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Scaled-Down Plans to “Fix and Restore”

by Joe Eaton

Surprising many observers, Governor Jerry Brown announced late in April that the Bay Delta Conservation Program, which had embraced the new water conveyance popularly known as the Twin Tunnels and a broad program for restoring the complex and heavily impacted Delta environment, was being split into two new entities: Cal WaterFix and Cal EcoRestore. This was followed
by the release of a Partially Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement spelling out the changes: on the conveyance side, reduction of the project foot- print and relocation of intakes, and the substitution of Section 10 of the federal Endangered Species Act for Section 7 as authority for permits; on the restoration side, a more modest goal of 30,000 acres, down from the original 100,000. (An additional 2,000 acres would mitigate for impacts from the construction of the tunnels.)

Early reactions to the swerve broke along predictable lines. Elected officials from the Delta region were strongly critical. “This flawed California WaterFix proposal that solely looks at a Delta plumbing fix does nothing to improve the Delta ecosystem or provide a more reliable water supply,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho.

“This project is not about restoring the environment,” commented US Representative John Garamendi (D- Walnut Grove). “California law requires meeting the co-equal goals of providing a reliable water supply and preserving the environment. The twin tunnels are about building a plumbing system that will suck the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta dry and damage water quality in the San Francisco Bay.”

From the other camp, Jeffrey Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District hailed “the bold leadership of Governor Brown in pursuing this necessary project,” and Californians for Water Security, a coalition of business and farm groups, expressed “strong support” for the new direction. Responses from other interested parties, notably the State Water Contractors, were tepid.

The Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick sees the decoupling of the water and restoration components as an explicit retreat from the dual goals enshrined in the 2009 Delta Reform Act: “A fundamental part of the whole program has been the idea of linking reliable water delivery for humans and the health of the Delta. It seemed a core principle of what we were trying to do.” The restoration element, he says, may have kept some potential opponents of the water conveyance on board, and its retrenchment “may make it harder for a broad coalition to support the project.”

One recurring theme in reaction to the changes was that the science supporting large-scaled restoration was flawed—too uncertain 
to allow for 50-year guarantees. According to Dan Ray of the Delta Stewardship Council, the decision
 to scale back restoration “reflects
 a recognition that agreement on a comprehensive, enforceable, long term science-based plan for Delta ecosystem restoration isn’t feasible now. The science is too spotty and the future, especially with climate change, is too uncertain to ensure priority fish and wildlife species can be recovered.” Similar views have been voiced by Fish and Wildlife head Chuck Bonham (“It was not possible to provide a 50-year certainty, both on the water supply front and on the species protection front”) and Department of Water Resources head Mark Cowin (“The uncertainty that exists within the scientific community regarding just what it’s going to take to recover specific species is tremendous right now.”)

ScaledDownThousands of greater sandhill cranes (state endangered) and lesser sandhill cranes (state species of special concern) winter in the Delta. Plans for construction of the tunnels have been modified to reduce impacts to Staten Island, a Nature Conservancy preserve with important habitat for greater sandhills. Photo: Dave Harper

Geologist Jeffrey Mount, now with the Public Policy Institute of California, sees merit in this argument: “The scientific community has not delivered enough understanding of the Delta and how it works in ways that we can mesh it closely with water operations.” In particular, Mount says, the early consensus view that populations of species like the Delta smelt were limited by food resources and that restoring tidal marshes would help restore those populations by creating food for them has not held up well. One problem was getting that food to the fish, past a gauntlet of invasive clams and other consumers. “The underly
ing approach of the BDCP was to substitute physical habitat for water, allowing us to continue to take water out of the Delta at the current rate,” he adds. “We now know the magnitude and temperature of flows is important. Cool abundant water produces a measurable response
in fishes. But in a year like this you can’t cool off the water or produce a wet-year outflow. The uncertainty ran headlong into the requirement of the water contractors to have a 50-year permit, a guarantee of the amount of water that can be exported from the Delta. It’s not clear that you could meet the recovery goals with the conditions as set in that permit. The contractors wanted certainty and the scientific community couldn’t provide it.”

In addition to reducing the restoration footprint, Cal EcoRestore moves away from the concept of a Habitat Conservation Plan under Section 10 of the federal Endangered Species Act in favor of a species-specific approach under Section 7. Under Section 7, as Bonham told a State Senate committee, “the projects will be managed on a continual basis against a threshold of jeopardy, and if things change, you’ve got initiation of reconsultation, and potential for adaptive management right there,” as with the existing Biological Opinions for Delta smelt and salmonids. If flexibility is gained by this change, a comprehensive ecosystem perspective may be lost. “Governor Brown did this for very pragmatic reasons,” says Mount. “But you lose one of the really big benefits that’s lost on most of the people who’ve been fighting over it. There are a lot of aspects to the ecosystem: birds, insects, and plants, not just fishes. The beauty of the Natural Community Conservation Plans and Habitat Conservation Plans is establishing an ecosystem- based approach to management
that scrapes together all the listed species. That’s lost—there’s nothing for that right now. We’re back to what I and others have been highly critical of: a species-based management approach.” Carl Wilcox of Fish and Wildlife, a veteran of wetland restoration, foresees NCCPs and Habitat Conservation Plans in the Delta’s periphery taking up some of the slack, especially for species like the giant garter snake and sandhill crane.

Giant Garter Snake


Giant garter snake

Photo: Hanes Brian

EcoRestore is less ambitious
than the previous BDCP iteration in its acreage goals, but more ambitious in its three-year time frame— to some, unrealistically so. “The original 100,000-acre goal seemed unduly large,” says Mount. “There’s not enough high-quality habitat to make up that acreage. The smaller number is perfectly reasonable.”
He adds that much of it is already owned by the state or “friendly entities” like the State and Federal Water Contractors Agency, land trusts, and other nonprofits. But Mount calls the three-year schedule “wildly optimistic.” Even with the appointment of former Solano County Water Agency director David Okita as what Wilcox calls the “Restoration Czar” to coordinate efforts, Mount anticipates problems with steering permits through the Delta’s maze
of overlapping authorities. “There’s a call for increased coordination,”
he says. “That’s a code for a lot of meetings. It doesn’t translate to increased efficiency.”

Ray is more sanguine about getting it all done on time: “Many of these projects are close to breaking ground now. It will be a challenge but not impossible.” He says a new Delta Restoration Network, modeled after the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, is “developing a shared vision of how things fit together” and will generate a standard approach to to monitoring restoration. Wilcox also underscores “the state’s commitment to making things move forward” and points to projects already underway in the Yolo Bypass and the North Delta.

A related issue is the fate of specific initiatives on methylmercury, fish barriers, and other concerns that would have been part of the original restoration package. In his Senate testimony, Bonham said he wanted to put 21 orphaned conservation measures into an existing program: “I’m going to try and find a home for [each one], put it in programs, and get it in play.” Ray says he takes comfort from this assurance. “I take Bonham at his word, but I’m not sure what the new homes would look like,” says Mount.

If others claim the science supporting restoration was too uncertain to support 50-year guarantees, Gleick is less convinced: “The fact that the science is difficult should not be used to abandon the goal of ecosystem restoration.” He likens that argument to “hiding behind uncertainty to avoid action” on climate change. “The uncertainty about ecosystem restoration is no worse than the uncertainty about the economics of the entire project—not knowing what’s it’s going to cost and who pays for it,” he adds.

Save the Delta, the most vocal anti-tunnel group, warned that the “repackaging” would “waste up to $60 billion dollars without creating any new water, won’t help desperate communities during the drought, or fund innovative water conservation, stormwater capture, or water recycling projects that cities are eager to build for resilience in a changing climate.”

What happens next? According to Ray, the Delta Stewardship Council needs to determine whether Water- Fix and EcoRestore require amending the Delta Plan. At some point, the State Water Resources Control Board will consider applications for the conveyance’s new diversion points. Water contractors will assess their commitment to funding
 a project that now lacks long-term supply guarantees. Factor in the vagaries of weather and climate and the prospect of new faces in Sacramento after Brown’s term ends, and the one thing that’s certain is uncertainty.

NEXT STORY: Pivot-or-Pirouette

About the author

Joe Eaton writes about endangered and invasive species, climate and ecosystem science, environmental history, and water issues for ESTUARY. He is also "a semi-obsessive birder" whose pursuit of rarities has taken him to many of California's shores, wetlands, and sewage plants.

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