Delta Water Plan Simplified by Focusing on Tunnels and Bagging the Restoration

Thursday, April 30, 2015
(photo: Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee)

After an eight-year struggle to meld environmental, safety and water supply concerns in a single $24.5-billion plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Brown administration has found a way forward—by just building the damn tunnels.

The administration is cutting $8 billion worth of environmental improvements in the old plan down to $300 million and reducing the area of wetland and wildlife habitat restoration from 100,000 acres to 30,000, according to Associated Press. AP said the administration would present its plan today.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has been mired in controversy since Governor Jerry Brown announced his full support for reviving a water project that re-animated the controversy over the ill-fated Peripheral Canal in his first administration 35 years ago.   

The BDCP homepage proclaims: “The BDCP is a comprehensive conservation strategy aimed at protecting dozens of species of fish and wildlife, while permitting the reliable operation of California's two biggest water delivery projects.”

But environmentalists long complained that the delicate ecosystem was being treated as an afterthought in the state’s rush to move more water from the Delta to farmers in the Central Valley and thirsty Californians further south. Both constituencies are a lot more anxious about water now after four years of drought.

By severing much of the environmental work, the administration can apply for permits of 10 years or less rather than 50-year permits that have more stringent requirements. That longer permit process looked dicey last September when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trashed a draft version of the Delta plan.

The EPA wrote in a 43-page letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that building a couple of giant tunnels to divert freshwater from the Sacramento River around the Delta will probably threaten the habitat by increasing its content of salt, chloride, pesticides and other bad stuff.

EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld wrote (pdf) in the review that local farmers and urban areas relying on water directly from the Delta stood a good chance of being harmed. The EPA also warned of harm to several endangered fish in the Delta and other native species. In general, the BDCP failed to consider environmental issues upstream and downstream from the Delta, itself, the letter said.

State officials had indicated earlier in the month that the administration was moving away from the BDCP as the drought brings into clearer focus the battle lines being drawn over water. Environmental concerns once deemed critical in discussions of the diminishing resource could see reduced support as people and their lawns whither under mandatory cutbacks.    

Farming and big water interests have agitated for streamlining the process at the expense of environmental interests. Agriculture uses 80% of the state’s water. But California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham told AP that environmental interests were not being abandoned. “We need to restore habitat in the Delta,” said. “We've known that for a long time. There's no dispute there. Let's get going and do it.”

But first, let’s do something else.

Restore the Delta Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said that won’t work. “Separating them doesn't change the science. The tunnels are going to leave us with a permanent drought in the Delta.”   

–Ken Broder    


To Learn More:

Jerry Brown to Revise Plan for Twin Water Tunnels in Delta (by David Siders, Sacramento Bee)

California Cuts Habitat Fix for Delta Project (by Scott Smith, Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown Set to Unveil Scaled-Back Delta Conservation Plan (by Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times)

Feds Say State's $24.5-Billion Water Tunnel Plan Could Ruin the Delta (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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