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DWR and Reclamation Release Environmental Documents for New Approach to Delta Fix

With the release of the BDCP/California WaterFix Partially Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplement Draft Environmental Impact Statement (“RDEIR/SDEIS”), the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) have presented a new approach for meeting the state’s goals in the Delta.

Most notable in the new approach is the separation of a Delta conveyance facility from habitat restoration. The conveyance facility is now being referred to as “physical and operational changes” and is the subject of the newly-released environmental documents—with the preferred alternative deemed California WaterFix (or Alternative 4A). Habitat restoration is being handled under a separate effort known as California EcoRestore, which is independent of the conveyance facility. California EcoRestore will restore at least 30,000 acres of Delta habitat under an accelerated timeline under existing regulatory requirements. EcoRestore efforts can use Proposition 1 funding exclusively for public benefits that are not associated with regulatory compliance responsibilities.

The new approach also brings with it a change in the state’s co-equal goals making them narrower and more precise. Since the inception of this effort to fix the Delta, the co-equal goals have been “water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration.” The new co-equal goals are:

* “Securing state water supplies from climate change and seismic risk”
* “Improving operations and environmental criteria to benefit fish species”

All three alternatives noted in the RDEIR/SDEIS shift the regulatory approach from an Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) Section 10 Habitat Conservation Plan (“HCP”) / Natural Community Conservation Plan (“NCCP”) to a more streamlined approach.

With an HCP, Reclamation would apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) for incidental take permits for a large list of endangered or threatened species. The HCP would serve as a blueprint to mitigate the impacts of those incidental takes. Under this arrangement an implementation agreement would be required, and a long-term permit would be issued. The NCCP would mirror that process with DWR applying to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”).

Under the new alternatives, Reclamation will consult with the USFWS and NMFS under Section 7 of the ESA to ensure that project activities do not jeopardize endangered or threatened species. This usually results in the fisheries agencies issuing biological opinions to guide project operations. Rather than securing a long-term permit, agencies re-consult if certain triggers occur. Similarly, California will obtain incidental take permits through DFW’s incidental take permit process rather than through more complex NCCP process.

While the preferred alternative has been billed as a replacement to the BDCP, the BDCP and all three of the new alternatives are on the table until decision-makers choose an alternative and release a Final EIR/EIS.

Compared to the 2013 BDCP Draft EIS/EIR, all four options have design modifications that would reduce impacts on Delta communities and sandhill cranes and would improve long-term reliability and operation of the infrastructure.

Like the BDCP, the California WaterFix would be capable of diverting 9,000 cfs. However, the water facility would have a smaller footprint; intakes would be gravity-fed; and additional design changes would eliminate temporary and permanent impacts to wildlife areas and to Italian Slough.

The cost for the California WaterFix is estimated at $14.9 billion. According to a factsheet distributed by the California Natural Resources Agency, if the tunnels were built as a result of an emergency outage, it is expected that it would cost and additional $3.6 – $18.2 billion. According to the environmental documentation, emergency outages have a range of possible causes—such as levee failure, flooding, seismic impacts and climate change impacts, like seawater intrusion. Depending on the nature of the cause and the severity of the damage, outages can last days, months or years.

California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin highlighted the project benefits.

“The new alternative described in these documents would help restore natural flow patterns in the Delta,” said Cowin.  “With California WaterFix, we will not need to rely solely on south Delta pumping plants that can cause harmful reverse flows in nearby channels.  We’ll gain the flexibility to move water when and where it is safest for fish.  With the release of a revised plan today, we are a step closer to finally modernizing our 50‐year‐old water conveyance system in the Delta and improving the reliability and sustainability of water supplies for California.”

Metropolitan Water District General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger lauded the release of the new documents as progress.

“We are reaching the end of a long, winding road. Metropolitan and other public water agencies have invested nearly a quarter billion dollars in this process because California simply had no other plan to reliably deliver water to two-thirds of California and to restore the Delta. Today represents the last planning milestone before producing a final plan for Metropolitan and the other agencies to consider. We applaud the bold leadership of Governor Brown in pursuing this necessary project. A million hours of planning must result in a final plan that is good for the California economy and environment. Everyone loses with the continued status quo,” said Kightlinger.

The San Diego County Water Authority took a more cautious approach. General Manager Maureen Stapleton emphasized that they are concerned about the issue. She stated that the Authority would review the documents and noted that they have invited the California Natural Resources Agency to discuss the new proposal with the Authority board.

“As the largest customer of the largest State Water Contractor, the Water Authority has a great deal at stake in the Bay-Delta. Of critical concern are issues such as who is going to pay for upgrades and how much water will be produced, in line with the Bay-Delta Policy Principles set by the Water Authority Board and the water supply reliability and diversification goals in the Water Authority’s 2010 Urban Water Management Plan,” said Stapleton.

Project opponents remained critical, despite the new approach.

A coalition of conservation groups that includes Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity and Restore the Delta sent a letter to the federal and state agencies arguing that they ignored alternatives that would improve the Delta ecosystem. They continue to see the project as a Southern California water grab.

“The fix is in for the twin tunnels project, which has always been merely a huge water grab with some window dressing. Now the so-called ‘California Water Fix’ has abandoned any pretense of habitat protection,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This disastrous water-export plan will hand over massive diversion tunnels to corporate agribusiness and lock in the current over-pumping of water from the Delta, decimating our native fish runs and speeding up the extinction of endangered salmon, steelhead, smelt and sturgeon.”


Written by Marta L. Weismann