California releases initial draft chapters of plan to restore delta and guarantee water supply

FRESNO, Calif. – California water officials released on Thursday the first part of a $23 billion plan to restore and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and guarantee a stable water supply for millions of Californians.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, known as the BDCP, is a federal and state initiative financed by California’s water contractors, which includes recommendations for a twin tunnel project in the delta to carry water to vast farmlands and thirsty cities.

Disagreement over the 50-year plan has renewed the state’s water wars, with officials and water contractors saying it will reverse the decline of threatened fish species and guarantee stable water deliveries, while some environmentalists and delta activists counter it will actually lead to further fish declines.

The plan’s first four chapters, released by the California Resources Agency, spell out the dismal state of the delta and detail conservation strategies to restore its dwindling fish species.

The chapters include a description of the proposal unveiled by Gov. Jerry Brown in July: the 35-mile twin underground tunnel project that would replace the delta’s current pumping system. The project would have a total capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second and include three intake pipes. It would cost $14 billion to construct and $5.8 billion to operate and maintain over the 50 year life of the plan. Construction and operation costs would be covered by water contractors.

The chapters also describe more than 200 biological goals and objectives for 57 fish and other species — such as the growth rates of individual fish and overall increases in a species’ population — which will guide implementation of the plan over coming decades.

Officials acknowledge the plan does not guarantee specific water supply deliveries — those will be dictated by the health of the species. That means if species don’t recover or don’t recover quickly enough, less water would be pumped, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency.

Officials also say it’s currently not known how much outflow is needed for the recovery of fish species, or how habitat restoration will affect that balance. Scientific studies would accompany construction over the next 10 to 15 years, officials said.

But without the plan, officials said, species will continue to decline and regulations will further curtail water deliveries, which is unacceptable for California’s economy.

The State Water Project and Central Valley Project currently pump water from the delta to 25 million people and to 3 million acres of farmland. But in recent years, as fish populations continued to plummet, federal management plans have limited the amount of water that can be pumped from the delta in order to protect fish species.

In addition to the twin tunnels, the plan also calls for creation of more than 100,000 acres of new habitat — floodplains, tidal marshes and grasslands — at a cost of $3.2 billion, to be paid by taxpayers; 30,000 acres of that habitat would be created in the next 15 years.

Water agencies praised the release of the chapters Thursday, calling the plan a “milestone” in solving the state’s water crisis.

“The BDCP is likely our best opportunity to put California on a path to retool our water system for the 21st century,” Timothy Quinn, executive director of the statewide Association of California Water Agencies, said in a statement.

Proponents say the twin tunnels, coupled with new habitat, would improve the delta ecosystem, protect the delta from levee failures and earthquakes, and strengthen the state’s water supply.

That’s because the twin tunnels would take water in the north of the delta, on the Sacramento River, preventing threatened fish such as salmon and delta smelt from travelling toward and getting caught up in the deadly pumps in the south, as they do today, proponents said. The project would also come with state-of-the-art fish screens.

Critics say the project is too costly and could harm delta species and damage the delta’s agriculture. The proposed tunnels would syphon even more water out of the estuary, said delta activist Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, and it’s not known how tunnel construction or habitat conservation will actually affect the delta ecosystem.

“They’re moving ahead with implementing conservation projects and proposing a multi-billion dollar tunnel that’s really going to be highly experimental,” said Barrigan-Parrilla, who leads the anti-tunnel group Restore the Delta. “They don’t know how the science and technology work yet.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said her group plans a public information campaign to fight the tunnel project, including public service announcements, television commercials, and collecting endorsements from groups throughout the state who oppose the plan. Restore the Delta has even made a documentary film that details efforts to stop the building of the tunnels — showing it at a few theatres, festivals and in private screenings.

Salmon organizations also oppose the plan, said Richard Pool with the Golden Gate Salmon Association. The state should first calculate how much water is needed to rebuild salmon runs, he said. And, he added, the technology for fish screens that would protect migrating baby salmon from being killed has yet to be developed.

In January, half a dozen urban water agencies and environmental groups asked the state to downsize the tunnel project to a single tunnel with a smaller water intake capacity. A small tunnel, coupled with investments such as water recycling and desalination, they argued, would deliver enough water and cost half of what the proposed twin tunnels would.

That proposal was heavily criticized by agricultural groups, who said a scaled-down water conveyance would be devastating to farmers in central California, who rely on the delta to irrigate thousands of acres of crops.

State officials said they plan to release other chapters of the BDCP in March and April. They hope to release a full final draft of the plan and its environmental review in July, when it will be open to public comments. The plan still needs state and local approval before construction and habitat preservation work can begin.

Officials say they will continue to weigh different alternatives and project sizes. If the plan is approved, permits are expected to be issued next year and construction could start in two to three years. It would take at least 10 years to build the twin tunnels.