Starting with its 2007 report entitled “Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has significantly advanced the public conversation about whether to build a peripheral canal to convey water from California’s Bay-Delta estuary. At least in part because of the PPIC’s work, NRDC’s position on a peripheral canal has also evolved from our position in the 1980s, when California voters overwhelming rejected building the peripheral canal and NRDC’s position was to “just say no” to a PC.
That said, many proponents of a peripheral canal have attempted to use the work by the PPIC to justify a massive peripheral canal that would significantly increase water exports from the Delta. NRDC generally believes that even with a peripheral canal, water exports from the Delta are extremely unlikely to increase in the near future, and are likely to decrease because existing environmental flows are inadequate (as the State Water Resources Control Board has already concluded).
Yet a careful look at the PPIC’s work on Bay-Delta issues suggests that the PPIC is increasingly weighing in on the side of maintaining current export levels, rather than substantially increasing exports. In its 2007 report, the PPIC estimated annual water exports from the Delta of more than 6 million acre feet per year (see page 166); this was consistent with the unprecedented levels of diversions during the 2000s under the Bush Administration, which led to the collapse of fishery populations in the Delta and the federal courts ordering pumping restrictions in 2007.
However, ever since that 2007 report, the PPIC has focused more on improving the physical reliability of the system and much less on increasing exports. The 2008 PPIC report ("Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta) assumed water exports similar to the 1980-2000 period (see page 46), and in its 2011 report entitled “California Water: Planning for a Better Future,” the PPIC wrote that, “Given the extreme environmental degradation of this region, water users must be prepared to take less water from the Delta, at least until endangered fish populations recover” (see page 5). Most recently, in its 2012 report on the effect of a peripheral canal plan on the Delta economy (“Transitions for the Delta Economy”, the authors assume that a 7,500 cfs canal is built that exports 4.9 million acre feet of water per year, the average levels exported during the 1980 to 2000 period (See pages 35 and 40). 4.9 million acre feet of water exports per year (the 1980-2000 average) is the same level of water exports that are permitted under existing biological opinions to protect salmon and other fisheries in the Bay-Delta, as I’ve written about here.
The PPIC has substantially advanced the public conversation about a peripheral canal. We hope that the PPIC’s work will also advance the public conversation about how California can thrive with current levels of delta exports (which are the same as the average levels during the 1980-2000 period) by reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and investing in regional supplies like water conservation and recycling (as required by section 85021 of the California Water Code). A Bay Delta Conservation Plan that does not increase water exports from the Delta, but instead focuses on improving the physical reliability of the system against the risks of earthquakes or levee failures while also investing in water recycling, conservation, and transfers (among other tools), has a far greater chance of succeeding politically, economically and scientifically. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be what's in the current draft plan for BDCP.