The Colorado River-Sacramento Delta Connection

With an 85 percent allocation of northern California water from California’s State Water Project last year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was able to cut back on its use of Colorado River water, leaving more than 300,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. That water has provided a sufficient buffer than Mead will end this year at an elevation of 1,077 feet above sea level, barely above the threshold (1,075) at which a Lower Colorado River Basin shortage is declared, with enforced water use cutbacks in the Lower Basin.

California State Water Project, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This year, with a current California State Water Project allocation of 20 percent, Met has far less wiggle room, less flexibility to leave water in Mead. In other words, problems in Northern California, in the supplies that flow through the Sacramento Delta to the State Water Project pumps, create risks for the Colorado River because of the interlocking nature of the two systems.

Met has a history in recent decades as a collaborative, positive participant in Colorado River governance. All else equal, Met has repeatedly shown a willingness to do the right thing for the Colorado River Basin as a whole. But it must first act to ensure the reliability of its own system supply.

This was the animating point of the talk I gave last week at the California Water Policy Conference at U.C. Davis. California is the 800 pound gorilla in the western water room. How it deals with the problem of moving water through the Sacramento Delta has a huge impact on the entire west. Success in ensuring reliability of delta supply to southern California decreases pressure on the Colorado River. Failure increases that pressure. Which is an overlong setup to my interest in this process, as Met considers picking up the full price tag for building two big tunnels beneath the delta. Via Ryan Sabalow:

Pushing ahead with an ambitious effort to take a majority stake in the state’s troubled $16.7 billion tunnels project, Southern California’s behemoth water agency announced Tuesday that the plan would cost its ratepayers less than $5 a month.

On Tuesday, staff at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told board members $4.80 was the most the 6.2 million households in Metropolitan’s service area could expect to pay if the agency moves ahead with plans to take on 65 percent of the share of building both tunnels.

One of the central points in the work of Elinor Ostrom, whose work animates a lot of my teaching in the UNM Water Resources Program, is the importance of the boundaries we draw around a resource problem. We tend to do it at the local or state level, awkwardly sometimes at the scale of river basins spanning two or more states, and only very awkwardly in a case like these were the resource system that matters spans two entirely different systems, connected via these giant canals that we built in the 20th century.

So I sit out here, two states away from Los Angeles, three states away from Sacramento, and watch California and fret.

7 Comments

  1. re: “Success in ensuring reliability of delta supply to southern California decreases pressure on the Colorado River. Failure increases that pressure. Which is an overlong setup to my interest in this process, as Met considers picking up the full price tag for building two big tunnels beneath the delta. ”

    The WaterFix is at odds with what N. Calif and most environmental groups want and think is good. The cost estimates of MWD (not more than $4 / mo per account) do not include the INEVITABLE cost overruns. Which recent large project — the Bay Bridge, Boston Dig, Seattle Tunnel — has not gone at least 50%, and in some cases hundreds of % over? And if you pay attention to recent testimony at the WaterFix hearings you find that the plans are insufficient to the needs, e.g. seismic planning is insufficient. So there will be additional costs above what the estimate is. (Again, how can the estimated costs be taken seriously?)

    Building the tunnels may “ensure reliability” but it will devastate the Delta and offer the probably irresistable capability of over-drawing water from the Sacramento. Instead of physical constraints there will not be only regulatory ones, and we know how easily those are overruled.

    Garcetti and the LA City Council have said that the WaterFix is a bad idea and that L.A. should work on decreasing water imports.

  2. “INEVITABLE cost overruns” – Capital cost estimate includes >$3B contingency. See presentation beginning at 44:04 mark – http://mwdh2o.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=21&clip_id=6180

    “Building the tunnels… will devastate the Delta” – Unsubstantiated hyperbole. Moreover, as 95% of the biomass of the Delta is non-native, its waterways laden with with invasive, predatory species, with thousands of unscreened diversions, many would argue the Delta was devastated long ago. See http://www.calleguas.com/images/delta-transformation2.mp4

    “Garcetti and the LA City Council have said that the WaterFix is a bad idea and that L.A. should work on decreasing water imports” – Developing cost-effective local programs is certainly wise, yet LA leaders may want to clearly communicate the true cost of such programs. Much uncertainty remains… financial and climate. See http://www.calleguas.com/images/ladwp-stormwater-capture-study-2015.jpg and http://www.calleguas.com/images/screenhunter_2808-mar.-01-15.05.jpg

  3. $3B does not even represent a 50% cost overrun. See what the large projects I’ve cited have gone over. Recent testimony at the WaterFix hearings has shown severe deficiencies in seismic planning for instance, which could push the cost way up.

    “Much uncertainty remains”. That seems to be the state of the world nowadays. We all know the right way to proceed: lighten the load on natural systems, become more self-sufficient.

  4. “Further Decimate The Colorado River
    Or
    Further Decimate The S. F. Bay Delta.”

    Indeed the pressure on the Colorado River needs to be reduced, but a response that simply continues the
    draining out of the Delta is giving the stake holders a FALSE CHOICE. It is already well demonstrated to
    anyone who cares to look, that there are several viable alternatives to draining the Delta which are more
    responsive to today’s changing climate, far less destructive overall, and less expensive. Ergo, pressured
    reduced on the Colorado River, and no-one had to destroy what remains of the Delta ecosystem in the
    process!
    Jim Patrick

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