05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Federal Bailout Won't Make A Dent in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Problems


About two weeks ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the federal government would provide California with $260 million to help update its antiquated water system and finance projects to relieve the state's water woes. And California stands to receive a substantial portion of the $135 million in grants allocated for state water recycling and reuse programs. On the surface, it appears as though California is getting a water bailout -- or is it?

There's no questioning the fact that California's water system needs the money. And with the recent placement of the Sacramento -- San Joaquin Delta as the most endangered river system in the nation by American Rivers, it's apparent that the state needs all the help it can get.

California's massive system of reservoirs, pumps and canals, built a half century ago, was designed for a population half the size of the state's 37.7 million, Salazar said after a helicopter tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Associated Press.

However, the question that begs asking is -- will the federal stimulus funds fix the Delta problems?

Spreck Rosekrans, an Economic Analyst for the Environmental Defense Funds, thinks the spending should be scrutinized because many of the problems associated with the environment in general and water projects in California and in the West in particular are that they've been paid for with subsidized dollars. And he bets that these projects would not have been cost-effective if the people who benefited from them had to pay for them. In fact, the projects would not have been constructed at all -- like some of the California dams.

"We've sort of been on this campaign to get good sound economics into the environmental equation, said Rosekrans about the mission of the organization, Environmental Defense Fund, which is known for using science to evaluate environmental problems as well as develop and advocate solutions in what many experts call a "nonpartisan, cost-efficient and fair" manner.

"Thinking that if we do so, we'll make smarter choices. It's not the only factor of course but it's important."

Spreck Rosekrans highlighted the government's plan for spending the $260 million on water projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). In addition to their environmental impact and benefits, the expenditures were evaluated for cost-effectiveness based on EDF's usual standard called the "beneficiary pays."

Based on the information provided by the U.S. Department of Interior, roughly 40 percent of the funds, or $109.8 million, will build a screened pumping plant at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam to protect fish populations while delivering water to agricultural users irrigating approximately 150,000 acres."

In the case of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, Rosekrans says normally the people who divert water should pay for those improvements. However in this particular case, it would be taking the standard to the extreme because they'll say, they can't afford it.

"Besides, the EDF is happy that the public's money will be spent on the fixes to the Red Bluff Diversion Dam because it is currently blocking endangered salmon from swimming to cold water areas (which are in short supply)," said Rosekrans.

"The improvements to the Red Bluff Dam are important to try and keep the Central Valley winter and spring run salmon from becoming extinct," said Rosekrans.

In addition, almost $31 million in federal funds will be spent on the Folsom Dam. Specifically, "22.3 million to address dam safety concerns at the Folsom Dam near Sacramento, which is currently among the highest risk dams in the country for public safety." And another $8.5 million will be used to repair the dam's water-related infrastructure.

"They're improving the ability to get water out of the dam quickly when they see a flood coming," said Rosekrans who was there for the dam's dedication.

There is also $20 million for the Contra Costa Canal to build fish screens and protect water supplies for 500,000 Californians. Rosekrans points out that this expenditure is similar to Red Bluff Dam project because it will protect endangered fish. In the case of Contra Costa, these screens will help increase the populations of the winter-run Chinook salmon and the endangered Delta smelt.

The Battle Creek Salmon/Steelhead Restoration projects stands to receive $26 million of the $260 million, or a tenth, to help restore fisheries that supply thousands of jobs in northern California. This project will also increase the availablility cold water, which benefits the salmon populations.

"So, half the money seems to be for endangered salmon," said Rosekrans after adding up the money spent on the Red Bluff Diversion dam, Contra Costa Canal and the Battle Creek Salmon/Steelhead projects.

According to Rosekrans, the EDF thinks the majority of the water-related economic investments in California are for environmentally related projects that are for the public's benefit.

"For the most part, we are supportive of these projects and don't think they are particularly offensive for public money to be spent on these things, Rosekrans said. "And generally its a good thing for public money to be spent on these things."

However, on behalf of the EDF, Rosekrans expressed some concerns about the separate allocation of $135 million to be spent on water reuse and recycling projects.

"Folks are just lining up for the stimulus money. So, I do have concerns that this part of the money is used in a cost effective way. Water recycling projects vary tremendously in cost and benefit. In some places they make sense and in other places they don't. I would hope they would be matched by significant local dollars for projects that are shown to be cost-effective," said Rosekrans.

Therefore, after evaluating most of the funding spent on California's water problems, it appears that the most endangered river system in the nation, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, will not benefit directly.

"No, very little of this money is being spent on the Delta," said Rosekrans with the EDF. "The Delta is at least a $10 billion dollar problem."

So the Delta, which provides water to nearly two-thirds of all Californians and is suffering from a three year drought, may not have a federal bailout after all.