Monday, February 17, 2020

Delta Voluntary Agreement Costs Soar from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion

The first update of the Delta voluntary settlement agreements (VSA) last winter had an estimated cost of $1.1 billion over 15 years.  In the latest update, the cost of implementing the voluntary agreements has soared by over $4 billion to a whopping $5.3 billion.  Governor Newsom failed to mention the enormous and growing costs in his oped praising the voluntary agreement framework.

The delta water users contribution has increased from about $300 million to $2.34 billion.  On one hand, I am happy to see the extra $2 billion given that I previously ridiculed how cheap the water agencies initial offer was compared to the enormous benefits they receive from this agreement compared to the alternative. This additional $2 billion from water users only accounts for half of the cost escalation, the government negotiators also "volunteered" an additional $2 billion in taxpayer funds for a total of nearly $3 billion from federal and state governments.

Over $5 billion in taxpayer and ratepayer funds is a lot for a 15 year Delta operations agreement.  Taxpayers and ratepayers should be asking whether these $5+ billion is better invested on developing alternative local water supplies and new technologies that will provide benefits far beyond the 15 years of this agreement.

The $3 billion in state and federal funding deserves the most scrutiny.  It seems that most of the funding for habitat in these agreements appears to come from existing state bonds dedicated to environmental enhancement - meaning that habitat investment is going to happen anyway with or without this voluntary agreement.  I have heard that many of the specific projects were already required.  So are the habitat improvements in the VSA any different than would occur without the VSA?  If they are the same, then they should be in the baseline and their benefits not attributed to the VSA deal.  If they are different, then we need to consider what other habitat projects are lost to support the VSAs.

The spending plan summary also says that about $1.2 billion of the funds would go to water purchases which would average less than 200,000 af per year over 15 years.  That's a pretty good price for irrigation water, I wonder how they determined the amount.  Another $456 million for paid fallowing that would presumably provide some of the other flows from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley. 

I find it interesting that if water supplies and fallowing is the result of regulation, the focus of the anti-regulatory protests (as well as the Governor's explanations for not suing the Trump administration over weakened environmental regulatons) are the low-paid farm worker jobs that could be lost if water diversions are curtailed.  However, the VSA deal pays $1.6 billion to landowners (farmers) to reduce farm water supplies and fallow fields, and $0 to farm workers and communities that these politicians and landowners say are harmed the most by land fallowing.  I wonder if the environment and Central Valley communities wouldn't both be better off if the state stuck with the original regulations and directed $1.6 billion in public funds to other economic and community benefits in the Valley.
   
I am not opposed to the concept of a voluntary agreement, but it should have a simple structure in which water users only provide funding for environmental goals in return for a lower regulatory burden - rather than the needlessly complicated VSAs that mix in lots of funding and projects that do not depend on the VSA.  A simple structure is very common in a variety of regulatory settings.  A common example is a developer paying a fee to satisfy a regulatory requirement rather than direct action by the developer to set aside land or housing units for other social/environmental needs. 

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