Scaling down the big one?

The nature of one of the most ambitious public works projects in California’s history resides in the detail.


And more details are emerging.


The newly-released, preliminary planning documents for the $18 billion Delta tunnels project include a detailed analysis of how the plan would affect the Delta’s ecosystem and the 57 fish, wildlife and plant species that it’s designed to protect, plus additional details on how the project would be managed.


The Brown administration declared the plan demonstrates the administration’s commitment to let science drive the process.


“Science has and will continue to drive a holistic solution that secures our water supply and substantially restores the Delta’s lost habitat,” Resources Secretary John Laird told reporters.


Others aren’t so sure.


Delta-protection advocates were out in force again at an April 4 public meeting in Sacramento expressing their discontent while Democrats urged Gov. Brown to consider a smaller and less expensive project.


The Bay Delta Conservation Plan — or BDCP, as it’s known to followers of water politics — is the Brown administration’s ambitious plumbing plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the heart of California’s water system. The BDCP is designed to provide reliable water supplies for the 23 million residents and 3 million acres of farmland that depend on it while also providing for large-scale restoration of the Delta’s fragile environment.


The cornerstone of the project is the construction of new intakes in the north Delta and two 35-mile tunnels to deliver the water to existing facilities in the south Delta. It is the product of decades of research into ways of moving more northern California water southward.


Current cost estimates pin the number at $18 billion,  with some $14 billion paid by the water contractors who buy water and sell it to customers.  Proponents say the expensive plan is needed to restore populations of threatened and endangered fish and to secure the water supplies that underpin the state’s economy.


Nearly two-dozen Democrats, however, are not on board. They’ve urged Brown to consider a smaller and less-expensive alternative being advanced by a coalition of environmental groups and urban water agencies.


Known as the ‘portfolio alternative’, it seeks a single intake and tunnel and significantly less acres of habitat restoration, along with increased investments in local supply sources, such as conservation and recycling, as well as reinforcement of Delta levees.


“The portfolio approach is both a viable alternative that helps meet the conditions for BDCP analysis outlined in the Delta Reform Act, and a potential strategy to assist the state in meeting the new policy to reduce reliance on the Delta,” stated a letter addressed to Secretary Laird and signed by Sen. Lois Wolk and 21 other Democratic state legislators.


Delta advocates fear Brown’s ambitious plan will deprive the estuary of needed fresh water and degrade the fragile ecosystem even further, and they emphasizing their point at a press conference prior to the meeting by displaying a coffin labeled with Delta places and values they say would be lost.


“Restore the Delta opposes 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 San Joaquin Valley,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who seeks protections for the Delta.


Inside, the meeting’s atmosphere was more subdued.


This time, Jerry Meral, one of Laird’s top lieutenants and the Brown administration’s point-man for the Delta project, was not alone: He sat at the front table surrounded by federal and state officials while out in the lobby, officials were on hand to answer questions throughout the afternoon.


The latest gathering began where the previous meeting had left off,  with senior ecologist Dr. Chris Earle discussing the BDCP’s adaptive management, monitoring, and research program.


Adaptive management means carefully managing natural resources and being careful to make adjustments as new scientific information emerges or circumstances change.


“Scientific investigation in the Delta is an extremely fertile effort; scarcely a week goes by that we don’t find something new and interesting about the functioning of Delta ecosystems,” Earle said. “Adaptive management will guide our understanding of Delta science and our understanding of the most appropriate techniques of managing Delta ecosystems for the indefinite future.”


Adaptive management would be implemented by a team consisting of representatives from the state and federal wildlife agencies, the water contractors, and the water agencies, and would operate on a consensus basis.  Monitoring, a required component, would ensure compliance with the terms of the permit, determine the effectiveness of the conservation strategy and evaluate the performance of the plan over time.


North Delta Agencies representative Osha Meserve noted that the list of uncertainties associated with the new facilities, also known in the bureaucracy as Conservation Measure 1 (CM 1), seemed rather truncated.


“It doesn’t seem that CM1 is really very susceptible to adaptive management because it gets built right at the front end and it’s already there; and then the only thing we’re looking at is how to operate it,” she said.  “From a local perspective, we’re very concerned about all the negative impacts locally and region-wide that cannot be fixed once it gets put into place, even if it is operated differently.”


Michael Borodosky of Save the California Delta Alliance, also expressed skepticism.


“What this adaptive management plan does is puts our state and federal regulators at risk because it’s a plan for regulatory capture,” he said.  “You have an adaptive management team that has to operate by consensus to make a decision,” noting that since the water contractors are part of the team, they could endlessly appeal any action that result in reduced water exports.


Meral said such appeals would offer little benefit.


“If an adaptive management action is needed to avoid jeopardy, which is after all one of the purposes we’re trying to accomplish here, and it was blocked the way you said, then the fish and wildlife agencies do have another out.  They can always say that the plan is threatening jeopardy for any of the species that are listed and the plan is suspended,” Meral said.


“I think it would be foolish for anyone — the water contractors, Department of Water Resources, or the Bureau of Reclamation — to attempt to block and adaptive management action that was needed to preserve these species because the ultimate threat which we cannot evade or overcome is the jeopardy determination.”


The crux of the meeting was the presentation of what is known as an Effects Analysis, which details the expected biological impacts of the project’s activities and conservation measures on the species it’s designed to protect.


Fully 600 pages long, it is the largest component of the plan.  This information will be used in part by state and federal agencies for issuance of permits. The extensive analysis relied heavily on computer models.


“We used over 35 physical, biological and conceptual models just for the fish analyses alone,” said project manager Jennifer Pierre.  “We used habitat suitability indices and population and life history models.  We basically used every single method that has ever existed out there unless it’s been so inapplicable that we just couldn’t use it.”


On an ecosystem or landscape level, a major benefit of the BDCP is improved flows in the south Delta, Pierre said.


Currently, as the Sacramento River enters the Delta, it is pulled toward the export facilities in the south Delta rather than flowing west towards San Francisco Bay, creating an unnatural north to south flow; with the operation of a new diversion point in the north Delta, “the south Delta flows are improved, because that pull is reduced so now you are seeing less movement from north to south and more movement east to west,“ said Pierre.


She said that restoration will provide multiple benefits to the Delta and to the species, such as increased access to habitat, increased aquatic food production and availability, and an ability to adapt to climate change by providing room for upland transitions.  “The idea is as climate change creates added pressure on these species, the BDCP, through restoration and through the dual conveyance and other stressor reduction measures, can provide some buffer against some of those stressors,” she said.


The analysis determined that all fish would see benefits from the BDCP.  Delta smelt and longfin smelt would benefit from the improved flow conditions in the south Delta that would greatly reduce entrainment, as well as benefit from increased food production and access to habitat.  Restoration projects aimed at improving habitat along migratory corridors as well as floodplain restoration and efforts to reduce predation hotspots are expected to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead.


There were questions about the validity of the analysis since it is not being independently prepared.


“The effects analysis you have before you is not worth the paper it’s printed on, and I’m not attacking the qualifications of the abilities of the people who prepared it, but it’s been prepared by the folks that want to take the water,” said Bob Wright, representing Friends of the River and other environmental groups.  “You should require funds be made available so you can have an independently prepared effects analysis that isn’t under the thumb of the agencies that want to take the water and the exporters who want to get it.”


Others addressed the implementation of the project and the role of the federal agencies.


Dr. David Zippin, vice president of ICF International, discussed the concept of regulatory assurances, another one of the controversial aspects of the plan.  Sometimes called ‘no-surprises’ or ‘a deal is a deal’, the concept of regulatory assurances arose during the Clinton Administration in the early 90s, and are one of the incentives for applicants to pursue the more complicated habitat conservation plans, Zippin explained.


“What it means in basic terms is that the federal agencies won’t require additional conservation or mitigation for anything that is not described in the plan, or what’s called unforeseen circumstances,” Zippin said.  “However, we do have to anticipate changes in the environment that could occur, and one of them certainly is climate change.”


Federal agencies always retain the ability to suspend or revoke the permits in the event of any one of the covered species in jeopardy of extinction, Dr. Zippin said, noting that permit revocation, although rare, is not unheard of. “One of the few examples of a permit suspension actually happened here in Sacramento at the Natomas Basin Habitat Conservation Plan just northwest of the city, so we have a local example of that actually occurring, and it helped to reverse that plan and set it back on course.”


Wright said that the regulatory assurances would be typing the hands of the federal fish agencies that are tasked with ensuring the survival of endangered fish.


“If you go forward and you are part of this take permit, that means that the federal government will not require additional conservation or mitigation measures, or restrictions on the use of resources including water,” he said.  “This is bonanza for the water exporters at the expense of the Delta and the endangered fish species.”


Zippin also discussed the organizational structure that would guide the operations of the BDCP.  Defining the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies involved was not easy, he said.


“The governance framework was really the result of very extensive discussions between the state and federal agencies and the state wildlife agency over the last two years.  I think Jerry and others here at the table could speak to that process and the very intense discussion that have taken place,” Zippin said.


The governance is composed of several groups, including an Authorized Entities Group comprised of the permittees and representatives from the state and federal water contractors; a Permit Oversight Group consisting of the federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, the Adaptive Management Team and the Stakeholder Council, as well as other entities that will help to implement the plan.


Yolo County Supervisor Jim Provenza decried the lack of involvement of local government in the governance process, saying that local governments are crucial to the plan’s success.

“If we go forward with the current proposal, there’s no inclusion of local government in any significant way.  There would be less involvement of local government of any HCP ever in the nation,” he said.  “If local government isn’t there as a coequal branch, it just isn’t going to work.”


Although much has been released, there is still much more to come.  The last release of plan documents expected at the end of the month will include a look at funding as well as provide more details on the role that science will play in the BDCP.  A separate benefit-cost analysis is also underway.


Still yet to be released are the highly-anticipated draft environmental documents, which will detail the impacts to the environment, including water quality, air quality, agriculture, and recreational resources.  The environmental documents will also analyze 15 other alternatives to the project, including a no-project alternative.


The 20,000-page draft document is expected to be released soon, Meral 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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