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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
Much of San Diego’s water and power are brought in from hundreds of miles away. Here and all along the way, there’s a lot going on. The Environment Report is a new way to get some of this information to you.
Since I joined Voice of San Diego in April 2015 to cover the environment, I’ve focused largely on how we get our water and power. Much of both come to San Diego from hundreds of miles away.
Here and all along the way, there’s a lot going on. The Environment Report is a new way to get some of this information to you. It’ll come out every other week.
It’ll be a mix of news tidbits and analysis that don’t fit in the other stories we do, and some of the best insights and great reporting from elsewhere.
Over the summer, consultants hired by the city of San Diego finished a big report on what would happen if the city entered the energy market and became a community choice aggregator, or CCA. According to the report, it’s possible for the city to provide greener and cheaper power than San Diego Gas & Electric.
If true, that’s a big deal. The city wants to have a fossil fuel-free supply of power by 2035. And customers obviously want lower bills.
But last week Point Loma Nazarene University economist Lynn Reaser released a paper (and wrote a Voice of San Diego op-ed) that concluded “there is too much uncertainty” for the city to be sure it won’t get hosed if it enters the energy market.
Reaser called her paper an “independent review,” but it was commissioned by the lobbying arm of SDG&E’s parent company.
Nicole Capretz, a local environmental activist who wants the city to begin buying its own power, said in a press release that Reaser’s work was a “familiar tactic used by Big Tobacco and Big Oil, who used doctors and scientists to vouch for their products.”
When I read Reaser’s paper, I noticed many of her numbers came directly from the city study she was disputing. In other words, most – if not all – of the information she presented was information that the city already has.
What Reaser’s study seems to do is highlight the most negative information from the city’s own study. Indeed, some of that information might give the City Council pause because there are surely risks for the city and for power customers, even though the consultants concluded it was possible to do better than SDG&E. But, so far, the various numbers flying back and forth are largely the same, just shaded by whoever is playing with them.
In the next couple weeks, we’ll likely know if California water agencies will bite the bullet and spend $17 billion to shore up the water system that brings water south from the rivers of Northern California. The project involves the construction of two 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water coming south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, a series of waterways and wetlands fed by snow melting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The project was recently dealt a major blow when the state’s largest irrigation district, the Westlands Water District, based in Fresno, voted against the project. The farmers there worried about how much the project would drive up the cost of their water, which is still absurdly cheap compared with what San Diegans pay.
People in the California water world have been debating what the Westlands vote means. Some view the vote as tactical. In this view, the farmers will come around and support the project if they can get subsidies – subsides that would come from taxpayers or from urban Southern California water customers, including customers in San Diego.
The other view is that Westlands farmers were serious and they really don’t like the project.
Several years ago, the San Diego County Water Authority proposed a smaller tunnel – rather than two big ones. The idea has picked up a bit of steam following the Westlands vote, though Water Authority staff later spent more time studying the smaller tunnel option and concluded that larger tunnels made more sense.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is expected to vote on the project Oct. 10. Metropolitan is San Diego’s largest source of water, and the biggest water agency in the state. There is a chance Metropolitan could help prop up the project, though it’s not clear how much that might cost. The Water Authority has representatives on Metropolitan’s board, but it’s not clear yet how they will vote. The Water Authority has not taken a formal position on the tunnels and apparently has no plans to in the next few weeks.
• Camp Pendleton’s water agency is among the water agencies repeatedly cited by state water quality regulators for violating drinking water rules. Other water agencies in San Diego were also cited for problems, but most of them were very small water agencies – the sort that serve a mobile home park or other tiny communities.
• There is growing concern that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will change the nutritional value of plants. A new analysis concludes that 148 million people could become “at risk for protein deficiency” because plants will not produce as much protein as carbon dioxide levels rise. Earlier this month, Politico ran a story on how a changing atmosphere will change plants.
So much of environmental reporting involves reading documents or going to meetings in tired board rooms, so at the end of each of these reports I’ll talk about something that happens out-of-doors.
This one is a bit far afield, from a trip up to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, the estuary that the twin tunnels project is supposed to help (though whether it actually will is still a matter of debate).
I was part of a group of San Diego reporters who went on a trip last week arranged by Metropolitan. The highlight was probably a boat ride through the Delta led by a hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, John Burau. Most of the Delta has been artificially fashioned over the years to both keep it navigable and to control floods that used to devastate the area, particularly during the gold mining days. But we saw a few parts that were still wild – or were restored back to being somewhat wild.
There were ducks on the water and black cormorant in the trees. At one point, we all got silent so one of the TV and radio reporters could grab some audio. We just sat on the boat, with the engine off, trying to be as quiet as possible. Suddenly, a woodpecker started hammering away. I couldn’t see it but we heard it. I looked over at Curt Schmutte, a researcher who has spent much of his life studying the Delta, and we just smiled and listened. For a moment, not only did the politics of the tunnels – a vicious and often bitter sort of politics, full of conspiracies – melt away, but I was briefly back in an older California, before it was transformed to make way for the 20th and now 21st centuries.
If you can’t get out on a boat, another good way to see a wild bit of the Delta is to drive up to Rush Ranch, near Suisun City, in between San Francisco and Sacramento, and go on a pretty easy but pretty great little hike.