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Jeff Mount: The Mysteries of Delta Islands Sale

The recent purchase of five Delta islands by Metropolitan Water District raises a lot of questions. Delta expert Jeff Mount helps shed some light on the risks involved and what Met might stand to gain from its $175 million investment.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Climate change water
A boat passes Webb Tract farmland as it makes its way through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Isleton, Calif. Webb Tract is one of five islands recently purchased by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently completed the purchase of five islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The district is California’s behemoth urban water provider, and the Delta is the biggest war zone in the state’s water struggles.

As The Sacramento Bee put it recently, Met “has parachuted into enemy territory.” And it’s being particularly vague about its plans for the islands, which include Bouldin, Bacon, Webb Tract, Holland Tract and part of Chipps Island.

“We have some good business concepts,” said Steve Arakawa, Met’s director of Bay-Delta initiatives. And that’s about the most revealing public statement we have from Met so far, although it did recently spell out some possibilities in an informational flier on the purchase.

Met paid $175 million to purchase the islands from Zurich Insurance Group, parent company of Delta Wetlands Properties, an entity that has tried for years to transform the islands into water storage reservoirs. That plan went nowhere after running into obstacles over water rights and stiff opposition from local property owners and government agencies.

So, why would Met invest so heavily in such a challenging place without a clear payoff in water resources?

Water Deeply invited Jeff Mount to offer some theories and explain the risks. Mount is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center and U.C. Davis professor emeritus. He’s spent his career trying to understand the mechanics of the Delta. He also served a term on the state Reclamation Board, the agency charged with overseeing levee safety in the Delta and elsewhere.

One distinct possibility is that Met is banking on the controversial California WaterFix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels to divert a portion of the Sacramento River. It needs huge amounts of land for construction, to dispose of excavated tunnel material (often called “spoils”) and to restore wildlife habitat as mitigation. Two of the islands purchased by Met – Bouldin and Bacon – lie in the tunnel’s path.

Water Deeply: What do you make of this deal?

Jeff Mount: It is a bit mysterious. One should always start from the assumption that the Metropolitan Water District doesn’t do anything that isn’t in its best interests. So you work from there. They’re doing a good job of being coy on this.

There has to be a grand plan. That’s just not being revealed to us yet. This might be pre-emptive, meaning it prevents these islands from being purchased by somebody else to do something that Met wouldn’t like. I guess the most benign interpretation of all of this would be it’s a combination of hedging their bets on the tunnels and identifying likely places for future (habitat) restoration.

Water Deeply: What does Met get out of this?

Jeff Mount: The obvious one is that if in fact the tunnels are built and you need a spoils site, one of these islands is an obvious place to put that. There are no eminent domain issues – they will willingly give the space.

There are other things they could do. Of course they could try to resurrect the old Delta Wetlands project, which was unsuccessful largely because they couldn’t claim a water right if they couldn’t say what they were going to do with it.

There are lots of things that could be done with those islands. They could demonstrate they are a good neighbor in the Delta by continuing to farm. They could obviously do habitat work, whether it’s habitat mitigation, I’m not sure. But there are major challenges for wetlands there and for birds. You could do wildlife-friendly agriculture in there. But I’m just not sure what benefit is accrued to Met by that.

So unless they think they can find a way to get to the original intention of the Delta Wetlands project to store water and be able to make it available for export, I gotta think it’s relative to the tunnels. As we know well, eminent domain can be messy and drag things out. Indeed, eminent domain hassles were cited as a reason to build these as tunnels rather than as a peripheral canal.

Water Deeply: What is the importance of these islands?

MetIslands

A map shows the location of the five islands Metropolitan Water District has purchased in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, along with the proposed location of the California WaterFix tunnels. (Metropolitan Water District)

Jeff Mount: Webb Tract, that’s an important one. It gets kind of interesting because Webb lies in that group of the five westernmost islands which could have a significant water quality effect if they failed. So if it failed and becomes flooded it has the potential to have some effect on salinity in the Delta. Looking out ahead, that one of all of them makes the most sense to pay attention to for long-term management of salinity in the Delta. To deal with that is not trivial.

Chipps Island is in an ideal place for habitat restoration. Chipps really makes a whole lot of sense. Holland is not deeply subsided and might have potential for restoration. Holland is on the southwest side of the Delta and has some upland areas. So Holland Tract might have real potential benefits for restoration.

Water Deeply: What is Met taking on with keeping all those levees up to snuff?

Jeff Mount: Let’s take Webb Tract as a good example. It’s one of the deepest subsided islands. It is well known to have weak levees that have failed multiple times in the past. It’s more than 20ft (6m) below sea level. Right off the bat, you just bought yourself a maintenance problem. So there’s a real challenge. It is not an income producer. Very little of it is farmed at this point. Actually bringing them up the minimum standards for agriculture, called the PL 84-99 standard, is likely to be very expensive.

It’s not as if they just went out and bought, let’s say, land in the San Joaquin Valley and in the process purchased a water right and could transfer those water rights. In that case, the land itself might actually earn a profit. I just don’t see how that’s going to happen here.

What you just purchased is an annual operating cost, which is likely to be quite expensive. It’s one of the more puzzling aspects of this. It will be even more amusing to see if Met steps up and tries to compete with other levee districts to get their annual allocation of levee maintenance funding from the state subventions funding program. Are they going to compete with other landowners for that money?

Water Deeply: Could it be they simply want the water rights on these islands?

Jeff Mount: That gets messy. First of all, you gotta prove up a water right. There are some questions about how much of a water right they have. And if it’s a riparian water right, you have to use it there. There’s no exporting riparian rights. So they would have to have some kind of appropriative right to be able to transfer that water. All I know is that people have struggled a bit with that in the past if you go back and look at the history of the Delta Wetlands project.

Water Deeply: What would you do if you owned these islands?

Jeff Mount: I’d sell them (laughs). It’s rather hypocritical of me to own these islands. It would be be pretty funny. I’ve been yelling about the problems of Delta islands forever.

The Delta is not homogeneous. People talk about the Delta as a single place. It’s not. It’s a whole bunch of different places, with different soils, subsidence, different types of currents and vegetation and really different communities that are inhabited. The poor islands themselves, they are all different. They all could potentially have a different use.

Now the scientist in me would really like us to start experimenting with what it takes to let some islands flood. What you see is there is not enough money to improve the levees on all the islands, and there’s some genuine questions about whether fixing them all is in the taxpayers’ interest, because of the low economic productivity on these islands.

Here’s what I would do if I were in charge of these. I would take Webb island and I would begin first to experiment with preflooding the island and develop a hypothesis as to what to do with it. Because Webb has the least economic productivity and the risks are very, very high. So in effect, a preflooding experiment might well be worth it. The advantage of Webb is, it’s small. We looked very carefully at this and we think this can be done in a smart way and suddenly you create this amazing recreation spot.

Second thing I would do, if I were Met, is I would hang onto particularly Bacon Island, because you might need it someday (as part of the tunnel project). Hedge your bets for the future. I don’t think you’ve got a choice.

Water Deeply: They seem to be betting the tunnels will be built. Would you?

Jeff Mount: It depends on the day you ask me. If they’re doing this betting on the Delta tunnels, I would place the odds at 50/50. The reasons for that are many. There is the growing political opposition to it. There is the very high costs, which are far more than any of us imagined when we first were looking at this 10 years ago. The costs have escalated a great deal. That’s going to be a challenge. Delta interests are very well organized.

That said, to make a deal appear … one wonders if something like the Klamath dam removal deal might not emerge. Good, well-intentioned people managed to actually form a compromise. And that’s the only way to get stuff done these days. Because lawyers don’t work. Take a look at the Delta and all the various lawsuits. Litigation is fine to a point, but at some point you gotta get to negotiation.

Whether the warring parties can negotiate or not, and whether that is actually part of a strategy on the part of Met, I really don’t know. Somewhere along the line, some people have to sit down and have some sort of negotiation to come up with a solution.

That’s my long way of saying there’s a high likelihood we will continue to be in this same limbo indefinitely because the opponents of the tunnels have offered nothing that seems even remotely viable. When you’re in a situation like that, the most logical outcome is to negotiate a solution. But we haven’t seen the movement, we haven’t seen the people. Where’s Bruce Babbitt, who came in and negotiated in the ‘90s with Pete Wilson?

Water Deeply: How would you feel about all this if you were a Met ratepayer?

Jeff Mount: If I was a Met ratepayer the first question I would have is, “So what’s the plan? What are you going to do with this?” If I’m a Met ratepayer, I would want to know Met is constantly and aggressively trying to improve water supplies. It’s dangerous if ratepayers start saying this is a mistake.

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