DWR: Progress on delta tunnels

Islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, an aerial view. The Delta is home to about half of California's drinking water. (Photo:

California’s top water official told a key gathering of south state water representatives that “hard-earned progress” is being made on the Brown administration’s controversial plan to build twin tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The comments by Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, were aimed in part at dispelling rumors that the project, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, had run aground, perhaps permanently. He made the comments last week to a committee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the huge wholesaler that serves much of the south state’s water agencies.

Tunnel foes were bolstered when federal authorities harshly criticized the plan, leading some to predict the controversial project was dead.

The BDCP is the Brown Administration’s plan to secure water supply reliability for two-thirds of the state’s population by building the 30-mile-long tunnels to deliver Sacramento River water from the north Delta to the existing pumps in the south Delta. The controversial plan also calls for over 100,000 acres of habitat restoration as well as other measures to address the multiple issues affecting the Delta’s ecosystem. The price tag for capital construction costs alone is about $14.57 billion.

Most of California’s drinking water comes through the Delta, a vast estuary fed by rivers that carry snow-melt from the Sierra Nevada and the north.

State and federal officials say the plan is needed to secure reliable water supplies for the state’s economy and to address the many factors contributing to crashing fish populations. Opponents, led by Delta landowners and farmers, among others, say the plan will mean the death of the sensitive estuary, the largest on the West Coast, by depriving it of needed flows.

Tunnel opponents were bolstered when the federal agency in charge of enforcing water quality standards harshly criticized the plan, leading some to predict the controversial project was dead.

Not so, Cowin told Metropolitan’s Special Committee on the Bay-Delta last Tuesday. “We continue to make hard-earned progress on the plan,” he said.

Cowin said the Brown administration is preparing to recirculate an updated environmental analysis that will reflect physical changes to the proposed facilities and the tunnel alignment, as well as address the EPA’s comments.

“We want to be sure we address EPA’s issues as high-priority as we consider what’s necessary to be included in a recirculated document,” Cowin said, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cowin said he had been ‘surprised’ by the content and tone of the letter from the EPA as the EPA and DWR have worked together on a staff level for years now. Among the many comments in the 43-page letter, the EPA had said its research determined that the project would be likely to increase salinity and other contaminants within the estuary, worsening water quality for those within the Delta while improving it for those who receive the exported water, a violation of federal water quality standards.

The suggestion that the department would operate the project in violation of water quality law is what concerned Cowin the most.

He called the comment a misunderstanding that arose from the analysis.

“It’s based upon a monthly time-step model which doesn’t account for the daily types of decisions that we make when we operate the project,” he explained. “While we have committed that we would not violate the standards that EPA is concerned about, the modeling would suggest that we would. Our response to that is that we’ll deal with those challenges on a day to day basis, but essentially it’s up to us to describe that in a much more clear way.”

As for the drought, Cowin told the committee that the Department is taking actions to prepare for dry conditions in 2015 which include assessing the decisions made this year and their outcomes, working to improve communication, and assessing health and human safety needs. Cowin said the Department is moving forward, regardless of the season predictions. “We have fairly equal probabilities at this point of it either being dry or being wet next year, so forecasts really aren’t driving our actions right now,” he said. “We are attempting to prepare for the worst, and we consider the worst to be a repeat in 2015 of the conditions that we saw in 2014.”

Click here for a full report on DWR Director Mark Cowin’s presentation to the committee, plus comments from the Delta Stewardship Council’s Randy Fiorini.

Eds’ Note: Chris Austin, who has written extensively on California water issues, is the editor of Maven’s Notebook, a water policy and information site.

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