A Weekend Excursion Leads to a Trove of Information about California WaterFix

Southern California has a problem. Its base water supply is at risk due to aging infrastructure and declining conditions in the Delta that make it increasingly difficult to convey water through the Delta. A Saturday outing to Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, California led to an unexpected opportunity to hear why the Southern California Water Committee (“SWSC”) sees California WaterFix as the solution.

A free public outreach event, Wet & Wonderful: Celebrating Our Precious Water, was hosted by a handful of local agencies from Southern California’s Verdugo Canyon area and nearby communities to promote the continuing need to conserve water. The venue, which includes areas that feature California native plants and a water wise garden, was an apt location for the event. Among the talks were presentations on native plants, landscaping, drought, and using rain barrels. There was an exhibit by the Theodore Payne Foundation, which provides California native and “extensive plant information and education.” Promotional items from the districts included soil moisture meters for houseplants and shrubs, a timer for the type of old-style sprinklers that hook up to a garden hose, and packets of seeds to grow California native plants (along with the usual pens, stress balls, information leaflets, and sundry items emblazoned with the Be Water Wise logo).

The Sturt Haaga Gallery, an art gallery on the property, was hosting an exhibit on time, which included various means for measuring and recording the passing of time, sculptures made from items that would be found in time capsules, and a display that had ribbons representing time, light, and irrigation. The most notable piece was a set of clocks with holographic images showing headlines from two consecutive days, which showed how life goes on, how messages transform—and how the world can change in one day. Two of those points followed through to the next item on the itinerary.

SCWC Executive Director Charley Wilson, presented SCWC’s arguments about why Southern California needs WaterFix, the proposed $17 billion project to construct two tunnels deep underground to convey water under, rather than through, the Delta.

About the Delta
The Delta is a 1,153-square mile river delta and estuary east of where Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow into Suisun Bay. Earthen levees that were erected through the Delta to create dry islands suitable for farming now protect water quality by holding back seawater and serve as channels through which water is ushered through the Delta. Regulations that seek to protect the endangered Delta smelt and provide appropriate flow and nutrient conditions for salmon fry control when and how much water can be conveyed through the Delta. This imposes limits on conveyance even when water supplies are plentiful. WaterFix proposes to divert water from a little higher up on the Sacramento River and convey it under the Delta to the intakes for the SWP and the Central Valley Project (“CVP”).

A Transformed Message

Back in July 2013 when Hydrowonk first published an analysis of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (the former name of the project), proponents stressed that the project was about maintaining water supply reliability. That same month, in a presentation to Metropolitan Water District’s Special Committee on the Bay-Delta, Dr. David Sunding compared the project with shoring up the foundation of a house.

“An analogy that I use a lot is that BDCP is like fixing the foundation of your house.  It keeps your house the way it is, but that’s the point,” said Sunding.

While the need to bolster water supply reliability is still addressed in more technical discussions of the project, the message has transformed to a more user-friendly focus on project benefits and the consequences of inaction. In his presentation, Wilson notes that the project would:

  • Modernize the state water system—Some parts of the system are more than 100 years old.
  • Fix the Delta—The Delta is in decline and regulatory and management actions have not proven effective to reverse the trend. California EcoRestore, a companion project to WaterFix, would restore habitat, protect fish species, and improved the health of the Delta.
  • Provide flexibility—Flexibility would allow for water to be moved when it is plentiful and stored for future droughts. Under the current regulatory system water can be moved through the Delta only under a limited set of conditions—and high-flow periods are outside of those conditions.
  • Protect water supplies from the potential impacts of a seismic event—A major earthquake would disrupt water supplies for more than a year.

The consequences of inaction all point to the loss of a significant amount of Southern California’s water supply. Wilson noted the most extreme, but feasible, case: a critical part of the water supply system fails and Southern California loses 30% of its water supply.

The World Can Change in Just One Day

The most likely scenario for failure of the water supply system is a levee breach. The Delta levees are the oldest parts of the state water system and are vulnerable to erosion and subsidence, as well as burrowing animals—and earthquakes.

A 2007 poster by the Department of Water Resources notes that there have been 160 levee failures in the last century. Most of these (as well as the January 2017 levee failures that are not reflected in the 2007 poster) were winter overtopping events due to floods, tidal fluctuations, and wind-driven waves and posed little threat to water supplies outside of the Delta.

A few of the levee failures, however, highlight the vulnerability of the levees to potential structural failure. In 2004, a levee breach with an unknown cause inundated the 12,000-acre Jones Tract with 160,000 AF of water. Full repair, including dewatering, took over 6 months and cost $90 million. According to an infographic from SCWC, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in the Bay Area could cause multiple levee failures leading to significant seawater intrusion within 12 to 24 hours and disruption of water supplies for more than a year. U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 63% probability that the Bay Area will experience a 6.7 magnitude earthquake within the next 30 years.

Wilson emphasized the severity of the impact of a major earthquake in that area saying that it would make the devastation New Orleans suffered from Hurricane Katrina “look like child’s play.”

Key to Southern California’s Water Supply

SCWC argues that there is no other source that can replace water from the SWP, which provides 2 MAF per year of clean water from Sierra Nevada snowpack. Other sources have their place in supplementing and diversifying water supply portfolios, but they aren’t a substitute. Per SCWC’s WaterNext tool kit, the alternatives that are being touted have lower yields than the SWP.

Producing the same 2 MAF using desalination would require a major desalination plant the size of the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant (the largest in the western hemisphere) every six miles from Ventura to San Diego. Increasing stormwater capture would yield up to 250,000 AF per year by 2035—that’s 12.5% (or 1/8) of the SWP amount. Because of the constraints imposed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the adjudications in many of Southern California’s groundwater basins, increasing groundwater use would be limited to cleaning up contaminated areas. Cleaning up groundwater in the San Fernando Valley, which would yield 110,000 AF per year (15% of Los Angeles’ annual water needs).

Taken together as a package, the alternative solutions still produce only a trifle compared to the SWP. Increasing stormwater capture and groundwater use would yield 360,000 AF. That leaves a gap of 1.64 MAF for desalination to cover, which would still require about 30 desalination plants with an annual capacity of 56,000 AF (the size of the Carlsbad Plant).

Also, local agencies often blend groundwater, recycled water, and other local supplies with SWP water to meet water quality standards.

SCWC also notes that these options are costlier than the WaterFix option. They estimate that additional household costs would be $2/month for WaterFix, $10/month for desalination, $17/month for recycling (which requires a base supply), and $32/month for stormwater. In the factsheet that accompanied a recent whitepaper, Metropolitan Water District (“Metropolitan”) presented the same cost comparison in dollars per acre-foot (see table below).


Cost Comparison of WaterFix and Other Options
(based on data from Metropolitan and SCWC)

Unit Cost Additional household cost
Metropolitan’s 2017 Full-Service Tier 1 Treated Rate $979/AF
California WaterFix $840/AF – $1,218/AF $2-3/month
Desalination $1,859/AF – $2,367/AF $10/month
Recycling $1,222/AF – $3,224/AF $17/month
Stormwater $3,758/AF – 5,414/AF $32/month


What About Conservation and New Supply Development?

Conservation is a fundamental part of California’s water management strategy. “Making Conservation a California Way of Life” was California Governor Jerry Brown’s call to action when he issued an executive order in May 2016 providing parameters for a transition from temporary water use restrictions to permanent, long-term water use changes. The executive order remains in effect today, and its key directives have been assumed in to the California Water Action Plan Update. Conservation allows us to the make the most of the water supplies we have, but it cannot meet the region’s needs. The SWP provides 30% of the region’s water supplies. History says it simply is not feasible to conserve 30% on an ongoing, long-term basis.

Developing new supplies is an integral part of the strategy to build a diversified water supply portfolio that will meet the needs of a growing population, but there are few untapped sources left. One project, the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project (“Cadiz Water Project”) proposes developing 50,000 AF/year to meet the needs of 400,000 people in Southern California. About three hours from the Hydrowonk office (or about an hour down National Trails Highway from the famed Route 66) into the Mojave Desert citrus groves are thriving due the abundant water supply from an underground aquifer. Water from the surrounding mountains percolates into the aquifer and flows to a dry lake bed, where it evaporates. The Cadiz Water Project would pump the water before it reaches the dry lake bed and transport it via pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct. The highly controversial project has faced challenges from the environmental community, as well as federal and state government.

For additional background on the Cadiz Water Project, see:
On the Hydrowonk Blog
Cadiz Project archive
In the Journal of Water
Superior Court Rejects Environmental Challenges to the Cadiz Project May 2014
Cadiz Water Project Meets Critical Milestone with Innovative CR-6 Treatment Technology September 2015
BLM Determines that Cadiz Project Needs Federal Approval October 2015
Appellate Court Affirms Cadiz Project’s Environmental Approvals June 2016
BLM Rescinds Policies that Led to Determination Requiring Federal Review of Cadiz Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project Spring 2017
BLM Decision Allows Cadiz Project to Move Forward (Fall 2017)

What about the Opposition?

WaterFix is facing many challenges. Environmental groups like Restore the Delta have long opposed the project due to fears that it would increase exports and further degrade the Delta. Environmental and fishing groups, local governments, and Delta agencies have filed a bevy of lawsuits challenging the validity of the Environmental Impact Report. Recent reports by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the California State Auditor highlight the failure of lead agencies to act in an open and transparent manner on certain actions. The Inspector General report says that the Bureau of Reclamation improperly subsidized Central Valley Project contractors’ share of the BDCP costs and did not fully disclose its financial commitments to Congress and other stakeholders. Specifically, Reclamation “did not report $50 million derived from an appropriation, available for other general purposes, that it also used for the BDCP.” The State Auditor report says there was no economic or financial analysis to demonstrate financial viability and that DWR violated state law when it replaced the program manager for the conservation and conveyance program.

WaterFix is also fighting to gain sufficient buy-in to sufficiently fund the project as defined. Westlands Water District voted to not participate in WaterFix saying, “…from Westlands’ perspective, the project is not financially viable.” Westlands’ abstention leaves a gap in anticipated funding. Due to that gap Santa Clara Valley Water District announced that it would participate in “a lower-cost, scaled-down, and staged project.” The Los Angeles Times reports that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and three of the city’s five representatives on the Metropolitan Board of Directors have also stated that they prefer a scaled-down version of the project. Kern County Water Agency (“KCWA”) sent a letter to the state indicating that they would commit to a partial share (which would benefit a little less than half of their growers). KCWA, however, was optimistic about this level of buy-in because they were the first major block of agricultural water users to lend support to the project, and the support among the growers could increase. In addition, Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”) proposed a “portfolio-based alternative” in 2013 that would construct smaller Delta transfer facility, improve levees, establish protective pumping rules, restore habitat, develop South-of-Delta storage, develop local supplies, and improve cooperation and coordination among water agencies.

Despite the challenges, the public is behind the project. A recent public opinion survey commissioned by SCWC found overwhelming support for the project. Even after hearing these frequently-cited opposition arguments, 64% of Southern California voters expressed support for the project.

Is California WaterFix the Solution?

I don’t know. What I do know is WaterFix has been offered as a solution, and some voices have counteroffered with a smaller version of the project. The smaller version might be appropriate, especially if agencies’ financial commitments don’t bring in the dollars necessary to fully fund the project or if a redefined scope also meets other objectives—but infrastructure costs do not scale back proportionally.

Stay tuned for Hydrowonk’s economic perspective on California WaterFix.
For previous posts on the project, see the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan category archive.