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by Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.

The deadline for the public review and comment period for the Draft Bay-Delta Conservation Plan is approaching in mere weeks, on June 13, 2014. Did you wait until the last minute to skim the approximately 40,000-page document and send in a comment or two? Fear not! Here in the Sacramento office of Great Ecology, we have a ringside seat for the development and (potentially) implementation of a plan that addresses one of the largest—if not the largest—water management challenges in California since the building of the California Aqueduct. In the interest of promoting an informed and involved citizenry, we have distilled the entire Plan down to an easy-to-follow information fact sheet for your edification.

What is the Bay-Delta?

The Bay-Delta is shorthand for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, an inland Delta in northern California and the largest estuary on the west coasts of both North and South America. The entire Bay-Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles (so, most of northern California). Fed by the melting snowpack, streams and rivers of several mountain ranges, the waterways of the Bay-Delta course across the state into several large bays before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.

What is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?

The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, is a regional Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) that covers the central delta of the watershed, an area of 872,000 acres. The goal of the plan is to protect the water supply the Delta provides to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California, while also maintaining ecosystem health of the associated wetland, riparian, grassland, and forest habitats and the plant and animal species.

Why is the BDCP needed?

The existing water supply transport system, which conveys Bay-Delta water as far south as San Diego, consists of an extensive network of levees, weirs and canals. These aging above-ground structures are vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, such as a storm surges or earthquakes, and could result in the flooding of adjacent communities of over 500,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Sea level rise due to climate change will likely increase the scale and frequency of these catastrophic events.

The problem doesn’t stop there. Saltwater intrusion from the San Francisco Bay has always been a natural component of the Delta tidal ecosystem. However, the diversion of freshwater out of the Delta through massive intake pumps at its southern end changes the natural east-west flows through the Delta’s wetlands to north-south flows, causing a buildup of salinity in the waterways. The increasing salty water threatens to impact plant and animal species with low salinity tolerance, such as the Endangered Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus). This, as well as the levees’ contribution to the loss of floodplain habitat, natural channel margins, and tidal marsh, has resulted in a highly altered and degraded system.

Moreover, the pumps themselves disrupt the passage and migration patterns of fish such as the Smelt, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and sturgeon. To protect the fish, certain levels of water have been mandated to remain in the Delta by a 2007 court ruling.  This reduces the available water supply, particularly in drier years. This potential year-to-year fluctuation would impact the reliability of the supply delivered throughout the state, where the demand for water is certainly not diminishing.

What solution is the BDCP proposing?

The proposed solution: divert water from north of the Delta, higher up the Sacramento River through 2 massive underground tunnels, each of which is 40-feet wide and extends 35 miles south along the Sacramento river. These tunnels would divert freshwater to the Bay Area and southern California from further upstream before the water enters the Delta, thus ensuring a reliable, high quality water supply to most of the state, while also protecting the conveyed water from potential natural disasters. Additionally, the tunnels would allow the natural east west flows to return to the Delta estuary, allowing the restoration of natural fish movement patterns.

So, problem solved, right?

Well, not exactly. The construction of tunnels will directly impact numerous habitats in the Bay-Delta region, and will also potentially create further saltwater intrusion and habitat degradation higher up the Sacramento River, since freshwater will be removed from higher reaches of the river. To address and compensate for these anticipated impacts, the BDCP includes a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under the federal and state NEPA and CEQA processes. The plan and the EIS/EIR seek a 50-year project permit to proceed with the BDCP work, which would allow some take* of Threatened and Endangered species through the regulatory context of the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP); as compensation for the take, the plan promotes landscape-level natural community conservation in an adaptive management framework. Thus the NCCP includes plans for approximately 150,000-acres of mitigation via habitat restoration throughout the Delta over the next 50 years to compensate for impacts to sensitive species and habitats from the tunnels’ construction

Wow, all that habitat restoration! So now the problem is solved, right?

Not quite yet. Some argue that the plan does more harm than good, citing their worry about the increased salinity in the Sacramento River and in the Delta, which would compromise the water sources of the area’s farming operations. Yet another concern is that the tunnels will take too much water out of the rivers, drying up some downstream habitat in the drier years which are expected due to climate change and subsidence. In fact, the Delta Independent Science Board concluded that the Draft BDCP fell short of integrating the appropriate amount of science into the Plan. Particularly, the Board was concerned that the feasibility and effectiveness of the planned habitat restoration was overstated; that the plan lacked an adequate analysis of uncertainty; that there was an exclusion of discussion about climate change effects on the project over time; and that the detail in describing adaptive management methods was insufficient. This analysis was released in a report last week. Not to mention, it’s expensive: the official price tag is $25 billion, but critics claim that the actual costs could be as high as $67 billion when interest and other costs are included.

What if they fix the restoration plan and then it gets approved?

There would be yet another hurdle for the BDCP to overcome. Assuming that no lawsuits delay the EIS/EIR approval or project implementation, the funding for the habitat restoration is not guaranteed. The $4.4 billion required for the full habitat restoration will be supplemented by several sources; some of that funding depends on the passage of two Water Bonds that require passage by the voters of California. The first Water Bond has been working its way through the legislative process since 2009 and is planned for submission to the voters this year.

Now what do I do? I want to learn more about this BDCP.

Well, the BDCP website breaks down the 40,000 page behemoth into its pertinent parts to make it more digestible for the public. If you want to search farther afield and simply do a Google search for “BDCP,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t offer some strong opinion on the Plan. With a critical eye, read these pages, too! Taking the time to learn about these multiple perspectives is first step into the world of science, land management, economics, and politics that we practitioners often live in… and it’s not always pretty.

Even if you don’t plan on commenting on the Draft BDCP, the site—and the sites that have something to say about it—contain a wealth of information about the ecology of a magnificent and imperiled ecosystem. The BDCP also provides a valuable opportunity to learn about the fascinating, complex story of the long history and uncertain future of water management in California.

*The Endangered Species Act defines “take” as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, would, kill, trap, capture, or collect.”