A study to save the Delta's ecosystem while still providing water to 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland is about to kick into high gear, a process that could eventually lead to construction of a peripheral canal.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is the latest attempt to find the best compromise between thirsty water agencies seeking an abundant, quality water supply and environmental groups and others seeking to ensure the health of a fragile, troubled Delta ecosystem.
The plan might call for the construction of a peripheral canal that takes fresh water from the Sacramento River in the north Delta and conveys it south along the east side of the Delta. That possibility worries local officials, who fear it would lead to a worsening of water quality, including an increase in salinity.
The first step in putting together the plan is the preparation of environmental impact studies that will identify the most environmentally friendly option or options. Officials from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) traveled to Antioch last week to meet with Delta landowners to let them know that they might be seeking permission to go onto their land to conduct some of the studies beginning in early 2009.
DWR Deputy Director Richard Sanchez kicked off the Aug. 14 meeting in the flower hall at the county fairgrounds, which was as steamy as a greenhouse.
We are here to work with you, he said. We are very concerned with the Delta. There's various issues: whether it's water supply reliability, ecosystem restoration; fishery counts are down; flood protection is an issue. We are here to work with you on solutions.
We have a lot of study areas we are looking at. There's also a lot of gaps. We have to fill those gaps with additional information, whether biological, engineering, surveying. We want to minimize those impacts (to your property) when we get that data. We are open to your suggestions.
DWR Deputy Director Jerry Johns provided the context for the launching of the conservation plan for the Delta, a body of water that supports about $400 billion of California's $1 trillion economy.
In 2005, the fish agencies said, The fish are not doing as well as we thought. We are not happy.' We said we are not happy as well, said Johns. We need to do something different related to the Endangered Species Act. It's the trigger regulating activities in the Delta one species at a time.
We need something that's much more realistic; look at the Delta, look at the ecosystem and develop a holistic plan. We recommended that we do a habitat conservation plan focusing on the aquatic ecosystem and the things the fish need to support their habitat.
One of the biggest determinants in supporting that habitat is figuring out the best way to take water from the Delta. The current system, to avoid sucking fish into pumps south of Byron, results in a daily fish taxi service from Byron to Sacramento.
We do that several times a day every day, said Johns. Some of the fish like this ride. Some aren't crazy about the ride. Some get eaten. And that's a concern. The fisheries were designed in the '40s and '50s. We have better technology today.
A new water conveyance system is needed to better protect fish, he said. The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force has recommended a dual conveyance system with a peripheral canal in order to ensure the quality of the water heading to central and southern California, even if there's a levee failure in the Delta.
This is not anything that's rocket science, said Johns. It's based on the risks. We haven't had a levee failure due to earthquake. It is basically a flip of the coin when we will have an earthquake where we will lose levees in the next 20 to 30 years. We have got to do something. And we can do something.
And that something is the conservation plan, which is expected to be completed in mid-to-late 2010. So far, there is not a preferred conveyance alternative, whether an isolated peripheral canal, dual conveyance from both the north and south Delta or continued conveyance through the Delta but in an improved system.
David Gutierrez, a DWR director for the FloodSafe program, said nearly $750 million is planned to be spent on improving Delta levees, many of which were built 100 years ago and with much cruder materials than today's levees.
There is a potential for risk associated with failure of those levees, and there always will be, said Gutierrez. We want to understand from the experts exactly how the levees behave. Hopefully, that will lead to improving the levees and figuring out the best way to improve these levees.
To deal with levee failures and other emergencies, the DWR is leading the effort to prepare the Delta Emergency Preparedness Plan, which is scheduled for completion in mid-2010.
For more information on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, go online to www.resources.ca.gov/bdcp.