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Scientific panel calls for clarity in delta planning

Issue Date: May 11, 2011
By Kate Campbell

A draft plan aimed at fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and reliably delivering water to farms and cities south of the estuary contains critical gaps and lacks clarity, according to a scientific review released last week.

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, reviewed the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which has been under development for five years at an investment of $150 million.

The council reviewed a plan draft released last November and concluded it "lacks the clarity for this panel and the public to properly understand, interpret and review the science that underlies the BDCP." The report stressed that the panel realizes the importance of a "credible and a robust BDCP in addressing the various water management problems that beset the delta."

In a conference call with reporters last week, Henry Vaux, review panel chairman and a University of California professor emeritus, said he did not think the BDCP draft should be thrown out or that planners and stakeholders need to start over. He said "good" science has already been done and now it needs to be better synthesized into a "single fabric" to support specific future actions.

The council said its central issue with the BDCP is confusion over its purpose. The panel's report said it remains unclear if BDCP is merely part of the process for obtaining what's called an incidental take permit under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts so a new water conveyance structure can be built, or if it is instead designed to achieve the equal goals of providing more reliable water supplies and, at the same time, protecting and restoring the delta ecosystem.

Based on its review, Vaux said the panel found the BDCP assumes construction of a tunnel with a maximum carrying capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second to move water from an intake on the Sacramento River and carry it to the state and federal water pumps near Tracy. What is not specified in the BDCP under this scenario, he said, is what the impact of flows at various levels and various times might be, which would be part of an upcoming "effects analysis."

"This report underscores that the big question about delta conveyance is still up in the air," said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation managing counsel. "Farm Bureau has been participating in the BDCP process from the beginning. But, like others involved in this effort, we have been waiting to see what the plan will look like as it includes more specifics."

Scheuring said there is widespread agreement that the delta is in trouble and the situation needs to be fixed. What Farm Bureau seeks, he said, is a thorough analysis of the structural design and operational parameters of a dual-conveyance approach—maintaining flows through existing channels for export and a new conveyance facility.

"We want to know what the solution really is before we call it a solution," Scheuring said. "We're not interested in shifting problems with the delta from one set of farmers to another. For our members, we can accept nothing less than a full analysis of the effects of the new structure on our water delivery system and on the delta."

The BDCP has been on track for completion by 2013 and would be implemented during the next 50 years. Given the change in state government administration and the complexities inherent in creating the nation's largest habitat conservation plan, some participants in the process suggest it may take a couple of years beyond the 2013 target to complete the BDCP.

State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told the media in a conference call after the National Research Council presented its findings that he appreciated the council's acknowledgment that its report was based on a document as it existed almost seven months ago.

"We're already starting the effects analysis process, as the council's report makes clear is needed," Laird told reporters. "There are many moving parts and we want to solicit new information in an open, transparent way and fix the problems."

The report's release was one of several delta-related developments of the past week:

• U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger granted the federal government two additional years to complete an updated plan to protect the threatened delta smelt. Last December, the court ruled invalid key parts of the proposed protection plan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Parties to the litigation generally agreed that more time is needed to determine the appropriate protective measures for delta smelt while operating the water transfer pumps. The new deadline for a final biological opinion is December 2013.

What happens while the biological opinion is being rewritten remains unclear. Depending on rainfall and snowpack in coming years, pumping restrictions could kick in before the deadline. If an agreement can't be reached on protective measures for the fish, the federal government, environmental organizations and farm groups could end up back in court.

• A group of east side San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts filed suit in federal court to shut down the recently re-opened salmon fishing season off the California coast.

The San Joaquin River Group Authority said in its filing that federal agencies acted improperly in opening the commercial season after two years of closure. Water districts on the valley's east side say they are concerned that under San Joaquin River restoration requirements, diminished salmon runs could affect their ability to deliver water to customers.

• On Monday, a group of 15 water agencies, government entities and water users said it had urged the Delta Stewardship Council to move away from a regulatory approach outlined in its latest draft delta plan and return to its role as laid out by the Legislature in 2009. The group, which includes the California Farm Bureau, followed up on earlier criticism of the council's direction.

Instead of emphasizing regulation of local and state agencies and duplicating existing efforts, the coalition said the Delta Stewardship Council should focus on coordinating existing efforts already under way in the delta.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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