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.