Sunday, June 29, 2008

Water Si, Drought No

A piece of a sheet of plywood, painted white with red letters saying, Water Si, Drought No, hanging above my garage doors is a remnant of a local water bond election held in November 1977, the end of a severe two year dry spell that re-taught all of California the meaning of the word DROUGHT

The practical meaning of drought is that there is less water available than we all cumulatively and separately normally expect to be using to sustain our normal daily activity. A great amount of California is plumbed together to share the same watering hole, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When those watersheds don't fill up their respective upstream buckets every year, the State and Federal Governments step right in to divide the available amount of water to all the contractors who have agreed to pay for all the plumbing to divert this fresh water supply before it flows into the saline reaches of the San Francisco Estuary and the Pacific Ocean.

1977 was also the year that the Santa Clara Valley Water District signed up for getting even more of its future water supply from this already heavily shared watering hole. The District had argued and schemed to get as large a volume of water they could justify through this new straw in the Delta. Our straw, although relying on the Delta diversions, actually began at the western edge of the 2 million acre-ft. off stream storage reservoir on the county line called Los Banos Grande Reservoir, near State Highway 152, known as Pacheco Pass. This is the same pass John Muir walked through over 100 years ago when he first headed from San Francisco to Yosemite.

The price for this new aqueduct had risen from its initial cost estimate of $100 million to over $300 million in the five years since I was first elected to the Water District's Board of Directors in 1972. I had campaigned against this project during my first election, and continued to oppose it until the Water District signed an agreement with the State to reduce its take from San Felipe Aqueduct by 15,000 ac.-ft. and build a local water recycling system that delivered 30,000 ac.-ft., giving the District even more supply and greater control over its future supplies than just getting what the Feds decided was available during a drought year.
This good faith gesture came about only after the State withheld its support for their federal appropriations.

So in 1977, I actually campaigned FOR the bond election. And the political machine I brought to this campaign was my newly acquired 30 ft. bobtail moving van that was sent to me by my father, as we expanded our family moving and storage business from Southern California to San Jose. We had 8x16 ft billboards attached to each side of my truck reading Support Measure H (20). Our first female Board member, Linda Peralta, suggested we overlay the signs with something in Spanish, so we compromised with the slogan Water Si, Drought NO.

Considering we were in a terrible crisis with this two year drought, we still did not invoke mandatory rationing. The first year of the drought, water consumption spiked 25% above normal. The staff brought in its chief hydrologists to give us the extremely low odds of another dry year repeating the following year, which it, of course, it did. But this collection of politicians is the most conservative group you'll ever meet, present company excepted. They firmly held to the position that people should be allowed to reduce water voluntarily before being mandated to do so. Both San Francisco and Oakland's EBMUD had declared mandatory rationing, which included six cities in Santa Clara County that had delivery contracts from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct from Yosemite National Park.

But 1977 was also the year I first learned the meaning of Public Relations. Because most of the media was reporting on how folks were responding to the mandatory rationing around the Bay area, our water consumption did actually go down, back to what we were using in 1975, but our staff at the water District didn't use 1975 as the base year, but instead used 1976, a year when every one's response to a dry year was to water their landscaping even more to make up for the lack of rain during that first dry year. So the Water District declared that they had managed to get a 25% reduction from its water users in the County without the use of mandatory rationing.

This PR was so obvious to the professionals, that the Public Relations Association of America awarded us their Silver Anvil Award, signifying, I guess that we had beat the facts into looking so shiny and to our advantage that our community good will would increase, though we did almost nothing to earn it. I was selected by our Board to travel to Houston, TX to receive this prestigious award, so I jumped on a plane and had my first experience with this steam bath for 6 million people called Houston.

While visiting my father's sister who was then living there, they informed me that an uncle of mine who worked for Hooker Chemical Company in my home town of Niagara Falls, NY would be stopping by also, as he was in town for business. When he arrived and I inquired of his business, he said he was there to receive some award from this Public Relations Association. Yes, we were both there to get the same award.

So we discussed what his award was for. He had chaired an industrial committee that had generated a report used by the municipal government in its prospectus for a new bond issue. The report detailed all the job and revenue growth projections for the major local industries in Niagara Falls, NY to garner a good rating with the bond market and convince voters to approve the bonds. The bonds passed and the city sold the bonds just in time to avoid filing bankruptcy. The local industry never expanded anything and the City of Niagara Falls got nothing more from industry except the toxic chemicals leaking out of Love Canal.
Today, much of the city's neighborhoods have decayed to slums, with roadways completely crumbled.

Back in San Jose, our own water District staff was getting ready to unload its own delusion on the Board. The $56 million dollars in revenue bonds that were just approved by the voters apparently was not nearly enough to pay for the in-county portion of the new aqueduct's delivery system. The Federal portion of the aqueduct was to end at a 12,000 hp pumping station next to Andersen Dam in Morgan Hill, giving the water enough energy to push water across the valley to Los Gatos, through Almaden Valley, where new pipelines would take water to and from a new 100 million gallon per day treatment plant close to the District headquarters. The bill for all this was suddenly over $150 million. The balance would not come from additional bond proceeds, but instead, cash reserves that would be built up by raising water rates. This essentially meant that current residents would be charged more so that they would be paying now for facilities to serve mostly future growth. And short of voting out the entire Water Board, there wasn't any way to stop this incredible ripoff.

The other shoe dropped in the next year when the staff highjacked the State's study for developing the additional 30,000 ac.-ft of recycled water. Instead of giving the water advanced treatment and recharging the recycled water into its efficient groundwater basin, a system was designed to deliver 30,000 ac.-ft of water to local farmers with a separate pipe irrigation system that would cost $2,000 per ac.-ft. which was immediately dismissed as infeasible. The District again dodged recycling water for a second time in the decade.

They would do it a third time in the mid eighties during Bill Clinton's administration after the new aqueduct went on line in 1987 at the beginning of a six year drought which saw the District draw $12 million from its cash reserves to buy water from the State water bank to put into its new aqueduct that was suppose to deliver 150,000 ac-ft. per year. This time, the recycled water would be made safe for recharging into the local groundwater aquifers, but the unit costs were still kept at $2,000/ac.-ft. by reducing the volume to 20,000 ac.-ft and designing a salt crystallizing disposal system for the concentrate from the reverse osmosis units that purified the water.

Ironically, the $12 million was the amount for the local share of a $100 million recycled water project that I designed for the County in 1971 that would yield 100 million gallons per day of recycled water, treated with reverse osmosis and clean enough for groundwater recharge. To sweeten the deal, US EPA offered to purchase the development rights on the entire Coyote Valley to preserve the valley as permanent agricultural open space, confining, for good, San Jose's southern sprawl.

Felicia Marcus, who was then Regional Administrator for USEPA, Region IX sent the Water District a letter indicating that the water costs for a groundwater recharge project using recycled water would be at competitive levels with other sources if the District would plan on using 80,000 ac.-ft. instead of 20,000 ac.-ft. But The District just ignored the letter, with Director Judge quipping that she wrote exactly what I wanted the letter to say. I'm glad someone, at least, admitted he heard me say it in a Board meeting.

A water recycling project was finally built despite all the District's attempts to avoid it thanks to the City of San Jose who built the project after the State issued a flow cap on their waste(d) water discharge into South San Francisco Bay. The City was found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act for destroying salt marsh habitat of the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. After trying to stall the project by pretending to be interested in being a parter in the San Jose recycling project, the Water District responded by paying the City less than $100 per ac.-ft. for delivered water, subtracting their lost revenue from a fictitious avoided cost they found in current literature.

So as the Delta ecosystem collapses and rains are again short of the state averages this year, drought is back again. The Water District is still studying recycled water. but is moving no where closer to it's green washed goals of meeting 10% of our water needs with this home grown supply by 2020. Instead, they have lobbied to get a purely ridiculous project authorized by Congress to get water from the San Felipe Aqueduct by bypassing the Los Banos Grande Reservoir to avoid the algae that grows in the lake when it gets down to 10% of capacity. This would probably cost as much or more than the original project, considering inflation and put the residents another billion dollars in debt with still no guarantee of water in dry years. Seems like what we've got is Drought Si, Water No, at least not recycled water and sometime no Delta water either.

Never Thirst!

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