BAWSCA's big little deal

BAWSCA's Big Little Deal

Reaching out to the Yuba River

Last week I wrote about San Francisco's wholesale customers who consume 2/3 of the Tuolumne River water that San Francisco imports to the Bay Area. As a group these 24 cities and water districts, along with two private utilities, are represented by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA).

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In 2015 BAWSCA is doing something new and wholly different. Rather than simply relying on other water purchases from regional wholesalers, principally San Francisco, BAWSCA is pursuing a deal of its own - a purchase from the Yuba County Water Agency. 

This prospective purchase is, at least initially, only a small pilot program to acquire 1000 acre-feet of water - less than 1% of BAWSCA's collective water use - so it is a "little" deal.

But since it is BAWSCA's first foray into pursuing an alternate water source, it is a "big" deal indeed. 

The route the water would take is circuitous indeed. The water would flow down the Yuba, into the Feather and then the Sacramento River. From the Sacramento River, the water would be diverted into East Bay Municipal Utility District's new diversion facility at Freeport, then piped east to the federal Folsom South Canal and transported to Camanche Reservoir where it would enter EBMUD's Mokelumne Aqueduct. EBMUD would deliver the water to BAWSCA through its intertie with Hayward. With this additional water being provided to Hayward, Tuolumne River supplies would go further among other other BAWSCA members. 

Note that BAWSCA communities would consume very little actual Yuba River water. The flows would be diluted several times by different sources. The purchase of Yuba River water is more of an accounting mechanism. 

The process necessary for purchase of Yuba supplies is mind-bogglingly complex. BAWSCA has attended 56 separate meetings to make the purchase possible and must execute 5 separate agreements - with Yuba, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, EBMUD, Hayward and San Francisco - to make the purchase possible. The process for regulatory compliance is replete with EA's, FONSI's and other acronyms that dominate the California water policy world. The report presented at BAWSCA's recent board meeting provides excruciating detail of the process to realize the deal.

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The rate of flow on the Yuba varies considerably, as it does on all Sierra rivers.

BAWSCA refers to the purchase as a "transfer" - parlance often used to describe water that farmers do not use but rather sell to other farmers, to an urban community or in rare cases to environmental use. Transfers which reduce the amount of water in agriculture are controversial within the overall farming community. Yuba, however, has developed about 200,000 acre-feet in rechargeable capacity as part of the eponymous Yuba Accord (2008), with such sales in mind. So Yuba's sale to BAWSCA might be better described as Yuba recouping some of their investment in groundwater storage than as a "transfer".

Whether considered a transfer or an investment in storage, such a purchase is also often controversial in the conservation community. Many see the decline of Central Valley fisheries and the Bay-Delta as a "death by a thousand cuts", referring to the cumulative effect of diversions of fresh water for urban and agricultural use. And some prefer to limit water imports to cities as ways to curb development and urban sprawl.

Restore Hetch Hetchy understands the need for a robust public policy to ensure that the environment and local communities be provided sufficient supplies and protected from more powerful and often remote economic interests. But we also believe that a  business model - with appropriate constraints - should be employed that allows and encourages innovation. As a result, it will be easier to meet basic human needs and to reduce the pressure to extract ever increasing amounts of water from our rivers and streams.

The vast majority of Tuolumne River supplies that currently serve Bay Area communities will still be available when Hetch Hetchy Valley is restored. Some modest investment will be required - either to ensure there is no loss whatsoever of Tuolumne supplies, or to procure incremental supply from another source. We doubt that the Yuba River will be a significant part of any restoration solution, but we are pleased to see that BAWSCA is thinking outside the box.