planning and the funding for the nation’s response to sea level rise. It is an agency ill-suited to the job. Part of the problem is that the engineers’ “we can fix it” mentality is the wrong mindset for a sensible approach to responding to changing sea level.

What?  The Army Corps doesn’t do stuff on the coast.  It builds flood control dams and gives terrible advice about river levees.   Also, I don’t particularly appreciate this slander against engineers.  We fixed the LA River, didn’t we?

Local governments cannot be expected to take the lead. The problems created by sea level rise are international and national, not local, in scope. Local governments of coastal towns (understandably) follow the self-interests of coastal property owners and developers, so preservation of buildings and maintaining tax base is inevitably a very high priority. In addition, the resources needed to respond to sea level rise will be far beyond those available to local communities.

This is a big dilemma.  We’re big into collaborative solutions and giving everyone a voice.  But the stakes for in-Delta residents are incredibly high, and there’s only one thing they can say (do what it takes to maintain our way of life).  But committing the state to maintaining Delta islands requires fantastical amounts of money.  Their understandable self-interest is ruinous for the other 37.5 million people in the state, and can’t be done anyway.   Which is why I kinda don’t feel bad that Delta legislators have been edged out of water negotiations.   What could they add?  They’re representing their people admirably, but their people want an impossible thing.  (Sea, don’t rise!  Earthquake, don’t come!  Levees, be strong enough for either!  State, buy us new strong-enough levees!)

Delta legislators keep saying that they’re not being heard, that they’re being shut out, but my guess is that what they want has been heard and rejected, which is not the same.  I bet if those same legislators came bringing proposals of a managed retreat, to secure the best deal for getting the Delta clear in the next couple decades, they’d get heard plenty.  I don’t know what Delta legislators are negotiating; I am certainly not in the room with important people.  But there is no winning for in-Delta residents who want their world to stay the same, so we can’t make water policy depend on their satisfaction.  If they can’t be satisfied and they’re going to be obstructionist, the conversation has to move on without them.


Filed under Climate Change, Peripheral Canal

This is why I’m not sympathetic.

I’ve seen a number of op-eds emphasizing that the people who live in the Delta have to be included in making big decisions about the Delta, and a couple more op-eds about whether people who live in the Delta are included enough. In principle, I agree with that, because their ways of life are at stake and because I believe in participatory democracy. In this case, however, I don’t want to include them if including them will give them veto power over a Peripheral Canal*.

Folks who live in the Delta are fighting like wolverines for the preservation of what they have. That makes sense. Anyone would. But what they would like to keep is behind inadequate levees that would cost a fortune to repair and maintain against the high risk of earthquake and the certainty of sea level rise. They don’t want to pay that fortune. They can’t afford to pay that fortune. They would like us to pay that fortune. You know, maybe that isn’t preposterous. Maybe we’re an affluent society that pools risk and pays to maintain niche lifestyles, so that we can exoticize visit them for our entertainment.

So here’s this thing I do, a trick I learned when I learned the Coase Theorem. I do not love the Coase Theorem the way libertarians love the Coase Theorem, but it did teach me a very useful thought reversal. The Coase Theorem proves that if a set of initial conditions hold, two parties will bargain their way to the same end point no matter which one holds the rights. In the first example I learned, you could award one neighbor the right to have very noisy parties, and make the next door neighbor buy one-hour blocks of silence. Or you could award a neighbor the right to peace and quiet and make the partier buy the right to make lots of loud noise. According to the Coase Theorem, they would bargain to the same end point of quiet time and raging parties. Whatever. I don’t especially care about that part. But since I learned the Coase Theorem, every time I hear a dispute, I flip the rights in my mind to see if anything interesting shakes out.

As it stands now, the unspoken conventional wisdom is that people in the Delta should get to live the way they do now, and everyone else in the state should pay for the maintenance to preserve their way of life, and if the state finds a way to build the Peripheral Canal (over their protests), the state or southern cities should pay for it. Essentially, the rest of the state is paying people in the Delta to be allowed to build reliable conveyance of water. But what if that were switched? What if the people in the Delta had to pay the rest of California to keep an unreliable conveyance of water? What if the remainder of the state said to people in the Delta:

You like what you have now? You insist that twenty-five million people depend on a source of water that could catastrophically fail at any moment so that you may risk your lives in your very attractive pear orchards? Fine. Keep it. But. When the Delta fails and the state can’t move water south because you insist that we all depend on your crappy levees, you pay us. You reimburse the City of Los Angeles for their losses. You indemnify the City of San Diego for the risks you insist that they bear. You pay the west side growers for their losses. You, people who live in the Delta, promise to make us whole when through-Delta conveyance collapses and we’ll forget all about this Peripheral Canal nonsense.

This sounds like crazy talk, but it is actually no more ridiculous than the example of the quiet neighbor and the loud neighbor. It is just switching and illuminating the unspoken assumptions about who deserves the initial allocation of rights. On the other hand, of course this is fucking crazy talk. There’s no way on earth that the people of the Delta, the ones who are trying to block a Peripheral Canal, could possibly indemnify the state for the catastrophic failure of the Delta. If they were asked to do so, they would rightfully cower in horror. Possibly be responsible for the paying for the damage to LA, SD and the San Joaquin Valley when the Delta fails? They should take any other option. No one could afford that. And that’s the thing. Neither can California.



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Maybe she liked the sound of the words.

I’m afraid of becoming a Peripheral Canal advocate, because I don’t actually care that much and am afraid that just taking sides will induce more emotional commitment than I really feel.  I also think the Peripheral Canal is inevitable, so I don’t have to get all emotional about it or anything.  But then I read Peripheral Canal opponents saying really stupid shit and it hurts my brain.  I have to call this out, but my main point is more that political rhetoric is inane and meaningless, not that the Peripheral Canal is The Best Ever.  The Capitol Weekly quotes an Assemblywoman I’d never heard of:

“The canal would be the biggest public constructions ever made in the United States, equivalent to the Panama Canal” said Assemblywoman Buchanan, “and I want to make it clear I will not vote for a Panama Canal.”

I don’t mean to get all engineer-y on you, but is she out of her mind? She wouldn’t vote for a Panama Canal? Didn’t the wealth of the world, like, double the instant the Panama Canal was completed*? It frickin’ opened the entire Western Americas to trade. I cannot imagine any comparable current engineering project that offers such disproportionately high benefits. Funny enough, one of the few that might come close is a canal that would protect the wealth of the entire southern half of California. But I don’t think that is what Assemblywoman Buchanan was thinking.

Perhaps she was worried that like the Panama Canal, almost 30,000 workers would die of malaria and horrific working conditions while building the Peripheral Canal. That would give me pause. But despite California’s budget disaster and the recent arrival of West Nile disease, I do not think we have to fear turn-of-the-century, third world worker death rates. I’d be shocked if we lose even one percent of the construction workers on the Peripheral Canal. Rest easy on that front, Assemblywoman Buchanan.





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I mean, as long as we’re making repairs…

You know, my civics class is failing me. I honestly don’t know how a Peripheral Canal would actually happen. I’m pretty current on the politics of it. I know the backstory of the failed initiative in 1982. I know that the big agencies, state and local, want it. I know that ag is split over it, with farmers in the Delta opposed and farmers in the San Joaquin in favor. It has been vetted and approved in the two major documents about the Delta, the Delta Vision report, which was absorbed by the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. So it isn’t like I’m ignorant about what’s going on with the Peripheral Canal.

But today I read about people protesting water committee meetings at the capitol and was puzzled. They’re protesting the Legislature? Is that who would approve and fund a Peripheral Canal?   They do that?  It made me realize that I don’t know how the major plumbing was approved and funded in the 60’s.  The story goes: “The Water Plan set out the State Water Project and Pat Brown made it happen.”  For all I know, Gov. Pat Brown dug the canals himself on weekends.  I’ve read about Gov. Schwarzenegger trying to get the Peripheral Canal done through the agencies, as an emergency measure.   I didn’t understand how that would be legal either.  I’d guess if we had a major earthquake that collapsed islands in the Delta, when the clean up was done a couple years later there would also be a Peripheral Canal in place. 

The Peripheral Canal is a huge battle.  The first few decisions won’t (haven’t) changed that.  I don’t think it’ll settle until the Canal has been operating a couple years and even then it won’t convince opponents until the Delta islands collapse and we’re grateful we have an alternative.  I’ve been watching the fight, but obviously not close enough.  I should ask more knowledgeable people how the PC might get authorized.


UPDATE:  A-HA!  I should read KenKevin Starr’s book.

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Stimulus Package and the Peripheral Canal

The new Secretary of the Interior toured the Delta today and announced some of the Stimulus Package monies that Reclamation will be spending in California.   So far, nothing rules out the possibility that some Stimulus Package money will go towards the Peripheral Canal.

Secretary Salazar says that California will get $400M to spend. The Governor’s Office spells out $260M of that.  I can’t find an accounting for the other $140M; I would believe that they haven’t dedicated it to any specific project yet.  The Recovery Portal tracking project doesn’t help, and all of the language I’ve seen anywhere is vague enough to include a Peripheral Canal.  “Ensure adequate water supplies in Western areas impacted by drought” and “restore the Delta” don’t rule out a Peripheral Canal.

I favor a Peripheral Canal, so this doesn’t bother me.  But if you are a Peripheral Canal opponent, I think you can keep your suspicions alive.

LATER: A knowledgeable reader wrote me to suggest that the other $135M will be water recycling projects, which is a third or so of the $450M Reclamation got to spend on Title XVI water recycling projects and rural water projects in the west.  He pointed out the very handy site detailing how Reclamation will spend its Stimulus Package money.  Thank you, knowledgeable reader!

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Trust and the Peripheral Canal

OK. This is a problem:

Dante Nomellini Jr., representing Delta farmers, asked state Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Jerry Johns what assurance he would give that only surplus water would be diverted into the canal, even during a drought. “We are a system of laws,” Johns said, at which the crowd laughed.

It is, actually, most of the problem. This lack of trust is the reason that people that live or farm in the Delta are fighting the Peripheral Canal so furiously1. I’ve heard talk of two kinds of mistrust, one kind that I think is deluded, the other probably well justified.


One type of mistrust that Delta residents display is refusal to accept any governmental agency’s assessment of the situation. I ask my coworkers who go to meetings in the Delta2 what residents say when they present seismic or flood or sea level rise data. My coworkers say that Delta residents do not believe it. They imagine that state agencies are making up data in service of a complicated land and water grab conspiracy. They don’t believe the abstract data. The evidence of their eyes and lives is stronger. They see levees every day, and those always look just like working levees. They’ve never been in island collapse floods (as evidenced by the fact that they are alive) and they will not believe something that 1. is counter to their experience and 2. means leaving the lives they know. So they choose magical thinking and believe that the islands can last.

Well justified:

Some Delta residents do not want a Peripheral Canal for two more reasons. One is that so long as there is no canal, the state is forced to keep islands intact so we can keep the freshwater sloughs between them delivering water to the pumps. They do not trust the state to maintain their lifestyles if we are not forced to by how we pump water to LA and the San Joaquin Valley. I think this is absolutely accurate. The islands and all their farm production are worth less money than repairing and maintaining the island levees would cost. Any reasonable financial analysis would say to let them fail. Further, there are tens of thousands of people who depend on the Delta in its current state, which is a pretty small interest group in a state of 35 million people. This fear for their way of life is well founded3. (The water district for LA and San Diego once said out loud that they don’t want to get involved now and will simply wait until after the Delta collapse to build an emergency canal that will work for them. I gotta say, I can see the reasoning.)

The other mistrust that seems well justified to me is that Delta residents do not believe the Department of Water Resources will obey the laws that govern any new Peripheral Canal. I mean, the people at that meeting laughed at the notion. The environmental group Friends of the River says “plumbing is destiny”. They believe if you build a big canal (which you should, because you should have enough capacity to gulp up floodwaters and send those south at the rare times when it won’t hurt smelt), it will inevitably be used in dry years to divert the whole Sacramento River. They do not believe any agreements can hold against the need for urban water. It doesn’t help that current talk of raising dams will violate old assurances that reservoirs won’t encroach on the rivers above them. Even as DWR assures Delta residents that they’ll only take what they agree to, USBR is looking at ways to violate agreements that Shasta Dam wouldn’t backwater the wild and scenic McCloud River. No wonder people don’t trust water agencies’ assurances.

DWR hasn’t demonstrated a lot of respect for laws in the past few years. They got spanked by Judge Roesch when he told them they had to have a take permit to run their pumps. The agencies said “but look, we have documents (in binders!) that are JUST LIKE a take permit.” And Judge Roesch said, how ‘bout you obey the fucking law and come back to me with a real take permit?” And DWR said “but that would take a long time and be hard” and Judge Roesch said “Then you better get started and you can start your pumps again when you bring me a take permit that says Take Permit, not a pretend bunch of documents.” And everyone looking on said, “hmm. DWR thinks laws don’t apply to them.” No wonder they can’t convince Delta residents that they would abide by a governance agreement for a Peripheral Canal.

Which is a shame. I think it is staggeringly irresponsible to have the drinking water supply for two huge cities to be as vulnerable as ours is. The known risks are shockingly high and the Delta will fail whether we build a Peripheral Canal or not. Nothing will save most Delta islands, so we might as well protect against the consequences of Delta failure. The other two options are to depopulate Los Angeles and San Diego or to find other water for them. Of the three options, the Peripheral Canal strikes me as the only possible one. So I’m for it. Battling all these forms of mistrust will make building it that much harder.






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In other years, black or Asian kids have gotten thirsty.

I took my first hard look at the cover for the draft Water Plan and I laughed and laughed and laughed. The images are standard, kid drinking, sprinklers on ag*, governance, nature, clouds. Whatever. Then! The ONE picture of the Delta is of a levee break (Franks Tract?). Yep. That’s the one thing you need to know about the Delta. Levees break. Guess we need a Peripheral Canal, then.







*Solid set, not hand more. You see how the throw area overlaps? That means all those sprinklers stay there and water the field for the whole season. Solid set. Hand move sprinklers are at much wider intervals. After they irrigate an area, the line gets broken down and moved to the outside of its throw pattern. (The ones in that picture are wheellines, but the thing I’m trying to show is the far apart spacing.) That’s how you tell solid set and hand move sprinklers apart from a distance. The spacing.

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