A new future for the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was laid out for public review Monday in 34,000 sprawling pages of analysis associated with two giant water-diversion tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The question now for the public and policy makers: Is this the future they want?
The California Department of Water Resources released the draft documents as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a proposed $25 billion project to resolve decades of conflict between water demand and wildlife habitat in the estuary at the heart of the state. The documents – a habitat-conservation plan and environmental-impact study – launch a formal public review period that will lead to a decision on the proposal by the end of 2014.
Although the Delta plan has been in the works for seven years and revealed in preliminary form on several occasions, the documents released Monday are the first complete look at the official project proposed for construction.
“We consider it a major milestone,” said DWR director Mark Cowin. “We think we’ve made some very positive revisions in this plan. We think it’s a complete proposal and a good plan at this point.”
Although the documents released Monday are enormous, many questions remain unanswered. Some long-term financing details are left to future political actions, for example, and how much water the tunnels ultimately divert depends on a scenario to be chosen later.
Overall, the goal is to simultaneously improve wildlife habitat and stabilize water supplies from the estuary, a source of water for 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland from San Jose to San Diego. Population growth, imperiled fish species and climate change have made that water supply increasingly vulnerable, and the project aims for a comprehensive fix.
At the core of the project is a pair of water tunnels, 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter. They would divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow at three new intakes, proposed in Sacramento County between Freeport and Courtland. The tunnels alone are projected to cost $15 billion, which would be funded by the water agencies that benefit.
Another $10 billion would go into habitat-restoration projects, funded largely by taxpayers, including 100,000 acres of habitat restoration to benefit 57 imperiled species, including Delta smelt, chinook salmon, sandhill cranes and Swainson’s hawks.
Water agencies that stand to benefit from the plan have already allocated $240 million to get the project to this point, most of which has been spent. The Bee reported Saturday that another $1.2 billion will be needed to complete the planning before construction can start. This money has already been accounted for in the $15 billion cost of the tunnels.
Altogether, it is the most ambitious and expensive water-development and habitat project ever proposed in California. And it’s clear from the documents released Monday that many details of how it will work still have to be resolved.
For instance, one vital question – how much water the new tunnels will divert – is being deferred for a much later decision. The state proposes a “decision tree” process that postpones the decision to an uncertain date before construction of the tunnels is complete, after additional scientific analysis and regulatory review.
Instead, it offers two options that illustrate likely extremes: a high-outflow scenario and a low-outflow scenario. The former assumes wildlife officials order more unrestricted flow through the Delta to benefit wildlife, and allow less water to be diverted into the new tunnels. The latter assumes less natural flow and more diversions.
At issue in that choice is the still-disputed question of how much free water flow is needed to sustain endangered species like Delta smelt and juvenile salmon, which evolved in a Delta very different from today’s highly altered environment.
State and federal wildlife agencies have indicated they will approve only the plan with the high-outflow scenario. But the plan calls for that decision to be reviewed before the tunnels become operational – in 2027, at the earliest – if research demonstrates outflow can be reduced without harming the estuary. To some extent, this outcome depends upon whether the initial phases of habitat restoration are successful in breeding more fish.
Environmental and fishing groups maintain more natural outflow is necessary to sustain and improve the Delta’s fish species, and they’ve been critical of the proposal to delay a decision.
“I say twin 40-foot tunnels, big enough to dry up the Sacramento River at most times of the year, can’t be good for salmon no matter what,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
The project does not propose diverting the entire flow of the river. It will be capable of diverting water at 9,000 cubic feet per second, a maximum capacity that would be reached only during wet seasons, according to the plan. There are other conditions in which the project would divert less but still a sizable share of the Sacramento River’s flow.
Some of the most significant changes would occur in sections of the river near Walnut Grove, an area downstream of the proposed tunnel intakes. Computer modeling estimations buried deep in Appendix 5 of the draft plan show the effect. River flows would be reduced at least 10 percent in nearly every month of the year compared to flows that would occur without the tunnels in place. In summer months, river flows would drop between 20 and 25 percent. The estimates are made based upon assumptions for the year 2060.
To water diverters, convincing regulators to set aside the high-outflow scenario may be crucial to the project’s financial success. At a recent meeting of the Westlands Water District, a major Delta water consumer in the San Joaquin Valley, officials were told there are slim benefits under the high-outflow option, which commits more water to outflows for habitat purposes, and less for diverters like Westlands. In short, the cost of the tunnels may not justify the limited water benefits.
“Does it pencil out under high-outflow scenario?” wondered Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager at Westlands. “My gut is that it simply wouldn’t work. My prayer is that the fishery regulators recognize what the implications of that swing are for whether we have a viable project or not.”
The intent of the new tunnels is to reduce reliance on the existing diversion works, which consist of separate state and federal pumping systems near Tracy. These diversion works, about 50 years old, have been blamed for reversing natural water flows in the Delta and altering aquatic habitat. They do not have modern fish screens, and none are proposed now: They are located at a “dead-end” corner of the estuary, where modern fish screens are considered ineffective.
The three new intakes will be built with contemporary fish screens – basically plates of stainless steel spaced a quarter inch apart to exclude virtually all fish. These intakes are proposed to be used about 50 percent of the time, with the balance of diversions occurring at the existing pumps near Tracy, depending on conditions.
“Putting in place a modern system to create a more reliable water supply is crucial,” said Terry Erlewine, executive director of the State Water Contractors, which represents 29 agencies that buy Delta water from the state. “Currently, we’re crippled by outdated infrastructure and a regulatory environment that is hindering our ability to capture fresh water when it is abundant.”
Even with fish screens, federal wildlife officials remain concerned about the proposal. For instance, unless there is sufficient river flow past the new screens, fish could become trapped near them by the diversion pumps drawing water through the screens, making the fish more vulnerable to predators. This is a particular concern for young salmon migrating to the ocean.
“Those are some of the potential adverse affects we are concerned about and would be looking at closely,” said Maria Rea, Sacramento-region supervisor of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with protecting salmon.
Local officials north of the Delta have grave concerns that the project will affect water storage in reservoirs and flows that enhance recreation in area rivers. There is also the enormous potential impact on local communities in the Delta, which is described in various ways in the documents.
The decade-long construction process is projected to block traffic and depress economic activity, with potentially permanent effects on scenery and tourism resulting from the construction of new waterworks. Also, the estimated 100,000 acres of habitat restoration will involve taking farmland out of production, with potentially harmful effects on the economy. For the new waterworks infrastructure alone, an estimated 5,665 acres of farmland and open space will be permanently altered.
“We’re being asked to sacrifice family farms that have been in business for 150 years – not to help other family farms, but to continue shipping almonds and pistachios around the world,” said Bob Wright, an attorney at Friends of the River, in a reference to Westlands growers.
State officials have acknowledged the proposal comes with a heavy burden for Delta communities. Early last year, they significantly changed the tunnel route to reduce some of those harmful effects, and say they are ready to consider other changes during the public comment process, which begins Friday and runs through April 14.
“Ultimately, I think this comes down to a question for both California and the United States,” Cowin said. “Is this the program we all should be investing in?”