Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to Destroy the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's Farming Industry

Like many of the California government's other monuments to its own greatness (see AB 32 and high-speed rail, for example), the Bay Delta Conservation Plan illustrates how a questionable idea can turn into an awful one if it's done on a grand enough scale. With a new analysis from the Delta Protection Commission, we're starting to see how awful: according to the Stockton Record, the construction of a large peripheral canal or a tunnel in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would cost the region's farm industry some $200 million a year, leading to a 30%-50% decline in the industry's value.

At the heart of the Delta Plan is the construction of a massive tunnel or canal system that diverts water from the Sacramento River into export canals in Tracy; in addition, the plan would convert about 115,000 acres of farmland into wetland habitat. Its goal is to protect several endangered fish species in the Delta that have been pushed to extinction by the demands that 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland place on this water. The projected costs are staggering: the wetland restoration alone would run $4 billion, on top of either $12.7 billion for the tunnel or $8.4 billion for the canal. Of course, since this is California, the planning behind this massive and expensive endeavor has been a disaster: in May, a National Academy of Sciences panel declared that the $150 million spent planning the project since 2006 had been largely wasted. In particular, it criticized last November's draft plan for using 1,100 pages to not evaluate any alternatives to the tunnel and canal options, and for providing a laundry list of ecosystem restoration projects without any broader plan for integrating or implementing them. And now we have the Commission's analysis of the economic impacts.

If the $200 million figure is accurate, it would dwarf the widely-discussed $85 million loss that farmers at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley suffered in 2009 when their water was diverted. Unlike south Valley farmers, who would benefit from a peripheral canal, Delta farmers would see their water become more scarce and more salty, requiring them to shift from tomatoes to lower-value crops. Moreover, the $200 million doesn't include the loss of farmland to either wetland restoration or canal or tunnel construction. Insofar as prior discussions of the Plan have focused on the Delta smelt and the tunnel/canal issue, while assuming that its economic effects would be trivial, the Commission's report provides a valuable service of quantifying just how dire these effects might be. Given the devastation recession already afflicting this region, it's just one more reason to reconsider this mess of a project.

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