September 3, 2015

Meeting water needs through savings, not tunnels


There are better ways to address California’s water challenges through regional solutions to improve water security–improving water independence, creating jobs, and reducing environmental impacts.

  • Residential water-efficient technologies. Landscaping uses roughly half of residential water. Replacing thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, installing smart irrigation technology, using rainwater and graywater, and promoting aggressive rebate programs for efficient appliances could reduce urban water use by 30%.
  • Maintenance of existing infrastructure. About 10% of urban water is lost through leaks in aging distribution infrastructure, wasting energy and precious water. Let’s fix the leaks.
  • Water meters for all households. California should accelerate the timeline for every home and business to have a dedicated water meter. Cities currently have until 2025 to complete this process.
  • Detailed usage reports for consumers. In one portion of an East Bay pilot study, home usage reports led to a 6.6% reduction in water use.
  • Water recycling. Recycling of municipal wastewater could be expanded to save up to 2.3 million acre-feet annually, according to the Department of Water Resources.
  • Improved agricultural water efficiency. Agriculture uses 75 – 80% of California’s water. Agricultural conservation strategies—including weather-based irrigation controllers, drip irrigation, and climate-appropriate crop selection—could yield over 3.4 million acre-feet in water savings.
  • Sustainable groundwater management. California is one of the few states in the nation that does not regulate groundwater. As a result we’re experiencing unsustainable levels of overdraft (removing too much groundwater), damage to aquifer (underground) storage capacity, and dramatic land subsidence.
  • Water-neutral development. SB610 and SB221 require proof of available water supply for new development projects. These laws should be strengthened to more effectively prevent unsustainable growth.

Such measures could reduce statewide water demand by 9.7 million acre feet/year. That’s more water than is exported from the Delta even in rainy years.

The tunnels are a risky and expensive proposition.

The tunnels would provide a false sense of water security and encourage unsustainable use of water in cities and farms across the state.

This project would burden Californians with an enormous financial commitment without guaranteeing any additional water for agriculture or urban areas. In dry years like 2014, which scientists predict may become the norm due to our changing climate, there may not be enough water to move through the tunnels.

If we gamble $67 billion on building the giant tunnels, there will not be enough money to invest in local solutions that would improve water security throughout the state and create local jobs through investment in smaller infrastructure projects.


Write to the Governor at:

State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814

Ask him to continue focusing on developing regional resilience to drought and to drop his proposal for Delta-damaging tunnels.

For more information, go to

Berkeley Climate Action Coalition quarterly dinner, meeting, and drought discussion — “California’s Drought: How did we get here? What can we do?”

20140222droughtCalifornia’s Drought: How did we get here? What can we do?”

Wednesday, March 26, 6 – 9 pm, Ed Roberts Campus, Osher Rooms, 3075 Adeline Street (between Tremont and Woolsey Streets, at Ashby BART). Accessible by the #12 and #49 AC Transit buses. Wheelchair-accessible.

This past January Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in California due to extreme drought conditions. Just what has led to our water woes and what can we do about them? Join speakers from East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Sierra Club Bay Chapter Water Committee, Greywater Action, and the city of Berkeley for brief presentations and discussion about the East Bay’s water supply, on-the-ground actions you can take, how the “twin tunnels” proposal fits in, and longer-term solutions. Co-hosted by the Sierra Club Bay Chapter.

We’ll share a delicious meal, network, and move forward with Coalition projects. Not yet part of a Coalition working group? This is a great opportunity to get involved in a transportation, energy, water, land-use, or outreach project. Invite friends, colleagues, and neighbors, and help keep growing our local climate movement!

The event is free, but we do need your RSVP by Wed, March 19, to or (510)548-2220, ext. 235.

A turning point in California’s water policy?

We are living in interesting times.

Within the last two weeks, the governor introduced the strongest environmental budget proposal since he was elected in 2010.

Among the highlights are about $8 million for groundwater-data collection, assessment, and management; $20 million for water efficiency, including reducing energy use for water pumping; $30 million for watershed and wetland restoration; and more than $472 million in regional water management.

For years, and most recently in a white paper, Sierra Club California and our members and activists have been calling for greater focus on these areas of water policy. These are among the areas that can, if given the right attention, resolve the state’s water supply problems and make it unnecessary to move growing amounts of water out of the sensitive San Francisco Bay Delta.

Following on the budget proposal by about a week, the governor signed a drought-emergency declaration. For the third year in a row, California’s rainfall and snowfall were well below normal in 2013. Now, in this first month of 2014, the drought is getting downright frightening.

Snowpack is less than 20% of normal in the Sierra. Mount Shasta, usually topped with a strong icing of snow this time of year, looks nearly naked. Sacramento-area rivers that are usually roiling in January look more like wide streams, and streams and creeks have dried up.

Both the governor’s budget proposal and the emergency declaration contain elements that will help Californians finally get a reasonable handle on how to manage water in this increasingly dry state. This could be a turning point in California’s 164-year-old battle with itself about how to manage a precious resource.

So, as an environmental advocate for an organization that has long pressed for better water policies, I should be encouraged. And I am.

But I’m also aware that not everyone is ready to ditch bad water policy.

The ink was barely dry on the emergency declaration before some editorialists, columnists and Republican legislators, mostly from the San Joaquin Valley, started pushing for more above-ground storage. Some above-ground storage doesn’t require a new dam. Some storage, for instance, involves increasing the use of above-ground percolation systems to replenish groundwater. But most of those who jumped onto the emergency declaration to call for more storage want more dams.

We are living in an era when the earth’s climate is changing because of human-caused pollution, particularly pollution from engines and factories and power plants fueled by oil, natural gas and coal. What used to be the norm for rainfall and snowfall is not likely to be the norm in the future.

That’s why the old ways of doing things won’t work. Putting up a dam to collect water, when there simply isn’t rain or snow, won’t work. Building giant tunnels, at a total cost of more than $50 billion, to carry water that may not be there isn’t a smart investment.

We need to focus money and effort on using more carefully that water we do have. The solutions include conservation, recycling, improving efficiency, patching leaks, pricing water right, and abandoning bad ideas—such as fracking—that waste and pollute water.

This year the governor’s water budget appropriately emphasizes regional solutions and regional resilience. It’s almost hard to believe this is coming from the same administration that has spent the last two years touting the giant Bay-Delta tunnels. Perhaps the drought has provided a reality check.

These are, indeed, interesting times.

Kathryn Phillips, director, Sierra Club California

Delta Group — “Pacific Flyway in the Delta and Central Valley” — Wednesday, February 26

birds--millions cropped 300x221Wednesday, February 26, 7:15 pm, Antioch Library, 501 West 18th Street, Antioch.

At the Delta Group’s February meeting, speaker Mike Moran will tell us about California’s great annual fall and winter bird migration on the Pacific Flyway.

He’ll tell us how the migration has been impacted by, and impacts, human behavior here on earth. We’ll share how avian biology, hydrology, water policy, land use, conservation, and restoration all converge in the Central Valley and Delta. We’ll take a look at where we are now, and how all these factors connect to the future for the Pacific Flyway’s fascinating bird travelers.

Mike is supervising naturalist at Big Break visitor center in the Delta in Oakley. He has been a naturalist for over 25 years, with the East Bay Regional Park District for 19 years, and earlier with the National Park Service, California State Parks, and other park agencies. Mike’s specialties include California water, birds and local history.

Do you want to see some of these birds yourself? Join the Delta Group on Sat., Feb. 22, as we car-caravan into the Central Valley to the Cosumnes River Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and Thornton agricultural area to see migrating birds, including sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese. For details see the Chapter Calendar.

Delta Group program meetings are usually held in February, May, September, and November. A newsletter listing Delta Group programs, outings, and activities is available by sending a check for $5, payable to “Sierra Club, Delta Group”, to:

Janess Hanson
431 Levee Road
Bay Point, CA 94565.

For information about Delta Group activities, call Janess Hanson at (925)458-0860. For information about Delta area environmental concerns, call Tim Donahue at (925)754-8801.

Upcoming hikes and activities

For more information about these activities, see the Chapter Calendar.

Sat., Feb. 8, Benicia State Recreation Area, 1A hike

Sat., Feb. 22, Sacramento Valley and Delta, bird-watching safari

Sat., Mar. 22, Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, Antioch, 1A wildflower walk

“Drought Alert: My Food, My Water, and the Mega Water Tunnel Project”–Thursday, February 20

Dawn breaking at duck blind in the Delta. Photos by Roger Mammon.

Dawn breaking at duck blind in the Delta. Photos by Roger Mammon.

Thursday, February 20, 6 – 8 pm, Castro Valley Library, 3600 Norbridge Avenue, Castro Valley.

Concerned about the drought? Wondering what actions state officials are taking?

The Brown administration’s Bay-Delta Conservation Plan would create two side-by-side underground ‘peripheral’ tunnels, 33 feet in diameter, that would carry fresh water from the Sacramento River, under the Delta, to the federal and state pumps in Tracy. These giant pumps send northern California water south to farms in the Central Valley and urban areas in the East and South Bay, and in Southern California. This controversial plan will be the topic of a forum presented by the League of Women Voters Eden Area, the Sierra Club Bay Chapter Water Committee, and the Castro Valley Library.

Speaking in favor of the tunnels will be Paul Helliker, deputy director, California Department of Water Resources, Delta and Statewide Water Management; and Jill Duerig, general manager, Livermore/Amador Valley Zone 7 Water Agency. Speaking against the tunnels will be Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta; and Nick Di Croce, co-facilitator, Environmental Water Caucus. Moderator will be Roberta Bornogovo, chair of the Water Committee for the California League of Women Voters. This will not be a debate. Rather, speakers will present their perspectives, to be followed by a 30 – 45-minute question-and-answer session based on written questions submitted by the audience.

This event is free, but pre-registration is required as seating is limited. To register, go to


Marin Streamside Ordinance dead after 20 days

Spawning salmon. Photo by Todd Steiner.

Spawning salmon. Photo by Todd Steiner.

Marin County’s “Stream Conservation Area Ordinance”, approved by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 29 (see Dec. Yodeler, page 5), is no longer in effect.

The ordinance included a “poison pill”: “this ordinance shall not be further enforced or applied should litigation against the County of Marin challenging the validity of any part of this ordinance or its environmental review be filed in a court of law.” Anyone, including a disgruntled property owner, could have killed it. In fact, it was the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), joined by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), who filed such a lawsuit on Nov. 18, challenging the gross inadequacies of the ordinance.

In 2011 SPAWN had sued the county for not implementing a Stream Conservation Area ordinance within the timeframe specified in the 2007 Countywide Plan. In September 2012 Marin County Superior Court Judge M. Lynn Duryee imposed a building moratorium on the San Geronimo Valley until the county passed such an ordinance. In light of the new lawsuit, this Jan. 14 Duryee will hold a court hearing to determine if the moratorium should resume, and whether it should be expanded to all of Marin.

To meet the requirements of the Countywide Plan and the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts, the ordinance should include basic protections for our endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout, including “no net loss” of habitat. Instead the ordinance is riddled with exemptions and exceptions that allow increased development next to streams.

The low water levels of this season’s drought have brought low salmon returns for spawning, and we fear they will lead to a worrisomely small cohort of offspring.

This could put our already endangered coho further into the extinction vortex described by fish experts such as Peter Moyle and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

So, seven years after passage of a Countywide Plan that was supposed to protect our streams and their wildlife, after numerous scientific recommendations and studies, Marin County still lacks a Stream Conservation Area Ordinance. In 2009 the county hired a law firm to draft an ordinance, but it was discarded and ignored. The county has spent millions of dollars, but given no relief to the salmon.

Some have suggested scrapping the whole effort: instead of passing an ordinance with the protections mandated by the Countywide Plan, they would have the county modify the Plan to match the flimsy protections of the ordinance. Such a reversal would cost another several hundred thousand dollars and take two years, and our streams would pay the price.

Other counties around the country have effective stream and riparian ordinances. Santa Cruz has had its ordinance for more than 33 years. Why not Marin?

Laura Chariton, Marin Group Executive Committee

Desalination plan expensive and ineffective

Desalination facility at Tampa Bay FL.

Desalination facility at Tampa Bay FL.

Correction (Jan. 6, 2014): an earlier version of this article stated that running the plant just during drought years would triple the cost per acre foot of the desalinated water. In fact, it would triple the capital cost of the desalinated water, and it would more than double the full cost including both capital and operational expenses.


A desalination plant being planned by Bay Area water agencies, allegedly for drought-year relief, would actually increase the need for water in drought years, and would also contribute to global climate disruption.

The Bay Area’s four largest water agencies–the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), Contra Costa Water District (CCWD), San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC,) and Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD)–have been planning together since 2003 for the Bay Area Regional Desalination Project (BARDP), a large reverse-osmosis desalination plant at Mallard Slough, on Suisun Bay near Antioch. They were joined in 2010 by the Zone 7 Water Agency (Zone 7), which serves the Livermore area. Current project planning calls for a 20 million gallons per day (mgd) desalination plant, but allows for up to a 50 mgd plant, as large as the troubled Carlsbad desalination project in San Diego, the largest in the U.S.

Purportedly the project is designed primarily to provide additional water in drought years, as the Bay Area is not projected to face significant water supply problems in normal or wet years through 2040, but plans call for the plant to run every year. In a normal rainfall year, a 20 mgd plant would deliver 9 mgd to SFPUC and 5 mgd to Zone 7 for immediate consumption. The 9 mgd received by SFPUC would be used to guarantee a 9 mgd delivery to SCVWD, which is now an optional water sale. Theoretically, the remaining 6 mgd would be stored in CCWD’s Los Vaqueros Reservoir for use in dry years. (The water going into storage would be allocated among SCVWD [2.4 mgd], EBMUD [2.2 mgd], and CCWD [1.4 mgd].)

Los Vaqueros, however, has limited storage capacity. In normal and wet years, Los Vaqueros can be filled to capacity without any additional water from desalination. And so it seems that desalination would not increase the usable water in the reservoir.

In a drought year, the 20 mgd plant would continue its 9 mgd delivery to SFPUC (destined for SCVWD) and its 5 mgd delivery to Zone 7. EBMUD deliveries would increase to 3.5 mgd on average over three drought years, with SCVWD average deliveries falling to 1.6 mgd and CCWD average deliveries falling to .9 mgd. The only agency getting increased direct deliveries from the plant in a drought would be EBMUD, and the increase of 1.3 mgd represents less than 1% of EBMUD’s 2010 water demand. Without additional storage capacity, the other agencies could see a reduction in their supplies in drought years.

What about running the plant only in drought years (estimated as one in three)? This would more than double the cost per acre foot of the desalinated water. All current cost estimates for the BARDP, however, are based on continuous operation of the plant.

With sea levels rising, ocean waters are moving inland, and Bay/Delta salinity is rising. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that salinity levels in the Delta could double by 2050–exceeding the engineering specifications for the plant during much of the year, and increasing the dollar and energy costs of desalination the rest of the time. Since salinity rises in any case in drought years, the plant could be non-functional when needed most. The BARDP planning hasn’t taken these salinity increases into account.

Another problem is emission of greenhouse gases. In a normal rainfall year, the plant would produce just over 8,000 tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of consuming about 900,000 gallons of gasoline. In a drought year, increased salinity would increase CO2 emissions by 25%, to just over 10,000 tonnes.

In California the energy cost of recycled water averages 325 – 1,000 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot (kwh/af). Energy use at BARDP is estimated at 3,000 – 3,500 kwh/af, up to 10 times higher. In drought years, with higher salinity, BARDP’s energy costs would rise by another 20%. In a feedback loop, more drought would increase salinity, raising CO2 emissions from the plant, making a greater contribution to global warming, and thus bringing more frequent and intense droughts.

The best and cheapest protection against drought is to reduce the amount of water that must be delivered. Water supplies designed for drought shortfalls should never be used to increase the normal-water-year baseline water deliveries, as the current BARDP plan would do. By guaranteeing water in normal years to areas facing development pressure, BARDP would increase the amount of water that must be delivered in drought years, so that the pressure on other water sources will be increased, rather than relieved.

Each water-supply source must be evaluated for energy and dollar costs, and for its effects on global warming. The current BARDP plan supplies water that comes at very high energy and dollar costs, and needs to be reconsidered or abandoned in favor of less energy-intensive water recycling, or the cheapest and least energy-consumptive alternative of all–water conservation.

Charlotte Allen, co-chair, Sierra Club Bay Chapter Water Committee

Club releases white paper on alternatives to giant Bay/Delta tunnels–conservation, efficiency measures improve local control of water resources

General aerial photo of Delta patterns, July 15, 2004. Photo by Paul J. Hames.

General aerial photo of Delta patterns, July 15, 2004. Photo by Paul J. Hames.

On Dec. 19, Sierra Club California released a white paper showing that technology and commonsense can create water savings to help meet California’s water demand without building giant tunnels to divert water away from the San Francisco Bay/Delta.

“Sierra Club California opposes the proposed tunnels,” the white paper states. “Instead, we believe Californians should pursue a range of strategies that together will sustainably meet water needs while protecting the environment.”

The white paper was prepared by Sierra Club California’s Water Committee, composed of active volunteers, many of whom have spent decades involved in water issues.

“California can meet its water demand sustainably and reliably by focusing investment in recycling, conservation, water efficiency and better groundwater management for both urban and agricultural users,” the paper states. “The list of alternatives in this document is not exhaustive, but it demonstrates that there are reasonable ways to meet California’s water demand without building the tunnels.”

Earlier this month, the state released the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement which proposes to build a 30-mile-long pair of giant tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River above the Bay Delta. Federal agencies have noted that the plan leaves in doubt the fate of at least nine threatened or endangered species in the Bay Delta, including salmon and sandhill cranes.

“Our volunteers have become increasingly frustrated about the Brown administration’s devotion to an outdated approach to California’s water supply challenges,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “They decided they needed to lay out specific ways to meet water supply for everyone without relying on the tunnels. They didn’t have to dig deeply for many of the ideas listed in the paper. Some have already been suggested in other state government documents—which just goes to show that when it comes to water policy, good ideas that won’t compromise the environment haven’t been pursued by the state as vigorously as warranted.”

Read the full white paper, entitled “Clean, Sustainable and Reliable Water Supply: Alternatives to the Giant Bay Delta Tunnels”, at the Sierra Club California web site:

Secure water at its source: protect forests from clearcutting

A clearcut in the Sierra. Photo by Bruce Castle, Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch.

A clearcut in the Sierra. Photo by Bruce Castle, Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch.

During this extremely dry fall, how many of us realize that the forests of California provide 75% of the state’s water supply? As debate rages as to whether to pull more water from the Sierra than we already do, our forested watershed in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are now under threat like never before. California’s privately owned and state-managed forest lands, surrounding the borders of Yosemite, Lassen, and Mount Shasta, are being devastated by widespread chemical-intensive industrial clearcutting.

Timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries and other logging companies seem to be in a race to clearcut as fast as they can. Currently about a million acres of forests essential for wildlife habitat, flood control, carbon sequestration, and water security are being cut down and converted to commercial tree farms. State law allows forests to be clearcut in 20 – 30-acre plots, but has no limit on the amount of clearcutting permitted in a given watershed. The rampant deforestation that has occurred over the last 12 years alone is now vividly portrayed on satellite images such as the powerful new Google Earth map of global forest change (search around the towns of Murphys, Manton, and Shingletown to see the surrounding clearcuts), released in Science on Nov. 14, at, as well as the Google Earth virtual tour created by the Stop Clearcutting Campaign at

“We are experimenting with nature. A massive re-engineering of California’s forests is occurring, replacing natural forests with tree farms. The liquidation of our forests must be stopped,” said Karen Maki, volunteer lead for the Sierra Club’s Stop Clearcutting campaign.

Researchers such as UC Santa Barbara Professor Robert Wilkinson have found that clearcutting is exacerbating the harm caused by climate change, drying out our forests and increasing the risk of fire, flooding, and water shortages.

“We’ve got to build resilience into our ecosystems, especially our forests, if we’re going to deal with what climate change will throw at us. Today, our forests are getting drier as more clearcutting happens, which is one reason we’ve seen so many wildfires on this trip. When rain hits an area that’s been clearcut, it runs off, whereas if you have healthy forests, the branches slow the rain down so it drips onto the soil and sinks in,” said Wilkinson.

Please join the Sierra Club and our allies in forest communities in calling for an immediate moratorium on industrial clearcutting. We need to call on our state officials to overhaul outmoded 20th-century forestry laws and replace them with modern forest watershed management. Already, too much has been lost. To guarantee a future where our water supplies are protected, our forests teem with wildlife, and our children play among giant, old-growth trees, we have to act now.


For more information contact

Sign our petition at

Forests are vast reservoirs and our first line of defense against climate change. The clearcutting of California’s forests amounts to an unprecedented re-engineering experiment. Is it wise to alter nature’s design during a time of climate uncertainty?

Juliette Beck, staff, Sierra Club Stop Clearcutting CA campaign

“Muir’s Legacy: Restoring Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley” — Green Fridays

Depiction of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Depiction of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Friday, January 10, 7 - 9 pm, Chapter Office, 2530 San Pablo Avenue (one block south of Dwight Way) in Berkeley. Note new time and format: no potlucks; doors open at 7 pm for beverages and snacks; presentation begins at 7:30. Suggested donation is $3.

“Muir’s Legacy: Restoring Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley”

The damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park looms large, not only in the history of the Sierra Club but in the history of America’s conservation movement. In 1913, for the only time in American history, Congress allowed a single municipality to occupy and develop one of America’s national parks. Undoing this “Great American Mistake” (from the title of Ken Brower’s recent book on the Hetch Hetchy) has long been an objective of the Sierra Club. Restore Hetch Hetchy, a Sierra Club offshoot, works to make this restoration a reality. Executive director Spreck Rosekrans will provide the background of Hetch Hetchy’s legacy, and tell us how Restore Hetch Hetchy plans to successfully accomplish restoration.

Before working for Restore Hetch Hetchy, Spreck Rosekrans spent more than 20 years at the Environmental Defense Fund, working with water agencies, electric utilities, Indian tribes, and conservationists to improve native fisheries and wetland habitat in the Grand Canyon, on the Trinity River, and in California’s Central Valley. In addition, Spreck has provided expert testimony in federal court, at the state legislature, and before the State Water Resources Control Board. Rosekrans was a founding boardmember of Restore Hetch Hetchy and the lead author of the Environmental Defense Fund’s groundbreaking report: “Paradise Regained: Solutions for Restoring Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley”, which shows that San Francisco would still be able to access reliable high-quality Tuolumne River supplies when Hetch Hetchy Valley has been restored.

Green Fridays are held on the second Friday of each month, 7 – 9 pm, at the Chapter Office, 2530 San Pablo Avenue (one block south of Dwight Way) in Berkeley. Note new time and format: no potlucks; doors open at 7 pm for beverages and snacks; presentation begins at 7:30. Suggested donation is $3.

Green Fridays, sponsored by the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group, is a series of free public presentations by expert speakers on the most important environmental issues of our times. For more information, contact Ken Peter­son at or Joanne Drabek at (510)530-5216.

No Green Friday event in December. Attend the Chapter Holiday Party on Fri., Dec. 13.