Delta water plan’s full impact needs close examination 

click to enlarge delta.jpg

The state is moving forward with a grand scheme to redirect vast amounts of fresh water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California. The delta ecosystem has long been in danger of collapse, and critics claim this project might well worsen the situation.

But very few Californians know about this project. It’s time to slow it down and give the state’s residents and voters a chance to think about it.

The issue is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a sweeping, 50-year proposal to restore tidal wetland habitats that can support delta organisms. In return for the restoration, it is proposed that the state build two large tunnels beneath the delta and redirect water south at the rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is part of a larger project to connect the delta water with canals to send water to the Central Valley and Southern California. Last week, state Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Stockton, managed to advance through committee a bill that would require the supporters of the project to explain, in exacting detail, how much the project would cost and how it would be paid for.

This is a welcome development, since preliminary cost estimates peg the price tag of the conservation plan at $17 billion. When you factor in maintenance costs and interest payments on the bonds that must finance the tunnels, the price tag rises to $40 billion over the next 50 years.

This would make the conservation plan one of the most expensive public works projects in the state’s history. And those figures are the most cursory estimates.

In addition, environmentalists have begun to argue that, despite the project’s eco-friendly name, the conservation plan will render the delta’s ecosystem considerably worse. According to Tina Swanson, the director of the Science Center for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the project will pump an additional 20 percent of fresh water out of the delta. The delta is really an estuary, and its native species depend on a regular mix of fresh and saltwater. Siphoning off so much fresh water, Swanson argues, could threaten the fragile ecosystem.

In defense of the conservation plan, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird has argued that keeping the current levels of fresh water in the delta has done nothing to stop the crash in the population of delta fish, and that something must be done to shore up the delta’s levees, which have been deteriorating for many years. In any case, he recently argued in The San Francisco Chronicle, we have to balance the water needs of delta fish with the needs of the state’s growing population.

This is a rather tepid argument, but at least he made one. We would like to see many more of these arguments before California commits to this plan or any alternatives. The state Legislature has yet to set a deadline to finalize the plan’s details, so there’s still time to properly engage the public and explain in detail just what this multibillion-dollar water diversion project would mean to residents of Southern California and the delta’s ecosystem. The people of California deserve such consideration, and it’s time for the state’s leaders to more forthrightly explain what they intend to do with our water.

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Sunday, Jan 25, 2015

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