Nearly two-thirds of California residents and the majority of agriculture get their water from the Delta and its tributaries, which surround Stockton in an intricate pattern of levees, rivers and farms. But the Delta faces multifaceted environmental problems, which have led to a crisis for fisheries, wildlife and water quality.
The peripheral canal has been touted as the solution to the Delta’s problems, but it’s questionable whether it can provide reliable water and protect the ecosystem.
The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has spent more than $150 million planning for some form of peripheral canal or tunnel-conveyance system, which would route water around the Delta rather than restoring it. The BDCP is funded by 23 South-of-Delta contractors who receive water from state and federal projects.
According to a Legislative Analyst Office report, $240 million is allocated for the BDCP planning process through the year 2013, and all total, the peripheral canal is currently estimated to cost $12 billion or higher; its actual costs are unknown.
And the BDCP draft plan has critical missing components, according to a National Academy of Sciences Report, including clearly defined goals and a scientific analysis of the proposed project’s potential impacts on Delta species—and that’s a big piece of the puzzle. Technically, the BDCP is supposed to meet the state’s co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability.
The Delta is home to 750 species of plants and animals; 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner, said Dr. Peter Moyle, Associate Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “Many of these are salmon and trout species, and most of the species are found only in California.”
While the Delta’s decline is due to many factors, including pollution, invasive species and loss of wetlands, the primary reasons for species decline are water diversions and excessive pumping in the estuary.
The San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers are the Delta’s primary tributaries; the San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River, which once flowed out to sea, is often used to convey water to federal and state pumps, which send the water uphill and south to farms and cities in Southern California. The reduction in freshwater flow has eliminated much of the habitat, and as a result, populations of flow-dependent species have collapsed, including Chinook salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt.
To address this, the state passed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act in 2009, which required the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to develop flow criteria to protect public trust resources and a suite of native fish.
The SWRCB public trust recommendations indicate the need to reduce use by 13.7 to 14.6 million acre-feet annually, which is about 22 percent of the state’s annual average water supply, or almost half of the Delta water supply.
That’s roughly equivalent to the annual flow of six Sierra Nevada Rivers, including the Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus, Feather, Yuba and American. While the SWRCB must balance economic needs with ecosystem needs, those flow recommendations imply that all Delta water users, including state and federal water contractors, will have to significantly reduce use. As such, a coalition of water and power districts recently sent a letter to the SWRCB requesting a delay in further establishing the Delta flow criteria until the BDCP is further along.
Thus far, the BDCP has not taken the public trust flow recommendations into account, it has no plans for a cost-benefit analysis, and the cost per acre-foot of peripheral canal water is unknown. BDCP representatives did not respond to phone calls or email requests for information.
According to Dave Paulson, Chief of the State Water Project’s (SWP) Cost Branch, there are several factors that make determining costs of conveyance difficult. First, conveyance costs vary annually based on the costs of power, operation, maintenance and new construction. Second, contractors are billed only for their share of the annual costs, and it’s difficult to project the impact of a potential BDCP program layered on these existing costs. Third, the total projected BDCP costs are undetermined, the repayment period is not defined, the share of transportation and conservation costs are unknown, and no preferred alternative has been presented.
However, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, which supplies drinking water to nearly 19 million people, has made estimates of its own.
According to MWD, water from the proposed conveyance system will cost the district $810 per-acre foot, on average. MWD pays, on average, $296 per acre-foot for Delta water, which implies that the project will increase costs without necessarily yielding a more reliable supply. By comparison, MWD conservation programs yield additional water for $118 per acre-foot.
“From a Southern California perspective, we don’t want more imported water,” said Conner Everts, Executive Director of Southern California Watershed Alliance. “We’re over-built, and we’re better off when we are forced to live within our means.”
State contractors on average pay $185 per acre-foot of water, and San Joaquin Valley contractors pay about $52 an acre-foot under the current contract, which expires in 2035.
The BDCP is also linked to the Delta Plan, which is supposed to establish a more reliable water supply while protecting the Delta ecosystem, as well. The difference? The 88-year Delta plan will contain legally enforceable regulatory policies. It sets deadlines for the completion of the BDCP and Delta flow objectives. To be included in the plan, the BDCP must meet certain requirements, including flow requirements and approval from the Department of Fish and Game.
The Delta Plan is in the fifth draft of seven, and thus far, more than 200 environmental organizations have criticized it for failing to take the doctrine of public trust into account.
“It’s nebulous. It’s vague. It doesn’t include a cost-benefit analysis, and it doesn’t deal with flow issues and public trust recommendations,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta. “They set themselves up as a super regulatory agency, the way it’s written, but it’s a plan without a plan. There are 12 recommended actions, 61 potential actions.”
The public can comment on the Delta Plan’s 2200-page environmental impact report until February 2, 2012. The sixth draft will be published in March.
In regards to the BDCP, Assemblywoman Alyson Huber (D-El Dorado Hills) and Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) are attempting to bring fiscal accountability to the BDCP process. This January, Huber re-introduced Assembly Bill 550, to prohibit the construction of a peripheral canal without a full fiscal analysis and a vote of the state legislature. The bill failed on a 5-7 vote, with seven votes needed for passage. “We have made great progress from last year, and I am still committed to pressing for a full fiscal analysis and a vote of the legislature before any Delta water conveyance program can move forward,” Huber said.
Wolk also recently issued a statement on the Delta. “I accept the Governor’s invitation to engage constructively to find a solution to restore the Delta and improve water supply reliability for the state. However, I don’t think it will require what the Governor described as an enormous project, a giant canal, and taking 100,000 acres of Delta farmland out of production,” she said. “But it will require supporting everyone’s effort to reduce reliance on the Delta as their primary source of water and relying more on sustainable regional water supplies.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, in his 2012 state of the state address, expressed his support for the BDCP, but more recently indicated that he would support delaying the $11 billion water bond currently on the November ballot, saying an overhaul of the state’s water system can begin without voters approving borrowing this year.
Brown advocated the peripheral canal in his last term as governor, but it was defeated in a referendum in 1982. Notably, his father, former Gov. Edmund G. Pat Brown, helped develop the State Water Project, when he served from 1959 to 1967.
Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, the state’s budget woes present a formidable roadblock. The general bonds that fund large infrastructure projects are financed by state taxpayers who pay the interest and principal out of the General Fund. According to the state’s fiscal outlook, the General Fund cost for debt service on infrastructure bonds is currently $6 billion for 2010-11 and $7.2 billion for 2011-12, and will continue to rise until 2015. Funds from bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of the State Water Project.