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Meral on the griddle: Delta policy gets the once-over

Sitting nearly alone at the head table, Jerry Meral found few supporters in the crowded room.

 

Meral, the state’s Deputy Resources Secretary, is the point man for the Brown Administration’s plan to build an $18 billion tunnel underneath the Delta in order to move more northern California water to the south.  The critics were out in force at the public meeting for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, asking pointed questions about plan details, demanding answers and cheering loudly at any suggestion that the tunnel project should be scrapped.

 

The gathering last week was the first chance the public had to grill officials on the details of the plan after the release of the first four chapters of the preliminary draft documents on March 14.  The impacts of the new facilities on the flow of water in the Delta, the validity of the science being developed by the BDCP and whether or not it can achieve its ambitious restoration goals were just some of the questions Meral and his team of consultants tried to answer to the satisfaction of the skeptical crowd.

 

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the guiding document: It is a comprehensive, 50-year plan for the Delta that proposes new water intakes and conveyance along with extensive habitat restoration; the plan seeks to assure that water continues to move from the north state southward while simultaneously protecting the Delta, a vast estuary east of San Francisco through which about half of the state’s drinking water flows.

 

The Delta is the heart of California’s water system, an area of rich farm land, crumbling levees and frequent flooding. For generations, the idea of shipping water through or around the river-fed Delta from the rain-rich north to the arid south has been a staple of California water planners.

 

Dr. Chris Earle from ICF International, the state’s contractor for the project, said the BDCP “is designed to restore and protect ecosystem health, water supply and water quality” and “is expected to result in long-term permits and authorizations under the state and federal endangered species acts.”

 

The BDCP’s conservation strategy covers 57 species and has over 200 biological goals and objectives that define the expected outcomes of the project.  “Biological goals are the broad biological goals that are intended to be achieved by the plan,” Earle said.  The BDCP’s 22 Conservation Measures define the specific actions to be taken on the ground to achieve the biological goals and objectives, he noted.

 

The most controversial portion of the plan, Conservation Measure 1, proposes the construction of three new water intake facilities for the state and federal water projects in the north Delta.  The intakes would have a capacity of 3,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) each, and would be located between Clarksburg and Courtland, about 16 miles southwest of Sacramento.

 

Two 35-mile gravity-fed tunnels would then deliver the water to the existing facilities in the south Delta.  “The purpose of the measure is to construct and operate a facility that improves conditions for covered species and natural communities while also improving water supply,” Earle said, adding that the new facilities would address many issues, including reverse flows in the Old and Middle rivers, entrainment and salvage at the south Delta pumps, and the effects of climate change.

 

The new intakes also will have state-of-the-art fish screens, although details of the screens – still in the design stages — were not expected to be available until the summer. The screens are intended to prevent fish from being sucked into the pumps.

 

Critics questioned why the new facilities were considered a ‘Conservation Measure’.

 

“It defies logic when the habitat and the Delta is the way it is partly because so much water has been taken out,” said Delta resident Rogene Reynolds.

 

“BDCP stands for Big Dumb Concrete Pipe,” said one Delta resident.  “If you’re a water contractor, for the last 30 years what you want is to get your intakes away from those pesky smelt and the other constraints in the south Delta and put them up near Courtland where you can pump all the water you want.”

 

Meral sought to reassure the crowd that the BDCP’s new facilities would not result in substantially more water being diverted:  “In no case could we ever divert more than about 30% of what is flowing in the Sacramento River.  Often it is less than that … so we can’t really divert much more than we are now.  We are changing the place of diversion.”

 

Participants then questioned why the water contractors would pay for such a large facility but not receive any more water for their investment.  It’s about stabilizing the supply they do have, Meral said: “They are not looking to double their supply; they are not looking to radically increase their supply.  This is the best chance they have, in compliance with our state and federal laws, to get that stable supply.”

 

Questions arose about the State Water Board’s ongoing process to update flow objectives for the Delta, and how that would affect the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  Meral disputed the notion that the two processes were out of sync, noting that they meet with State Water Board staff on a regular basis.

 

“They want to see the data that we’re developing so that they can make an informed decision; there is no way that they would have been able to do the kind of work that we’ve done because we’ve invested a lot of money in it and frankly they need that kind of information to make those kinds of decisions,” he said.

 

Meral’s response then drew criticisms and concerns about the science and data not being developed independently.

 

“The citizens of California are not being properly represented when the only studies that are going to be made available are yours, and not one that is produced by a neutral party,” said a participant.

 

Meral responded: “The state itself in its condition could not have afforded to pay for this — maybe that would have been more desirable in some ways because it would look less biased — but I will say that the people who are examining this data have a lot of capabilities of their own to examine our modeling and to decide whether we are biased or slanted one way or another.  It’s not a totally one-sided affair,” he said, adding “and we all know in California, the courts make the final decision on these things.  I understand your point, but there are checks and balances.”

 

The BDCP calls for an aggressive rate of restoration within the Delta – up to 40,000 acres within the first ten years.  Meral was asked how this planned rate of restoration in the Delta for the next decade compared to the rate of restoration for the past decade; Meral admitted that hardly any restoration projects had been completed in the Delta, although it wasn’t for lack of trying.  He was then asked how the BDCP proposes to accomplish such an aggressive rate of restoration “given how hard it is to touch the water in the Delta and that Army Corps projects have been described as ‘multi-generational?’”

 

“It’s very hard to get projects permitted in the Delta because it is such a developed place,” Meral said. “We have pipelines, we have power lines, everyone and their brother is worried about what will be the impact on a neighboring island or on water quality,” he said.  “Still, given the fact that we’ve done tens of thousands of acres in San Francisco Bay, it’s hard to imagine we can’t do it in the Delta, but it is extraordinarily difficult.  We’ll be challenged by that, I’m sure.”

 

Some were skeptical that enough Delta landowners would be willing to give up their land for habitat restoration projects.  Meral expressed confidence that they will be able to find willing landowners to participate, but acknowledged that there will be some impacts to agriculture:  “If anyone thinks we’re going to undertake all of these habitat projects and not have any conversion of land from agriculture to habitat, that’s just not possible, but we think we can do it by approaching willing landowners and making arrangements with them.”

 

When pressed further, Meral said they wouldn’t completely abandon the possibility of condemnation as any other public works project does: “We’re not going to commit to not using any tool because we may have to, but we don’t want to, and we think we can do without it.”

 

Farmers defended their practices, pointing out that farming and fish have flourished alongside each other for years in the Delta until the State Water Project was brought online.

“It is not the farming, it is not the levee, it is the pumping,” a South Delta resident said.

 

Melinda Terry, representing north Delta water agencies, agreed, noting that farms and fish have been in coexisting in the Delta for 150 years, “and for 130 of those at least, we weren’t having these fishery crashes,” she said, adding “Our communities were farming and not having this kind of harm, and yet now, since we’ve had the water projects come into place, now those who have been farming and living that way and not harming those fish are asked to bear the burden and not do things so that others can farm somewhere else.”

 

Questions about water quality impacts and funding would have to wait for the availability of later chapters, with Meral promising a full presentation once those chapters have been released.

 

As the meeting continued on far past its scheduled ending time, the presentations on the remaining conservation measures continued to the dwindling crowd.  Meral finally brought the meeting to the end, postponing the remainder of the presentation until the next meeting, currently scheduled for April 4th.  For a complete meeting summary and to view meeting materials, click here.

 

“Thank you, everyone, for staying so long,” Meral said.  “I am impressed by your stamina.  We’ll probably test it again in two weeks.” — 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.


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