Jamie Bolt

Jamie Bolt, Harbormaster at Bethel Harbor, overlooks Piper Slough and Franks Tract on Bethel Island, Calif., on Friday, June 29, 2018. (Tony Kukulich/The Press)

The Franks Tract restoration project took a step forward when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) presented the final draft of its project feasibility study during a Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) meeting in Sacramento on Thursday, June 29, stating that the project is both feasible and expensive.

CDFW’s plan calls for the construction of a berm that would split Franks Tract in two along a line that runs roughly north to south. Approximately 1,000 acres of tidal wetlands would be created by dumping millions of cubic yards of fill on the west side of the berm and in Little Franks Tract. An open-water channel of approximately 2,000 acres would be established on the east side of the berm. Access to False River and the San Joaquin River to the east of the tract would be permanently blocked by the project.

The stated objectives of the restoration project are to: improve habitat for the Delta smelt, reduce saltwater intrusion into the central and south Delta, reduce submerged aquatic weeds and reduce invasive nonnative fish species that feed on native fish like the salmon and the Delta smelt. However, the path to achieving these objectives is squarely at odds with the economic and recreational activities of residents and communities as far west as San Francisco.

Franks Tract and the adjoining Little Franks Tract are submerged islands with an area of 3,000 acres and 330 acres, respectively. They are located just off the north and east shores of Bethel Island, separated from the island by Piper Slough and a broken series of levees that allow boat traffic access to open water. By filling Franks Tract and eliminating access to False River, boater access to fast water from Bethel Island would be eliminated, and access to fast water is a driver of property values.

“We have over 400 boats in dry storage and I have 100 in the water,” said Jamie Bolt, harbormaster at Bethel Harbor. “So I have a minimum of 500 people who use that access any given day, 365 days a year, because we are a year-round boating area. That’s just this marina, not to mention Russo’s, not to mention Piper Point ... This will hugely impact a majority of our customer base, not to mention any other families that just want to go boating.”

Additionally, Franks Tract is one of the premier bass fishing locations in the country and more than 150 tournaments are held in the area every year with each tournament generating approximately $200,000 in revenue, according to Jan McCleery, president of the Save the California Delta Alliance. The CDFW plan seeks to eradicate the nonnative bass from Franks Tract.

“Predation is not the major issue for Delta smelt. Lack of fresh-water flow is,” said McCleery in a recent blog post. “The objective of lowering habitat suitability for nonnative species means bass. And bass fishing is a core component of the Delta and needs to be supported and preserved. The theory that the bass, which were introduced in the 1870s, are suddenly to blame for the salmon and other native species’ demise is hotly contested among scientists and should not be used as a primary reason to destroy the economy of the Delta by destroying the primary bass fishery, Franks Tract.”

Wilcox said that that several factors make Franks Tract an attractive target for wetland restoration including the fact that both islands are relatively shallow and will require less fill material to raise. And the properties are already owned by the state and managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Still, the report presented by Carl Wilcox of CDFW pegs the cost of the project at $315 million. During an exchange with DSC council member Ken Weinberg, Wilcox said that the $300,000 cost per acre of restored marsh is 10 times a “usual” restoration expense.

“I think it’s a unique kind of thing,” said Wilcox during an interview after the DSC meeting. “It potentially could solve a lot of issues, not just from an ecological perspective but for improving recreational opportunity around Bethel Island and Franks Tract as well as improving resiliency.”

After reviewing a draft of CDFW’s proposal earlier this year, Bethel Island resident David Gloski presented his own plan that achieves many of CDFW’s objectives without eliminating boat access to fast water, a key component of Bethel Island’s economy. His plan makes use of a levee that is roughly ‘S’ shaped. West of the levee boating access through Franks Tract would be improved by dredging deeper channels, and the dredged materials would be used as fill to create tidal wetlands to the north. The east side of the levee closely resembles the CDFW’s plan for an open-water channel. A rock groin would be constructed on the south end of the levee to limit saltwater intrusion and access to False River would remain open in Gloski’s plan.

“(CDFW has) everything on the west end of Franks Tract closed off, which will kill Bethel Island,” explained Gloski. “We take a similar amount of acreage and just push it up to the north side of Franks Tract where there’s not a lot of traffic. What they’re proposing is right along the houses and businesses on Bethel Island, which will reduce those property values. So we get it away from the houses and businesses of Bethel Island and we put it in the more remote north part of Franks Tract, which restores the transportation corridors through Franks Tract. And then it starts to deliver some benefits. There’s actually depth changes in Franks Tract – it’s deeper in some places so the weed issues go away. There can be anchorages and beaches put in. So I think there can be positive things done instead of these other things.”

During his presentation to the the DSC, Wilcox referenced Gloski’s plan several times and estimated its cost at $200 million, a significant reduction compared to the cost of CDFW’s plan.

“We included it in the report,” said Wilcox. “We did a cost estimate on it subsequent to the original engineering feasibility report. We did some preliminary water-quality modeling on it. That’s referenced in the report. It probably creates bookends in a further conversation about how you can come up with a project that meets the ecosystem benefits as well as addresses the concerns of the local community. There are benefits associated with the project on doing something out there, from an ecological perspective. The issues are primarily how you account for the local concerns. There is the ability to do that. It just takes more work on that, more engagement.”

Wilcox said that there are no funds currently slated to move the project forward, but an effort to get funding allocated will be undertaken.

“The next step would be to do an actual formal planning process – really develop a proposal and include some alternatives,” Wilcox said. “That’s the next step. When that’s going to happen, I’m not sure. It all depends on having the resources to do it, which we don’t have right now. We may be able to find some money this year to do it. If not, we may be putting in some money in the 2019/2020 budget.”

Looking further into the future, Wilcox estimated the formal planning process will take 18 months, and if the proposal is adopted, an environmental impact study and construction permitting would start after that.

“You’re looking at maybe having a plan and putting it out in 2020,” said Wilcox. “If you took the next step and did the environmental documentation and people were interested in pursuing it, you’re probably looking at another couple of years to actually do that and get it permitted. Nothing is going to happen quickly.”