Thursday, December 15, 2022

Is DWR Lying About The Low-Utilization Operating Plan For The Delta Conveyance Project?

The most significant change from the twin-tunnel, three-intake, 9,000cfs capacity WaterFix to the single-tunnel, two-intake, 6,000cfs capacity Delta Conveyance Project (DCP) isn't the number of tunnels, but how they are utilized.  

It would seem logical that lowering the capacity of the Delta tunnel(s) would result in the remaining capacity being used more intensively. That was how it worked when DWR briefly switched to a staged, single-tunnel plan for the WaterFix in 2017, as well as other alternatives with lower capacity.  

Instead, the draft EIR for the single-tunnel DCP states that the tunnel will be used much less than the WaterFix twin-tunnels.  In fact, the operation modeling shows zero diversions through the tunnel most of the time.  In the DCP, the tunnel only makes up 13.5% of projected Delta water exports, compared to 50% of total Delta water exports in the WaterFix.  

Is this low-utilization rate of the DCP believable?  Will the state spend $20 billion on the most expensive water infrastructure project in history and not operate it most of the time (or as Osha Meserve said, why buy a Maserati and only drive 10 miles per hour)?  

That is indeed the official plan as described in chapter 3 in the EIR, and subsequently used in all the analytical chapters that follow. 

However, the Draft EIR itself contradicts these operations in chapter 2: Purpose and Objectives and in and Appendix 3a where it interprets and elaborates on the purpose to screen out all alternatives.  The project objective is to achieve the following 4 purposes in a cost-effective manner.
1. Climate resiliency
2. Seismic resiliency
3. Water Supply for State Water Project
4. Operational Flexibility

The problem is that achieving 3 out of the 4 project purposes, as described in the alternatives analysis in Appendix 3A, require shifting diversions from the south Delta to the north Delta intakes and through the tunnel.  In other words, 3/4 of the stated project goals are in conflict with the project description and EIR modeling which focuses exclusively on a low-utilization scenario.

Goal 1, Climate resiliency:  Appendix 3A states that only tunnel alternatives satisfy climate resiliency because they can divert from the north when the south is too salty. Stunningly, this flat out ignores the water quality commitments and limited north delta diversion in the actual project description.  (In Appendix 4A, the EIR models a climate change scenario, and finds that there are actually fewer days on the calendar that the tunnel can be used under climate change.  Thus the incremental water supply benefit decreases as climate change accelerates, in contrast to Appendix 3A that assumes higher tunnel use under climate change when screening out other alternatives.)

Goal 2, Seismic resiliency:  Appendix 3A assumes that if brackish water fills the Delta in a seismic-induced mega-flood, then the north Delta intakes and tunnel will be used intensively in place of the south Delta pumps which would be unavailable for months due to bad water quality. This assumption is inconsistent with the project description which commits to operating the project to support Delta water quality objectives and limits use of the north Delta intakes. The EIR provides no explanation of why the environmental restrictions and water quality objectives in the Delta would be waived in such a scenario where the Delta communities and environment are experiencing an emergency, and it provides no modeling of the environmental impacts of operations in such a case.

Goal 4, Operational flexibility: Appendix 3A describes this as a certain kind of flexibility - shifting south Delta diversions to the north Delta. Again, directly in conflict with the project description which does not include such flexibility or any analysis of the environmental impacts of this alternative operating scenario.

The final part of the project goal, which is the only one not in the Appendix 3A screening criteria, is to achieve the goals in a cost-effective way.  The EIR is completely silent on cost-effectiveness, but this is another goal that would seem to be in conflict with the low-utilization of the tunnel in the project description.

So back to my original question: Is DWR being truthful?  Will they really keep the north Delta intakes off and the tunnels empty most of the time?

The alternatives analysis and how it interprets the project goals show they are not really committed to the low-utilization project description.  When this is combined with the lack of economic and financial feasibility analysis, I believe the project description lacks credibility.  

While it is tempting to rate the EIR project description as "Pants on Fire" on the Truth-o-Meter, I'll keep my rating at "lacks credibility" or "inadequate support" as I am sure there are honest folks who worked on this draft EIR who truly believe in their $20 billion mostly-empty tunnel proposal. 

In summary, the DCP EIR has many problems, and I have only touched on one of them here.  As a result, I believe this single-tunnel proposal will fail like the twin-tunnel proposals that preceded it. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Agricultural Jobs Data for 2021 Show Drought Impacts

The best quality jobs data (QCEW) was released earliest this month through the end of 2021, and gives the first reliable data on the state of agricultural employment during 2021, a year impacted by drought and lingering impacts of Covid.  The graphs below show employment and wages data over time for all of California in NAICS 11 (Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting). Agriculture accounts for 99% of jobs in this industry category in California.

As you can see on the graph, jobs had steadied near 423,000 in the years prior to Covid, and then declined by about 15,000 during the first year of the pandemic.  In 2021, Covid impacts on the farm labor were lower, but drought impacts likely prevented recovery.

While I say this is the first reliable data, UC-Merced (in partnership with others) released a projection in February 2022 that the drought eliminated 8,744 jobs in California agriculture compared to what they would expect in non-drought conditions.  Their estimates suggest 2021 employment would have been just under 420,000 in the absence of drought.  That seems pretty accurate to me and I am happy to see that this modeling of drought impacts seems to be much better than what UC was producing a decade or so ago.         

Overall, this is just over a 2% decline in employment relative to non-drought conditions.  While drought employment declines grab the headlines, the more impactful story in the ag jobs data is the continued strong growth in wages.  Average wages in the agriculture industry in California increased again in 2021, and have risen about 60% over the past decade (not adjusted for inflation) after years of stagnation.  While it is still the lowest-paying sector in California, this wage growth is significant and has benefited thousands.  

What will 2022 bring?  The drought continues, and the impacts of the pandemic and less abundant and more expensive labor are also continuing to some degree.  Thus, a recovery is unlikely this year.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Stanford scientists find that the Delta Conveyance Project is a much worse idea than converting Diablo Canyon into a giant nuclear-powered desalination plant.


A recent study from Stanford scientists has caused some policy makers, including Governor Newsom, to reconsider the timeline for closing the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, California's last operating nuclear plant.

Among the future visions for Diablo Canyon plant evaluated in the study was using it as a mega-scale desalination facility.  Mega-scale nuclear-powered desalination!  I can see my environmentalist friends recoiling in horror at the idea.  I am not persuaded it is a good idea either, but the Stanford team clearly demonstrated that it is far from the worse idea in California water.

Here is the second highlighted finding in the Executive Summary

Using Diablo Canyon as a power source for desalination could substantially augment fresh water supplies to the state as a whole and to critically overdrafted basins regions such as the Central Valley, producing fresh water volumes equal to or substantially exceeding those of the proposed Delta Conveyance Project—but at significantly lower investment cost 

Here are some quotes from the desalination chapter,

One of the intermediate sized Diablo Canyon-powered desalination options would produce significantly more fresh water than the highest estimate of the net yield from the proposed Delta Conveyance Project at less than half of the investment cost.

It is also notable that the projected capital cost of the Delta Conveyance Project, at $15.9 Billion, is more than twice the capital cost of the Diablo Canyon Desalination Option 2, discussed below, which, at a capital cost of approximately $6.5 Billion, yields up to seven times the amount as the DCP. 

This comparison really caught my attention because pre-Covid I had given one or two talks on the Delta Conveyance Project where I started by comparing the State Water Project and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant with a series of multiple-choice questions.   In a future post (yes I am aware I have not posted here in nearly a year), I will dust off that quiz and add some content from the Stanford report.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

2020 data shows Covid impacts on agricultural jobs

The best quality jobs data (QCEW) was released yesterday through the end of 2020, and gives a first reliable look at the state of agricultural employment during the 2020 pandemic year. The graphs below show employment and wages data over time for all of California in NAICS 11 (Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting). Agriculture accounts for 99% of jobs in this industry category in California.

As shown above, 2020 resulted in the biggest decline in agriculture employment since the drought year of 2009 (the graph also shows how ag jobs did not decline during the last drought). While an essential sector, agriculture jobs did not expand like employment in grocery stores and e-commerce fulfillment. One cause of the decline may have been worker health - Covid hit ag workers and communities hard. Reductions in immigration and crop shifts may have also played a role (for example demand for labor intensive speciality crops and fresh produce may have declined as much of the restaurant sector shut down). We are now well into a drought year and there will inevitably be questions about the impact on farm jobs. It will be even harder to discern the impacts this year as Covid has distorted what had become a pretty level baseline and is also continuing to impact labor markets into 2021. Even more important than the number of jobs, the new data release provides solid data on agricultural wages. Ag worker wages continued strong gains in 2020, both in the aggregate and as an average. The average wage gain is particularly impressive - increasing $60 per week on average in 2020 compared to 2019, and up $200 per week since 2014. Overall, this is a very positive trend for the Valley economy. Total wages paid in this industry was $16.1 billion in 2020, up from $15.3 billion in 2019 and $10 billion in 2011. In general, Covid effects on agricultural labor look similar to the economy in general - jobs down but average wages up.

Monday, August 24, 2020

New $15.9 bil. Delta tunnel cost estimate: Revisiting DWR's 2018 single-tunnel economic analysis with updated costs shows it is a bad investment for water agencies.

As reported in the Sacramento Bee, the cost of a single-tunnel Delta conveyance is now estimated at $15.9 billion.  In a previous 2018 analysis to support a short-lived proposal to stage the twin-tunnel WaterFix proposal, DWR estimated the single-tunnel 1st stage of WaterFix at $11.1 billion in 2017 dollars, which is equivalent to $11.7 billion in 2020 dollars.  This is a 35% increase in constant dollars, and should lead the Governor and the dwindling number of water agencies that still support the single-tunnel delta conveyance facility (DCF) to reevaluate the investment.

That 2018 analysis wildly overstated the economic benefits of a single-tunnel to participating water agencies, but for now let's accept their estimate of benefits.  The image below shows the results of that analysis (Table 5, with no federal subsidy).

Simply updating the costs to this latest estimate ($15.9 billion in 2020 dollars is equivalent to $15 billion in the 2017$) reduces the benefit-cost ratio for SWP urban agencies from 1.23 to 0.92, and for agricultural agencies from 1.17 to 0.87 in the trading scenario.

That's a bad investment, but it is actually much worse than that.  The 2018 analysis assumed the project would be operational in 13 years, whereas the new cost estimates a 20 year delivery period.  I didn't incorporate the extra 7 year wait for benefits in the above recalculations of the b-c ratio, but it would make it even lower.

At some point, we might see a revised economic analysis that manufactures new benefits to magically get the benefit-cost ratio over 1.  Readers of this blog know that DWR and MWD already have an established track record of inventing new benefits as new information reveals the delta tunnel(s) to be a worse and worse investment.  

P.S.  Thanks to Restore the Delta for archiving the 2018 analysis online for the public record.  DWR has wiped their previous links, and I couldn't find a saved copy in my files.   

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Water Blueprint proposes a valley wide sales tax to fund their irrigation water plan. Is it equitable? Is it feasible?

 Earlier this month, CSU-Fresno hosted the event "Funding Water Infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley." The vast majority of the event was focused on the so-called "Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley," a high profile new investment plan for irrigation water.

At the event, the Blueprint rolled out a proposed funding plan - the centerpiece of which is a proposed 0.5% special sales tax in the 8 counties of the San Joaquin Valley.  While the sales tax would provide the vast majority of funding for the Blueprint's multi-billion investment strategy, the funding plan also includes a modest $4 per acre foot charge on water users and hoped for matching funds from the state and federal government.  In most years, the Blueprint projects the sales tax would generate 7 times more revenue than water user fees. 

The sales tax is a bold new idea in water finance, but not a good one as proposed.  It is inequitable across geography and income.  It probably isn't politically feasible either, despite the optimistic spin from a new poll presented at the event.  Below, I briefly discuss these issues and suggest some changes to the Water Blueprint to improve the equity and political prospects of their proposal.

Geographical Inequity - Taxes North San Joaquin Valley Counties Without Benefit

The tax is proposed for 8 counties, although the Blueprint plan only provides benefits to 5 counties from Madera south to Kern. The proposal would get 1/3 of its revenue from the North San Joaquin Valley counties while providing zero benefits to them - and potentially harm San Joaquin County's Delta region.

The Blueprint can correct this problem by dropping the 3 northern counties from their proposal, and leaders in the North San Joaquin Valley should demand that they do so.

I have argued for years that San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties are ill-served by the 8-county region often used in state planning efforts.  The Blueprint, which has gained some influence with state leaders, is an excellent example of this problem.

Geographical Inequity - Benefits Wealthy Out-of-Valley Landowners 

In a previous post, I have pointed out that the biggest beneficiaries of the Blueprint agenda are farm owners, not poor farmworkers as much of the Blueprint PR claims.  Many of those farm owners, especially the wealthiest ones, live in wealthy communities far from the Valley.  These individuals can afford to pay for their own water infrastructure, and certainly shouldn't be subsidized by a sales tax imposed on the Valley's cash-strapped households.

The Blueprint can fix this adjusting their financial plan such that user fees are charged at full cost. The sales tax revenue would be used to provide water rate assistance to water users who live within 50 miles of their farm.  Income and acreage limits on the recipients of the sales tax funded water rate assistance should also be considered.

Inequity Across Industries - Agriculture Is Exempt From Sales Tax, But Other Industries Pay

There are many exemptions to sales tax, most notably to services and food.  Farming inputs and supplies are also exempt from sales tax, whereas most non-agricultural businesses in the Valley pay sales taxes.  It is bold for the Blueprint to propose a special sales tax benefit for an industry that already has an exemption from paying sales tax.

Income Inequity - Regressive Sales Tax Primarily Benefits Well-Off Landowners

The primary general argument against sales taxes are that they are regressive.  Lower-income households pay a higher share of their income in sales taxes than higher-income households.  The situation is the same here, and it is particularly problematic in this case as the largest beneficiary of the tax are the owners of farms - who generally have above average incomes in the Valley and include some truly rich out-of-Valley landowners as described above.

The Blueprint can improve this inequity by including funding to repair unsafe drinking water systems in the Valley to their plan.  The tax is still regressive, but funding clean drinking water with its proceeds will at least direct more of the benefits to low-income communities.

Political Feasibility - Will it Pass?

The Valley is not an easy place to get voter approval for a tax increase.  And as a special tax, I believe the Blueprint proposal would require a 2/3 vote to pass.  That's a tough hurdle, and the poll results are interesting if reliable.

First, while the poll focused on the sales tax proposal - in the one question that presented both a "water consumption tax surcharge based on use" and a "special sales tax" - respondents favored the use charge over the sales tax by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.  My read on this is that a proposal as I suggested above - user charges to cover the full cost with special tax revenue to defray costs to local users meeting residency, income and acreage restrictions - would be seen as more equitable and popular to Valley voters.

Second, the poll had a note of positive news for the sales tax: 69% of the respondents said they would be "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to support a special sales tax for water.  Is this poll reliable?  Is there really that much support?  A look at the last voter poll the Institute for Leadership and Public Policy did in cooperation with Valley water users suggests there polling may be too optimistic.

In October 2018, a few weeks before the vote on the Proposition 3 water bond, the same group released a poll of likely voters in the 8 San Joaquin Valley counties that found the following support for Prop 3. 64% Yes, 10% No, and 26% Don't Know.  In reality, 50.1% of voters in the 8 counties voted No, so their polling of Valley voters missed by an enormous margin in 2018.

I believe the Blueprint's special sales tax will lose big as proposed.  It might have a chance if the Blueprint adjust it to be more equitable in the following ways.

  • Eliminate the 3 North San Joaquin Valley counties.
  • Add funding for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities.
  • Propose a full cost user charge with the sales tax to defray expenses for non-wealthy water users who live in the Valley.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Reaction to CalMatters essay, "A social justice perspective of the Delta tunnel project"

Gary Kremen, vice chair of the Delta Conveyance Finance Authority, argues that building the Delta conveyance tunnel promotes social justice.  His argument is built around a rhetorical question that he fails to answer correctly. Kremen asks,
In a catastrophic levee failure, who stands to be hurt the most?
Correct Answer:  The people who die!  Shockingly, Mr. Kremen completely omits any mention of fatalities, which is rather obviously the most significant harm caused by the catastrophic flood he describes.  The earthquake induced flood he describes would come with virtually no warning, and if it triggered enough widespread flooding to harm water exports - it would surely be a mass fatality event wiping out small communities, family farms, and critical transportation, energy and local water infrastructure.  A more likely smaller earthquake induced flood would still do much of this damage with minimal impacts on water exports.  But the $11+ billion tunnel Kremen is promoting would protect none of the lives and also would not protect against most economic impacts.  It would not even fully protect water exports.  In contrast, investing in levee improvements protects all of these interest - including water exporters and human lives - from this catastrophic event.  Levee investments benefit all stakeholders.  That certainly sounds more like social equity to me.

I had high hopes that this kind of disaster rhetoric would die down after the Oroville disaster nearly killed thousands and wiped communities after the map.  Especially after post-Oroville reviews slammed the Department of Water Resources for safety lapses and prioritizing water export agencies over public safety.  Mr Kremen's commentary gives me little hope that public safety is a high priority for the Delta Conveyance Finance Authority he vice chairs. 

Since everyone has to make a COVID comparison in our commentary now, I should also point out that the state's response to COVID shows California is very willing to prioritize saving lives over maintaining economic activity during a disaster.  Building levees that protect lives and businesses would be consistent with California's clearly expressed values, whereas building a tunnel that protects certain business interests while ignoring death and destruction in vulnerable communities is not.

Here is another strange and incorrect passage from Kremen's so-called social justice argument.  He warns that not building the tunnel will reduce water to Central Valley agriculture, and
Reduced water to Central Valley agriculture would mean higher prices for food, higher carbon footprint from food importation and decreased food security. Higher food prices disparately affect those who are poor and vulnerable. It is well documented that the transportation related pollution for importing food especially damages communities of color.
First, I would point out to Mr. Kremen that the only agriculture output that would definitely be lost in the catastrophe he describes is in the Delta itself - and the tunnels would do nothing to protect it.  The droughts of 2014-15 reduced water supplies by more than double the amount exported from the Delta in a full year, and these had negligible impacts on food prices despite hundreds of thousands of acres fallowed.  The tunnels would not protect the poor from rising food prices, nor would it protect them from rising water bills.  The carbon footprint, food importation comment is just weird.  Kremen suggests central valley farm products don't travel far, and are mostly sold at your local farmers market.  In fact, Central Valley agriculture is extremely export oriented, very industrial, and ships its crops across the world.  Why would a decrease in Central Valley farm output increase global food shipping costs? 

But the really strange part of this comment is the suggestion that the tunnel is actually good for agriculture - a statement which is demonstratively false.  Many agricultural agencies - including the entire Central Valley Project and multiple agricultural state water project contractors are not participating in the Delta tunnels because it makes water too expensive for farming.  The financial plan for the tunnels that Kremen and others have developed will result in farmers not participating and giving up a portion of their water exports to urban areas due to its extreme costs.  I have heard leaders of urban agencies, including Kremen himself, suggest that tunnels that price farmers out of the state and federal water projects is a business opportunity for urban agencies to pick up their water supplies. 

As On the Public Record points out in their comments on Kremen's column, the Delta tunnel is an engineering project not a social justice project.  For years, proponents of this Delta conveyance have tried to put green wrapping paper around the project (a tradition Kremen continues here with his claims about the carbon footprint of food importation).  This attempt to wrap it in the cause of social justice is even more disturbing.  Let's hope this isn't a new trend.