Canadians are so practical

I’m contemplating a series of posts about quantity vs. reliability of water supplies, with a focus on California’s Bay-Delta/California Aqueduct project.  But that will have to wait a few more days.  So I’ll take a very brief hiatus from contentious water supply issues to discuss amicable water supply management.  In what may not surprise you, this story of reasonableness and amicable negotiations comes to us from Canada, our friends to the north.

The Columbia River Treaty, prepared in 1964, agreed to install lots of electricity generation on the Columbia River and its tributaries, as well as store spring runoff in 4 major dams, alleviating previous risks of destructive flooding.  The treaty is novel to this day because it doesn’t have an expiration date, and either the US or Canada could cancel most of its provisions after September 2024, with a 10-year minimum notice.  American regulators at the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are reviewing the treaty, in consultation with 15 Northwest tribes, the four northwestern states, and other federal agencies.  Notably, in 1964, few environmental regulations existed, so the treaty does not address endangered salmon runs or climate change.  (You can also tell that it preceded our spiral into lawyer-dom: the entire treaty is a mere 20 pages.)

So the treaty is being re-evaluated, ahead of time, for the benefit of the environment, and perhaps the US government.  How tame.  Go figure.

In contrast, the far more stressed Colorado River system is managed more on-the-fly, relying upon a document written in 1922 based upon flow data that is now known to be greater than the long-term average — in essence, 7 American states overallocated the entire river flow, such that no flow was intended to reach Mexico.  Subsequent negotiation has carved out an allotment for Mexico (a pittance), but the basic problem remains: too many people in the southwest rely upon the Colorado River to survive an extreme drought.  Maybe we should be trying to renegotiate that treaty, too…

sausage making in Sacramento

California has water issues.  Let’s start with the fact that most of the population lives in the south and most of the rain falls in the north.  Add in the nation’s richest agricultural region in the middle, and you’ve got a recipe for water battles.  Most recently, the state government has been trying to pass water bond legislation for new dams and restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (the Delta), the source of the controversial State Water Project which delivers water from NorCal to SoCal.  The price tag of the bond is some $11 billion, making it larger than all previous water bonds, even the one that established the State Water Project 50 years ago.

Although the water bond has bipartisan support, it is actually opposed by groups on both ends of the political spectrum.  It’s a huge bill, which required tons of earmarks to acquire that bipartisan support.  For example, it attempts to compromise between building large dams and employing groundwater storage, though in my technical opinion, the era for building large dams has passed.  If the bill funds both types of projects, I would call that compromise by throwing more money at the problem…

Notably, the bill took a 2/3rds majority to pass in 2009, so that it could be put to a voter referendum in 2010.  But it was postponed to 2012, in its original form, while the problems it was meant to address continued evolving and the politicians that wrote the bill and required its earmarks left office.  The legislature just postponed the bond another 2 years so that the Governor’s own tax and bond ballot initiative can take priority this fall (who would vote for two giant bonds for an already bankrupt state??).

At this point, I have to wonder if California has any hope of passing serious water legislation.  If the legislators had 2/3rds on board to send the bond to the ballot, why couldn’t they just vote on it themselves back in 2009?  I’m betting 2/3rds did not want to stick their necks out on this controversial issue.  Who thought voter initiatives were a good idea?  They give the legislature the ability to punt issues to the less-well-informed public…and in the case of water, we need people who can get things done.  This is where democracy isn’t pretty.

the do-nothing alternative

I was pleased to see this recent report out of a US-Canadian advisory panel that the best option to manage varying water levels of the Great Lakes is, actually, nothing.  Homeowners adjacent to shorelines that have risen and fallen significantly in the past 20-30 years were hoping that dams or similar water flow controls between the Great Lakes would constrain the water levels with less variation.  But remember, these are the Great Lakes.  That’s a lot of water we’re talking about, and building big dams on that scale would be massive in cost (both dollars and environmental damage).  Plus, there’s no guarantee that dams can prevent long-term trends in water balance between rainfall, runoff, and evaporation.  I mean, look at Lakes Powell and Mead on the Colorado River: the physical infrastructure can’t overcome the lack of precipitation and runoff in the Colorado basin when withdrawals continue unabated, and consequently water levels have declined on the order of 100 ft since the lakes filled.

So let’s see, a project that would benefit some shoreline property owners but have huge infrastructure and environmental costs…doesn’t exactly sound like something I’d want my taxpayer money paying for.  It’s a relief that the advisory panel was not swayed by a few annoyed shoreline residents into unsound advice.  The “do nothing” alternative can sometimes be a high bar to meet and exceed.