The first four of 12 chapters of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, released by the state Natural Resources Agency on Thursday, March 14, outline more than 200 biological goals and objectives, including increasing fish populations and restoring habitat to more than 100,000 acres.
The draft also contains details of a controversial project that would bore two 35-mile tunnels underneath the Delta to deliver water from Clarksburg, just southwest of Sacramento, to a federal pumping plant northwest of Tracy that supplies the Patterson area with much of its agricultural water via the Delta-Mendota Canal.
It would be one of the largest water infrastructure projects in the state’s history, costing an estimated $14 billion to construct.
Seeking a reliable supply
The Delta provides water for two-thirds of California’s population and much of the state’s agricultural economy, including the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.
A large portion of the agricultural water comes via the Delta-Mendota, a federally operated aqueduct.
The California Aqueduct, a similar canal run by the state, also delivers water to areas south of the Delta.
The proposed tunnels would transfer water to the pumping stations that feed those canals, bypassing the lower reaches of the Delta. According to the draft plan, that would help populations of endangered salmon and Delta smelt, which are often sucked into Delta-Mendota intake pumps near Tracy.
Water districts in the valley have dealt with major curtailments so far this year because of dry weather and pumping restrictions, as more than 250 Delta smelt have been found killed by the pumps.
Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said local contractors would not have lost out on 700,000 acre-feet of water this in place, though the draft plan does not include guarantees for water deliveries to state or federal water contractors.
Cowin and other state officials also stress that the plan is necessary because the thousands of miles of Delta levees that protect farmland and cities from flooding — and ensure fresh water reaches the pumps near Tracy — might not withstand major flooding or an earthquake.
Complex affair simplified
Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the draft plan has undergone substantial revisions since project highlights were revealed in late 2010.
The overall plan — estimated to cost $23 billion in its current form — has shrunk by 40 percent since that time, as has the scope of the tunnels, which would deliver 9,000 cubic feet of water per second rather than 15,000 cubic feet, as once proposed.
The number of intakes along the Sacramento River near Clarksburg has also decreased from five to three as the project has shrunk in scope.
The new draft plan also has far more specified biological goals, which Bonham described as measurable and actionable and which are required to be completed within a set time.
Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said many of the changes are the result of unprecedented cooperation of state and federal agencies.
Cost, supply questions remain
Dan Nelson — the executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which oversees delivery of federal Central Valley Project water to West Side irrigation districts, among other water contractors — said he still had questions about the project.
He noted that water supply issues and costs had yet to be addressed in the first few chapters of the draft document.
At the same time, he said the state had been transparent as officials developed the draft and had taken a monumental first step.
“It is a major milestone for the state to get those documents out on the street and for them to get them to the federal agencies so they can review them as part of the permitting process,” Nelson said.
Water users will have a major say in whether the plan goes forward, Nelson said, as state officials have said they will pay for the bulk of the infrastructure.
State officials at last week’s news conference said only about $4 billion in state and federal money will be put toward the project.
Environmentalists propose alternative
Resistance to the plan has arisen in several quarters, with opponents asking the state to consider other options.
Representatives of four environmental and two business groups — Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Contra Costa Council, The Bay Institute, Defenders of Wildlife and the Planning and Conservation League — wrote a letter to state and federal regulatory agencies in January asking officials to consider an alternative plan that would entail a smaller diversion facility in the north Delta.
The financial savings of such a plan, they argued, would allow more investment in local water sources, new water storage south of the Delta, levee improvements and habitat restoration.
“We sincerely believe that this conceptual alternative has the potential to produce superior benefits at a similar or lower cost to water users and the public,” the letter stated. “Because it is based on the best available science, we believe it would be more readily permittable. It also promises to deliver benefits more rapidly.”
Environmentalists have also argued that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan would actually harm the Delta’s ecosystem by depriving its lower reaches of fresh water, allowing an intrusion of salt water.
Farmers who pull water directly from the Delta have also protested the plan, saying any degradation of their water supply could cripple the area’s agricultural industry, which is a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.
Plan up for review
The second and third installments of the draft plan will be released Wednesday, March 27, and April 22. The full plan and a draft Environmental Impact Report will be released for formal public comment later this year.
Public meetings regarding the second and third portions of the draft plan will take place April 4 and April 29.
The first four chapters of the plan can be reviewed at http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/BDCPPlanningProcess/KeyAnnouncements.aspx
Contact the Patterson Irrigator at 892-6187, or email@example.com.