Predictability, stability, and the confidence that a large chunk of our water supplies (and the heart of California’s aquatic ecosystem) are more than one earthquake away from total collapse – that is what the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is likely to buy California’s water supply in the long run. That goal, along with the promise of restoring the battered Bay-Delta ecosystem and the salmon fishing and other industries that it sustains, are why NRDC believes we must continue to try to develop a plan that achieves the co-equal objectives of restoring the Delta’s ecosystem and improving the reliability of California’s water supplies. But not everyone agrees that those two little words – “improving reliability” – mean ensuring a long-term predictable and stable water supply. Some seem to believe that “improving reliability” means that BDCP must vastly increase the amount of freshwater siphoned out of the Bay-Delta ecosystem. Or do they?
Much has been written in recent days of the current state of the BDCP as we near the waning days of the Schwarzenegger Administration. Almost all of the Steering Committee participants have acknowledged that progress has been made in plan development, but that there is a long way to go before the underlying analysis will be developed enough to propose an actual draft plan. Last week, the Kern County Water Agency reaffirmed its commitment to BDCP, and the State Water Contractors likewise recommitted to completing the BDCP process. The one glaring exception has been the Westlands Water District, which has loudly proclaimed its intention to quit the process.
According to Westlands’ press release, it is quitting “in response to political interference from the Department of the Interior” that it claims is emanating from Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes. So Westlands will only proceed with a BDCP planning process that is based on sound science and lacks “political interference”?
Well, no. In fact, just last week, the Chief Deputy General Manager of Westlands testified before a State Assembly Committee that what BDCP needs is for political appointees to step in and “manage” “mid-level biologists.” I guess that the type of “management” that Westlands is looking for is not the kind where the Deputy Secretary supports the findings and recommendations of his agency’s scientists, but another kind of “management” where those scientists are overruled by politics.
The other reason that Westlands provides for quitting the BDCP process is because, they claim, the Deputy Secretary has told Westlands that “it is unrealistic for the contractors to expect to achieve water supplies that are comparable to the supplies that resulted from the Bay-Delta Accord.” (Deputy Secretary Hayes has clarified that what he actually told Westlands was that “the goal identified by the water contractors of having operational criteria that will achieve an average of 6.2 million acre feet of water exports may not be realistic, given our scientists’ preliminary views that this level of exports may not be consistent with satisfying the co-equal goal of restoring the ecosystem.”) So Westlands will only stick with a BDCP planning process that results in water supplies equivalent to those seen in the mid-1990s, following completion of the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord?
Not exactly. If you look beyond the rhetoric to the facts, exports from the Delta in the 1990s averaged 4.7 million acre-feet, which is equivalent to the amount of water exported from the Delta in 2010 and less than the 4.9 million acre-feet that can be exported from the Delta on average under the current biological opinions. Even the decade of 2000-2009, during which exports reached four of the five historically highest levels, witnessed average levels of exports of 5.5 million acre-feet – far below the 6.2 million acre-feet that Westlands is currently demanding in BDCP.
So it must be that Westlands really just wants more water than has ever been consistently exported before, and that the stability and predictability aspects of reliability don’t matter much to the agency, right?
Wrong again. In an article printed in the Capital Press today, Westlands’ spokesperson, Sarah Woolf, is quoted as saying that Westlands is frustrated by “indications that water deliveries could shrink under a finalized BDCP, Woolf said. But Westlands accepts that outcome if supplies become reliable, she said.” This sentiment is consistent with the views previously expressed by Westlands’ farmers, that it is not more water they want, but more predictability that allows them to make planting and other investment decisions in a timely and rational manner.
Of course, the best way to achieve more reliable water supplies is for BDCP to focus on restoring the ecosystem and addressing vulnerability concerns associated with earthquake risk, not seeking promises of historically high export levels that can never be sustained. Various participants of BDCP may have different views about the purpose of BDCP (and some participants hold wildly differing views all within the same organization….). But the decisionmakers must keep their eye on the good public policy purposes of BDCP, which were articulated well by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Task Force:
The current condition and uses of the Delta are unsustainable. Rising sea levels will lead to intrusion of salt water farther upriver in the Delta, altering the ecology of fish and plants and contaminating waters withdrawn for diversion to agriculture and urban uses. Inevitable floods will inundate vast areas, overwhelm levees, destroy property and infrastructure, and endanger lives in flood-prone areas. Less certain but potentially more catastrophic earthquakes could profoundly alter the physical geography of vast areas of the Delta, obliterating settled areas with major flooding, destroying bridges, levees, roads, power transmission, gas pipelines, and buildings.
Our vision accepts the judgment that the current situation of the Delta is not sustainable. We recognize, among all the uses that must be accommodated in planning for the future of the Delta, two overriding priorities – ecosystem protection and water provision for human use. By giving a priority to ecosystem protection, we do not mean restoration to historical conditions that prevailed prior to the alterations that humans have effected over the past two centuries. We mean adapting patterns of construction, settlement, and uses to enhance the functioning of the Delta as an integral part of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary to the extent practicable within a relatively mature and developed economy. By assigning a priority to water provision, we do not envision any increases in available supplies for export outside the Delta. To do so would compromise our priority for ecosystem protection. [Delta Vision report at 55]
There’s a great deal at stake in the Delta – for Delta residents and farmers, for water users, for fishermen, for the state economy and the environment. Crafting a successful plan is too important to be knocked off the tracks by this piece of clumsy brinksmanship.