Long-awaited details are emerging of the Brown administration’s $18 billion effort to build twin tunnels underneath the Delta, as officials launched the rollout of a complex array of preliminary documents for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
“The news today is that a plan is out,” Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said. “Many have said it would never come out. Some have suggested it couldn’t come out. It’s out.”
Authorities hailed the release last week as a milestone reflecting an unprecedented amount of consensus between federal and state agencies that has been reached only after seven years of considerable collaboration and intensive planning.
Others aren't so pleased: Delta protectionists see the governor's proposal to move more northern California water south as a hazard to Delta fisheries and wildlife, and they note that the levels of water deliveries have yet to be determined. They've also suggested that lawsuits loom.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is a comprehensive, 50-year conservation road map for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that proposes new water intakes and conveyance. It hopes to assure that more water moves from the north state southward while protecting the fragile Delta, a vast estuary east of San Francisco through which about half the state's drinking water flows. A quick information guide is available here.
The BDCP includes extensive habitat restoration and is intended to meet the dual goals of restoring the Delta’s ecosystem while providing reliable water supplies for the 25 million Californians and three million acres of irrigated agriculture that depend on Delta water. It is being prepared as a Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) under California’s Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act and the state’s endangered species regulations and as a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) under federal endangered species act regulations. It is intended to result in long-term regulatory authorizations for the state and federal water projects.
The latest documents will need to be finalized and a comprehensive review undertaken by the federal and state wildlife agencies to be sure the plan meets the requirements under endangered species act regulations as well as NEPA and CEQA before permits will be issued and construction can begin. And opponents of Brown's proposal are all but certain to go to court to fight the plan.
Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said the information was being released now so the public could begin to digest the details, but evaluation and refinement will continue with the final plan and environmental documents expected to be released in the summer.
The cornerstone of the project is construction of three intakes in the north Delta with state-of-the-art fish screens. The twin tunnels would deliver the water 35 miles by gravity to the state and federal water project pumps located in the south Delta near Tracy.
Currently when these pumps are operating at a high capacity, water is pulled south, causing altered and reversed flows that draw migrating fish into channels where they are subject to increased predation or entrainment. By constructing diversion facilities in the north Delta and establishing new operating criteria for the water system, officials say these reverse flows can be minimized and flow conditions can be improved for fish as well as providing the operational flexibility needed for reliable water deliveries.
In January, restrictions placed on the pumps to protect the endangered Delta smelt resulted in 700,000 acre-feet of water flowing out to sea that could have otherwise been used for water supplies. “That’s water that if we had those north Delta diversions in place, we could have moved safely and without harm to fish,” Cowin said.
Exactly how much water the BDCP will deliver remains in question.
Rather than define a set amount, the documents outline a decision tree process for defining the range of water deliveries that utilizes a collaborative science process to evaluate and refine the outflow criteria based on the results of targeted research and the outcome of habitat restoration that will be undertaken over the next decade.
Under the current proposal, annual deliveries could be from between 4.8 million to 5.6 million acre-feet, or about 10 percent less to 5 percent more than the average of deliveries over the last 20 years.
However, it’s not about how much water the project will deliver; it’s about water supply reliability, according to Cowin: “We are seeing a continual decline of covered species in the Delta, and that translates directly to a decline in water supply reliability, and we know that if we continue on this track, we’ll end up with something much less.”
Although most of the focus has been on the new facilities and the amount of water that can be expected from the project, Bonham emphasized the multiple benefits the BDCP has for wildlife, such planning for the conservation and management of 57 species that include not only 11 species of fish but other wildlife species such as the sandhill crane, Swanson’s hawk, and the giant garter snake. The BDCP also calls for extensive habitat restoration that includes developing new tidal and freshwater marshes, establishing new floodplains, and returning riverbanks to a more natural state - 145,000 acres in all, or nearly a fifth of the Delta. “We’re talking about restoration potentially observable from space,” said Bonham.
The BDCP has 214 biological goals and objectives that define the intended outcomes and provide specific means for gauging the effectiveness of the Plan, and Bonham urged those reviewing the documents to look at them closely. “These goals and objectives are specific at a level I don’t think we’ve been talking about in the Delta before,“ said Bonham, noting that the objectives are measurable, actionable, and time-bounded. “That is what our department will be using as our guidepost for success or failure, and a way in which we’re going to ensure meeting our dual goals,” he said.
The BDCP’s 22 Conservation Measures define the specific actions that will be taken to meet the biological goals and objectives; they include actions such as restoring habitat restoration, treating urban stormwater, and controlling invasive species.
Despite decades of studies, considerable uncertainty still exists in the understanding of the Delta’s ecosystem and the effectiveness of the conservation measures are not known; therefore, the BDCP includes an adaptive management program that will address this uncertainty by monitoring the outcomes and adjusting the measures if they are not meeting their objectives.
The documents provided no solid answers to the question of funding; the new facilities are estimated to cost $14 billion and will be paid for by water users, while at least an additional $4 billion is needed for ecosystem restoration and is expected to come from as-yet unidentified federal and state funds.
Water agencies and agriculture interests who have been affected by reduced water deliveries were quick to issue statements of support. “The situation in the Delta has long been unsustainable and this milestone means we are that much closer to having the reliable water infrastructure our state is currently lacking,” said Terry Erlewine of the State Water Contractors.
"California's water delivery system is broken and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the best option our state has in securing a reliable water future," said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.
Central Valley Congressman Jim Costa was likewise supportive: “We have already spent 7 years and a quarter of a billion dollars getting to where we are, and achieving a real, comprehensive fix to a broken water system is within reach. Today moves us closer than we have ever been to a solution that copes with our reality and balances the dual goals of increasing our water supply reliability and supporting ecosystem recovery,” Costa said.
However, Delta residents remain unimpressed. “In its rush to build a project that would exterminate salmon runs, destroy sustainable family farms and saddle taxpayers with tens of billions in debt, mainly to benefit a small number of huge corporate agribusinesses on the west side of the Central Valley, the Administration has yet to complete a valid cost-benefit analysis of its Tunnels and seriously examine alternative solutions,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.
Northern California Congressional leaders also blasted the Plan. “Draining more water from the region is not a sustainable policy and will jeopardize local fisheries, endangered species, and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, fishermen, and business owners who all depend on a healthy ecosystem,” said Congressman George Miller.
“Once again, the Governor is attempting to rush forward with his deeply flawed plan to build tunnels that will send our water south and devastate the families, farmers and small business owners who rely on a healthy Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for their livelihoods,” said Congressman Jerry McNerney.
However, environmental groups reserved their judgment for now, saying it was ‘premature’ at this point to say whether the BDCP meets their criteria, and that the documents will need to be thoroughly reviewed by fish and wildlife agencies and subjected to scientific peer review in order to ensure that a scientifically sound plan is put forward.
The documents are the first stage of a planned three-stage rollout that will include public meetings in West Sacramento after each release to provide the public an opportunity to ask questions, with the first meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 20. Future rollouts will include more details on the impacts the BDCP will have on native species and how the project will be managed and funded; environmental review documents are also yet to be released. Officials stressed that the documents are a preliminary draft and are still be refined; a formal draft and public review period is expected this summer.
DWR’s Cowin acknowledged the plan was not without controversy and predicted that many would herald the release of the documents as a new chapter in California’s historic water wars. “I think that is a very unfortunate narrative,” he said. “This plan isn’t about waging war; it’s about resolving some of the most critical resource management conflicts in California.”
Ed's Note: Chris Austin, a contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator and former publisher of Aquafornia, a major blog about California water issues. She has launched a new blog, Maven's Notebook, at www.MavensNotebook.com