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.
“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
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.
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.