Delta Hearing Hurries For No Reason

NOV. 18, 2010


The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is on a tight schedule for implementation, but no one seems to know why. Many people spoke during a Nov. 16 Assembly committee hearing on the plan, but nothing was settled.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A coalition of state, federal, and local water agencies, state and federal fish agencies, environmental organizations and “other interested parties” formed the BDCP Steering Committee. Its goal is ” identifying water flow and habitat restoration actions to recover endangered and sensitive species and their habitats in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta,” according to the BDCP website.

When it became clear that all the parties involved had considerably different  agendas, and the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife held an oversight hearing. But what was supposed to bring clarity to a critical water issue only seemed to bring more confusion.

The oversight hearing was held to present plan updates from the California Natural Resource Agency as well as hear from “stakeholders” like water districts, environmentalists and the Delta Stewardship Council. The steering committee members of the BDCP were asked to compare plan documents, which is a great idea, except that apparently the documents aren’t yet available.

Committee Chairman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, started off by saying that the BDCP was “at an important juncture” and that the completed plan “will be a 50-year plan.” Huffman said the scope of the plan was based on a “recovery standard” for the Delta, and the hearing was taking place in order to see “if the BDCP is going to have success.”

So far, so good. Except that then Vice-Chairwoman Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, asked whether the hearing should even be taking place, since the BDCP hasn’t finalized its timelines and conclusions.

This would seem to be a problem. In fact, Laura King Moon of the State Water Contractors said there was not a document ready yet for the next steering committee meeting, scheduled for Nov. 18. The committee was operating off of a “working draft,” and Moon said the “goal is for the public to receive the plan, mid-2011. Though Moon said the BDCP did actually agree on one thing: the need to “discourage future reliance on the Delta for water.”

California Natural Resource Agency Secretary Lester Snow then appeared. He’s a former executive director of CALFED (now California Bay Delta Program), and a former private water consultant. “Current management of the Bay Delta system is not sustainable as a natural resource,” he said. The agency head added that climate change is adding to the complex issue.

“The need for habitat restoration is essential,” Snow said, adding that the BDCP was already moving ahead with habitat restoration. He said that even with the fixes, climate change meant the Delta water supply would have to be redirected.

Yet even after Snow’s testimony, it was unclear why the hearing was going on — why panelists were asked to give their assessments of the Bay Delta plan when no actual plan was available. A press release earlier in the week reported that the BDCP Steering Committee hopes to finalize its working draft plan at its meeting on Nov. 18, but that meeting isn’t open to the public. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan website also does not p0st plan drafts.

“The draft is a product of a collaborative process that has included the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, federal and state fisheries agencies, water contractors, environmental organizations and other stakeholders,” said Snow — a process that would seem to still be on-going.

The result of this lack of hard information in writing and available to the public meant that, for all practical purposes,  participants at the hearing were talking in code. Panelists had apparently been provided six questions to answer prior to the hearing, but without an actual document to report on, it was unclear what the committee was trying to accomplish. Tina Leahy, the committee’s primary consultant, did not return a call for comment.

In any case, several other panelists testified, including Jason Peltier with the Wetlands Water District. Peltier appeared frustrated. “We all thought the BDCP would fix the water issues,” he said. Instead, Peltier spoke of the “never ending stream of letters from environmentalist groups” which he felt were holding up the process because of the desire for “an environmental perfect world” — a world, Peltier said, “does not exist.”

Cynthia Koehler with the Environmental Defense Fund disputed that. She said her group wasn’t looking for perfection, but needed “goals and objectives” from the BDCP.

Yeah — her and everyone else in the room.

Jonathan Rosenfield, a Conservation Biologist with The Bay Institute, whose primary purpose is “restoring and inspiring conservation of the San Francisco Bay,” was critical of the BDCP plan. “An acceptable plan would have inclusion of imperiled species, water reliability objectives, a data management process, as well as a conservation plan,” he said. “A restoration program cannot substitute for the flow of fresh water. Fixes are not enough.”

Rosenfield also said he was concerned that the focus of the hearing seemed to be on a timeline for the BDCP project, instead of allowing the issues themselves to dictate the objectives and timeline.

“There’s always been a sense of urgency” with the BDCP, Melinda Terry of the North Delta Water Agency said. Terry agreed that the issues facing the Delta plan were big, but seemed concerned that the prospective loss of agricultural land had been overlooked in discussions.

“So much agriculture land will be converted to aquatic,” said Terry. She referred to a two-year moratorium on projects to mitigate habitat damage passed in Yolo County, and said that what applies to one county should not necessarily be forced upon others. A recent story reported that Yolo County authorities “were caught off guard in 2007 when one of the state’s most powerful water agencies, the Westlands Water District, bought 3,450 acres of farmland in the Yolo Bypass, hoping to create a nursery for endangered fish.”

The same story reported the supervisors were concerned with the BDCP because of the proposal to divert Sacramento River water around the Delta to Southern California because they “fear it will spark a wave of land speculation in Yolo County. Terry referred to the “willing sellers” of agriculture land for habitat restoration acreage, but indicated that the finances for such purchases by the state, had not been addressed yet by the BDCP.

The final panelist was Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottolli, who is also a member of the Delta Stewardship Council and chairman of the Delta Protection Commission. Nottolli said that the Delta represents more than water supply, and “is an agricultural, recreational, and environmental area.”

Nottolli said that millions of dollars have been spent on the region but there is still disagreement about the process for resolving the future of the Delta. “In order to obtain a reliable water supply, we must replenish groundwater storage,” he said.

The 1,500-page draft report won’t be available to the public until Nov. 21, said  Snow. The California Natural Resources Agency has said that a separate status report on the BDCP will be released the week of Dec. 6.

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