Of the 38 million people affected by the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), at least 60 phoned in to get an update last week. The public meeting held in Sacramento was chaotic, with sounds of dogs barking, neighborhood chit-chat and the double-toilet-flush from the call-in listeners who forgot to mute their lines.
Despite the bizarre atmosphere, serious clarifications were made regarding the big-picture plan to build two giant tunnels through or around the Delta—the largest estuary on the West Coast.
Gov. Brown’s tunnel conveyance plan continues to dance around the science, although the project’s leaders have publicly claimed to embrace it.
The latest news? The current plan being pushed ahead is an operations proposal known as Alternative 4. That alternative intends to raise the limit on exports for south of delta contractors from an average of 4.9 million acre-feet to 5.3 million acre-feet.
And that may be a problem—4.9 isn’t an arbitrary number. It’s a vetted biological opinion put in place to keep key species, such as delta smelt, chinook salmon and steelhead from perishing forever. Among other things, water diversions and pumping have severely impacted the beleaguered estuary. Giant pumps sit in the south Delta and send water uphill to drier parts of the state, including Los Angeles, the Central Valley and Santa Clara. When the pumps operate, rivers flow in the reverse direction and entrap fish trying to spawn. On average, 95 percent of juvenile San Joaquin River salmon and 60 percent of Sacramento River salmon don’t survive migration through the Delta. The biological opinion limits the damage.
“It was widely recognized that the alternatives analyzed in the February effects analysis would lead to further fishery declines and the likely extinction of several salmon runs,” said Kate Poole, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The state has promised that BDCP would be a science-driven process and would recover the ecosystem and imperiled salmon and other fisheries.” Choosing Alternative 4 means that the process is not being driven by science, Poole added.
What’s driving the process seems to be the state and federal contractors who are funding the BDCP, and their interest lies in increasing water exports.
Regardless, fish and other wildlife need fresh water flowing through the system, and a lot more than they’re getting. The public trust recommendations for flow, as set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board, would limit exports to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet. That’s more than a million-acre feet less than the current proposal.
But there is a caveat. The current plan suggests that by increasing land habitat more water can be exported—although it is unclear whether scientific studies will validate that.
“They keep saying trust us; we will build it now and figure out the science later,” said Bill Jennings,the Executive Director of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). “We no longer trust those who guided these species to the brink of extinction to do the right thing. The science and assurances must come first.”
State and federal wildlife agencies are responsible for permitting the BDCP, and they are trying to ensure that science does come first, but they’re still working out the numbers. Remediating habitat is an important part of that process as well. The Delta has only five percent of its original wetlands intact.
The costs are another matter. It’s an expensive project and who will pay for it appears to be in flux.
“At least they are being honest that they expect more water,” said Dr. Jeffrey-Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the Eberhardt School of Business. “But from a benefit-cost perspective for the state, 5.3 million acre-feet is still not enough to justify the costs of the project. It is not a good project for the state. The fact that they won’t do an official analysis shows the truth to that. If they could prove its value, believe me, they would do it.”
The project cost hovers around $23 billion, with an additional $1.1 billion in debt servicing for 35 years. The debt costs nearly double the price. Currently, contractors are set to pay 75 percent of the costs, and taxpayers the other 25 percent. But those percentages will be adjusted in the future, as noted at the meeting.
Funds from state bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of the original State Water Project.
Other details were not discussed, in particular, the total capacity of the system to export water. The topic makes local delta farmers nervous. They rely on fresh water from the Sacramento River to irrigate their crops, and the tunnels may affect that. At the meeting, one commenter verbalized his concern that the project would “bleed the river dry.”
The current alternative decreases the intake size of the proposed tunnels and limits tunnel exports to 6.5 million acre-feet a year. But that’s an incomplete picture of the system. The pumps in the southern end of the Delta will still be there, and they also have a similar export capacity.
Thus, the only physically limiting factor is the size of the California Aqueduct. The system would have the capacity to export nearly 10 million acre-feet a year.
Mike Taugher, Communications Director for the California Department of Fish and Game, carefully noted that the state pumps have always had the capacity to export more water, but they’ve always been limited by operational regulations.
What next? More meetings and a forthcoming Environmental Impact Report.