Landmark state water plan defended – by those who want to build it

As the debate intensifies over the historic attempt to build an $18 billion tunnel system through the vast estuary east of San Francisco, the stage shifts to the state Capitol, where partisans are taking their case directly to lawmakers.


The Brown administration, saying it wants to protect the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and move excess northern California water to the south, believes the landmark project is long overdue, environmentally sound — particularly as concerns mount about climate change — and crucial to assure water supplies for the farm belt and southern California. The Delta is the heart of California’s water system.


But lawmakers who represent Delta-area districts say the administration’s effort, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP,  “is nothing more than a plan to export more Northern California water south under the guise of saving the imperiled Delta,” and charged that the plan is being developed largely behind closed doors.


The positions are not new but they are hardening as the clock ticks on whether the project ultimately will become reality.


Administration officials said the project has been extensively modified in response to comments from water interests and the public. They sought to assure lawmakers at a recent joint legislative hearing that the remaining issues would be resolved.


“We are still shaping our proposal before the official public process begins for all of this,” Resources Secretary John Laird, a cabinet level adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, told the committee.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious plan to provide a more reliable water supply for two-thirds of the state’s residents and millions of acres of farmland, while at the same time restoring the Delta’s ailing ecosystem.


The centerpiece of the plan is the proposed construction of new facilities in the north Delta to divert water, along with two 35-mile long tunnels that would convey the water to the existing pumps in the south.


The administration emphatically says the project is needed to correct the reverse flows that plague the Delta and confuse migrating fish. Equally emphatic, opponents contend the tunnels would deprive the Delta of much-needed freshwater flows and would mean the death of the estuary.  The administration also noted climate change and sea level rise are literally changing the map all over the United States, and California is not an exception.  “We’re going to have to adapt to change,” said Water Resources Director Mark Cowin. ” We know that catastrophic events are possible; we need to manage the risk of those events occurring, but I don’t come to work every day expecting that is going to happen and that defines my agenda.”


The BDCP came under fire recently after Deputy Director Jerry Meral, the administration’s point man on the project and a long-time adviser to Jerry Brown, was quoted as saying the plan has “never been about saving the Delta,” and that “the Delta cannot be saved.”


His remarks prompted calls from members of California’s congressional delegation for his resignation, but state senators say that the larger problem is that BDCP is being developed without full public review, legislative approval or oversight by anyone other than the water contractors behind it.


The legislative hearing, a joint gathering on April 30 of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Select Committee on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, offered the administration an opportunity to directly address their concerns, including those from state and federal officials.


Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, told the committee that project would cause negative impacts on the north state.  “We can and must do better for California,” she said.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a leading critic of the governor’s proposal, said that issues that were highlighted at a major committee hearing last year remain unresolved, and these concerns are becoming more troubling as they aren’t sufficiently addressed.


“We gave up our ability as a legislature to say yes or no to this project and to deal with the costs in very real ways,” Wolk said.  “It may be time to reassert that role when we are confronted with the vast array of implications for the state and for this region.”


Cowin and Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham appeared with Laird. Noticeably absent was Meral.


Laird defended criticisms that the project was being developed without public participation, noting that the significant downsizing of the project and other revisions that have been made in response to concerns from the public and water interests.


“We’ve made adjustments based on all stakeholder input, not just Northern California but Southern, not just the Coast but the Valley, not just people that might be involved in agriculture but people that are involved in environmental organizations,” said Laird.


Cowin said that the Delta is a complex place, and even though scientific understanding of the ecosystem has improved, uncertainty is inevitable.


“We need to find ways to move forward in light of that uncertainty and also in light of the atmosphere of mistrust that seems to exist between many parts of the public, agencies, and the state and federal government in general.”


However, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan won’t solve all of the state’s water problems, Cowin said.  More water conservation, more water recycling, more water storage, groundwater management, aquifer remediation and other local sources are all important components of a local supply portfolio, and California has made good progress implementing these strategies through integrated regional water management programs.


Funded by $1.4 billion in general obligation bonds over the past decade, these programs have resulted in 2 million acre-feet of water per year, either through projects that add to water supplies or projects that reduce demand.


However, these local investments must be supported by a foundation level of water supply from the Delta to safeguard our economy, Cowin said.


“And by foundational, I don’t mean guaranteed supply, I don’t mean a bigger supply.  I mean an amount of water that can be safely exported from the Delta consistent with the coequal goals and with a high bar of Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Communities Conservation Plan standards for the recovery of species.”


The new plumbing in the Delta will have the inherent value of correcting the reverse flows that are harmful to fish and will add flexibility to the system.  “This inherent benefit of correcting reverse flows is true, no matter what level of Delta outflow is placed upon the projects as a requirement,” Cowin said.


The future of water supply reliability for California will be defined by both the level of local options that are implemented and the level of Delta supplies, Cowin said.


“Every time we reduce exports because of a new fishery requirement as required under the Endangered Species Act, that means the next recycling project or the next water conservation project goes towards making up the difference instead of being used to add resiliency to the system to help us deal with population growth, climate change, and the other uncertainties we know we’re going to face in the future.”


He also said the Delta levees would be protected.  “Delta levees remain not only an important element of the state water supply system, but also to protect valuable agricultural land, unique habitat, small and large communities and other critical public infrastructure in the Delta.”


Bonham told the legislators that the time to action in the Delta is now.  “I am certain that if we don’t address our ecological problems today, our children will have a more difficult challenge.”  Bonham acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy, but in his view, the BDCP is a good faith effort to achieve both of the coequal goals.


Bonham also agreed with Cowin that more than just the BDCP is needed.


“We will need a productive and ultimately successful State Water Board process around flow requirements, we will need to foster long running and effective relationships with landowners around how we may restore the landscape, we need to work well with the upper Sacramento River water users community to consider restoration and flow contribution there, we need to ensure we complete the restoration of the main stem San Joaquin River and we need to build a relationship with those who operate water projects in the tributaries to the San Joaquin and have a conversation potentially about their proportional contribution.”


Salmon mortality rates are high, he said, noting that two out of three fish that are trapped in the south Delta die and that salmon on the San Joaquin River have a 95 percent mortality rate.  “This is in large part because we have an unnatural flow regime.  Those large pumps at the south end of the Delta change the direction of the otherwise normative flow pattern, and fish are confused and drawn there,” he said.


Bonham praised the plan for addressing not just one but 57 different species of fish, wildlife, and plants, endorsing it as a good approach for conservation planning.  The plan’s 214 biological goals and objectives are specific and measurable and will be used to track the progress or failure of the project, Bonham said, noting that “if we’re failing to achieve any goal or objective, the permit should allow adjustment, up or down, based on response.”


Laird said the recent letter from Gov. Brown to federal officials urging timely review of the project should not be interpreted as a rush to move ahead without adequate public review or resolution of the remaining issues.


Keeping to the schedule while trying to address these issues are not mutually exclusive, he said, pointing out that after Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s press conference in July, there was a considerable amount of progress made because people thought there was timeliness required for it.  “I really think that as we are committed to addressing these issues, keeping a schedule forces people to make sure they are addressed.”


Cowin said a draft environmental impact is being made available and the remaining chapters, including the financing plan and a cost benefit analysis, is likely to be available by May 20.

Wolk told the three officials that Brown was fortunate to have them as spokespersons for the complex BDCP process, but the public face of the project has been Jerry Meral.  Noting his absence and referencing his recent comments, Wolk said, “I really want you to speak to the issue of those comments that are raising an extraordinary amount of distrust on top of the distrust that already exists.”


“Tell your deputy director next time he should be here,” Wolk said.

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

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