Water managers mull big changes to hot-button replumbing plan

  • NewsWater
  • by BPC Staff
  • on April 7, 2015


Water managers mull big changes to hot-button replumbing plan

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, April 6, 2015

California water managers are considering major changes to their long-standing plan to revamp the state’s main water hub, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, in the works for the last eight years, would re-engineer the delta so that water would be delivered to the state’s arid central and southern regions primarily via two 30-mile tunnels underneath the delta, rather than routed through it to pumps at the southern end. It also includes a massive amount of habitat restoration around the delta, aimed at compensating for past and future damages caused by the pumping and other activities.

State officials now are considering separating the project into two objectives: building the tunnels and restoring delta habitat, according to multiple sources. Separating them would eliminate the need for a sweeping, 50-year federal permit that has proven tricky, as federal agencies have heavily criticized the plan for its lack of specificity and potential to degrade water quality (Greenwire, March 13).

The head of the state’s Department of Water Resources confirmed to the Los Angeles Times on Saturday the agency is adjusting the plan but did not go into details.

“We are considering a lot of different ways of proceeding with the program,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin.

Officials have struggled to balance the tenets of water supply and environmental protection over their eight years of planning. They must satisfy both environmental and local delta interests that balk at the delta losing any more water, as well as the water contractors that would be paying for the tunnels with the expectation that they receive more water than they have in recent years.

Without the project, they say, the state’s water supply will remain vulnerable to cutbacks to protect endangered species as well as earthquakes that could crumble the delta’s mazelike system of levees, sending seawater inland.

The prospect of splitting the project up is alarming environmentalists. By disconnecting the two aims of the project, the tunnels would not need an overarching Habitat Conservation Plan under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, which would cover endangered species as well as dozens of other species that might become endangered. Instead, splitting the project would require a Section 7 permit for the pumps’ incidental killing of listed species, which include the threatened delta smelt and endangered chinook salmon.

Over the past several years, the state has tweaked the project in a number of ways to mollify opponents, including reducing the capacity of the tunnels and replacing pumps at the northern end with a gravity-fed conveyance structure (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2014). The latest change is sure to provoke much more controversy.

“With no HCP, the covered species list will be much shorter,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a nonprofit composed of fishing, farming, development and environmental interests. “Species like the greater sandhill crane, which are only state-listed, may see rollbacks in protections.”

DWR is “working at the behest of a few powerful interests without regard for the environment, the public interest, the public’s desire or the need for a different approach to policy in the face of climate change,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

The water agencies that would be paying for the tunnels appear to remain committed to the BDCP but are getting impatient with the pace of planning. One potential customer is the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA), which has provided about $30 million of the total $240 million in planning costs so far.

“What’s kind of ironic, frankly, about that, is that $240 million has been spent on creating a pile of paper without turning a bit of dirt, which from an engineering standpoint is very surprising,” said KCWA’s assistant general manager, Curtis Creel. KCWA is the largest agricultural contractor of the State Water Project, receiving about a million acre-feet per year in a normal year.

Because of the state’s drought, KCWA’s water deliveries have been cut this year by 80 percent, increasing its customers’ expenses for extra supplies and possibly making it harder for it to keep footing the bill for the plan.

“Limits in water supply will impact the economic viability of the county and therefore impact the ability of all of those water districts to be able to contribute toward any kind of planning effort,” Creel said.

“The state has terminated the Habitat Conservation Plan approach but that has not ended the need to fix our broken water system,” said Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, another contractor that has been funding the plans. “We will continue to seek balanced regulatory approaches that actually do some good for the fisheries while rebuilding the social and economic fabric of the Central Valley. Our first priority is to make the existing water system actually work and serve the needs of the people and the environment.”

A former state official who was closely involved with the project said it could still move forward without an HCP but warned that the state will need to ensure habitat is protected.

“My view is that it is not important what mechanism is used [Habitat Conservation Plan or just ordinary compliance with the state and federal endangered species acts],” said Jerry Meral, former deputy secretary at the state Natural Resources Agency who is now director of the California water program at the nonprofit Natural Heritage Institute. “But it is critical that the habitat protection and enhancement elements of BDCP be funded and implemented, along with construction of the tunnels.”