Monday, October 14, 2013

Speech at the Restore the Delta Event

Last week, I gave the keynote speech at a Restore the Delta event.  Below is the speech I wrote for the event.  For context, it was a party and I was following a comedian whom I had been informed in advance was doing a routine titled "the Plan", hence my references to "the Plan" and attempts to be funny.  Also, I was accepting a "Delta Advocate" award and thus the premise of the speech is about how I was originally uncomfortable receiving an "advocate" award, but after studying these issues for several years I am now comfortable with the term.

I recall my first contact with Restore the Delta.  It was 2008, I was new to the area and attended a water issues forum held at Pacific.  I was expecting a small crowd, but the University Center was packed, and on the way out I picked up this bumper sticker – Restore the Delta: Fishable, Farmable, Swimmable, Drinkable (hold up sticker) 
What a nice positive message.  I put the bumper sticker on my car.  I didn’t even know Restore the Delta was an organization, I thought it was just a nice sentiment – like “Practice Random Acts of Kindness” or “I love puppies.”  Not long after that, I heard Barbara Barrigan-Parilla on the radio and I realized Restore the Delta wasn’t about hugging puppies.  
I was told by leaders that Restore the Delta was a tiny, self-interested, NIMBY group that was going to be rolled over for the “greater good” of the State’s economy… and I scraped that offensive bumper sticker off my car. 
I didn’t know if “the Plan” was the best thing for California or not.  But it was clear that there was misinformation in the media, and that there had not been any real attempt at benefit-cost analysis.  After 4 years and 3 significant economic studies I have now come to the conclusion that “the Plan” is bad for the state, and that there are better, less costly solutions.  At the same time, I have watched Restore the Delta grow from a noisy NIMBY group to a statewide organization that has a compelling vision that benefits the Delta and the entire state.
I have been asked to briefly describe my conversion into a Delta Advocate without using too many boring economic numbers.  So here goes.     
In 2009, the nation was in the worst economic crisis since the depression, and the Central Valley was the center of the storm in its worst crisis ever.  We had a new President with a 3-prong plan for the economy: stabilize the banks, help homeowners and stop foreclosures, and stimulus.  The President was able to get 2 of the 3 actions through Congress and did little or nothing to address the foreclosure crisis devastating the Valley.  Part of the blame goes to misinformed Central Valley Congressional representatives who were blaming their rising unemployment rate on a 2-inch fish, the Delta Smelt.
In 2009, California was in the 3rd year of a severe drought, and 5% of irrigated agriculture was fallowed due to lack of water.  But the owners of that 5% of farmland have political influence, and the news media was lapping up the “Fish or Families” campaign, flying in from New York, driving right past the 70,000 people in the Valley who had lost their jobs due to the foreclosure crisis, to blame the rising unemployment rate on a 2-inch fish.   
I was finishing up my first year at Pacific, and that summer my Center put out our first special report on water, “Unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley: Fish or Foreclosure?”  It laid out the facts about job loss and what caused it.  The report got some attention, Restore the Delta asked for an interview for their documentary film, and most importantly – and to their credit – economists from another University corrected their mistake and recalculated their estimates of job loss to something very close to our numbers.  That report established our credibility, and it slowed – but did not stop the flow of economic misinformation.
In 2011, I was hired by the Delta Protection Commission to lead a team of experts to develop their Economic Sustainability Plan for the region.  The best decision I made in that process was to hire Dr. Robert Pyke as my chief engineer, you will hear from him a little later.  Up until that point, all of my water research had been focused on the rest of the state, I was woefully ignorant of the Delta itself.  I had never seen it from a boat; I believed the news stories of crumbling levees and the inevitable earthquake disaster; I didn’t know the communities or think there was much out here but crops. 
Dr. Pyke educated me about the levee system, but I wasn’t about to go out on a limb with a crazy, old Australian so I consulted other engineers and sources.  We uncovered other unreleased DWR consulting reports that had come to similar conclusions, and published levee data the state had been sitting on for 4 years.  Then, “the Plan” brought in national experts to publically review our recommendations for investing in levees and not in tunnels.  Their expert panel said our levee strengthening recommendations were too weak for public safety needs.  Their expert said the earthquake risk to water exports did not justify the multi-billion dollar investment in a tunnel or canal.  And their review panel echoed our call for a full benefit-cost analysis of the tunnels.
Soon thereafter, calls for benefit-cost analysis of the tunnels were coming from everywhere: Congress, the state legislature, academics and the editorial pages.  By the summer of 2012 I had grown tired of the state’s inaction and drafted my own benefit-cost report using the Plan’s data.  I found $2.50 in costs for every $1 in benefits to the state; a very bad investment.  “The Plan” has now responded with some unconvincing new economic reports, but they have done little to change the growing doubts around California about the financial viability of “the Plan.”
This research has convinced me that Restore the Delta’s common sense call for levee investments and freshwater flows through the Delta is the best approach for California as a whole.  It is clear that Southern Californians are better off spending their money on modern, sustainable water supply alternatives, and that farmers can’t afford the tunnels.
So tonight I am going to be an advocate and put this sticker on my car [display stop the tunnels], and after the tunnels are stopped, I will replace it with this pretty one [display swimmable/fishable/farmable].
In closing, I would just like to say what it means to me to be a Delta advocate.A Delta advocate cares about this special place, and wants future generations to enjoy a Delta that is fishable, farmable, swimmable, and drinkable.  But being a Delta advocate is more…
It means being an advocate for facts over fear in policy debates. It means being an advocate for good government.  Demanding government agencies follow their own rules, and act responsibly with taxpayer and ratepayer dollars. It means being an advocate for enduring values like environmental sustainability, fairness, democracy and the rule of law.
But the best part of being a Delta advocate is the great Delta wine, food and good friends.  Thank you for your support, and I hope you all have a great time tonight.

As always, the speech as delivered varied a little since I was trying not to read and was interacting with the audience.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Jeff. You're a beacon of reason.

  2. I know you’re interested in accuracy as well as advocacy, Jeff, so I thought a few points might help your readers avoid misimpressions about the independent review of your team’s Delta Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP).
    • The review team did not conclude that earthquake risks did not justify investment in tunnels or a canal to convey water around the Delta. Rather, the review concluded that the ESP’s approach to upgrading the levee system and relying on through Delta conveyance wouldn’t necessarily improve water supply reliability because the upgrades hadn’t been shown to significantly reduce disruptions due to large earthquakes or address the take of endangered fish .
    • The review team also concluded that the ESP’s estimate of the cost of upgrading Delta levees was optimistic and misleading. Because the ESP lacked the information needed to prioritize investments in Delta levees, conveyance or other improvements, the review team recommended a benefit cost evaluation of levee investments and other Delta improvements.
    • The review was conducted not by ‘the Plan’, but by an independent panel convened by the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Science Program.

    Readers who want to read the review themselves can find it here

    Congrats on the award, which was well deserved.

    Dan Ray
    Chief Deputy Executive Officer Delta Stewardship Council

  3. Dan,

    Good comments. Let me respond...
    1) The chair of the review team clearly stated to the DSC at your meeting that earthquake risk reduction to water supply did not justify a tunnel, according to his assessment of the DRMS analysis. Play it back. You are probably right that the statement was not in the written report. Regardless, the finding was confirmed by Dr. Sunding's economic analysis conducted for the Plan in addition to my own work. "The Plan" broadly defined has plenty of evidence that earthquake risk is a poor economic rationale for the tunnel.

    2) As for levee upgrades and water supply reliability, you are correct that they did state that a major part of the water supply reliability problem was due to take of endangered species at the pump. Since levee upgrades do not address that issue, they do not by themselves solve the water supply reliability concern. And yes, they wanted to see more evaluation of how such improved levees would perform in a major earthquake.

    3) The term "Plan" is used in a joking way in the speech to refer not just to the BDCP, but the larger processes both formal and informal in California to push for the tunnels. In the view of many, the Delta Stewardship Council falls in that category since it is holding a place for the BDCP and must incorporate it under certain conditions. We could waste time parsing statute as to whether that is fair or not.

    4) You are right that they warned that the cost estimates could be misleading based on their experience with cost overruns in New Orleans and other major levee projects. It is similar to warnings that the tunnels could cost more than $15b made by the LAO and others. In this case, we have similar projects that have been completed on which to base cost estimates, so we have argued that there is greater confidence in this cost. Another advantage of levee investments is that it is really a bunch of small projects, and each project creates immediate benefits as soon as it is completed. Even in the worst case scenario that it costs twice as much as you thought, and maybe the funding runs out too soon and you only upgrade 10 islands instead of 20 miles you targeted, you still have received tremendous benefits. You can't say the same for tunnels, bullet trains, bridges, etc.

    My major problem when it comes to the levee system and "the plan" are these:
    1) a tremendous misinformation campaign that the levee system is getting worse and deteriorating when the truth is that it is remarkably improved and performing better. "The Plan" is getting better about these statements, but it would take many press conferences and major education campaign to undue this misperception.
    2) Levee upgrades are an important and viable strategy to achieve the co-equal goals, improved levees provide water supply reliability, protect against environmental damage, and provide a great opportunity to improve habitat. They should be a key strategy under BDCP, but they are not. I suppose I can understand why the water contractor driven BDCP is pushing for big water infrastructure and is less interested in levees, but these strategies are not even seriously considered as alternatives in various BDCP analysis.
    3) Levee upgrades are flood controls systems that save lives, protect lots of other critical infrastructure and property. The tunnels won't save anyone from perishing in an earthquake or flood, or prevent damage to transportation and energy systems. The use of the human tragedy of Katrina to push the tunnels - which would do nothing to prevent a human tragedy from a Delta flood - is disturbing to say the least, and I am glad that is diminishing.

    Gotta run. Thanks for reading.