Tunnel Vision: Nine Things You Need to Know About the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

Tunnel Vision: Nine Things You Need to Know About the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

Call it “Water Wars, Part II.” The first official chapter in the battle over Northern California’s water came more than 30 years ago, when then-Governor Jerry Brown proposed the Peripheral Canal, an open waterway designed to move water from the Sacramento Delta to farms in the Central Valley and homeowners in Southern California. Voters gunned down the proposal in a veto referendum in 1982.

In April, Stockton-based grassroots environmental group Restore the Delta sent a special coffin on the “Death of the Delta” on a statewide tour. The coffin includes Delta landmarks, industries and species that will become extinct if the current form of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan goes through. At the tour’s conclusion, it will be presented to Gov. Jerry Brown.

In April, Stockton-based grassroots environmental group Restore the Delta sent a special coffin on the “Death of the Delta” on a statewide tour. The coffin includes Delta landmarks, industries and species that will become extinct if the current form of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan goes through. At the tour’s conclusion, it will be presented to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Fast-forward to 2013. Once again, Gov. Brown – yes, the same one – has proposed a way to transport water from the Delta down to Central and Southern California. This proposal, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), or “Peripheral Tunnels” as some are calling it, has a long way to go, but already the battle lines are being drawn between North and So what is the BDCP, and why should you care? Here’s a rundown of things you should know about the project, including its impact locally and what you can expect in coming months:

WHAT IT IS: As proposed by Gov. Brown, the BDCP includes construction of two parallel, 33-feet-wide underground tunnels that would run for 37 miles from the Sacramento River, under the Delta and to federal and state pumps south of Tracy. From there, water would flow into existing State Water Project and Central Valley Project canals designed to deliver water to Central and Southern California. The plan’s overall cost is estimated at $24.5 billion, with most of that paid by one or more public bonds, and increased service rates for water recipients. Provisions are made for some Delta habitat restoration. Assuming all approvals go through, construction could begin by 2016, with operation starting in 2026. “Yes, this is big,” Brown said during his announcement in July 2012. “But so is the problem.”

“Governor Brown is forcing this plan forward without any regard for the farmers, families or small business owners who rely upon a healthy Delta for their livelihoods, or for the incredible environmental damage that will result.”
— U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, Ninth District

WHO IS AFFECTED: Five Delta counties would be affected most by the project’s construction: Sacramento, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Solano and Yolo. The biggest impacts would be water usage and environmental change. But there would be secondary effects as well, such as a potential 150-plus landowners who could lose all or part of their properties to eminent domain, or traffic issues involving possible highway reroutes around the tunnels’ intake points. On the other side, at least eight Southern California counties would gain from the additional water availability, although residents’ water rates could go up by an average of $9 per month per household.

WHY WE NEED IT: According to now-former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who co-announced the plan with Gov. Brown, water is needed for some 3 million acres of farmland in the Central Valley, as well as 25 million Californians from the Bay Area to San Diego. A single day’s pumping would be enough to serve the annual water needs of 38,000 households, Salazar said.

There’s also an ecological need: Current water-drawing and pumping methods are killing thousands of fish annually, endangering species such as the Chinook Salmon and Delta Smelt. The proposed project, with its reduced water flow speeds and new flow path, would result in fewer fish kills, as well as reduced area flooding and pressure on aging levees.

The plan also calls for Delta habitat restoration, as well as creation of more than 120,000 acres of new habitat, over a 50-year period. One-third of the new habitat would be developed within the next 15 years. This is designed to save more than two dozen wildlife species that have been negatively impacted by present water-drawing activity, Brown notes.

“We urge Californians to get acquainted with the details of the draft plan and to bear in mind the high costs – from species extinction to water supply disruptions in the Delta – of doing nothing.”
– State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin

WHY IT’S A “DISASTER”: A recently released, 20,000-page consultant-prepared preliminary draft of an environmental impact report on the BDCP indicates that on a statewide level, the plan offers “a lot of uncertainties.” One of the biggest questions is the impact the Peripheral Tunnels will have on the Delta’s water flow. The plan, as proposed, would allow up to 9,000 cubic feet per second of flow from the Sacramento River – about 40 percent less than originally proposed. But at peak times of year – July to September – up to 60 percent of the river’s flow could be diverted, critics note. Proponents say there’s no proof that such a high flow diversion will occur, and that the usual rate will be more like 15 percent to 25 percent. Either way, a potential side effect would be the continued decline over the next 50 years of some of the wildlife species the plan is designed to protect, critics note.

Water quality is another issue. To make up for the loss of the Sacramento River, more water will need to be drawn from the San Joaquin River for local water needs. The San Joaquin’s water is considered poorer quality, containing a greater salt content, and greater percentages of pesticides and naturally occurring selenium.

For San Joaquin County, the project could mean loss of nearly one-fourth of its $2.2 billion annual crop production, largely due to increased – and toxic – salinity in farmland. The increased salt content in the water would also endanger more fish, which county supervisors note would lead to environmental lawsuits. The only way to solve the problem, they say, would be to use even more river water to flush the salt out of the Delta, which would require taking even more water away from area farming communities, especially in southern San Joaquin County.

The preliminary draft EIR does not offer a bona fide solution should salt content or water availability become a problem. The main action would be to “consult with affected entities to provide compensation or alternate water supplies after the fact.”

The plan could also require rerouting or reconfiguring of three Delta highways – State Route 160 in Sacramento County, and routes 4 and 12 through parts of San Joaquin, Solano and Contra Costa counties, a process that if approved would take several years to complete, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Governor Brown’s proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan could result in a lot of unpleasant surprises for San Joaquin County residents, ranging from temporary reduced water recreation to permanent loss of farmland along the Delta.

Governor Brown’s proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan could result in a lot of unpleasant surprises for San Joaquin County residents, ranging from temporary reduced water recreation to permanent loss of farmland along the Delta.

The Delta’s $700 million per year water recreation industry would also be decimated, as river access will be blocked during construction, according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Stocktonbased grassroots environmental group Restore the Delta. “Overall, we’re looking at an $8 billion annual economic hit to the region,” she said. “Possibly higher.”

And then there’s project cost. While the state’s $24.5 billion estimate has climbed by only $1 billion since the plan’s introduction in July 2012, critics note that there’s been no official accounting for how the figure was derived. Restore the Delta recently released its own estimate of $54.1 billion, which Barrigan-Parrilla called a case of “simple math” using figures drawn from BDCP documents.

Dr. Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of Pacific’s Eberhardt School of Business in Stockton, said the plan will actually cost about $2.50 for every $1 in economic benefits. “With these dismal results using the state’s own numbers, it’s probably no surprise that the state has been refusing to conduct [non-mandatory] ordinary and routine benefit-cost analysis of alternatives,” Michael said.

WHO LIKES IT: Not surprisingly, it’s almost impossible to find anyone in Northern California who supports the plan – outside of government officials. Brown believes the plan “is all about California’s future.” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, considers the plan “a major step toward a real solution in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” Salazar, who left office in May to go into private legal practice, has said the existing system is “broken” and that Brown’s proposal will “provide a lot more certainty, given the ecological conditions we face.” John Laird, state secretary of natural resources, calls BDCP “the most comprehensive, well-conceived approach to ensuring a reliable water supply to 25 million people and restoring the Delta ecosystem.” And State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin insists that people need to learn more before deciding one way or the other. “We urge Californians to get acquainted with the details of the draft plan and to bear in mind the high costs – from species extinction to water supply disruptions in the Delta – of doing nothing,” he said.

Some Basic Delta Facts
How important is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta?

Pretty important, according to local environmentalists. Here are a few facts about the Delta for local residents to keep in mind:
• More than half of the Delta’s 1,100-plus miles of levees are in San Joaquin County.
• The largest portion of Delta land is in San Joaquin County (43 percent).
• The remainder is split among parts of Sacramento, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano and Yolo counties. Five rivers – the Sacramento, San Joaquin, American, Calaveras and Mokelumne – act as tributaries to the Delta. • San Joaquin has more than 215,000 acres of farmland in the Delta, about half of all farmland available in the region.
• Water recreation on the Delta is a $700 million industry annually.


WHO DOESN’T LIKE IT: On the other hand, the line of opponents to the BDCP – at least in this part of the state – seems almost as long as the plan. Politically, the project is opposed by the likes of Congressional Rep. Jerry McNerney, whose district includes Lodi and Stockton. McNerney said the Governor is “forcing this plan forward without any regard for the farmers, families or small business owners who rely upon a healthy Delta for their livelihoods, or for the incredible environmental damage that will result.” Stockton Supervisor Frank Ruhstaller notes that the groups pushing the Peripheral Tunnels are primarily major urban water districts in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area. And State Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, said the plan has “nothing to do with saving the Delta and everything about shipping water south. But the Delta can be saved, and there are good faith plans to do so.”

Locally, the Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of many groups opposed to the BDCP, considers it the resumption of the state’s “Water Wars.” Alliance Director Bill Jennings has called the plan “a classic shell game to benefit special interests [that] if implemented, would represent a death sentence for one of the world’s great estuaries.” Restore the Delta’s Barrigan-Parrilla sees the damage going further, with many farming operations being brought to a complete stop due to 10 years of construction. Even everyday water enthusiasts like Stockton resident Gene Beley say the plan will torpedo famous county “anchoring holes” like Mildred Island, a place boaters drop anchor and stay as long as desired. “If boaters coming from the Bay Area or Fresno see their sacred Mildred Island having a 300-foot boat dock for barges and big construction night lights for night work,” Beley warns, “do you think they will come back to their once-peaceful haven there?”

THE ALTERNATIVES: There are other possibilities for a Delta preservation plan, none of which are being highly considered by the state, but that are still being suggested by consumer, environmental and political groups: Restore the Delta and the Environmental Water Caucus have similar proposals, where the state would provide more habitat in areas with reinforced levees, adjust existing pump operations to better protect fish and other wildlife, and encourage southern water agencies to develop their own local supplies.

Dr. Robert Pyke, a well-known Northern California water engineer, calls for creating a water reservoir near the beginning of the Delta – a spot known as Sherman Island in Sacramento County – where water can be pumped from on an “as needed” basis through tunnels about half as large as those in BDCP’s plan. The key here, Pike notes, is that only what is available in the storage area would be sent elsewhere, leaving the Delta’s natural water flow unhindered. It would also be available to Northern California for use during dry years. The plan would cost about $8 billion to $10 billion, or less than half of Brown’s proposal.

Another plan, by National Resources Defense Council engineer Barry Nelson, would use a single tunnel to deliver one-third as much water south of the Delta. The difference would be in focusing only on areas that require the water, and implementing a series of Delta levee improvement, and conservation and recycling measures. The result, in 15 to 20 years, would be a stronger Delta ecosystem, more water for users, at a total cost of about $15 billion, Nelson said.

Congressional Rep. John Garamendi, whose opposition dates back to the 1982 canal, offers his “Water Plan for all of California.” This calls for improved existing water storage sites, reinforcement of existing levees, and implementation of water conservation and recycling plans that will enable more water to be sent where needed through existing water channels. “Simply put, the current BDCP proposal is destructive, extraordinarily expensive and has marginal, if any benefit to existing species that are at risk,” he said. “There is a better way to do this.”

WHERE IT STANDS: A draft environmental impact study is expected to be released for public review by Oct. 1, with a series of public hearings to follow. A decision will be made by the Department of Water Resources in April 2014, and must be followed by approvals from state and federal wildlife agencies. Unlike its 1982 predecessor, the overall BDCP is not up for any kind of legislative or public vote. But that doesn’t make it a sure thing, opponents note. Several hurdles remain before the plan can officially be considered green-lighted.

The biggest hurdle is the $14.5 billion public bond needed to pay for habitat restoration and part of the tunnels’ construction. This is slated to go before voters in 2014. DWR Director Cowin is confident voters will approve. If not, “we’re not sure exactly where the money is going to come from,” he said.

There’s also the possibility of an initiative being placed on the 2016 statewide ballot to permanently end the project, much like what happened in 1982. That campaign, Garamendi recalls, was helped along by bitter public memories of Southern Californians shown filling their swimming pools during the droughts of 1976-77. The “Kill the Canal” veto ballot measure won by almost a 2-to-1 margin. For the record, 95 percent of San Joaquin County residents voted no on the canal.

Environmental lawsuits will also be a certainty, which if nothing else will slow the process down by several years. Barrigan-Parrilla has said Restore the Delta will enter into the litigation arena if necessary. The preference is to go the ballot initiative route, but “we’ll take whatever steps are necessary to stop the project and ensure that good, sustainable water practices happen for California,” Barrigan-Parrilla notes. “There are other steps to take [first]…but if that’s where we end up, that’s where we end up.”

Information on the Governor’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and some of the alternatives to it, can be found at these locations:

Bay Delta Conservation Plan 

“A Water Plan for all of California,” by John Garamendi

Restore the Delta 

“Benefit Cost-Analysis of Delta Water Conveyance Tunnels,” by Jeffrey Michael

“Responsible Exports Plan” by the Environmental Water Caucus

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