Meeting the Co-equal Goals? The Bay Delta Conservation Plan
For years, California has struggled with how to provide water to its citizens from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in a way that allows for a reliable supply while attending to the needs of the environment and the Delta community. A complex, controversial and expensive process called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is in the spotlight as the lead federal and state agencies move toward choosing an option that will have a lasting impact.
In the works for seven years, the BDCP is heavily touted by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to break the years of gridlock associated with the Delta environment and water conveyance. Brown, whose father Pat was the steward of the State Water Project while governor, wants to leave a similar legacy for the state.
“We are going to have a reliable water supply,” the governor told the audience May 8 at the Association of California Water Agencies’ (ACWA) Spring Conference in Sacramento. “We are going to build a big project. We are going to get it done. I’ll be here to get it done with your help.”
The BDCP simultaneously takes on improving water supply reliability and ushering in widespread habitat creation and enhancement. Under its charge, more than 100,000 acres worth of habitat projects would be created or protected at a cost of about $4 billion, to be paid for largely with public money. The goal of the BDCP is to be a key part of the Delta Plan, the lengthy document adopted May 16 by the Delta Stewardship Council that charts the comprehensive management plan that contains a mix of regulatory actions, nonbinding recommendations and an emphasis on interagency coordination to shape the Delta’s future.
“For the first time in the continuation of a lot of previous work that has gone before, we are ready to step forward to create the beginnings of a solution for restoring the largest estuary in the western hemisphere; for providing a reliable supply of water for Californians and also for protecting the Delta as an evolving place,” said Chris Knopp, executive director of the Delta Stewardship Council, at the May 16 Council hearing to adopt the Delta Plan.
But it is the BDCP’s plan to construct a new Delta conveyance system that has drawn the most attention. A $25 billion proposal calls for twin underground tunnels that would carry Sacramento River water drawn from three intakes under the Delta to the state and federal pumping facilities in the South Delta at a maximum rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Those reliant on contract supplies believe BDCP will facilitate the taking of “big gulps” of water when wetter conditions permit.
Ecosystem-wise, the BDCP is seen as a way to get past the species-by-species management in the Delta that has not been effective. It is described by its developers as “a broad-based, ecosystem planning approach to provide for the regional protection and conservation of fish and wildlife, plants, and their habitats, while continuing to allow compatible and appropriate development and growth.”
Advocates of the BDCP say it is necessary to break the gridlock that is often the hallmark of Delta conveyance issues. “The status quo is such right now that it serves virtually no one,” said John Laird, secretary of the Natural Resources Agency at an April 30 joint oversight hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Select Committee on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at the State Capitol.
The BDCP is a lightning rod for criticism by those who say it is too big, too expensive and harmful to the Delta environment and economy. These opponents either oppose it outright or believe it needs to be scaled back considerably.
“There’s a growing coalition of diverse entities that are calling for analysis of [a smaller alternative] including several urban water agencies that serve about 25 percent of California’s population, many national and statewide conservation groups, the Delta Counties Coalition, individual Delta supervisors and a broad array of state and federal legislators,” said Kate Poole, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) at the ACWA conference May 9.
NRDC’s “portfolio” alternative to the BDCP calls for a single, 3,000-cfs North Delta diversion facility. The financial savings associated with such a project could be used for new south of Delta storage, levee improvements and habitat restoration. To be successful, the BDCP needs to be permitted, affordable and receive broad public support and the portfolio alternative “was basically designed to frame an alternative that meets those three criteria,” Poole said.
“It’s undoubtedly not the only way to meet it, but we think it has a far greater chance of success than the current BDCP proposed project that’s on the table,” she said.
Water contractors say the portfolio proposal would reduce water deliveries substantially compared to today’s levels, and would lead to less habitat creation. “The smaller conveyance limitations are related to the magnitude of flow reversals in the South Delta that would continue to be a focus of the fish regulatory agencies into the future,” said Stephen Arakawa, manager of Bay-Delta Initiatives for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). “In addition, further limits to the ‘big gulp, little sip’ concept, since in wet years when banking of water in storage is possible, the magnitude of gulp would be significantly limited, because of capacity limits.”
The intakes and tunnels would be part of a dual conveyance option under which the state and federal projects would still rely on existing intakes in the South Delta at certain times.
One of the Delta legislators concerned about the BDCP is Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. In a March 27 paper called A Water Plan for All of California, he wrote that the BDCP is “an outdated and destructive plumbing system,” that “does not create any new water nor does it provide the water and the ecological protection that the Golden State must have.” A “much smaller facility” of no more than 3,000 cfs could be built to deliver water to the export pumps near Tracy, the paper says.
But a group of Central and Southern California congressional representatives plus Sen. Dianne Feinstein see things differently. In a May 22 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Gov. Brown they expressed their “continued strong support” for the BDCP and warned against settling for a smaller sized facility.
“California’s economic and social future is directly tied to a safe supply of reliable, high quality water and we cannot go in with half measures when it comes to water reliability or environmental sustainability,” the letter says.
Proponents of the BDCP acknowledge the anxiety it causes for some stakeholders, but stress its components are squarely in line with existing water supply, water quality and environmental protection regulations.
“I think it gets lost on many people that this program is being developed within context of the Endangered Species Act; it’s breaking new ground for this area,” said Arakawa.
Poole said “the key question” is not the size of the facility but how it is operated and that “to be credible” the BDCP has to recover listed species. As proposed, the BDCP would lead to the extinction of two salmon runs, make certain sturgeon species worse off and result in a “highly uncertain, if any” beneficial effect on Delta smelt, she said.
“Those are big problems for a recovery plan,” she said. “Maybe they can be fixed, but whether or not they can we are all better off having another viable approach on the table that will work in the event that we can’t fix those problems.”
The tumult surrounding the BDCP has been covered extensively, but the complete picture may be missing, according to Tori Sundheim, a legal intern with the Delta Stewardship Council. In a March 18 paper published in the University of Denver Water Law Review, “California’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Governor Brown’s Tunnels,” Sundheim wrote that “there is little discussion on what exactly the BDCP is and how it may be seen to fruition.”
“The media alternately characterizes the proposals as either an excuse to increase the amount of water exported from Northern California, or the best way to restore California’s environment and preserve water supplies for municipal, agricultural and other consumptive uses,” the paper says. “This inconsistent rhetoric fails to provide information to help the public understand what the BDCP is, how it relates to ‘Brown’s Tunnels’ and why some might be for or against it.”
While the BDCP grinds it way toward a final decision, probably in 2014, a group of water stakeholders continues to support projects that everyone believes can help with water supply, water quality, flood protection, ecosystem restoration and continued promotion of the Delta’s communities and culture.
Dubbed the Coalition to Support Delta Projects, the group has met for more than a year and is fronted by a six-member team of “inviters” representing various Delta interests that are supportive of advancing sensible, beneficial projects currently in the planning or near implementation stages. The initial inviters for the Coalition are Jonas Minton, water policy advisor to the Planning and Conservation League, Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager with Westlands Water District; Greg Gartrell, former assistant general manager for planning and water resources with Contra Costa Water District, Randall Neudeck, program manager with MWD, Tom Zuckerman with the Central Delta Water Agency and Doug Brown, executive director of the Delta Counties Coalition.
Coalition members represent interests inside and outside the Delta proper, including water contractors, reclamation districts and environmental organizations. Gartrell said “it was more a sense that there are a lot of projects out there and activities that everybody could support regardless of what they are arguing about or fighting over in other forums.”
The Coalition operates with the understanding it is clearly separate of the BDCP and that there are a host of in-Delta projects that are non-controversial and closer to completion. Members say its focus on non-controversial projects stands apart from the normal adversity that surrounds the debate about water supply and ecosystem protection.
“I think it’s a very positive development that people with such diverse backgrounds are at least trying to focus on common interests, recognizing there may be larger battles that are going to play out over time,” said Stan Dean, district engineer with Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District.
State officials laud the Coalition to the extent it can help promote the many flood management and habitat restoration projects distributed among reclamation districts, water agencies and the Department of Water Resources (DWR). “These projects have been in the works for years and they are moving forward. To the extent the coalition can provide any kind of added benefit to these projects in terms of solidifying support or cooperation and collaboration that, of course, is wonderful,” said Gail Newton, chief of DWR’s FloodSAFE Environmental Stewardship and Statewide Resources Office.
Though MWD was involved with the Coalition’s formation, “our main objective is to get the public draft BDCP completed and out to the public for review and comment,” Arakawa said. “That’s really what we are focused on.”
This issue of Western Water looks at the BDCP and the Coalition to Support Delta Projects, issues that are aimed at improving the health and safety of the Delta while solidifying California’s long-term water supply reliability.
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This issue of Western Water discusses the latest on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and how it is related to the Delta Plan that was recently adopted by the Delta Stewardship Council. Writer Gary Pitzer describes the process of the BDCP, which has been in development for seven years. The BDCP is a plan to improve Delta habitat mainly for fish in order to get the permits to continue pumping a reliable amount of water through the state and federal water projects at the south end of the Delta.
You may remember that before the BDCP plan, many stakeholders were engaged in a process called CALFED, a joint state and federal process to develop projects to help the water environment and economy get better together. That process mainly funded some environmental projects but ran out of money and steam about a decade ago. Before CALFED there were other stakeholder processes that emerged in the last 30 years since the defeat of the legislation authorizing the Peripheral Canal. In the meantime, the problems in the Delta related to water delivery have not been solved. So you’ll want to read this issue of Western Water for the latest on how the BDCP fits into today’s other ongoing processes.
I’ve been thinking of the many years of meetings and studies that brought us to today’s decision points. Through those years, the Foundation staff has been on the frontlines of covering those debates. Currently, I’ve just finished updating a chart we produced last year called “Delta Planning Relationships.” You can find the chart on www.aquafornia.com under the All About the Delta section at www.aquafornia.com/delta. It’s a poster-sized depiction of brief explanations of 25 separate Delta planning efforts – from flood management to Delta flow criteria to land use plans – and how they relate to the Delta Plan. Remember, the BDCP is planned to be folded into the Delta Plan. The exercise of updating this chart has made me realize how many people and agencies are involved in finding solutions related to Delta issues including flood management and environmental restoration.
The Delta Plan, as adopted by the Delta Stewardship Council in May, focuses on implementing the co-equal goals of water reliability and environmental restoration by recommending a portfolio of actions. However, in the public debate, much of the focus on the Delta relates back to the BDCP and the pro and con arguments for the twin tunnels proposals. The BDCP’s formal public comment phase probably will begin this fall, and the Water Education Foundation will continue to seek the latest factual information and analyze the comments.
Just as the 1960 passage by voters of the State Water Project and the voter referendum defeat in 1982 of the legislation that included the Peripheral Canal were decisions made by other generations, the decisions made on the BDCP and related processes will be important for this generation of Californians.