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.”

Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta

Bay Delta Region Map
Bay-Delta Region

Delta water issues have been deeply contentious for over half a century.  To understand the recently released Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and its significance, here is a bit of historical context.

The Central Valley Project (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or “Bureau”) began exporting water from the Delta in 1951, and the State Water Project (Department of Water Resources or “DWR”) began larger-scale water exports to the south through the California Aqueduct in 1972.

In 1978, the State Water Resources Control Board (“Water Board”) adopted a water quality control plan that set standards for salinity control and protection of fish and wildlife.  The Water Board also made “Water Right Decision 1485,” which modified Bureau and DWR permits in order to comply with the new water quality standards.  The Bureau and DWR appealed the decision in United States v. State Water Resources Control Board (or for you water law buffs, the “Racanelli Decision”).

Save the Bay and the Environmental Defense Fund jointly submitted an amicus brief arguing that the public trust required a higher level of protection for the Bay-Delta.  One important holding in the case was that the public trust doctrine permits the Board to reconsider past water allocation decisions and to amend water rights if necessary to protect fish and wildlife.  The court also held that the Board’s water quality role is not to protect water rights, but “beneficial uses,” including domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial supply; power generation; recreation; aesthetic enjoyment; navigation; and preservation and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources or preserves.

To comply with the Racanelli decision, the Water Board worked in the late 1980’s to set stronger standards requiring greater flows to protect the estuary.  But the Water Board was directed to withdraw proposals in 1988 by Governor Deukmejian and in 1992 by Governor Wilson.

In the midst of all that was going on at the State Water Board, a statewide ballot initiative in 1982 proposed construction of a canal to convey water directly from Northern California to Central and Southern California, bypassing the Delta.  Save The Bay campaigned against the Peripheral Canal at the ballot box, and the initiative was defeated 63%-37%, with Bay Area counties voting against the canal by  more than 90% margins.

California experienced a six year drought from 1987 to 1992, intensifying the debate.  In 1992, Save The Bay and a coalition of organizations united as “Share the Water” helped draft and win enactment of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, one of the most significant water policy reforms in California history.  The federal law reallocated a portion of Central Valley Project water supplies to benefit fisheries and the ecosystem.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California signed an agreement to coordinate activities in the Delta – the Bay-Delta Accord.  The agreement set water quality standards and initiated a long-term planning process to improve the Delta and the reliability of its water supply.  Over the next ten years, this group of state and federal agencies known as “CALFED” worked together to formalize cooperation among state and federal agencies with management and regulatory responsibility in the Delta and agreed to work together on water quality standards, coordinate operations of the State Water Project and the Central valley Project, and work toward long-term solutions the Delta issues.

Fraught with complaints that CALFED was not accomplishing what it was created to do, in 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger called for an independent review of CALFED and in 2007, established a Blue Ribbon Taskforce to create a Delta Vision, a strategy for managing the delta sustainably to support environmental and economic functions.  In 2008, the strategic plan developed from the Delta Vision project articulated 12 recommendations, the first of which was that the ecosystem and a reliable water supply are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta.

In 2009, the State Legislature passed SBX71, the Delta Reform Act, which provides a framework to achieve the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply to California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem, while protecting the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta.
The Delta Reform Act created the Delta Stewardship Council, charged with creating a comprehensive management plan for the Delta – the Delta Plan, and tasked the Department of Water Resources with drafting a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  The BDCP will be incorporated into the Delta Plan if it complies with the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The Delta Reform Act also required the State Water Board to develop new flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem “for the purpose of informing planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.”  The Board’s 2010 report, Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, concluded that increased freshwater flows to the Bay are essential to protect fish and wildlife.  The EPA’s comment letter on the administrative draft of the BDCP observes that the options presented for analysis “appear to increase Delta outflow, despite the fact that several key scientific evaluations by federal and State agencies indicate that more outflow is necessary to protect aquatic resources and fish populations.”

For years, the State Water Board has attempted to set water quality and salinity standards that would increase fresh water flow to the Bay.  The Board’s 2010 report clearly states that “best available science suggests that current flows are insufficient.”  Save The Bay and many partner organizations are concerned that without increased freshwater flow to the Bay, the BDCP will not be a successful multispecies recovery plan.

Learn more about the BDCP in my blog “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1).”

Weekly Roundup | April 12, 2013

newspaperCheck out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay.

San Mateo Daily Journal 4/5/13
OP-ED: Imagine the Bay Area without CEQA
The two of us remember the challenges that faced our state before 1970, the year the California Environmental Quality Act was enacted. We are disturbed by recent proposals to weaken this landmark legislation, which has served as the cornerstone of California’s environmental protection laws.  While the challenges facing the environment are different today (in fact, they are probably even more difficult), the need for CEQA is as strong as it was in 1970. We cannot forget the reasons that led to our state’s hard-won environmental safeguards. Those reasons still exist.
Read More>>

Oakland Tribune 4/9/13
Reform of California’s Landmark Environmental Law is on Life Support
Proponents of what reformers call CEQA “modernization” appeared to be on track until Michael Rubio, a Democratic senator from Bakersfield who had been shepherding reform legislation as chairman of a key environmental committee, resigned from the Legislature six weeks ago to become a Chevron lobbyist. He was replaced by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who told this newspaper he’s open to improving CEQA but has “no desire to change the fundamental law passed 40 years ago.”
Read More>>

Capitol Weekly 4/9/13
Scaling down the big one?
The nature of one of the most ambitious public works projects in California’s history resides in the detail.  And more details are emerging.  The newly-released, preliminary planning documents for the $18 billion Delta tunnels project include a detailed analysis of how the plan would affect the Delta’s ecosystem and the 57 fish, wildlife and plant species that it’s designed to protect, plus additional details on how the project would be managed.
Read More>>

SF Examiner 4/7/13
Another piece of Presidio’s transformation coming together
The southern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge will be completely transformed when it’s completed in 2015, and with it will come a new look for The City’s northern waterfront.  The rebuild of Doyle Drive is bringing new parkland and pedestrian access between Crissy Field and the Main Post of the Presidio, a former Army base. The seismically unsafe roadway is being replaced by a pair of tunnels, and they will be covered with greenery.
Read More>>

Redwood City-Woodside Patch 4/8/2013
Pedestrian Bridge to Inner Bair Island to Open Mid-April
The Inner Bair Island pedestrian bridge, and a small poriton of the trail, is set to open within the next couple of weeks, according to Eric Mruz, refuge manager for the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The project has been in the works for the past few years and is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to restore 1,400 acres of Bair Island to its natural condition as tidal wetlands.  Mruz said there will most likely be a ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with a talk about the restoration, with involvement from the project’s partners.  A big event will happen in the fall or spring once the rest of the graveled trail opens and the work crew finishes constructing two viewing platforms, he said.
See photos of the progress here>>