Viewpoints: Delta fix must include higher
flows, reduced water exports
Special to The Bee
Published Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012
Click here to read online.
In his State of the State Address, Gov. Jerry Brown committed to complete basic elements of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan this year. BDCP is an effort, started and paid for by water exporters, to obtain 50-year permits for operation of the giant federal and state water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of the vast San Francisco Bay estuary and the hub of the system distributing water from north to south.
No ecosystem in California is more imperiled than the Delta, where many native species are on the brink of extinction and where people and water supplies are at risk from levee failure.
Unfortunately, according to the state’s own analysis in its Feb. 29 draft plan, BDCP, by increasing the export of Delta water, would actually worsen Delta conditions. Because that analysis pulls its punches in many ways – BDCP has been severely criticized by scientific reviewers for lack of technical rigor – the likely impacts are even greater, including potential extinction of two or more species in the Delta.
The fact is that the proposed BDCP isn’t enough to solve the Delta problem because it doesn’t address two overriding factors: the urgent need of the Delta ecosystem for more fresh water and the equally urgent need of those who export massive amounts of Delta water to shift to more reliable, alternative water supplies. Sadly, the current approach will likely fail – with potentially tragic consequences for the Delta, our water supply and economy.
Can the governor get a Delta solution back on track? BDCP’s most publicized element is a canal or tunnel to carry water around the Delta. There are some good arguments that a new facility could protect the system from rising sea levels and levee failures. But BDCP’s most controversial issue is not the canal or tunnel itself but how much water to ship south – whether using a canal or the existing Delta pumps, or both. BDCP assumes exports would be increased for 50 years, while restoring wetland habitat to somehow offset further reducing freshwater flows.
We need to restore more wetlands – but independent scientific reviewers have panned BDCP repeatedly for overlooking inconvenient but compelling information about the critical role of flow for the Delta ecosystem. They have also confirmed that BDCP is unlikely to promote recovery of endangered species and habitats.
As proposed, it’s hard to believe that BDCP could get permits, that permits would survive legal challenges, or that voters would support funding the plan.
But a well-designed plan for an appropriately sized diversion ensuring that drinking water supplies are never cut off – while reducing the total amount of water exported to a sustainable level – might win backing from most Californians.
On average, half the natural freshwater flow in the watershed is diverted before reaching San Francisco Bay. The science is clear that Delta and Bay ecosystems cannot be restored without restoring a significant amount of those flows (along with many other important actions). Major water consumers – whether they export it through the massive Delta pumps or divert it further upstream – aren’t likely to volunteer to reduce withdrawals to help restore imperiled species and habitats or the fishing industry that depends on them. That’s why California must move aggressively to set stronger water quality standards – and adopt new policies in the Delta Stewardship Council’s overdue Delta plan – that increase freshwater flows to the Delta and the bay. We also must ensure that all water users – not just Delta exporters – are required to do their part in helping solve the problem. Securing higher flows is a prerequisite for BDCP’s success, because what’s left over defines the sustainable yield of water from the Delta.
We also must recognize that water supply needs south of the Delta cannot be met in the Delta alone. The Delta’s fragile levees and collapsing ecosystem make it a risky place in which to ground long-term water solutions. Potential new supplies from conservation, recycling, and other nontraditional sources are equivalent to about half of watershed withdrawals, more than enough to meet future needs. Unfortunately, the governor doesn’t appear to have a coherent plan to help exporters shift to alternative sources.
Everyone who cares about a healthy environment and a reliable water supply wants a successful and timely Delta solution. That’s why it’s so alarming that the governor’s well-intentioned efforts are in disarray. But he can still pull off a win for California’s ecosystems and the people and industries that depend on their health, if he’s willing to fix the BDCP, increase freshwater flows for the Delta, and use alternative supplies to wean major water consumers off the Delta.
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Gary Bobker is the program director at the Bay Institute, a group dedicated to the ecosystems of San Francisco Bay and its watershed.