An Outsider's Perspective on the Past Four Years, and the Next Few Years, of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) Process

Today, the Steering Committee of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan meets for the 122nd  time over the past four years, in order to receive the products that the BDCP consultants have prepared in order to develop a BDCP plan. NRDC is not a member of the BDCP Steering Committee (we had concerns, which were later proven to be justified, regarding flaws and biases inherent in the process), but for the past four years, we have worked constructively from outside of the process to try to ensure that BDCP complies with state and federal law, uses sound science, and considers the views of all stakeholders.  Since this is the last scheduled BDCP meeting under the Schwarzenegger Administration, and in light of the outgoing Administration’s plans to release its perspective on BDCP next month, now seems like a good time to take stock of where BDCP really is, and where it needs to go to succeed.

BDCP has made some progress in developing a plan over the past four years; it’s not surprising that the plan is far from complete, since Habitat Conservation Plans that are far less complex than BDCP routinely require up to a decade to complete.  But it’s not only complexity that has caused BDCP to take so long; the process also has a habit of routinely putting off tough decisions, particularly when the exporters don’t agree with the positions of the environmental groups and government agencies.  As one speaker at the Legislature’s oversight hearing last week apparently described it, if the documents are 70% complete then the other 30% is all the hard lifting.

For example, after four years, the consultants’ working drafts that were presented to the Steering Committee today are filled with placeholders for most of the biggest decisions, or haven’t even been updated to correct the flaws and respond to earlier comments: 

  • Chapter 3, which describes the conservation measures in BDCP and how any new pumping facility would be operated, acknowledges there is no proposed project (just a range of proposals for analysis), that at least six major environmental issues have been identified that may require revising operations to make them more environmentally protective, and that BDCP has not yet conducted the iterative process to refine operations in light of the effects analysis.
  • Chapter 5, which summarizes the environmental effects of BDCP, begins by stating that, “The Effects Analysis is in progress and expected to be completed by the end of January 2011.”  There is broad agreement within and outside of BDCP that there are significant problems with the effects analysis. 
  • Chapter 8, on financing for the BDCP, admits that the total costs of BDCP have not yet been calculated, and states that, “Funding Sources and Assurances are not included with this draft. This section will be completed following completion of the cost analysis and the development of the funding plan. It should be emphasized that the PREs have not committed to pay for any BDCP costs beyond the conveyance component, and substantial public and other sources of funding are expected to contribute to the cost of implementing the elements of the Plan.”

These notes to reviewers in the documents that the consultants prepared show how much of the hard work remains to be completed, from costs and financing to operations and how much water the fish need.  But what the documents don’t say may be even more telling. 

  • As the Contra Costa Times reported recently, Federal agency biologists have concluded that the plan as drafted could drive delta smelt extinct and harm other species, rather than helping them recover. For more than a year, federal scientists and environmental groups have warned that the plan does not adequately protect California’s salmon fishery and other fish and wildlife. 
  • The analysis of the effects of the project on fisheries and the environment is being prepared by many of the same consultants who are expert witnesses for the water contractors in their efforts to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and other fish in the Delta.  Since we wouldn’t allow big tobacco to determine whether smoking is hazardous or allow big oil to determine if climate change is real, why would we allow “big water” to determine how much water we can safely take out of the Delta?  We need to use sound science, not just science that sounds good.  And until there is a credible analysis of what the effects of various alternatives will be, it’s pretty hard to justify selecting a draft plan.
  • Despite the mandates of the Delta Reform Act, BDCP has failed to consider the State Water Resources Control Board’s Delta Flow Criteria Report, resists analyzing a full range of alternatives (including smaller canal sizes and alternatives that reduce water exports as compared to the status quo), and has resisted complying with the mandate that the State reduce reliance on water exports from the Delta and invest in alternatives supplies. The Delta Stewardship Council’s recent letter to the State and Federal Water Contractors makes many of these points, as does the September report of the DSC’s independent consultants.
  • And upstream water users, salmon fishermen, and communities in the Delta have all written to BDCP to voice their frustration that the process lacks transparency and excludes their meaningful participation, and to voice their concerns that BDCP threatens their livelihoods and communities.  

It’s clear, then, that there’s still a lot more work to be done for BDCP to succeed, and that the Brown Administration will need to help remedy some of the problems that the prior Administration engendered. In the coming weeks, we’ll provide recommendations for the Brown Administration on how to implement a 21st Century water policy for California, including reform of BDCP.  I’m optimistic that the incoming Administration will work with the Feds, the Delta Stewardship Council, the State Water Resources Control Board, and all stakeholders – including salmon fishermen, Delta communities, and folks like us – to develop a BDCP plan over the coming years that can succeed.