The price tag is up to nearly $25 billion, but the benefits are up, too, says the Brown administration as the state inches forward to launch an unprecedented project to move more northern California water south through a pair of tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

On Wednesday, the administration pegged the cost at $24.7 billion, about a billion dollars more than previously estimated. But the administration also said there would be $5 billion worth of benefits over the next five decades, reflecting a more reliable water supply, improved water quality and other improvements.

The revised cost figures came in the release of a final round of paper work surrounding the proposal which, if built, would be the costliest state public works project ever and about four times the $6.3 billion price tag of the new Bay Bridge.

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The project, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is the Brown administration’s plan to rescue the Delta’s ailing ecosystem while improving the reliability the water supplies that provide a portion of the drinking water for two-thirds of the state’s residents as well as irrigate 3 million acres of farmland. 

The cornerstone of the project is the construction of new water infrastructure facilities in the north Delta with twin, 35-mile tunnels to deliver Sacramento River water to the existing facilities in the south Delta. From there, water would flow through the Central Valley to southern California.

Proponents say the BDCP will restore the Delta’s ecosystem and secure the water supplies that underpin the state’s economy, while Delta advocates say that depriving the Delta of the freshwater supplies will turn the estuary into a salty inland sea and certainly mean the demise of the struggling fish populations.

The BDCP is the most comprehensive analysis of the Delta produced to date – a massive 30,000 pages that has been seven years in the making.  For the past several months, the administration has been rolling out the preliminary plan documents in stages.  Most recently, a long-anticipated preliminary draft environmental impact report (EIR) was released.  The document outlines the potential impacts of the BDCP on water supplies, water quality, agriculture, recreation, and other resources, as well as analyzes fifteen alternatives to the project. 
Agency officials say these documents are only preliminary and will certainly undergo changes as the project is refined over the next few months.  The administration is releasing these documents to give the public a chance to digest the details of the plan.  A draft for formal public comment and review is expected to be released Oct. 1.

At a recent hearing, Kern County Water Agency’s Brent Walthall told legislators that his agency is optimistic, but cautiously so.  The assurances that come with a habitat conservation plan are the primary goal, he said. 

“That increased certainty only comes with the regulatory agencies agreement and issuance of permits that the actions under the BDCP do contribute to the recovery of the species,” he said.  “Our goal is contribution to the recovery of species because it results in additional regulatory certainty.”

However, being primarily an agricultural water district, they need to be sure the costs are something they can afford.  “At this point, the costs are not too high.  They are higher than we are comfortable with, but at present, our growers are willing to stay in at the prices we’ve seen,” Walthall said.

The BDCP’s impacts on water quality are a key concern for those who draw water directly from the Delta and the newly released environmental documents give a first look at what those impacts might be.

Greg Gartrell of the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) said that the documents do show significant unavoidable impacts to water quality.  He explained that while the average change in water quality is small, periodically it can be severe which can have a big impact on the CCWD’s operations, including the ability to fill Los Vaqueros Reservoir.

“However, CCWD is very encouraged by the discussion of environmental commitments in the administrative draft that are directed toward mitigating those impacts, so we think that discussion is going in the right direction,” Gartrell said.

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli was critical of the plan, saying that building massive water conveyance facilities without the impacts being fully known and addressed is unacceptable.  

“Figuring out the details such as operational impacts and how much water is really available to export are not things to be figured out later,” he said.  “Neither is ignoring science, nor is leaving out those whose communities would be most affected.”

The recent doomsday predictions for the Delta are objectionable and inaccurate, and are being used to benefit the advancement of the BDCP, Nottoli added.   “Please make no mistake – the Delta is worth protecting and saving,” he emphasized.  “That is what the BDCP should be about.  Meeting the coequal goals and preserving, protecting and enhancing the Delta.”

The BDCP relies on extensive habitat restoration to offset the impacts of water exports and contribute to the recovery of covered species.  But while floodplain restoration has been shown to provide ecological benefits, Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the effects of tidal marsh restoration, a main component of the BDCP, are still highly uncertain.
“We believe we should be making improvements in habitat restoration, but ultimately we need to make sure that it is actually going to benefit the species when we are taking farmland and other land out of production.”

It isn’t really the size of the facilities but how the system would be operated that is important, said David Guy of the Northern California Water Association. “I think anybody jumping to a conclusion about what the size should be is not being intellectually honest,” he said.  “I think we need to look at the whole system and how it is operated, and we’re committed to doing that.”

Obegi said operations matter more than size when it comes to how much water would be exported.  “However, size really does matter from a cost perspective and it matters from a trust perspective,” he said.  “We’ve seen some of the project proponents of the BDCP supporting legislation in Congress that would preempt state law and eviscerate endangered species act protections in the Delta.  I think that it’s very difficult for the environmental community to support a BDCP project when there are these major threats to the fundamental underpinnings that would control operations.”

The ‘portfolio alternative’ that the NRDC and others are advocating calls for a smaller conveyance system and less habitat restoration with more focus on storage and development of regional supplies.  Obegi said they developed the portfolio alternative “because we saw an opportunity to get us on a better path, a path that does meaningfully reduce reliance on the Delta and invests in alternatives,” adding that he wasn’t sure if it was the right alternative, but it certainly deserved to be studied. 

“Unfortunately, none of the alternatives in the BDCP include any investments in local supplies, local storage or south of Delta storage, and they don’t include any investments in levee improvements,” he said, noting that maintaining the levees is critical as the BDCP will continue to rely on the south Delta pumps for at least half of the water exported, and much more than that in dry years. 
Guy said that the state needs to be thinking beyond the BDCP and towards being prepared for the next drought.  “We were blessed this year with carryover storage this year, but … we’re heading into what could be a very ugly situation in California if we don’t have carryover storage next year and we go into another dry cycle.”

Gartrell agreed, adding that if the dry cycle continues for two or three years, it will become brutally clear how much the state depends on storage and how badly more is needed.  “It helps not just water supplies but the coequal goals, and it allows us to get through these dry periods and provide water for fisheries and for human uses.”

Upstream water users continue to be concerned that the BDCP will affect their water rights.  “We’re regionally self-sufficient and we obviously want to be part of the Bay-Delta solution, but we don’t want to be sacrificed for the Bay-Delta,” said Guy.
Local participation in the development and governance remain a point of contention.  Supervisor Notolli called it disturbing that the Delta’s agricultural landscape would be transformed into an industrial complex while the local governments and Delta communities are relegated to the sidelines. “The Delta Counties Coalition has long advocated for full, fair, and effective participation of Delta counties in the BDCP’s development and implementation process, which includes decision making roles and voting membership in the governance body, and not just a token role as a member of an advisory stakeholder council,” said Nottoli.

Sen. Lois Wolk echoed Nottoli’s concerns about the lack of local participation.  “You will never solve this problem without the Delta interests being at the table,” she said.  “If you proceed along this vein, the deadline will come and go and there will be the same lack of resolution of the fundamental issues.”

Wolk said Senator Steinberg’s idea of a constitutional amendment to spell out operational rules for the proposed project has spurred discussion about assurances, and turning to the panelists, she then asked them what assurances or guarantees they would either support or need.

Patterson said that from Metropolitan’s point of view, “we would like to have assurances that if we make that kind of investment, the plan will be executed as it is laid out.”  Brent Walthall of the Kern County Water Agency agreed.  “Our decision to go forward will depend on the long term certainty of those regulatory controls.”

For the environmental community, the BDCP’s broad set of biological goals and objectives are seen as providing environmental assurances that are legally enforceable, said Obegi.  “It’s ensuring that those biological goals and objectives are permit conditions, it’s ensuring that the governance mechanism really does use sound scientific decision making,” said Obegi, “and that ultimately the fish agencies are the ones making the call.”
Enforceable assurances and protections are crucial to the Delta stakeholders, said Nottoli, adding that a constitutional amendment would be preferable.  “It is critical to have a clear understanding of what those assurances would be, how the system would be operated, and what protections would be in it, whether in statue or in constitutional framework.”

Gartrell added that he felt there should be legislative and contractual arrangements to assure mitigation and the respect of water rights and area of origin issues. 

Sen. Fran Pavley asked why, after seven years, $240 million and 30,000 pages of documents, is there still so much debate over how much water is needed for the Delta? 

Gartrell answered that the conditions in the Delta are changing and continue to change; “the data you had ten years ago is not really relevant to what’s going on today,” he said.

Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District disputed the notion that the scientists know what is needed in terms of flow.  “I hear a lot of simplistic ‘more flow means more fish’ and I see a history of twenty-plus years of trying to increase flows in a meaningful way to help fish, but none of that has worked,” he said, adding that noting tens of millions of dollars a year are spent on science programs and studies in the Delta and still there are no firm answers.   

“What we do know is that the pump-centric policy and regulatory approaches to operating the Delta have failed,” said Pelteir.  “We have 20 years of evidence to that end, and that has led us to why we want to take a comprehensive ecosystem-wide approach that looks at all of the stressors and all of the factors that may be affecting fish.”

While the majority of panelists were optimistic or at least willing to wait and see how the project develops, those that spoke during the public comment period were much less so. 
Sacramento City Councilman Darrell Fong called the BDCP one of the greatest threats to the region and said that it would sacrifice northern California to benefit southern California.  “We as a region cannot afford to continue to not to have formal input in this process,” he said.  “We cannot just stand by at this critical juncture.”

Daniel Wilson, a Delta farmer, decried the lack of involvement of the Delta residents.  “Literally finding out from the Sacramento Bee that your entire business is going to be destroyed is not engaging the Delta interests,” he said. 

Barbara Barrigan-Parilla from Restore the Delta said her organization opposes the rush to build the tunnels “because it would saddle taxpayers and water ratepayers with a $50 to $60 billion package of total debt,” among other things.

Melinda Terry with the North Delta Water Agency said that although it was helpful that the documents are being released early, there’s not a lot of detail in them.  “It tells me we’re going to have seepage problems and erosion problems, they are going to alter water surface elevations in the sloughs in the Delta and the Sacramento River … yet when it comes to specifics, it doesn’t really tell you the location, size or intensity, so it’s really hard to understand what those impacts are, let alone whether the mitigations are correct or not.”

Terry also expressed concern that the BDCP and other planning processes will consume the limited amount of land in the Delta available for restoration.  “When we do levee
improvements, we have to mitigate our own projects, and if there’s no other habitat left because it’s been spoken for by a large regional plan that benefits people who live elsewhere, we will have nothing left to be able to mitigate our own projects.”

Draft documents for official public review and comment are currently scheduled to be released on October 1.  A decision on whether or not to move forward with the project is possible by the spring of 2014.
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Ed's Note: Chris Austin, a contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator and former publisher of Aquafornia, a major blog about California water issues. She has launched a new blog, Maven's Notebook, at www.MavensNotebook.com.