Editorial: Water contractors need to get real

Published: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Managing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta means managing expectations. So far, Gov. Jerry Brown and his water team are struggling spectacularly in that task.

Since taking office, Brown has re-doubled the state's efforts to complete the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This proposal, launched and financed by water contractors south of the Delta, seeks to give them a 50-year "no surprises" permit to continue diverting water from the estuary.

To get this permit, the water contractors will have to lay out scientifically defensible steps for improving populations of imperiled fish in the Delta. Some of these steps include restoring wetlands. Even more ambitious is a plan to build a canal or tunnel to divert water 45 miles around or under the estuary. In concept, such a canal or tunnel would relieve the need to operate the big pumps that now pull water out of the Delta near Tracy, killing fish directly and disturbing natural water flows.

Despite considerable pressure to oppose it, this editorial board has kept an open mind on the Brown-led BDCP, partly because the alternatives look so much worse. The status quo has led to declining fish populations, disruptions of water supply and efforts by water exporters to roll back federal environmental laws and stake a claim to even more water from Northern California.

Yet if BDCP is going to succeed, it has to be based on reality, not fantasy.

To date, the contractors driving the process – Westlands Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Kern County Water Agency – are living in a dream world. They seem to have an expectation that BDCP can provide them with even more Delta water – more than the record high pumping of the previous decade – and that federal and state agencies will sign off on such a plan as "fish friendly."

That was apparently the expectation when the contractors and the Brown administration completed an "effects analysis" in February that was then reviewed by regulators.

The reviews were not encouraging. Federal wildlife agencies issued "red flag" warnings that the proposed project could further endanger certain fish. Because of those warnings, state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told his federal counterparts on May 3 that a draft environmental impact statement on the project will need to be delayed for as long as two months, to mid-to-late July.

How did the contractors respond? Some were apoplectic. Kern County Water Agency threatened to drop its funding for BDCP if Mark Cowin, the newly confirmed director of the Department of Water Resources, didn't unilaterally use his authority to adopt Kern's "preferred project." To his credit, Cowin has declined to do so, aware of the need to operate within legal and scientific bounds.

It is time for Kern and other water contractors to start living in the real world. That means they can't keep drawing ever more water out of an estuary in collapse and claiming that flows don't matter much for the life cycle of fish. The National Research Council, among other scientific bodies, has made clear that minimum flows are essential for fish recovery, especially during dry years.

What these contractors should be seeking is what state law calls for – better reliability of water deliveries, not more total supply. Properly designed and operated, a canal or tunnel could be a better environmental alternative than the current Delta pumps and would likely save water exporters from the huge dips in deliveries they currently experience.

But if exporters see BDCP as a conduit for hoarding more water than ever, the project will face overwhelming opposition, get tripped up in the courts and be a waste of six years and $150 million in planning.

The task now falls on Brown to manage expectations his team has so far failed to corral. If he can't, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is doomed.

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