State, federal regulators poised for water fray

The times are different, the plan is different but after generations, California’s basic water conundrum is the same: How do you balance the goals of environmentalists with the needs of a thirsty, growing population?

A state water restoration plan at least 70 years in the making in one form or another is back on the table and poised to face state and federal hurdles. It would move more northern water south and provide environmental safeguards for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco, although just how much water and how much protection remains to be seen. The Delta, fed by rivers swollen with snowmelt, is the source of more than half the state’s drinking water.

When Gov. Brown announced the huge, $14 billion public works project on July 25, he said the goal was to provide a more reliable water supply to Southern California while restoring the area’s fragile ecosystem. In the past, these two objectives have come at a trade-off. Plans to deliver more water to the south have endangered several species of fish, while the efforts to save those species from extinction have slowed down the delivery of water to farms and cities and prompted myriad court fights.

Thus far, those twin goals have been at irreconcilable.

But not for Brown now, apparently, who proposes drilling two huge tunnels underneath the delta to carry water from the Sacramento River directly to the pumps at the delta’s southern end, thus limiting the need to suck the directly from the estuary, which is how it is taken now. The price tag would be picked up by the wholesale agencies that receive the water who, in turn, likely would pass on those costs to their customers.

“A healthy Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply are profoundly important to California’s future. This proposal balances the concerns of those who live and work in the Delta, those who rely on it for water and those who appreciate its beauty, fish, waterfowl and wildlife,” Brown said. The governor, clearly exasperated at the years of talk but little action over California’s water woes, vented his frustration bluntly. “I just want to get shit done,” he declared to surprised listeners at a Resources Building briefing.

The state has long considered plans to alter the Delta amid much controversy and opposition. Formal plans on diverting water around the Delta can be found as far back as World War II, and the discussion over moving more water to the south literally dates from statehood.

While Southern California cities and farmers have long been in support of such a plan, Northern California has been resistant. A plan to build a “peripheral canal” to carry water some 43 miles around the Delta in a concrete-lined ditch as wide as a freeway was rejected by voters in 1982 and few other major legislative actions have occurred since then.

But Brown’s new restoration plan attempts to appease all parties by making stronger water transport and environmental protections co-equal goals.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan includes building a new water diversion facility in the north Delta with three pumping plants and fish screens to protect passing fish. The plan also calls for the two new tunnels to be built under the Delta to carry the water 35 miles to the south. These plans will come to fruition over a 50-year time frame. The tunnels are expected to cost $14 billion, with an additional $9 billion to be spent on habitat restoration.

To accomplish these goals, the state has teamed up with the federal government, which has a regulatory role in the project through the Endangered Species Act. The project will develop a Habitat Conservation Plan under the Endangered Species Act, as well as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan under state law. The Department of the Interior will take the federal lead of the project and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also will a involved.

“Through a joint federal-state partnership, and with science as our guide, we are taking a comprehensive approach to tackling California’s water problems. With California’s water system at constant risk of failure, nobody can afford the dangers or costs of inaction,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said when the project was announced.

According to Will Stelle, Northwest Regional Administrator for the NOAA, there will be a lengthy federal approval process. After the conservation plan is submitted for approval, the proposed plan and environmental analyses will be published and then put up for public comment for 60 to 90 days.  The various agencies will review the comments and conduct an independent review of the plan to determine whether changes need to be made before the final conservation plan can be formed.

One agency involved in the process is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Spokesman Steve Martarano said the agency will assist and advise with the project. In particular, the agency will study any “incidental takes” the new pumps may cause, which refers to the number of fish who may be killed by the pumps.

“We make a decision based on the findings so that the impacts would be minimized and mitigated to the extent possible,” Martarano said.

With so many agencies and interests involved, Stelle said this will be a lengthy process, especially given the degree of controversy surrounding the program. Delta communities and agricultural groups have heavily criticized the plan with concerns that constructing the tunnels will negatively affect the local environment and water quality. One major opponent, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, has already voted unanimously in opposition to the plan.

“One a scale of one to ten, from easy to hard, this is an eight or a nine,” Stelle said of the plan. “It’s complicated. There’s a fairly high degree of scientific debate about how well things are going to work and there’s a lot of money at stake and when you mix all those gradients together it makes it hard.”

Ed’s Note: Mandy Honeychurch, a student at UC Berkeley, is an intern at Capitol Weekly.

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