Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1)

Today's Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.
Today’s Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.

The California Delta is a system of waterways and islands at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and is connected to the Bay through the Carquinez Strait.  The land of the Delta is largely agricultural, much of it reclaimed and protected by a series of levees.  All of California depends on the Delta in one way or another.  The Delta supplies water for 25 million people and crucial habitat for land and water species unique to this ecosystem.  It supports the economy as a nursery for salmon, a deep water shipping channel, a water supply to Delta and Central Valley farms, and a tourism destination.

Governor Jerry Brown released the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) on December 9, re-igniting the long-standing debate over what to do about the Delta.  The 34,000+ page plan stems from the 2009 Delta Reform Act, which directed the Department of Water Resources to create a “multispecies conservation plan.”  The plan includes 22 conservation measures aimed at improving water operations, protecting water supplies and water quality, and restoring the Delta ecosystem within a stable regulatory framework.

The most controversial part of the plan is Conservation Measure 1, Water Facilities and Operation, a plan to divert fresh water from the Delta that currently moves through it.  The State proposes to develop and operate three new intakes from the Sacramento River and build massive tunnels underneath the Delta to divert up to 9,000 cubic feet per second of fresh water.

The Problem

Pre-1800’s, most of the Delta was a tidal wetland, nearly 60% submerged by daily tides.  In the 1800’s European settlers began farming in the Delta, diking and draining these previously flooded lands.  Today, the Delta has been altered by a system of manmade levees, reservoirs, and dredged waterways.  Natural flows have been altered by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, which deliver water to Central and Southern California.  The 1,100 miles of levees in the Delta are vulnerable to seismic activity and breaches.  Land subsidence makes flooding in Delta farms and communities more likely and more devastating, with most of the Delta at 5 to 25 feet below sea level.  A decline in fish populations, like the endangered Delta Smelt, is likely due to a combination of increased mortality at pumping facilities, a decline in habitat and water quality, and reduced food availability due to invasive species.

The “Solution”

The Delta Reform Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, established the framework to “achieve the two coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta Ecosystem.”  The Act tasks the Department of Water Resources with creating a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The Concerns

Opposition to the BDCP comes in many forms, from many perspectives. Those who rely on the Delta for water, like the City of Antioch, worry about the negative impacts to their water supply, including increased salinity, if more water is exported or if the water is diverted before flowing through the Delta.  Delta farmers are concerned about construction impacts and habitat restoration that displaces agriculture.  Environmentalists want to make sure that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan decisions are based on science and have a high likelihood of improving populations of endangered fish and other species.  Many interests are concerned about the $25 billion cost estimate for the plan.

Save The Bay is concerned that the BDCP and the science used to inform the plan do not adequately analyze its impacts on San Francisco Bay.  The Bay and Delta are an interconnected ecosystem.  A healthy San Francisco Bay depends in large part on fresh water from the Delta, which improves Bay water quality and provides healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, including the many endangered and threatened species that live in the Bay and along its shoreline.  The 2011 State of the Bay report attributed declining fish populations in the Bay to continued low annual freshwater flows as water is diverted from the Delta and its rivers.

We are working with a broad coalition to formulate a response to the BDCP – the public comment period ends on April 14, 2014.  We’ll keep you posted.

Want to learn more about Bay-Delta governance?  Read my blog entitled “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta.”