Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | July 8, 2019

Assessing the Delta tunnel project as a seismic upgrade

Governor Newsom’s April 29, 2019 Executive Order mandated that the California Natural Resources Agency and the California Environmental Protection Agency assess “current planning to modernize conveyance through the Bay Delta with a new single tunnel project.”

Part of the agencies’ assessment of that planning should include an independent, objective assessment of the Delta tunnel’s performance in a large earthquake. The assessment needs to look into why Metropolitan Water District’s analysis of whether the tunnel lining will survive a large earthquake assumes the tunnel is constructed in very dense soil.  This assumption is questionable.


In April of 2018, California Water Research collaborated with the Sierra Club and other Southern California environmental groups to send a letter to the General Managers of Metropolitan Water District, and Kern County Water Agency, and the CEO of Santa Clara Valley Water District, explaining that the Delta tunnels were not being designed to withstand a Maximum Considered Earthquake on nearby faults. The letter concluded,  “[t]he Department of Water Resources and Metropolitan Water District must analyze the performance of the Delta tunnels for all seismic hazards in the Delta, including the.. Maximum Considered Earthquake.”

MWD commissioned an evaluation of the performance of the proposed Delta tunnel lining for a Maximum Considered Earthquake in the Delta, a 2% in 50 year, or 1 in 2,475 year event.  The July 2018 analysis concluded the tunnel lining design would perform adequately and no changes to the design were needed. (Arup 2018.)

But there were major limits to the new analysis by Arup. The analysis for a Maximum Considered Earthquake only considered ground shaking at Clifton Court. The analysis also assumed that the soil column at Clifton Court was very dense. Based on this assumption, the analysis concluded that the ground shaking at the depth of the tunnel was about one-third that of the ground shaking on the surface.

chart seismic

As explained below, the assumption that the soil column at Clifton Court is very dense is inconsistent with geologic maps of the deep sedimentary deposits in the Delta. The conclusion that ground shaking at the depth of the tunnel is one-third that of the ground shaking on the surface is also not consistent with measurements from a down-hole seismic array at another site with deep sedimentary deposits, La Cienega in Southern California (Grazier 2004.) Measurements at La Cienega show that for strong earthquakes, ground shaking at the proposed Delta tunnel depths is about 70% of that on the surface (Hu 2005.)

Seismic hazard maps from the California Geologic Survey show no regions in the Delta near Clifton Court Forebay with very dense soils. The CGS map below shows the soil density for areas in the Delta near Clifton Court. (CGS 2018.)   Interpreting the CGS map requires a little explanation.

Geologists and geotechnical engineers estimate the density or stiffness of soils with shear wave velocities (Vs.)  For earthquake engineering, they consider the average shear wave velocity over the top 30 meters (100 feet) of soil.   Average shear velocities above 750 m/s correspond to rock. Average velocities above 360 m/s correspond to very dense soils. Velocities above 180 correspond to stiff soils. Velocities below 180 correspond to soft soils.

The CGS map shows that, in general, the only very dense soils near Clifton Court are in the Diablo Mountain range (at the bottom left corner.)  The soils at Clifton Court are generally stiff (Vs = 294.)  The soils at Bacon Island are generally soft (Vs = 176.)

Woodward quadrangle

Perhaps the sediments Clifton Court Forebay increase in density with depth?   The graphs below show shear velocity vs depth in two boreholes at Bacon Island and Clifton Court, from Kishida 2009. There start to be layers of very dense soil at Clifton Court at about 25 meters (82 feet depth.)  The graph shows essentially no layers of very dense soil for Bacon Island.


It is unclear how MWD could have concluded that soils at Clifton Court are “very dense,” except by cherry picking the properties of deep layers of soil.

For evaluation of the seismic performance of the Delta levees in the Delta Risk Management Strategy, on the other hand, DWR’s contractor cherry picked the lowest shear velocity values from specific boreholes.   This was criticized by the US Geologic Survey as not standard engineering practice.

If the DWR’s contractors analyze the seismic performance of the Delta levees as if they were built entirely on soft soils, and MWD’s contractors analyze the performance of the Delta tunnel lining as if it was built entirely in very dense soils, it will likely result in a large over-estimation of the seismic benefits of the Delta tunnel.

An objective, unbiased analysis of the benefits of the Delta tunnel as a seismic upgrade should use the same geotechnical assumptions for both the “without project” conditions and the “with project” conditions.


Arup, Seismic Review of Tunnel Liner Performance, Appendix M, Conceptual Engineering Report, California WaterFix Byron Tract Forebay Option,  2018. Available at

California Geological Survey, Seismic Hazard Zone Report for the Woodward Island 7.5-Minute Quadrangle, Contra Costa County, California 2018.  Available at

Graizer, V & Shakal, A. Recent Data from CSMIP Instrumented Downhole Arrays. AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts, 2004.  Available at

Hu Jin-jun & Xie Li-li. “Variation of earthquake ground motion with depth,” Acta Seimol. Sin. (2005) 18: 72. DOI:10.1007/s11589-005-0008-x.   Available at

Kishida, Tadahiro & Boulanger, Ross & A Abrahamson, Norman & W Driller, Michael & M Wehling, Timothy. Site Effects for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Earthquake Spectra. (2009) 25 10.1193/1.3111087. Available at

Schaefer, J.  Seismic Review Comments (and Responses) on Technical Memorandum Delta Risk Management Strategy (DRMS) Phase 1 Draft 3 Topical Area: Levee Vulnerability. US Army Corps of Engineers, April 11, 2008.  Available at


On June 10, 2019, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) began extensive geotechnical drilling to evaluate a single tunnel project in the WaterFix project alignment.  The drilling is currently suspended, pending resolution of a Temporary Restraining Order issued by Sacramento Superior Court at the request of Sacramento County.  The work is being done without required county permits to protect groundwater.

The geotechnical work was ordered by the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA) ahead of a July 31, 2019 deadline to complete work under a court Order of Entry that DWR initially obtained in June of 2017.  Boring locations in the court order include the WaterFix North tunnel leading from Intake #5, and the WaterFix main tunnel alignment on Venice Island and Victoria Island in the South Delta. The boreholes are 6.5 to 8 inches in diameter and 150 to 200 feet deep.

Intake drilling

According to DWR’s May 22, 2019 environmental document for the drilling, the geotechnical work is being done is to complete geotechnical exploration in the WaterFix project tunnel alignment that began in 2010 and 2011.  The geotechnical work is part of ongoing work under contracts executed in January of 2019 for the WaterFix project.  The DCA signed a $93 million contract with Jacobs Engineering in January of 2019 for engineering design, and a $75 million contract with Fugro for geotechnical services.

Controversy over the geotechnical work

When the geotechnical drilling crews arrived in the Delta, DWR employees distributed flyers characterizing the work as “soil sampling” to “investigate alternative conveyance types and alignment locations.”  Delta residents were outraged.  Delta community and business groups sent a letter to DWR Director Karla Nemeth on June 12, stating

Allowing the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (“DCA”) to continue preliminary design, survey and right of way mapping, and real estate acquisition planning based on the withdrawn WaterFix project specifications is wholly unacceptable to our communities. To our knowledge, DWR has no approved plans or specifications for the new Delta conveyance.  And if the WaterFix project specifications are being used as the basis for the design of the new Delta conveyance under DWR’s authority, it is predecisional and will prejudice the new Delta conveyance CEQA process.

Gary Lippner, DWR’s Deputy Director of Delta Conveyance, responded on June 17, 2019 stating that “[n]either the Department of Water Resources (DWR) nor the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA) is continuing work on that project or currently performing any new planning based on the previous WaterFix approvals.”

Kathryn Mallon, the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority Executive Director, has since clarified that the current geotechnical work is being done in support of a single tunnel in the WaterFix project tunnel alignment.  She stated that the work is needed to “support the preferred alignment of the previous planning work and [is] necessary to answer critical questions related to this particular alternative (eg. pile driving methods and noise levels at the proposed intake locations.)”

With regard to alternative designs, the DCA Executive Director stated,

The DCA has budgeted for and is in the process of preparing a boring plan that is more geographically expansive and includes collecting information in corridors for alternatives that are expected to evolve from the NEPA process, including the previously preferred alternative but not limited to this alternative.

According to the DCA’s Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget, the DCA is planning to spend $82 million over the next 12 months, including $35 million on engineering design and $20 million on field work  ($98 million with contingency.)  When the proposed 2019-2020 budget was released on June 17, Delta community and business groups expressed shock at DWR’s approval of the aggressive schedule, stating:

We strongly disagree with this approach of rushing forward with engineering design and geotechnical work. The way to mitigate impacts of the project on Delta legacy communities and fish is to first reconsider the project design in consultation with Delta stakeholders. This process must start with DWR addressing the requirements of the Delta Reform Act to reduce reliance on the Delta, and to restore, enhance, and protect the Delta as an evolving place. Pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act DWR must also start with an early consultation on historic properties.

The Delta community groups also requested that DWR rescind authorization for the geotechnical work until the appropriate county permits were obtained.

DWR’s Deputy Director Lippner and the DCA’s Executive Director Kathryn Mallon have offered to meet with the groups to “discuss the planning process and hear their thoughts on local engagement.”  But DWR’s attorneys are simultaneously seeking to continue the geotechnical work without county permits.  The Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority Board also approved the $82 million budget for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 at the June 20, 2019 meeting, including $55 million for engineering design and field work.

The Department of Water Resources and the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority are doing extensive engineering work to assess potential designs for a single Delta tunnel. On June 10, 2019, the Department of Water Resources began geotechnical drilling in the former WaterFix project tunnel alignment and a former WaterFix project intake location. According to the DWR website, the geotechnical drilling is at 19 sites in three Delta counties (San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Contra Costa.) The work requires drilling of 6.5 to 8 inch boreholes to a depth of 150-200 feet. The drilling reportedly requires a crew of five to six people for up to 11 days at each site.

geotech drilling2

Drilling crew in Courtland

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a sensitive area and borehole drilling requires special sealing to prevent contamination of groundwater. On June 7 and June 14, 2019 the counties of San Joaquin and Sacramento notified DWR that the geotechnical work required a well drilling permit. On Monday, June 17, 2019, the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department issued a Stop Work Order for the drilling in Sacramento County. On Thursday, June 20, 2019, the San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department gave Victoria Farms on Victoria Island in the South Delta a Notice to Abate for unpermitted well drilling. The abatement notice documented that Victoria Farms was under court order to allow the drilling.

On Thursday, June 20, the Sacramento County Superior Court granted a Temporary Restraining Order to Sacramento County to enjoin the geotechnical drilling for 21 days. Chris Hunley, the Sacramento County Environmental Specialist who issued the Stop Work Order, stated in a declaration in support of the order:

Unregulated drilling performed in connection with investigations of hydrologic or geologic conditions can be harmful and detrimental to water quality, including potable drinking water supplies, because the drilling can remove or open up preexisting underground geologic layers between aquifers and expose groundwater resources to pollutants, contaminants and sediments from other aquifers that had no prior hydrologic connection.

Most of the Delta area of Sacramento County relies upon wells for drinking water supply. The Sacramento Delta is a sensitive area with respect to groundwater quality. The Courtland area has special annular sealing material requirements to protect high quality waters from degradation by poor quality waters via pathways that are unsealed or improperly sealed. The potable groundwater supply exists at a depth of roughly 120 feet and lower. While borings are not water supply wells, improper construction of borings can potentially negatively affect the region’s drinking water aquifer by creating a hydrologic connection between the dirtier river seepage water at shallower depths and the separate, cleaner groundwater in the lower aquifer.

An improperly constructed or drilled boring could cause irreparable harm to public health because domestic well water could be infiltrated and contaminated by non-potable water from other aquifers as a result of drilling a single bore through multiple aquifers.

As reported by Matt Fleming at CalWatchdog, Sacramento County previously had problems with Caltrans claiming exemption from local agency permitting for geotechnical work and doing improper drilling. In 2014 Sacramento County threatened to fine Caltrans millions of dollars for drilling hundreds of borings over a period of decades in violation of state laws aimed at protecting groundwater. Under pressure from Sacramento and San Joaquin County and other local agencies, Caltrans announced their intent to follow local groundwater protection ordinances and outlined a plan to locate wells throughout the state and work under the proper license.

The Department of Water Resources does not have a similar policies. DWR and the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority are proposing to delete Term 3b from the Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement which requires compliance with local permits:

In carrying out its obligations under this Agreement, and without regard to the named Permit holder, the Authority and its agents shall comply with all conditions of all applicable federal, State, or local Permits issued for design and construction of the Conveyance Project.

The next hearing on Sacramento County’s filing to enjoin DWR from doing further geotechnical drilling without the required county permits will be in Sacramento County Superior Court on July 11 at 2:00 pm.

Banks pumping plant

Banks Pumping Plant, State Water Project

In 2018, the California Department of Water Resources delegated the design and construction of the WaterFix project to the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA), a Joint Powers Authority created by the State Water Contractors.  The October 26, 2018 Amended and Restated Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement states

DWR, in coordination with entities that comprise the Authority, has developed comprehensive project specifications and administrative parameters applicable to the design and construction of the Conveyance Project, hereinafter referred to as the “Specifications.”

The agreement further states,

The Authority .. is authorized by DWR to design and construct, or cause the design and construction of, the Conveyance Project in accordance with this Agreement and the Specifications.

On May 2, 2019, DWR’s Delta Conveyance Office sent a letter to the DCA stating that all approvals for the WaterFix project had been rescinded.  The letter also stated,

As the Department embarks on a new environmental review process and pursues new environmental permits, it will do this in tandem with design and engineering work needed. This work will occur in close partnership with the State Water Project Contractors funding the project. This approach provides the greatest opportunity to deliver a project ready for construction with minimal delay.

The Board of Directors for the DCA met on Thursday, May 16, 2019 in Sacramento.  The Directors heard an “informational item” on a resolution authorizing the Executive Director to negotiate an amendment to the October 23, 2018 Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement “to permit the DCA to provide engineering, design, geotechnical, environmental and similar services in support of the environmental analysis for a potential Delta conveyance project.”

The DCA Executive Director’s written report to the Board stated that the DCA is continuing to provide invoices to DWR’s Delta Conveyance Office.   The engineering and geotechnical work on the project was also reported to be continuing under the existing contracts with Jacobs Engineering and Fugro.

The Executive Director’s written report to the Board also outlined a “stakeholder engagement plan” for Delta tunnel project revisions:

3) The DCA worked closely with the DWR Communications team to help develop the stakeholder engagement plan. The DCA will take a significant role in actively engaging the community in understanding the project impacts and developing mitigation measures.

4) The Engineering team has been working on a revised work plan that focuses activities on advancing the engineering to better support the environmental review process and the stakeholder engagement program.

At the meeting, the DCA Board of Directors approved a procurement policy which authorizes the DCA Executive Director to award a “Direct Contract” for “change orders/amendments” to the project.   This would potentially allow the DCA to award a contract for revisions to the WaterFix project directly without any competitive bidding process.

A separate provision in the procurement policy could exempt direct contracts from separate approval by DWR’s Delta Conveyance Office.   These are the relevant provisions in the procurement policy:


(c) Direct Contract. Notwithstanding Subsections (a) and (b), the following contracts may be awarded through direct contract:

.               (4) If the contract is with any governmental agency

(5) Change orders/amendments.

(e) DCO Concurrence. Prior to the award of any contract under Subsections (a), (c) or (d), the Executive Director shall obtain the concurrence of the DCO regarding the noncompetitive procurement method. The Executive Director may obtain DCO concurrence on a per contract, per type of contract, or any other method as agreed to by the Executive Director and DCO. Notwithstanding the foregoing, DCO concurrence is not separately required for a contract if the DCO reviews and approves this Policy, and the procurement of the contract is conducted in accordance with this Policy.(underlining added.)

Delta stakeholders are closely following the DCA actions.  Several Delta attorneys were present for the meeting, as was Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, a Delta legacy community member, and the Executive Director for Restore the Delta.



Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | May 11, 2019

SCVWD pulls purchase of 5,257 acres of Merced ranch land from agenda

The May 14, 2019 Board  Agenda for the Santa Clara Valley Water District included a closed session item to discuss “setting negotiation parameters” for the purchase of 17 parcels of land in Merced County.

County tax records show that the parcels total 5,257 acres, and are owned by 4S Ranch Partners LLC.  The parcels are within the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as winter wetlands for waterfowl migrating on the Pacific Flyway.  The parcels are encumbered by conservation easements.

Grasslands WMA

Grasslands Wildlife Management Area                        Source:  USFWS


On May 9, 2019, Katja Irvin, chair of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter Water Committee, sent comments that the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board needed to disclose the rationale for the land purchase and hold a hearing.   The following day, the item was removed from the Board meeting agenda.

Controversial Groundwater Transfer

In 2014 and 2015, 4S Ranch Partners LLC and neighboring SHS Ranch transferred 13,000 acre-feet a year of groundwater to the Del Puerto and Patterson Irrigation Districts.  The groundwater was pumped from 14 wells on the ranches into Bear Creek and the unlined Eastside Bypass Canal.  Both flow into the San Joaquin River.

The US Bureau of Reclamation prepared an Environmental Assessment which found that the transfer of up to 26,000 acre-feet a year of groundwater from the parcels from 2014-2018 would have no significant impact.   Reclamation’s environmental assessment relied on oral statements by Stephen Sloan, an owner of 4S Ranch Partners, that groundwater levels in the area were stable. The Merced Irrigation District disputed this statement, commenting that well records showed that groundwater levels in the area were declining.  MID asserted that the groundwater export would have adverse effects on the Merced groundwater basin.

The Merced Groundwater Subbasin is a high priority, critically overdrafted basin.  Groundwater mapping shows that the parcels are adjacent to a cone of depression.

The Stevinson Water District has pre-1914 water rights to Bear Creek and a historic agreement with Merced Irrigation District to water spilled into the Eastside Bypass Canal.  Stevinson Water District protested that the transfer would be a trespass to their surface water rights, stating:

This Project appears to be a variation of a project recently abandoned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the project proponent in late 2013. That project was called the 4-S/Smith Ranch Refuge Water Supply Pilot Exchange Project for the East Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. When that project was proposed, the District expressed concern regarding the connectivity between the groundwater wells identified for use as part of the project and the East Side Canal. Indeed, the records of the USBR confirmed connectivity and recognized that the wells, located adjacent to the East Side Canal, would pump canal water.   The District obtained numerous documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, including well records, reports, and other studies documenting the link between the groundwater wells and local surface watercourses.

Neighboring farmers also strongly objected, and the Merced County Board of Supervisors expressed strong concerns.  As a result of the storm of protests, the groundwater transfer to the Del Puerto and Patterson Irrigation Districts was reduced to 13,000 acre-feet a year for two years.

In 2015, Merced County passed an ordinance which prohibited the export of groundwater from inside the county without a permit from the Merced Department of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health.  However, there is an exemption for water released to replace surface water used for fish and wildlife or downstream water quality or quantity needs:

Reasonable use of groundwater resources to supplement or replace surface water released for other reasonable and beneficial purposes, including but not limited to fisheries, wildlife refuges, ecosystem habitat or downstream water quality or quantity needs, when required pursuant to federal and state law, regulations, licenses, or pursuant to conditions imposed by valid permits.

Santa Clara Valley Water District filed a lawsuit in January against the State Water Resources Control Board over new flow requirements on the lower San Joaquin River.   The District  is in settlement negotiations with the state over the lawsuit.   It seems clear that the 4S Ranch wells could potentially be used to supply water for Voluntary Settlement Agreements.  However, such a use would be extremely controversial.

4S Ranch xfer

4S Ranch, Del Puerto WD and Patterson ID     Source: Reclamation

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 29, 2019

California’s water resiliency strategy should reduce GHG emissions

On Monday, April 29, Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-10-19, “directing the secretaries of the California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to identify and assess a suite of complementary actions to ensure safe and resilient water supplies, flood protection and healthy waterways for the state’s communities, economy and environment.”   The executive order also states that “climate change is having a profound impact on water and other resources.”

Governor Newsom’s order doesn’t mention reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the state’s water sector.   But this is an important part of achieving our state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2045.

In particular, California’s State Water Project is the single biggest user of electricity in the state.   It takes enormous amounts of energy to ship water hundreds of miles south and up 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi mountains to the Los Angeles basin. While the State Water Project has eight hydroelectric powerplants, they produce only about two thirds of the electricity needed for the project.   As a result, the State Water Project uses electricity from fossil fuel based power plants to ship water south, including the Lodi Energy Center natural gas fired power plant, shown below.


Lodi Energy Center Natural Gas Power Plant

Using fossil fuels to ship water hundreds of miles to water lawns and grow low value field crops is a concept from the 1950s and 1960s. For a 21st century water strategy, greenhouse gas footprints must be considered.

Some detailed recent case studies of GHG footprints are available in “Energy and emissions footprint of water supply for Southern California” by Fang, Newell, and Cousins.  (2015 Environ. Res. Lett.)  The table below shows the authors’ calculations of greenhouse gas footprints for water sources for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.   As LADWP switches to cleaner sources of power in 2020 and 2030, using local sources of water, including recycled water, groundwater, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, results in substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fang et al LADWP

Urban water conservation provides even greater greenhouse gas emission reductions, because it also results in savings for water treatment, residential water heating, and sewage treatment.   A  California Energy Commission study found that in 2001, 19% of the electricity and 32% of the natural gas use in California was for water conveyance, groundwater pumping and water treatment and wastewater treatment.

By 2030, the Department of Finance has projected there will be 44 million Californians.  To achieve sustainability and resiliency, we can and must reduce our individual water footprints.  We can do so by adapting our urban landscaping to California’s variable, Mediterranean climate, and fully implementing indoor water conservation.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 22, 2019

Groundwater depletion and salt-impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley

The Groundwater Resources Association of California and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative have proposed large increases in future diversions from the Sacramento River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to provide recharge of overdrafted groundwater basins in the San Joaquin Valley.

Their white paper states:

What Are the Legal and Regulatory Bottlenecks, and How Can They Be Eliminated or Reduced?

3.a The current, temporary and standard permitting processes should be reviewed and evaluated to determine whether it is sufficiently effective to support large increases in future diversions. The legislature’s AB 2649, as amended on April 25, 2018, was an important step in the right direction.

There are lower impact solutions to groundwater depletion than large increases in future diversions from the Sacramento River and the Delta. These include retirement of salt-impaired land and agricultural water efficiency measures.  Both are also needed to reduce the rate of degradation of land in the San Joaquin Valley.

There has been a long-standing problem that soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are washed down from the east side of the Coast Range, which was formerly seabed.  As a result, the soils have naturally occurring salt, boron, selenium, molybdenum and other trace minerals.  When the soils are irrigated, the salt and boron wash into shallow groundwater and eventually impair the growth of crops.

The map below  (from Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley)  shows salinity in shallow groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley, and how it impairs crop production.

Salinity in shallow groundwater


The Rainbow Report, a comprehensive study in 1990 estimated that 1,000,000 acres of land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley would be salt-impaired by 2000.  A 2017 study of remote sensing data from 2007 to 2013 confirmed that 955,000 acres on the west side is now moderately to extremely saline, with another 349,000 acres slightly saline.

The map below, from Technical Appendix E of Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, shows that some of the areas of largest overdraft during the 2012-2016 drought were in areas with salt and drainage-impaired lands on the west side.

This is a picture of a salt evaporation pan from salinity-impaired lands in the Tulare Lake Basin.  The soils in the western part of the Tulare Lake basin have enormous amounts of salt, and the land is going out of production.


Salt evaporation pan, Tulare Lake Basin.

It is not cost-effective to prop up agricultural production on degraded land in the San Joaquin Valley.  As Laurence McKenney said at the California Water Policy Conference,

Though the problem with salt accumulation was identified a long time ago, and it has been the doom of several past civilizations, we still lack effective financially viable management solutions..

Therefore using increases in diversions from the Sacramento River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to recharge groundwater on salt-impaired lands is a losing proposition. The following solutions should be implemented instead:

  1. The State Department of Land Conservation reported that 276,000 acres of land have been fallowed in the San Joaquin Valley between 2006 and 2012 (net change.)  Funding should be provided to regularly update maps of salt-impaired and fallowed land in the western San Joaquin Valley.
  2. The legislature should implement a program to incentivize retirement of the most salt-impaired lands, and to mitigate local impacts.
  3. According to the 1990 Rainbow Report, over-irrigation of drainage impaired lands increases the rate of deep percolation and soil salinization.  The legislature should provide incentives to rotate away from high water use crops in saline-sodic soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
  4. Both the state and federal governments should prioritize funding for rapid implementation of irrigation management measures in saline-sodic soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to reduce the rate of deep percolation and soil salinization.

The most salt-impaired lands on the San Joaquin Valley floor grow salt-tolerant field crops such as cotton, wheat, barley, and canola.   The crops generally require sprinkler or flood irrigation, as well as leaching.  But the most salt-impaired lands on the San Joaquin Valley floor are also the lands that are being converted to non-irrigated uses such as grazing.  As the lands are retired, they free up water for in-valley water transfers to better land with higher value crops.

The PPIC estimates of the benefits of in-valley water trading using the SWAP model in Technical Appendix C of Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley.  The following graph is from that appendix:

The PPIC analysis shows that transferring water from low value crops to high value crops significantly reduces the economic impacts of land retirement.  The SWAP model estimates of economic costs do not take into account the lands that are going out of production due to drainage and salinity issues.  The 350,000 acres of “other field crops and grains” would be expected to include such lands.

This post was updated on April 24, 2019.







Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 15, 2019

Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the CALFED Framework for the Delta

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called for creation of a “Bay-Delta Compact,” which he describes as a stakeholder drafted framework for action on the Bay Delta.   It is worth looking at how the CALFED agreement which Babbitt helped negotiate in the 1990s fell apart.

The major components of CALFED included:

  • Ecosystem Restoration
  • Water Quality
  • Water Supply Reliability
  • Levee Integrity

The components of the CALFED “comprehensive package” were negotiated with stakeholders, including environmental, fishing, and Delta groups.

The CALFED Environmental Water Account

CALFED also had an Environmental Water Account program, which provided for purchases of ecosystem water from willing sellers.   Environmental groups rapidly became disillusioned with the Environmental Water Account program.  In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council commented on the Environmental Water Account EIR/EIS:

From 2001-2004, the EWA provided only 29% on average of the expected 195,000 acre-feet of operational assets …. These shortfalls have occurred while exports from the Delta have reached record high levels and the ecosystem has continued spiraling downward.  Clearly, the EWA experiment has not performed as planned.

The agencies have turned the EWA on its head and, instead of using it to supplement the resources needed and required for fish protection, have used it as an excuse to short the environment and avoid committing those mandatory resources.  Unless the agencies make very clear that limited EWA assets cannot be used as a reason not to take an action that would help protect or restore imperiled fish, it should be discontinued.

Because of crashing pelagic fish populations, in 2006, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bay Institute filed an emergency petition to change the listing for the Delta Smelt to “endangered” from threatened.   A period of intense litigation over federal Endangered Species Act protections in the Delta followed the filings.   In 2009, the State Water Contractors argued that the revised federal Biological Opinions would result in “waste and unreasonable use” of water under the California Constitution.  The argument did not prevail, and the ESA restrictions on diversions in the Delta were upheld.


A Failure of Governance

Meanwhile, the cost of the CALFED program became a major issue for the state legislature. The Ecosystem Restoration Program commitments were $150 million a year, and the Environmental Water Account cost $50 million a year. With the state’s growing budget crisis, and a lack of apparent progress on restoring the Delta ecosystem, the cost of the program became an issue. Governor Schwarzenegger directed a review of the CALFED program by the Little Hoover Commission in 2005.  The report included the following recommendation:

Recommendation:  Policy-makers must adopt clear and specific goals for the CALFED program and fortify those goals with budget and legislative authority.

  • Set clear, specific goals for CALFED. The Legislature must put in place goals that communicate to the implementing agencies and the stakeholders the State’s priorities and preferred strategies for restoring the estuary and meeting water needs.
  • Ensure the implementing agencies have sufficient authority and resources to succeed. The Legislature must embed the CALFED goals in the authorizing statutes of the implementing agencies, empower those agencies to achieve their missions, and provide sufficient staff and funding to succeed.  (p. 47.)

In 2006, the legislature moved all the funding for CALFED from the Bay-Delta Authority to the Secretary for Natural Resources.  Correspondence by the CALFED Independent Science Board in 2008 stated that there was insufficient funding to even finish developing performance metrics for progress in the main program areas.

As a result of the Little Hoover Commission report and general dissatisfaction with CALFED governance, the Delta Stewardship Council was created by the Delta Reform Act in 2009.   The Bay-Delta Authority was dissolved and the responsibilities were transferred to the newly created Delta Stewardship Council.   But the governance problems continued.  The Delta Stewardship Council dropped the CALFED water quality program, leaving consideration of effects of Delta contaminants on fish to the chronically underfunded State Water Resources Control Board. The goals in the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program, which included restoration of at risk native fish populations, were not included in the Delta Stewardship Council’s new Delta Plan. Environmental groups also argued that the measures in the Delta Plan requiring “reduced reliance on the Delta” were inadequate. The performance measures in the Delta Plan were ruled inadequate by Judge Michael Kenney in the Sacramento Superior Court in 2016.   The case is currently being appealed.

Babbitt should examine the reasons for the failure of his previously negotiated collaborative solution for the Delta before suggesting a new one.



By Bill Kier and Deirdre Des Jardins

The California State Water Resources Control Board is in the middle of a comprehensive review and update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which sets water quality measures and flow requirements to protect Delta fisheries.  In a repeat of political interference with previous major Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Updates, Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed a new Water Board Chair and has directed the Secretaries of Natural Resources and the California Environmental Protection Agency to engage in negotiations with the Trump administration and water contractors on Voluntary Settlement Agreements to implement the update.

Jennifer Pierre, the general manager for the State Water Contractors, published a breathless Op Ed calling for a “fundamental reset” of the State Water Resources Control Board’s regulatory approach to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. Instead of setting regulatory flow targets, Pierre calls for future management to be based on “adaptation and collaboration.”

Dr. Jeff Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California has also advocated for “flexibility” in allocating water for the environment.  In a January 2019 seminar for the Delta Stewardship Council science program, Mount stated:

 “In our view, that means treating it like a water right that has the ability to both store and trade water… What it did in Australia where they set something like this up is suddenly the environment moves from being a constraint on the system to being a partner on the system.  Somebody sits at the table with the other water right holders and is managing that body of water for the ecosystem but also as a partner with the folks in the watershed.  So trading and storage is extremely important for management flexibility.”

Mount’s glowing reference to the Australian model makes one wonder if he has ever stepped foot in Australia, or seen the misery there.  This year has seen millions of dead fish in the Murray-Darling Basin from low flows and harmful algal blooms.


Jan 29 fish kill on the Darling River at Menindee   Source:  Sydney Morning-Herald

A panel of experts, convened by the Australian Academy of Science, found serious deficiencies in governance and management.   In a February 18, 2019 press release, the Chair of the expert panel, Professor Craig Moritz, stated:

“Our review of the fish kills found there isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.”

In Cry me a river: Mismanagement and corruption have left the Darling dry, an Op Ed published March 2018 in the Sydney Morning-Herald, Hellen Vivian opined:

there is no escaping the state of this once magnificent river. It’s like a giant neon emergency signal flashing across the four most populous states in the country. Depleted, despoiled, often poisonous and since 2001 frequently dry, the Darling River is an emblem of poor government, mismanagement, greed and anti-democratic activity.

In sum, there is nothing new or exciting about water diverters managing a block of water for the ecosystem.  The Australian corruption and mismanagement shows the catastrophic impacts that could occur in California if those who profit from water diversions are charged with managing flows to protect fisheries.

About the authors

Bill Kier is a certified fisheries scientist who during his long professional life has been a California Department of Fish and Game field scientist, program manager and environmental division chief; an assistant Secretary of the California Resources Agency; a California State Senate consultant to committees on fish, wildlife, natural resources and water resources; developer and Director of the Senate’s office for research and policy development; and, since 1986, a developer of, and Principal with Kier Associates.  His consulting trips have taken him to the coastal estuaries of eastern Australia as well as the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Gulf of Maine, and France’s Loire River.

Deirdre Des Jardins, principal at California Water Research, has a background in nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, and computational modeling.  She is a former researcher at NASA Ames Research center, the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Santa Fe Institute, and the UC Santa Cruz Bioinformatics Group.  She has done research and policy analysis on California developed water issues since 2009, including climate change, water management, and regime change in the Delta ecosystem.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 1, 2019

WaterFix “Executive Sponsor” and Project Risk Management

Who has been the Senior Planning Manager in charge of the WaterFix Project?  John Bednarski, Metropolitan Water District’s WaterFix project manager, refused to answer the question in the State Water Resources Control Board’s hearing on the project. The answer may lie in an obscure arrangement for a WaterFix project “Executive Sponsor.”

According to information provided to water agencies, the Senior Planning Manager of the WaterFix project has been the president of an obscure company in Idaho called 5RMK. 5RMk provides project planning, estimating and risk management services. The Department of Water Resources chose 5RMK to be the Independent Cost Estimator for the WaterFix Project. But 5RMK has been providing other services as well. According to a powerpoint presentation to the Santa Clara Valley Water District in 2017, 5RMK offers the following services:

· Estimating, scheduling, project planning
· Permitting, siting assessments, environmental compliance
· Program & construction management
· Claims support, [legal] defense & dispute resolution

A resume provided by Patrick Pettiette, the President of 5RMK, to Santa Clara Valley Water District and Metropolitan Water District referred to Pettiette as Executive Sponsor and Senior Planning Manager for the WaterFix Project. An Executive Sponsor usually has the following roles:

· Has ultimate authority and responsibility for a project or program
· Approves changes to scope
· Finds additional funds for scope changes
· Approves deliverables

Pettiette’s Executive Sponsorship of the WaterFix project could thus transfer responsibility and liability for the WaterFix project design to 5RMK from the Department of Water Resources and Metropolitan Water District.  This kind of risk management is a common arrangement for construction of oil and gas pipelines. Pettiette’s resume lists experience as the Executive Sponsor of two natural gas projects built by Exxon/Mobil.

· ExxonMobil – RFE LNG – Eastern Siberia, Russia
· ExxonMobil – PNG/LNG – Papau New Guinea

The Papau New Guinea project has reportedly had disputes stemming from the way the New Guinea government and Exxon proceeded with the project without first resolving landowner claims.

Pettiette’s resume also lists experience as Executive Sponsor, Program Manager, or VP of Operations of high liability United States government projects, including

· US Department of Energy Hanford Nuclear Reservation Closure
· BP/ARCO McColl Superfund Site Restoration
· US Department of Energy Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project


Pettiette was President and Responsible Corporate Officer of a Limited Liability Corporation created for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Closure, Washington Closure Hanford. According to a report, Hanford Cleanup: The First 25 Years, there were problems with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Closure Process during Pettiette’s tenure. The report states that “[a] routine audit showed that a worker at Hanford’s Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF) falsified records related to the compaction of waste within the disposal site.” It refers to a huge fine:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulated ERDF, issued the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) a $1.14 million penalty — its largest fine ever at Hanford. The fine included $835,000 for failure to correctly perform compaction testing. The penalty covered both the falsification of testing records and what EPA believed was the improper use of equipment to test compaction. An additional $305,000 in penalties was assessed because of problems monitoring a system to pump collected water from the landfill. EPA said both DOE and its contractor were at fault.

Pettiette’s resume lists experience with several tunneling projects on his resume, including Construction Management for the Pin Lin Highway Tunnel in Taiwan. Wikipedia states about the tunnel:

While excavating the tunnel, engineers encountered difficult geological problems like fractured rock and massive inflows of water, which caused severe delays. One of the three TBMs on the westbound tunnel was buried by a ground collapse. In order to speed up the tunnel boring, an additional working interface in Interchange Station No. 2 (under Ventilation Shaft No. 2) was built. Along the tunnel alignment, there are six major faults, ninety-eight fracture zones, and thirty six high-pressure groundwater sources. Hence, serious tunnel collapses with groundwater flooding took place periodically during tunnel construction. Altogether, 25 lives were lost during 15 years of construction.

There are very real questions about what the reference in Pettiette’s resume to Executive Sponsorship of the WaterFix project means. These questions could only be answered definitively by the contracts with 5RMK. But the contracts have not been disclosed.

Senator Bill Dodd’s SB 204 would require disclosure of information from future WaterFix contracts. At the Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bill, the State Water Contractors opposed language requiring disclosure of the contracts. At the request of the State Water Contractors, Dodd’s SB 204 has been amended to not require disclosure of contracts worth less than $5 million, and further amendments are being negotiated.

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