By now, most Californians have probably heard that a huge geologic formation known as the Monterey Shale contains oil and natural gas in Saudi Arabian-style quantities, locked up in underground rocks lacing an area extending more than 100 miles along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and beyond.
Getting that oil out would require hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, a process involving high-pressure underground injection of water and chemicals. No one has yet said publicly how much water it would take to exploit the oil and gas in quantities large enough to make America energy independent.
No one also knows whether this might damage underground water tables. But there is no doubt oil drilling companies would need a reliable source of water before they invest heavily in the Monterey Shale, which one USC study claimed could produce as many as 500,000 new California jobs.
Enter the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which includes two parallel 35-mile-long freeway-width tunnels to bring Sacramento River water under the Delta formed by that river and the San Joaquin. This region now supplies much of the water used by California’s largest cities and farms.
Environmental laws like the federal Endangered Species Act now can make that water supply unreliable, especially in dry years. The tunnels, accounting for most of the projected cost of the BDCP, would aim to make the supply reliable, even though they can’t add much to overall amounts of Delta water. About the only additional supply they might produce would come from winter storm runoff that now flows into the San Francisco Bay, which would have amounted to less than a 20 percent increase in supplies this year.
The entire BDCP proposal would cost almost $15 billion. It includes plans to shore up many miles of levees in the Delta and create new habitat for the endangered minnow-like Delta smelt, whose presence sometimes causes shutdowns of the big pumps putting Delta water into the state Water Project. The money would come from revenue bonds which don’t need voter approval because water users would pay them off.
A presumption in many quarters has been that users would pay according to how much they take from the Water Project, but no formula has yet been decided. Farms now get about two-thirds of Water Project supplies, the rest flowing to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and several smaller districts. Repaying the bonds, then, could raise water prices in cities from Napa to San Diego, but would likely hike the water bills of farms much more.
Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, whose member farms now get about one-fourth of Water Project supplies, estimates their rates would double if the tunnels plan is carried out, from about $200 to $400 per acre foot. A truly usage-sensitive pricing formula, however, could drive their rates much higher than that.
Yet farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley avidly support the tunnels plan, even though they can’t be assured prices for their cotton, pistachios and other produce would also rise.
This leads some to suspect they might harbor hopes of selling water at a large profit to oil drillers for use in fracking, something made eminently possible by the fact that the Water Project’s main aqueduct runs very close to the Monterey Shale, even above it at some points.
There is currently nothing to prevent this, state law saying only that the water be used for “reasonable and beneficial” purposes. Fracking would qualify.
A 1980s-era law prevents exploitation of wild Northern California rivers like the Trinity, the Smith and the Klamath. So fears of water “theft” that made opposition to the 1982 Peripheral Canal plan almost unanimous in Northern California have not yet arisen around the BDCP, and likely won’t.
But environmentalists fret about what fracking might do to ground water, even though the method has been used harmlessly to extract oil from old wells in California for decades.
Although it’s not a very vocal issue yet, then, fear of fracking could become the center of the tunnels dispute. If the Legislature or state Water Resources Control Board ever forbade such use of Delta water, much of opposition might melt away. So might some support for the plan, since there are other, cheaper ways to shift the Delta smelt habitat and shore up levees.
This leaves only one thing certain: A true understanding of this project will be obtained the same way it is in most things political, by following the money.