Independent review questions some conclusions of Bay Delta plan

September 20, 2013 7:34am
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•  Bases report on BDCP-provided data

•  Does not assess the cost

•  UPDATED 2nd paragraph to clarify relationships

A review of part of the massive, 15,000-page draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan by a panel of independent scientists questions its ultimate success in meeting some of the “co-equal” requirements of protecting the Delta and its wildlife and providing a reliable water supply.

The scientists, led by Jeff Mount, formerly with the University of California, Davis, were hired by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation for the study. This allowed for "the panel's full independence" from American Rivers and the Nature Conservancy, Mr. Mount notes. The two groups released the report, noting that the report does not represent the position of American Rivers or the Nature Conservancy.

“The status quo condition in the Delta is unacceptable, and without action, will result in the inexorable decline of the Delta ecosystem and the species it supports,” the report says. (Cover letter)

The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan covers a wide range of issues ranging from water supply, new facility construction, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem management, governance and costs. At its heart if a plan pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration to build massive twin water tunnels, stretching 30-35 miles some 150 feet beneath the Delta tosiphon off fresh water from the Sacramento River before it flows naturally into the Delta. The water would be sent to the state’s two irrigation systems: the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Funding for the tunnel project would supposedly come from those buying the water they conveyed. The cost, not examined in the Mount report, has been estimated at as much as $54 billion when interest on the needed loans is included. Those buying the water would be free to resell it for whatever price they could get.

If approved, the plan would become a habitat conservation plan under the federal Endangered Species Act and a natural communities conservation plan under California law, the Mount report says.

The purpose of the plan is to allow for construction of new water diversion facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while also protecting aquatic and terrestrial species that may be adversely affected by the project and accompanying changes in the State Water Project and Central Valley Project operations, the report says.

But would the massive public works project actually work?

“Export operations are highly constrained by upstream consumptive uses, regulations that cover reservoir operations, and flow and water quality standards,” the Mount report says. “This greatly limits the anticipated benefit associated with operation of the dual facilities.” (Page 3)

During “wet” years, there could be an increase in the amount of water exported via the governor’s twin tunnels, the report says. But “in most dry years there are no substantial changes” over doing nothing, it says. (Page 3)

The report also questions if endangered wildlife in the Delta will be well-served by the construction of the tunnels and associated efforts. “Mitigation actions are unlikely to contribute significantly to recovery of these species,” the report says. “Additionally, successful mitigation is likely to occur only if there is a robust adaptive management and real-time operations program. The Plan provides neither.” (Page 3)

One type of fish, the small, minnow-like Delta smelt, would be unlikely to see any robust rebuilding of its population, the report says.

“Based on simple modeling and comparison with other systems, we find that restored floodplains and tidal marshes are unlikely to make a significant contribution to smelt rearing habitat conditions,” it says. “Tidal marshes can be sinks or sources of food, with most appearing to be sinks for zooplankton. The Plan appears to be too optimistic about the benefits of tidal marsh and floodplain restoration.” Pages 3 and 4)

Mr. Mount’s report also cautions that the authors “do not endorse or reject the Plan. We only assess effectiveness of various conservation measures, guided by narrowly targeted questions.” (Page ii of preface)


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