Central Valley

The BDCP Meeting(s) Get Heated: A Benefits Analysis, Angry Environmental Groups, 57 Threatened Species & 100,000 Acre-Feet


Staten Island in the Delta

Staten Island in the Delta, Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the twin tunnels or the latest version of the peripheral canal, recently held two public meetings with all the big players present, but with some interesting twists.

Presentations, given in the customary tight-lipped monotone, were interrupted by fiery environmental groups and the frank questions and remarks of Melinda Terry, Manager of the North Delta Water Agency.

“We really don’t have an avenue in this process, and it’s been very frustrating,” Terry said. “My one plea is going to be, when you come out with your draft, please don’t indicate that it really had the input of these stakeholders and that we helped develop it. My agency will be put in a position to refute that.”

Terry represents a district, which exists to protect Delta farmers, who get their irrigation water directly from the Sacramento River and its tributaries. The district has a contract with the Department of Water Resources, which forbids the state from harming the agency. If the BDCP builds its tunnel intake in the north delta, water quality could be affected and so could the habitat for 57 threatened species.

And environmental groups are up in arms.

Sandhill Crane in a corn field on Staten Island. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

Sandhill Crane in a corn field on Staten Island. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

“We will continue to oppose the tunnels or any of the peripheral export schemes,” said Nick Di Croce, Co-Facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus, a collection of 30 conservation groups. “We are pushing for taking less water out of the Delta; let’s make up for the reduced exports with conservation and efficiency.”

The reduced exports that Di Croce refers to, relate to environmental protections, which restrict water exports to state and federal contractors, like Metropolitan Water District, the Kern County Water Agency and Westlands Water District. In a nutshell, there are 57 endangered and threatened species in the Delta, several of which have been decimated by the lack of water flowing through the system. The Delta’s primary tributaries have big problems. The San Joaquin River has often run dry due to diversions, and the Sacramento River is used to convey water to massive pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary. The pumps draw water into the California Aqueduct and create a north to south flow across a tidal estuary, which is meant to flow east to west, causing rivers to flow backwards and entrapping thousands of endangered fish en route to spawn, including steelhead and salmon.

The BDCP is supposed to be a habitat conservation plan, but the twin tunnels have dominated the conversation. The original hope was that by increasing Delta land habitat, the BDCP could increase water exports and build a new intake in the northern part of the Delta. Last February, the BDCP planned to increase exports by 15 to 24 percent. But the Delta ecosystem is in dire need of more water—not less. This isn’t news to anyone. The State Water Resources Control Board issued public trust recommendations in 2010, which indicated that Delta water use needs to decline by nearly 50 percent. Addressing this issue directly has not been a primary tenet of the BDCP. Instead, BDCP planners are still talking tunnels.

Questionable Fiscal Benefits of the BDCP’s Twin Tunnels

The California State Seal Outside that Natural Resources Building by Deanna Lynn Wulff

The California State Seal on the Natural Resources Building in Sacramento. Photo by Deanna Lynn Wulff

At another BDCP meeting held at the Natural Resources Building, the benefits of the tunnel plan were outlined in a presentation given by Dr. David Sunding, a Professor in the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley.

Under hypothetical modeling conditions, the BDCP’s current selected alternative could increase urban supplies on average less than 100,000 acre-feet annually during shortages. That increases urban reliability less than 1 percent. Meanwhile, effective conservation measures could yield millions of acre-feet in new water supplies at lower costs.

Sunding’s underlying assumptions are that urban demand will grow and that agricultural demand will remain steady. “It’s not clear whether his urban demand calculations use up-to-date population forecasts,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael,  the Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific.

Sunding noted that his report was based on conditional data, but he could not be reached to discuss his modeling techniques and research, despite repeated phone calls and emails. Sunding will begin work on a benefit-cost analysis to determine the value of the $23 to $50 billion project. As yet, it is unclear what data will be included in that study. Thus far, only the benefits of the project have been evaluated, without the capital costs of the project included. Until this meeting, the BDCP had refused to perform a cost-benefit analysis.

Why the reversal? No one knows exactly. “I can only speculate that they felt political pressure, and it’s inevitable, they would prefer to control the process,” Michael said. “I am happy that they are working on it, but it has to be compared to a no-tunnel alternative that satisfies the ESA (Endangered Species Act).” That kind of comparison could keep the environmental benefits of conservation from distorting the fiscal analysis of the tunnels. An economic evaluation of Sunding’s presentation is also available on Dr. Jeffrey Michael’s blog.

average south delta exportsWhat’s Next?

The BDCP promises to release updated flow recommendations and hold another meeting in January or February. If all goes as usual, the presentations won’t be publicly released until the day of the meeting or the day after the meeting, making public participation and direct inquiry difficult.

Thus far, the BDCP has revised its predicted level of exports in a downward direction. The original plan, presented nearly a year ago, was to increase exports to 5.9 million acre-feet, then it was downsized to 5.3 million acre-feet. The current range recommended by state and federal wildlife agencies in May hovers around 4.3 to 4.7 million acre-feet, but that amount is a moving target, which few will commit to. Instead, the agencies refer to an adaptive management program, which is notably vague.

What remains implacable is a court-ordered export limit of 4.9 million acre-feet, which is about a million-acre feet shy of the public trust recommendations. According to the Doctrine of Public Trust, it is the duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage to streams, rivers, lakes, marshlands and tidelands—all components of the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast.

About Deanna Lynn Wulff

Deanna is an activist, an editor and a writer. She is the Director of the Sierra National Monument Project (www.unitetheparks.org) and the author of the award-winning book, "The Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: Hard Hikes for Wild Women." Follow her blog, Minerva's Moxie, at deannalynnwulff.wordpress.com/.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The BDCP Meeting(s) Get Heated: A Benefits Analysis, Angry Environmental Groups, 57 Threatened Species & 100,000 Acre-Feet

  1. It’s long past time to scrap the BDCP process – it’s plainly not serving the interests of the people, just the well-connected water barons south of the Delta. It’s time to divert LESS freshwater south of the Delta and STOP unfairly favoring taxpayer subsidized, junior water right holding, toxin-leaching land-owning, poverty-wage paying corporate agribusinesses over family farms and fishermen elsewhere in the state. Let’s support Delta farmers and salmon by taking a common sense approach to the biggest problems and prioritize Delta levee repair and retiring irrigated farmlands in Westlands Water DIstrict that send toxic selenium into the Delta.

    Posted by Salmon Water Now! (@SalmonWaterNow) | December 12, 2012, 10:24 pm
  2. Nicely written.
    This article clearly conveys the frustrations and the root causes of that frustration with the BDCP process.
    It feels like they are picking out the wall paper and curtains and refusing to design the foundation.
    There must be a compelling reason why virtually every exporter of water from the Delta has, to this juncture, adamantly opposed any Cost/Benefit analysis being done.
    My guess is it will illustrate the obvious.
    Massive contributions WILL be required of ratepayers and taxpayers to benefit/subsidize the largest recipients of water delivered by a Peripheral Canal/Tunnel.

    4% of the water diverted south from the Delta crosses the Grapevine.
    5% of the water diverted form the Delta goes to the Bay area.
    80% of all developed water in the State of California goes to Agriculture.

    These undisputed facts are not designed to be interpreted as “Anti Ag” rather they are an acknowledgement of who the beneficiaries of this VERY expensive project would be and convey the desire for a clear accounting of what subsidies are being proposed.

    In this time of economic difficulty, taxpayers and ratepayers are owed a clear picture of who is getting what and who is paying how much before ANY alternative is chosen.

    Given that the overwhelming majority of lawmakers have abdicated their oversight responsibilities the BDCP/Jerry Brown approach amounts to taxation without representation.

    This is not acceptable.

    Posted by Chris Gulick | December 12, 2012, 10:38 am

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