Guest Editorial

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California as a Delta Neighbor

Gas well flare test, Bouldin Island

What does it mean for our community when large parts of the Delta are controlled by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California?

Let me tell you a story.

After days of rain, the winter sun, with its low-angled light and fluffy clouds set in a perfectly blue sky was a stunning backdrop for the Delta’s swollen rivers and sloughs and the numerous fields of birds feasting.

On my return from the Bay Area near Highway 12, I pulled out my phone to snap photos as I crossed the Delta. About four photos in, I saw on the south side of Highway 12 a large flame and pipe with several trailers. I snapped a photo of natural gas piping. Wanting to understand what it was I observed, I posted my photo on social media and asked our followers in the Delta if they had seen this infrastructure, the flame, and if they could help me identify that this was happening on Bouldin Island.

I heard back from a farm manager. He said the natural gas well had been drilled about ten years ago and now a 10 day burn test was being conducted to determine if there was enough gas to build a pipeline. Being a bad photographer, I asked Rich Turner to take some photos of this gas well burn after the subsequent storm.

The Delta has always been a place of nature and wildlife, part industrial, part agricultural, and dotted with picturesque towns. This unusual mix makes the Delta such a visually interesting landscape. Natural gas infrastructure and operations have existed in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for decades, as is often the case in river deltas, and we understand these operations to be more akin to a “grandma’s gas well” operation, rather than fracking systems.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, owner of Bouldin Island, appears to be considering a natural gas pipeline very near the path of the water tunnel it is pursuing to divert the Sacramento River for its water use.

Here’s what I am worried about.

Research completed by Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research has revealed that 150 capped gas wells line up in near proximity to the construction path for a proposed Delta water tunnel. These wells would need to be tested for safety before construction through burn tests. Who is looking at air quality impacts for these numerous test burns? There are five air quality boards responsible for monitoring in the Delta, but the environmental impact report for the WaterFix twin tunnels plan reveals that there is no intra-district analysis to look at total cumulative air quality impacts from tunnels construction activities in the Delta, let alone for testing 150 gas wells. We worry about air quality impacts on our neighbors who live in the interior of the Delta. We also know that prevailing winds from the west move air pollution including dust, particulate matter, and emissions into San Joaquin County and its urban environmental justice communities.

I am also concerned about setbacks. Natural gas producing states like Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and even Texas require setbacks (physical distance) between gas pipelines and drinking water infrastructure. If an accident were to occur with a natural gas pipeline in close proximity to a Delta water tunnel, could it damage the water tunnel to the point of making it inoperable? What could happen in a seismic event? Remember, the threat of a Delta earthquake is one of the major reasons the Department of Water Resources insists a Delta tunnel must be built 150 feet underground, even though levees would be much easier to fix after an earthquake. (We didn’t say this argument was logical. It’s a CA Department of Water Resources’s argument.)

While we know of Metropolitan Water District’s self-touted prowess as a designer and builder of large water projects, proposed natural gas operations on Bouldin Island are not being vetted publicly at their various board committee meetings, or as a member of the Delta Conveyance Design Construction Authority.

So again, as with MWD’s Delta islands purchase, Delta rural and urban residents are left scrambling to understand exactly what additional projects MWD is pursuing and how those projects will impact local Delta communities.

In its quest to extract the Delta’s natural resources like water and natural gas, MWD is not only inflicting Delta communities with environmental, public safety, and public health impacts, but is actively transferring our region’s resource wealth to other parts of the state for the economic benefit of itself.

How does this line up with their promise to be a good neighbor, and an environmental steward of the Delta?

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  • Great question, Barbara. Thank you for the work you do.

    I was there when Rich Turner took this amazingly shot and it continues to amaze me how he sees and captures such beauty!

  • Thank you Barbara,& Staff,for ypur diligence. although I am not a bay / Delta resident my family loves the delta & have spent a lot of time enjoying the unique river towns , rivers, sloughs & Natural beauty. I support your efforts to protect / restore Our beautiful Delta & Rivers ….I am Very interested in getting more involved with your organization .beyond receiving updates . In my early adult life I studied/worked in marine science and most recently started a non profit group called friends of Atascadero lake .we have been doing restorations incl water quality for a small municipal lake but Now am ready to get involved in Protecting / Restoring the Delta & Sacramento River

  • Thanks, Barbara, for shining a light on this subject that has had very few articles ever written about it.

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