Tap dreams - Page 5

Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco
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"Realize this: those springs on Mount Shasta are not an infinite supply of water."

After the Sacramento feeds the bottled-water companies, what remains wends its way south, with more diverted directly to farmers and into the State Water Project, which pipes it to drier southern regions. What's left empties into the delta.

A lack of fresh water, flagging environmental preservation, increasing agricultural needs, and leveed island communities that are seismically unsafe and sinking, all mean the delta is failing as an ecosystem, and has been for some time. Chinook salmon and delta smelt populations are collapsing to such an extent that court orders have halted a percentage of water diversions and salmon fisherman were forced to dock their boats this year. Levees are crumbling, causing islands to flood and raising ire among landowners. Farmers with historic water rights are fiercely protective of them, while environmentalists are lobbying them to use more conservation and efficiency.

Nearly all stakeholders agree that the status quo won't hold.

The challenge is finding a solution. Ending exports seems impossible, limiting them means massive investments in other resources. No one agrees on what will really save the endangered salmon and smelt or improve conditions for the 700 other native plants and animals.

In 2006, the governor convened a seven-member Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, which released a strategic plan in October calling for balancing co-equal goals of ecological restoration and water reliability.

The plan also specifically recommended a dual conveyance system similar to what was proposed in a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. It combines some through-delta pumping with a peripheral canal around the delta. PPIC crunched the numbers and determined that the canal was economically better than any of the four options they had weighed.

The peripheral canal idea isn't new, but it's been controversial since it was first proposed almost three decades ago. The plan was ushered by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, but defeated by voters in 1982 after a major organizing effort by environmentalists. (Whether voters will cast ballots on it this time remains to be seen, though the Attorney General's Office, now headed by Brown, has counseled the Department of Water Resources, which is charged with implementing whatever plan is decided upon, that a vote of the people isn't required.)

Shortly after its release in July, the PPIC report was criticized by five elected Congressional Democrats — Reps. George Miller, Ellen Tauscher, Doris Matsui, Mike Thompson, and Jerry McNerney. "The PPIC report should not be used to ignore the many things that can be done today to restore Delta health, including providing necessary fish flows, undertaking critical ecosystem restoration projects, and making major investments in water recycling and improved conservation measures," Miller said.

Numbers used by the PPIC report have also been criticized by Jeffrey Michael, a business professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. In an analysis of PPIC's work, Michael said the group had used inflated population figures, as well as high costs for desalinated and recycled water, therefore resulting in a report that made it look like it was too expensive to end delta exports altogether and replace them with other water sources.

The PPIC said the state's population would be 65 million by 2050, that desalinated water costs $2,072 per acre-foot, and recycled water goes for $1,480 per acre-foot — numbers that were scaled to 2008 dollars from 1995 figures. Michael contends that if the numbers were adjusted to reflect actual costs, the peripheral canal wouldn't look like such a sweet deal.

Maloni, of Poseidon Resources, said the desalinated water cost would be $950 per acre-foot for San Diego, including a $250 subsidy.