A century and a half ago, European immigrants in California often became lost in the vast labyrinth of channels in the Delta at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. That’s not surpising, as they didn’t yet have a useful map of this complex, thousand square mile estuary. Today, some agencies are at a similar risk of getting lost in the effort to find workable solutions to the Delta’s many problems. One thing we know – the old maps won’t work.
If ever an ecosystem was in need of a new approach, it’s the Bay-Delta. Beset by rising seas, rising water diversions, poor water quality, invasive species, collapsing fisheries, vulnerable levees (and residents) and subsided land, the Delta we see today is the result of 150 years of California water policies. Fortunately, there’s a broad recognition that a new direction is needed. The Delta Vision Task Force called for a new direction. So did the State legislature, when it passed the water reform package last year. Delta Vision and the legislature called for a new integrated Delta Plan. Both called for a careful evaluation of alternative approaches to secure a healthier and more stable Delta, and more reliable water supplies.
In the past few years, there has been an explosion of new ideas about how to meet the many challenges in the Delta. For example, what had, for decades, been a gridlocked debate about Delta conveyance – with the Peripheral Canal as the third rail in the discussion – has changed dramatically with a proliferation of new ideas. New concerns and new ideas have led many, including NRDC to re-evaluate old positions.
Some water agencies have advocated for a massive canal with the capacity to divert 15,000 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs). Others suggest a tunnel. The Contra Costa Water District has urged the analysis of a smaller, cheaper 2,500 cfs pipeline. Some have suggested that a facility might be run through the Yolo Bypass, rather than using the old proposed Peripheral Canal alignment on the east side of the Delta. Delta stakeholders have advanced the Delta corridors idea, which would strengthen existing levees and modify circulation patterns in the Delta without an isolated facility. Environmentalists contend that any new Delta facility must be subject to restrictive operating rules, to ensure that the Delta ecosystem recovers. Many Southern California retail water agencies want to be less reliant on the Delta, suggesting that some traditional Peripheral Canal supporters might be interested in a less costly Delta solution and greater investments in local supplies.
This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Delta Stewardship Council in particular must address broader issues as well, including habitat restoration, flood management, land use and more. In each of these areas, an evaluation of alternatives will be critical.
In short, there is now a dizzying array of alternatives that must be evaluated in writing a credible Delta Plan. There isn’t a “no brainer” solution here. Fortunately, we know how to meet this challenge – through integrated regional planning. The core of integrated planning is a thoughtful exploration of the entire toolbox of alternatives – and then putting together the tools that work best, in the combination that works best. Indeed, the definition of Integrated Regional Water Management Plans in state law requires these plans to identify “the appropriate mix of water demand and supply management alternatives” (California Water Code, § 10530).
For the past four and a half years, the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan process has been working to draft an integrated plan addressing ecosystem and water supply reliability issues in the Delta. A draft plan is scheduled to be released in November. You’d think that, this far into the process, BDCP would have identified a range of well-developed alternative approaches. You’d be wrong.
Instead, BDCP is narrowly focused on a 15,000 cfs facility. BDCP has also proposed weak operating rules that would allow a dramatic increase in water diversions. Like many others, I’m skeptical that a massive Delta canal with weak operating rules would lead to the restoration of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and a healthy salmon fishery. Without analyzing a broad range of alternatives, BDCP is unlikely to develop a cost-effective, workable plan. And without such an analysis, its conclusions would be suspect from the start.
An analysis of alternatives is not just good policy, it’s required by state and federal law. SB 7X 1, directed BDCP to analyze a “reasonable range of flow criteria, rates of diversions and other operational criteria” and a “reasonable range of Delta conveyance alternatives, including through-Delta, dual conveyance, and isolated conveyance alternatives and including further capacity and design options.” The legislature directed the new Delta Stewardship Council to “promote options for new and improved infrastructure related to the water conveyance in the Delta.” The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) also requires an analysis of alternatives that would reduce impacts on endangered species.
However, instead of recognizing this challenge and the promise of integrated planning to develop credible solutions, BDCP has resisted and delayed. In two recent state legislative oversight hearings, state agencies have been reluctant to commit to a full evaluation of alternatives as they write the BDCP plan. Rather, they have suggested that this analysis will be done in the CEQA/NEPA process – after the plan is completed.
There are several problems with this approach. The first two concerns are related to the BDCP project purpose and the cost of a Delta Plan. (I’ll write about both of these issues soon.) Third, as discussed above, state and federal law require that this analysis be done in the planning process itself, not in the environmental compliance process as the BDCP seeks permits. The fourth problem is simple – this is not how integrated planning works.
When urban water agencies prepare an integrated plan to meet local needs in the future, they don’t simply write the plan that they guess at the start is likely to succeed – and delay an evaluation of alternatives until they seek permits for that plan. Instead, they carefully develop criteria and analyze a full range of alternative approaches. It’s simply not possible to write a complex integrated plan that dovetails together the right tools without going through this process. Evaluating alternatives is not simply something required to obtain permits. Rather, a careful analysis of alternatives is the core of an integrated approach to planning.
Several environmental groups recently wrote this letter to help state and federal agencies address these issues in the BDCP and the Delta Plan. These efforts can dramatically increase their odds of success if they do several simple things:
- Recognize that a careful analysis of alternatives is needed to write a credible, analytically-based plan, not simply to get permits.
- Develop a full range of clear and detailed alternative approaches to conveyance and water supply reliability in the Delta. One alternative might include a large canal and aggressive operations. Another should include a smaller, less expensive, facility, more protective operations and greater investment in the export areas in water conservation, water recycling and other tools. And another should include a focus on strengthening the existing Delta, without an isolated facility. You get the idea. State and federal agencies need to foster a debate about specific, detailed alternatives. (e.g. “I like alternative number 3”. Or “alternative number 5 would be stronger if it included the following provisions…”)
- Develop detailed criteria to evaluate the performance of alternatives as they go through the analytical process.
- Develop these alternatives and criteria through an open, public process – inviting all stakeholders to review the criteria by which alternatives will be evaluated and offer alternatives to consider.
- Evaluate all alternatives under consideration at an equal level of detail.
- Modify the current project purpose to reflect the requirements of state law. (More on this later.)
In writing the BDCP and the Delta Plan, state and federal agencies must consider new alternative approaches in the Delta, not simply rely on old assumptions.
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