Category Archives: Reclamation

Thoughts on Interior’s very well done Interim Plan for California water.

The Dept of Interior just released a 23 page plan for getting back involved in CA water after eight years of Bush administration neglect*.  I am very impressed with the document as a whole.  It is well written.  Everything it says is well connected to the situation as I understand it; I didn’t spot any outsider’s mistakes or cliches.  It did something fairly difficult, which is list a well-specified set of actions Interior intends to take that will concretely address the problems in the Delta.  It is hard to do that, so more power to the incisive person or group who wrote this piece.  I don’t remember any waffle-y bullshit about “considering possibly funding additional research to study writing a plan.”  On the whole, big ups to the authors of Interior’s Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta.

Against the background of my approval, some thoughts:

1.  Heh.  The plan slams the Bush Administration about as hard as a bureaucratic document can.  It talks about “mov[ing] California water issues from the back burner to the forefront of Federal attention during 2009” and “[a]fter several years of being on the sidelines, the Administration” (Pg. 3, paragraph 3).  It also talks about a dedication to science-based decisions, which get its own heading on page 4.  You know, you don’t have affirm that you make decisions based on science unless your predecessors just spent years and years making decisions on something else.  That’s all slight, though; I mention it only because it made me laugh.

2.  I found the section on Water Transfers (IIB, Pg. 9) to be slightly strange.  It says:

In 2009, Reclamation and other Federal agencies … facilitated the transfer of over 600,000 acre-feet of water by and among CVP contractors and users of SWP water to ensure water was available to the highest-priority users.

I don’t know what “highest-priority users” means.  Given the generally high quality of the Interim Plan, I’m prepared to believe it is a term of art that I’m not familiar with.  But unless it is a term of art, it doesn’t match up with how I understand water transfers.  There are two problems.  Generally, the word “priority” is similar to “seniority”, and goes with the “first in time, first in right” appropriative rights system.  But you don’t need water transfers to ensure senior/high-priority water rights holders get their water.  They get their water first,  all others be damned.  There’s no transfer about it.

The other problem is that to my knowledge, water transfers aren’t based on a prioritization.  They go to the highest bidder.  You pay more money, you get the water.  In real life, that overwhelmingly means that cities get the water (because they can collect more money to buy water), but I don’t know of an explicit prioritization of urban use**.  It is possible to be very precise about what water transfers do, which is move water to the highest economic use (measured by money and with attendant externalities).  That may very well be the goal (although I haven’t been convinced I want that), but I don’t know whether and when it was explicitly decided that the people who could pay the most were the highest-priority users.

Seems most likely to me that it a slightly loose word choice.  But so far as I know, awarding water transfers by a priority that wasn’t straight purchase price would be a major new policy initiative.  If that were the intention, I’d be very interested in how it comes about.

3.  Then, the heading for Section IID is very peculiar:

Assist the National Academy of Sciences in Its Review of the Potential Availability of Alternative Water Supply Opportunities

Because that is not supposed to be the main point of the NAS review. The NAS review is supposed to decide whether the Biological Opinion on smelt that was the basis for court-ordered pumping restrictions is based on the best available science. You know, to put lawsuits against the Biological Opinion to rest.  Which is already bullshit, because the ESA doesn’t say that Biological Opinions require an additional level of review by the National Academy of Sciences, especially not a review that directs them to please find anything else they can do to help the smelt besides curtailing pumping.*** Besides, it was a relatively new Biological Opinion (like, 2008 or 2009 or something) re-written on judge’s orders because the first one was so weak. If we don’t trust the federal FWS and NMFS to write decent Biological Opinions, that is a real problem that should get fixed. But unless we mean to fix a systemic problem with Biological Opinions, senators shouldn’t go arbitrarily asking for some of them to get extra review from the National Academy of Sciences to please find something else.

So why is Interior’s Interim Plan header emphasizing the potential availability of additional water supplies instead of evaluating the scientific evidence about the best ways to protect smelt?**** That’s hardly co-equal.

Anyway, I thought the Interim Plan was mostly very good, with those two odd notes. I would have added something about water district modernization to the section on water conservation; I think improving district-level operations and infrastructure has potential for water and reliability yields that gets overlooked a lot. I thought Section III E on Climate Change Adaptation was forward looking and gave specific avenues for development. Really, I was impressed.

UPDATE 1/9/10: Professor Doremus writes an excellent critique of the Interim Plan here.  I particularly liked that she called out perpetuating the win-win fallacy.  I have a hard time thinking of something the feds could do that would be a newer approach, but I’ll ponder the idea a while.

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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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Money for Reclamation in the Stimulus Package

James Wimberly was worried that Reclamation will get $1.4B in the Stimulus Package, so I went to look at what that money was for:

$1.4 billion in funding for the Bureau of Reclamation. … The funding provided includes: an inventory and analysis of existing infrastructure, especially canals that could potentially impact population centers; maintenance or replacement of Reclamation owned and operated infrastructure; drought preparation and emergency response activities; improving energy efficiency at Bureau of Reclamation owned facilities as well as for maintenance and rehabilitation of Bureau of Reclamation owned and operated hydropower facilities; tribal and nontribal rural water projects; water reclamation and reuse projects; construction of water delivery projects.

I don’t know whether the list provided is in priority order, but if it is, someone did a good job on this allocation to Reclamation. All of the items on the list sound useful to me.

One of the under-appreciated truths in water infrastructure right now is that fixing bottlenecks in canals is worth about ten times more than increasing supplies (pg 20). Maintaining and replacing infrastructure is reasonable; there are a lot of leaky canals and gates out there. Some of those water projects went in a hundred years ago. Drought preparation is overdue and emergency response gets more important as climate change brings more intense floods than we’ve seen before. Improving Reclamation’s energy efficiency is a non-negligible climate change mitigation measure. Water projects use a lot of power. Tribal water projects generally have solid social justice underpinnings. If a tribe is just now getting a water project upgrade, it is likely they’ve been shafted for a couple hundred years. Water reclamation is code for re-using wastewater.

Construction of water delivery projects, all the way last on the list, is the first time anything that could be construed as “building new dams” shows up. Reclamation has earned distrust and monitoring, and I hope that they get careful scrutiny from the House Subcommittee on Water and Power. But on its face, this is not a knee-jerk, water buffalo style “build more dams” prioritization. In fact, the mention of canals limiting deliveries to population centers is a surprisingly knowledgeable and sophisticated appreciation of the problems. Good work, obscure staffer who wrote this portion of the bill. Now make sure that Reclamation spends the money the way you wrote it!

(If you were looking to be cynical, you could worry that “canals that could impact population centers” means the Peripheral Canal in California, which is the subject of very active conflict. Even so, this language doesn’t mention by name Reclamation’s prospective dam in CA, Temperance Flats. If you want to give the new House and Interior Department the benefit of the doubt, this list can support that reading.)

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