State's Refusal to Use Sound Science Continues to Delay the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

For more than six years, state and federal agencies, water districts, conservation groups, and other stakeholders have been working to try to develop a successful Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is one of the most complex habitat conservation plans ever to be developed, but unfortunately, it continues to struggle to develop a scientifically credible plan. 

As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, the Governor wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Acting Commerce Secretary Dr. Rebecca Blank, demanding that the federal agencies must release the BDCP plan and environmental impact statement (NEPA document) this summer.  The Governor’s letter apparently follows a letter from the Kern County Water Agency to the Director of the California Department of Water Resources earlier this year, in which Kern County Water Agency stated that they will not continue funding BDCP unless the national Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “commit to completing their review of the Administrative Draft to the extent that the Public Draft can be released, with their support on July 1, 2013.” (see page 17 of this PDF).   Kern County Water Agency alleged in that letter that the delays in finalizing the plan are “because of a lack of decision making on the part of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).”

While the water contractors and the State of California may want to blame the Feds for the delays in preparing the BDCP, it is the State’s (and the water contractors’) refusal to utilize sound science in the BDCP that continues to delay and bedevil this process. We’ve wasted years in this process – and lots of money – because the state and contractors refuse to incorporate sound science into BDCP.  This can be seen in the highly critical scientific peer reviews of BDCP in the past several years from the National Research Council and the independent peer review panel convened by the Delta Science Program, as well as the voluminous trail of comments by the fishery agencies, conservation groups, and other stakeholders. Rather than doing the analysis right once, even if that takes a bit longer up front and even if it shows that we have to take less water out of the estuary, BDCP has rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines and has ended up having to do the analysis several times, because each time the analysis doesn't pass muster.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service released their latest round of comments [see here, here and here] on the administrative draft BDCP effects analysis prepared by the State and its consultants.  This latest round of comments builds on the “Red Flag” memos released in 2012 by the fishery agencies (available here), and demonstrates that many of these critical issues have not been resolved and that there are still fundamental scientific flaws in the plan.  Many of these comments have been raised numerous times by the conservation community and the fishery agencies, but the State and water contractors have steadfastly chosen to rely on “combat science” rather than sound science, in order to try to justify increasing water diversions from the Bay-Delta estuary.  (The State is even trying to move the goalposts on what “increased diversions” means.)

The federal comments on the critical scientific flaws cover a wide variety of issues, including:

  • comments that the effects analysis shows that the draft BDCP plan is likely to hasten the extinction of several listed salmon runs, in combination with the foreseeable effects of climate change;
  • comments that the draft effects analysis dramatically overstates the benefits of tidal marsh habitat and is likely to result in uncertain benefits, if at all, to numerous fish species;
  • comments that the effects analysis uses an improper baseline that ignores certain actions that are required under baseline conditions (the existing biological opinions), including floodplain restoration in the Yolo Bypass;
  • comments that the high outflow scenario is critically important to many species’ needs and may be the only scenario that could be permitted in the draft plan;
  • comments that project description needs to be revised, particularly the flows that bypass the new intakes, and the South Delta operations in dry years, in order to protect salmon and other fisheries; and
  • comments that the draft effects analysis demonstrates that the proposed project, as currently designed, is unlikely to achieve its biological objectives.

It's clear from these comments that many critical issues remain to be resolved in order for BDCP to succeed, and many of them are issues that the fishery agencies and conservation groups have been trying to get BDCP to address for many years.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about some specific changes to the Effects Analysis that BDCP has to make to be successful, highlighting many of the comments raised by the fishery agencies in more detail. 

NRDC and our partners want to see a successful BDCP, and together with other conservation groups in 2012 we outlined the essential elements of a successful BDCP

In addition, in 2013 several conservation groups, water districts, and businesses have recommended that BDCP should analyze a “Portfolio Alternative,” which may offer a successful path forward.  The “Portfolio Alternative” utilizes operational rules that were developed by the state and federal fishery agencies to meet species’ needs, which to date the State has refused to include in the range of alternatives being analyzed in BDCP.  The "Portfolio Alternative" also includes significant investments in levee improvements, south of Delta storage, conservation, recycling, and other local supplies, in order to create more new water for California in the most cost effective manner.  Conservation groups, business interests, and urban water agencies have asked the State to analyze this alternative in BDCP to see how it compares; members of Congress have asked for it to be analyzed; members of the State legislature have asked for it to be analyzed.  Unfortunately, thus far the State has refused to agree to analyze it as a standalone alternative in BDCP.

The refusal to use sound science is a significant reason why BDCP has taken so long, but ultimately utilizing sound science in the effects analysis is critical for BDCP to succeed.  The state and federal government have committed that BDCP will be based on, and guided by, sound science.  As the recent federal comments show, we still have a ways to go.  Now is the time to get the analysis right.

If we’re going to get things done in the Delta, we have to the analysis fairly and accurately, even if that means taking less water from the Delta. Cutting corners and refusing to use sound science is a recipe for failure and further delay.

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