The Bay Delta Conservation Project: What is it Conserving?

By Madi Whaley
Flapjack Chronicle

The Bay Delta Conservation Project released the new Draft Environmental Impact Report for public viewing on Monday, Dec. 9.   This plan had previously raised controversy on the grounds that it may pose serious threats to endangered fish species in the Delta.  The new draft is meant to assuage some of these worries.

“This would be the nail in the coffin, extinguishing at least two of those five species,” Bob Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River, says of the previous draft.

The proposed plan would create water diversions further north in the Delta, which would alter the concentrations of salts in the water, which according to environmentalists, would essentially exposing the fish to waters they are not adapted to.  There are other possible methods of obtaining fresh water and the plan falters a bit in practicality because of the possible effects of climate change, so whether or not this is really the best idea is still being debated.

“[This is] what we view to be simply an unlawful process going on, particularly in violation of the Endangered Species Act,” Wright says.

Friends of the River believe the original project poses threats to five listed endangered species of fish.  This includes the Sacramento River Winter Run and Summer Run Chinook Salmon, Central California Coast Steelhead, the Green Sturgeon, and the Delta Smelt.  Construction of the tunnels could lead, Wright believes, to the extinction of at least 2 of those 5 species.

It remains to be seen whether or not some of the following concerns will be assuaged.

The proposed plan calls for the restoration and protection of about 145,000 acres of Delta habitat.  Carl Wilcox, policy advisor to the director for the Delta at California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is working on the plan for habitat restoration.

“The BDCP has 214 goals and objectives and those are at the natural community landscape and species levels, and consequently its conservation measures are designed to those in particular,” explains Wilcox

Nevertheless, the BDCP has received a hefty amount of criticism from various groups outside of the project who believe it could actually have detrimental effects on the delta habitat it proposes to protect.

“The advantage from the proponent’s side is that if water was diverted from the northern part of the delta there could be more effective screens to keep fish out of the diversions,” Jonas Minton, water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League and former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, says.

Minton explains that the current diversions are in the South Delta, which is essentially a slough.  Because of this, the fish sucked into that area generally die.

However, the project may not render the effect that it is looking for.

“The problem in placing a diversion in the north delta is that it would keep that amount of fresh water from mixing,” Minton says.  “The Delta is an estuary, where ocean water and fresh water mix.”

He went further to say that creating diversions in the North Delta would therefore likely change the salinity of the water.

“Fish species have evolved over the years from that mixed condition,” Minton says.  “Because the fish are native only to the delta, when you alter that salinity mix, it is quite possible that these fish will not be able to survive.”

Another less prominent concern is that of the endangered Sandhill Cranes.  The tunnels will be dug under Staten Island, which serves as a home for many Sandhill Cranes during the winter. Jane Wagner-Tyack, policy analyst at Restore the Delta, believes the “disturbance of Staten Island is going to be very bad for the Sandhill Cranes.”

The effects that climate change may have on undergoing this project is yet another issue to take into account.  Seeing as it is unlikely that we will be able to accurately predict the hydrological cycle in future decades, preparing for changes creates a potential problem.

Chris Austin, author of Maven’s Notebook, believes that climate change will be a sure obstacle in the creation of and the possible enactment of the plan.

“Climate change is definitely the big game changer,” Austin says.  “[It is] mostly incorporating sea level rise. They’re proposing to restore a lot of habitat but there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether that habitat is going to improve things.”

Wagner-Tyack and many other environmentalists agree.

“One thing that is pretty clear is that in California we have drought a third of the time,” Wagner- Tyack says.  “It’s a routine… When you add he uncertainty that is associated with climate change, it’s very hard to know how a system will be operated either for export use or for the ecosystem when we really don’t know.”

However, according to Wilcox, the potential impacts of climate change are being taken into account in the plan.

“What you see is that with climate change, with maintaining the status quo, water supply and the species get worse,” Wilcox says.   “[That] is accounted for in the modeling.”

The BDCP is challenged by many of those opposed to it who feel as though it only serves to benefit big agriculture in Southern California rather than the urban areas.

“It’s called a conservation plan,” Wright says.  “No, no, no.  It’s not a conservation plan.   It’s a water grab… Our point of view is that all this water is, is for subsidized, big ag.   That they’re the ones who want the giant tunnels, and they want the water, and they also want to be free to sell it to others.”

However, getting water supply to farmers may truly be a necessity.

“Its hard to paint agriculture as the big bad guy,” Austin says.  “We’re going to need more food for all these people that are going to be coming onto the planet.”

The proposal, made under the Brown administration, has become a controversy between the interest of agriculture and environmental advocates.  It would transport water from the Sacramento Delta to big agriculture and urban areas in Southern California via two large aqueduct tunnels.  It is expected to cost about $25 billion and require an estimated 50 years to complete.

Thus, with alternative water supply options, the question of whether or not the plan is necessary has been brought up for debate.  Some feel as though diverting water over such long distances could be an inefficient method of transporting water to Southern California.

The effectiveness of groundwater clean up and usage in Southern California is already being demonstrated by Irvine Ranch Water District.  Therefore, with the urban population in mind along with agricultural businesses, it is seen by some environmentalists as an inefficient way to get water to those in Southern California.  Many, like Minton and Wagner-Tyack, believe other methods, such as recycled water, cleaning and using groundwater, and creating storm water traps would be more sustainable and efficient ways to give Southern Californians good water.

“What we really need to be doing is investing in local infrastructure,” Wagner-Tyack says.

The Delta supplies water for 22 million people in California.  It also has over 1,800 agricultural users and supports about 500 plant and animal species.

“The delta needs to have more water running through it,” Austin says.  “Only a small portion of the water from the delta is exported—far more is actually diverted before it ever gets to the delta.  No one wants to give up their water, but the delta needs more outflow…  I think, truly, everyone needs to give something up for that. We could do better, certainly, on the conservation, and we need to.”

Still, the hope of the BDCP is to induce conservation efforts through implementation of the project.

“As the species have continued to decline, water supply reliability from the project has declined,” says Wilcox.  “So BDCP decides to look at things more holistically.”

With such a polarized issue, it may be difficult to find common ground between both sides.  However, action will be taken in some form.  What that form looks like might be different from what both sides have been hoping for.

“When you get down to the nitty gritty, maybe it’s not so bad,” Austin says.  “The answer’s always somewhere in the middle of the road.”

The new draft is now available for viewing and will be open for Public Comment from Dec.13 to Apr. 14, 2014 at


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