SolAgra: A Project Whose Time Has Come

C.A. Giacoma
Staff Writer
March 30, 2016

River News-Herald

Listening to Barry Sgarrella and Mike Reagan explain the SolAgra Water Solution, one wonders why it hasn’t already been built and put into service because it simply makes sense.  Sgarrella is the CEO of SolAgra Corporation and Reagan is a former Solano County Supervisor and member of the Delta Protection Commission who has been on the cutting edge of water issues for years.

It all started with the solar energy pilot project SolAgra is developing on Ryer Island.  The project will expand previously completed agricul-tural research conducted at U.C. Davis that proves the efficacy of growing crops on farmland, beneath solar arrays.  This new 9.47-acre research project is the precursor of a larger project, with future plans to expand to one of the largest solar power plants in the world. The solar arrays are engineered to rise above the crops allowing traditional mechanized farming to continue unhindered and grant the farmer a second “crop”, solar energy production, over the same acreage.

When Barry’s friend, Mike Reagan, went looking for a viable alternative to Governor Brown’s disastrous plan to build huge tunnels that would destroy the largest Delta in the western U.S., he recognized that their combined experience and knowledge could create an environmentally sensitive solution to this decades old problem.

The SolAgra Water Solution marries solar energy generation with brackish water desalination at the southwest end of the Delta. They designed a plan that allows the water to flow naturally through the Delta, as it did prior to the State Water Project and Central Valley Pro-ject commencing operations in the 1950s.  The SolAgra Water Solution would avoid impact to the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, without entraining fish, a win-win for water in California that leaves no one out – except the Governor and the monumental expense and destruction that his “Twin Tunnels” plan, dubbed California Water Fix, proposes.

Barry Sgarrella is a civil engineer specializing in tunnel engineering and construction. Sgarrella worked on 4 of the subway stations and the huge tunnels that comprise the Washington, D.C. Metro system – he knows tunnels. According to his evaluation, the DWR’s Conceptual Engineering Report (CER) for the Governor’s tunnel project describes a project that is impossible to build as designed. Although Brown and DWR hired excellent engineering firms, they failed to take into account that the proposed twin tunnels would require boring through natural gas fields and wet peat soils.  Their proposed solution is using Earth Pressure Balancing Tunnel Boring Machines (EPB-TBMs). These very different and very specialized TBMs are required for this type of very soft almost fluid soil, but none are designed to bore through large natural gas fields.  These machines are typically built in sizes up to 32’ in diameter, NOT the size of the borehole (46’ in diameter) required to construct Brown’s twin tunnels. The tunnel path is through one of the largest natural gas fields in the western United States – filled with countless, concrete encased, steel gas well casings – that would have to be bypassed or drilled through in order to accommodate the Governor’s tunnel excavation.  Sgarrella explains: “… a 46 foot diameter TBM is more than 200 feet long.  It has the turning radius similar to an aircraft carrier.  It simply cannot zig-zag its way thru a myriad of existing natural gas wells.” Each gas well casing is potentially filled with volatile natural gas – and that’s just the beginning of the unaddressed technical problems with the proposed  “California Water Fix” (CWF).

But back to the SolAgra Water Solution ….

The electrical power generated by SolAgra on Ryer Island will travel through existing power corridors in the Delta, through upgraded power lines to a substation on Grand Island and then to Sherman Is-land. On Sherman, SolAgra and its joint venture partner IDE Tech-nologies (IDE), plan to construct a desalination plant, powered by renewable energy, that will turn the brackish water (drawn at the confluence of Suisun Bay and the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers) into 1.0 million acre feet of fresh water each year.

Permeable levees used to avoid fish “take” on the south and west sides of Sherman Island would bring the brackish water onto Sherman and store it in an 800 acre forebay that supplies the desalination plant.

An additional 1.4 million acre feet of fresh water will be collected from the north and east ends of Sherman from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, also using permeable levees to avoid fish take.  This fresh water will also be stored, in a second 800 acre forebay on Sherman Island. The forebays are shallow lakes that will store fresh and brackish water until needed in the pumping and desalination processes.  These forebays will also be developed as habitat.

This plan, according to Sgarrella and Reagan, will be used to combine 1.4 million acre-feet per year of fresh water and 1.0 million acre-feet of desalinated brackish water which would be blended together on Sherman.  The desalinated water is so pure that it is tantamount to distilled water.  Blending local fresh water with highly pure desali-nated water improves the quality of the local water.

The combined water will then be pumped through a 28’ diameter single tunnel, which passes beneath the Sacramento River near the Nejedly Bridge (aka Antioch Bridge) and continue flowing south of the Delta beneath existing roadway easements and rights of way, ultimately arriving at Bethany Reservoir where it enters the California Aqueduct of the State Water Project.

This pure water is pressurized by the desalination process, eliminating the need for additional pumps and the energy consumption and greenhouse gases they produce.

Under the current system, the Banks pumping plant is pulling 2.4 million acre feet of water per year from the Delta by reversing the flow of the tributaries that feed the Sacramento & San Joaquin Rivers, imperiling fish. The SolAgra Water Solution would eliminate the need to do that. Their tunnel passing beneath the foothills of Mount Diablo, south of the Delta, can be drilled by conventional hard-rock TBMs known as “rock-hogs”.  The ground-up rock and gravel removed to excavate this tunnel will provide much of the material needed to construct the permeable levees on Sherman Island described above.

According to Jeffrey Michaels, Ph.D. economist from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, the actual cost of the California Water Fix, including financing costs will be about $60 billion (although now even the DWR says it will be closer to $70 billion dollars) to construct when long term financing is included. Keep in mind that this is still just an estimate that does not take into account the inevitable cost overruns that are typically seen in public projects.  Recall the original estimated cost of the new Bay Bridge vs the final cost.

The SolAgra Water Solution proposes a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) similar to the business structure that IDE used for the recently commissioned Carlsbad Desalination Plant just north of San Diego.

Carlsbad is the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere.  In that PPP, the project team, designed, financed, built, oper-ates and maintains the plant.  The San Diego County Water Authority simply pays for the desalinated water on a unit price basis as it is used.

Recent trolling studies show that the native Delta Smelt are now essentially gone from the Delta, but the Long Fin Smelt are still present and salmon and other species of fish are struggling to survive. SolAgra is proposing to install patent pending permeable levees which can control water intake at Sherman Island and avoid trapping or entraining fish.

The SolAgra Water Solution would directly solve the water supply vulnerabilities of the State Water Project (and be virtually drought & sea level rise proof) by creating new water – up to 1 million acre feet per year from brackish water sourced south and west of Sherman Island.  In fact, the SWS is the only CWF alternative proposed that creates NEW WATER.

The SFBay Delta Estuary (SFBDE) is suffering critical losses of endangered and protected fish species because it is not getting the water flow needed to maintain a healthy estuary. With the SWS plan, the Banks pumping plant would be turned off allowing 2.4 million acre feet of water to continue flowing naturally through the Delta. One million acre-feet of that water will flow into and thru the SFBDE, freshening the estuary.  SolAgra estimates the net result will move the X-2 (area where fresh and salt water mix) to the west, adding to the estuary flow to support fish and other wildlife.

The other side of the statewide water “equation”, the high need for storage and recharge of ground water in the San Joaquin Valley while providing farmers with water for irrigation of crops is accomplished by turning the Banks pumping plant back on during times of high water flows from winter rains.  This is known as “Big Gulp”.  It sends high flows of water down the Delta-Mendota Canal to the currently farmed Tulare Lake Basin during periods of water abundance. The Tulare Lake Basin is an existing facility – with a capacity of millions of acre-feet – for the capture, storage and recharge of groundwater through percolation.

Although the SolAgra Water Solution focuses on the generation and conveyance of water, the Tulare Lake plan focuses on storage. These two plans together form a complete, efficient, environmentally friendly system that solves California’s water woes without destroying the Delta and at a much reduced cost to Californians.

With IDE, the designer of the largest desalination facilities in the world, as a joint venture partner with SolAgra, this project can accomplish using a Public Private Partnership business structure that will provide badly needed, fresh, new water on a unit price basis.

Finally, this project honors the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements to employ the plan that is the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” (LEDPA), unlike Governor Brown’s BDCP/CWF – “Twin Tunnels” plan.

Stay tuned for future updates in the River News Herald, as the SolAgra  Water Solution develops.

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