[env-trinity] Contra Costa Times 11 15 10
bwl3 at comcast.net
Sat Nov 6 17:50:31 PDT 2010
Delta plan may do more harm, biologists find
By Mike Taugher
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/05/2010 08:44:13 PM PDT
Updated: 11/05/2010 08:44:14 PM PDT
A plan promoted as the way to balance environmental protection with the
state's water needs is more likely to drive at least one native species to
extinction than to help it recover, federal biologists have found.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which has racked up nearly $140 million in
study costs, would reduce the flow of water through the Delta and send more
to farms and cities, according to a review obtained by Bay Area News Group.
The waning flow would draw brackish Bay water deeper into the estuary and
reduce freshwater flushing, spreading habitat changes that have degraded the
estuary and harmed native species.
Water weeds, toxic algae and undesirable bass would likely spread, the
"Therefore, overall habitat conditions under the proposed project are likely
to be worse than present day conditions or future conditions (if the project
is not built)," the biologists concluded.
The water agencies that are counting on the plan to increase their water
supplies reject that conclusion, documents show.
Their consultants contend the water flows are not as big a deal and that
other elements of the plan would more than offset any problems caused by the
The 50-year water supply and environmental protection plan, trumpeted for
four years by the Schwarzenegger administration and the state's biggest
water agencies, will not be completed this month as planned.
Instead, an incomplete draft is scheduled to be released in the coming
Top water officials in state and federal government, local water agencies
and environmental groups are meeting privately, trying to resolve a host of
thorny questions in advance of the report.
The plan's fate remains uncertain.
Regulators are unlikely to approve it if it cannot make good on the promise
of Delta restoration.
And if it cannot deliver an ample, secure supply of water, water agencies
that rely on the Delta may be unwilling to pay for it.
On top of the biologists' review, an independent consultant hired to assess
the plan also questions its progress and the emphasis on increasing water
That critique brought a sharp reaction from water users, who called the
assessment "rife with inappropriate and inaccurate" statements.
Acknowledging that the point of the plan is to increase water supplies, they
noted that it made little sense for them to invest in an expensive project
if the result would be less water.
"(Water) Exports can be reduced without the investment of tens of billions
of dollars and, in fact, have been significantly reduced over the last
decade with little environmental benefit to show for it," said a recent
water contractors to the Delta Stewardship Council.
Ideas for more water
Central to the plan is a tunnel system capable of carrying 15,000 cubic feet
per second -- big enough to carry the entire Sacramento River most of the
By taking water from the proposed tunnels rather than Delta pumps, fewer
fish would be killed at the pumping stations near Tracy. And investing
billions of dollars in wetlands restoration and other ecosystem improvements
will justify the water diversions, supporters say.
But a number of recent studies suggest too much water is taken out of the
Delta watershed to sustain a healthy ecosystem, and a high-cost construction
project is not likely to change that basic imbalance.
"Four years ago, a lot of people thought this project would consist of a
$3.5 billion ditch that would get a lot more water supply with big benefits
to fish, but it is not working out that way at all," said Greg Gartrell,
assistant general manager of the Contra Costa Water District.
"They need to step back and rethink this project using this new information
that has replaced all the old assumptions."
The $12 billion tunnel option would deliver just 3 percent more water than a
much smaller tunnel that would cost half as much, Gartrell said.
The Concord-based water district has a lot at stake because the state and
federal water projects affect the water quality around its Delta intake
A top federal official cautioned that a final plan will not be adopted
without public review. The ultimate decisions are months away, Deputy
Interior Secretary David Hayes said in an interview.
Hayes said he had not seen the paper by his department's biologists, who
concluded that the proposal was likely to cause more environmental harm than
good, but he said the federal scientists' findings would weigh heavily.
"This is going to be a science-driven process. We feel very strongly about
that," Hayes said.
"The environment needs to get better under the BDCP (Bay Delta Conservation
Plan). That's going to be the bottom line, in addition to the water
reliability," Hayes said.
Who pays for it?
Water districts across the state will have to decide whether to commit
billions of dollars to the plan, but there is a more immediate decision.
To complete the studies, water districts will have to pay another $100
million. One already balked but later got back on board.
Others are wary.
"We're not at the point where push comes to shove, but there is going to be
a point in time in the near future where everybody is going to have to put
their cards on the table," said Dennis Cushman, a manager with the San Diego
Project costs and benefit questions loom large.
One farm district in Kings County that primarily serves two wealthy
landowners had opted out as of April 2009, documents show.
More than 80 percent of the irrigated acreage in the Dudley Ridge Water
District is owned by Paramount Farming, which is owned by Stewart and Lynda
Resnick, one of the richest couples in Los Angeles, and Sunnyvale-based
"The primary reason was financial," Dudley Ridge general manager Dale
Melville said in an e-mail. The district's board of directors preferred to
keep money to buy supplemental water. Melville said the district still could
choose to participate.
But the costs keep climbing.
Southern California water officials were told this year that the aqueduct
would cost about $8 billion, but the latest figure is $13 billion, Cushman
The decisions will be relatively simple once water agencies know two things:
how much water they will get, and how much they will have to pay. And
there's a third variable: the nature of guarantees, or assurances, that the
water will be there even if the ecosystem does not improve.
Generally speaking, urban water agencies like those in the Bay Area and
Southern California can afford to pay more than agricultural districts in
the San Joaquin Valley, because cities have no choice, but farmers do. They
could choose not to plant such crops as cotton, lettuce, almonds or
pomegranates if water costs exceeded the crop value.
"All of us are working with our growers to make sure they understand what
the costs are," said Brent Walthall, an assistant general manager at the
Kern County Water Agency. "I think they will (support the plan), but they
want to know there are going to be assurances."
"Everybody is in a mode of getting as much information as possible before we
make a decision (to fund the studies)," said Dan Nelson, executive director
of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, an association comprised
mostly of west San Joaquin Valley farm districts.
If any water agency drops out, the price for everyone else will rise.
But even urban districts will look carefully at the project's economics
before committing their customers to paying higher rates.
Water rates have been climbing sharply and water usage in the declining
economy is way down in San Diego, Cushman said.
"The biggest (unresolved question) of all is: Who is going to pay for it?
Those tough conversations have not been had," Cushman said.
The plan being drafted came in response to the environmental collapse in the
Delta that became apparent in 2005 and the water supply cuts that followed
as regulators and judges tried to reduce the number of fish killed by the
The strategy was for water users to commit to a "habitat conservation plan,"
using alternative provisions of endangered species laws to escape the close
supervision regulators normally exercise.
In exchange for a relatively stable water supply permit, good for 50 years,
water users would have to set up a comprehensive plan to protect a host of
fish and wildlife species, and not just prevent their extinction. Among the
targeted species are Delta smelt, longfin smelt, several salmon runs, green
sturgeon and even terrestrial species.
Water agencies are expected to pay for the tunnels, but
ecosystem-restoration projects, which could cost billions of dollars, would
mostly be charged to taxpayers.
The conservation plan has been described as the most complex such plan ever
undertaken because of its focus on fish (not just land animals), its
location in a highly altered and complex estuary, its broad scope, and the
number of overlapping and competing demands on the Delta.
Schwarzenegger's team also tried to get it done in record time: four years.
By contrast, a comparatively simple habitat conservation plan that most
affects East Contra Costa County housing took about 10 years to complete.
"The BDCP is on a collision course with reality," said Assemblyman Jared
Huffman, D-San Rafael, one of the authors of water reforms passed last year.
Under new law, the plan must be approved if it meets certain standards.
But the new laws also require the state to reduce its dependence on the
Delta, treat the environment and economy as "coequal" goals and increase
regional self-sufficiency in water supply around the state.
Huffman, a former environmental lawyer and chairman of the Assembly's water
committee, said the plan taking shape does not appear to strike the balance
required by the new laws.
"The Legislature was very clear in laying out a policy of reduced dependence
on the Delta," Huffman said. "One cannot credibly reconcile these new
policies with an attempt to return to (pre-Delta crisis) exports for the
next 50 years."
Of course, conservation plan supporters don't exactly see it that way.
They see the goal to reduce dependence on the Delta as a statewide
responsibility and are emphatic that it is the plan, and not recent contrary
studies, that is consistent with the balancing act required by the new
"If those flow criteria had any regulatory effect, it's 'game over' for the
Delta," said Cushman, the San Diego water official.
Mike Taugher covers the environment. Contact him at 925-943-8257
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land
415 519 4810 mobile
bwl3 at comcast.net
bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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