It seems only yesterday that Westlands Water District briefly stormed away from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan table when they were told that the days of diverting more water than the Bay-Delta estuary could support were over. Westlands announced in November 2010 that it was quitting BDCP upon being told by the permitting agencies 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.” That news from the permitting agencies was no surprise in 2010. At that point, all of the credible biology indicated that we were depriving this important ecosystem of necessary flows, and that a more natural flow regime had to be implemented if we are to sustain California’s 150-year old salmon fishery and restore a healthy estuary. Indeed, a comprehensive scientific analysis completed by the State Water Board in August, 2010 concluded that best available science demonstrated that the current level of environmental flows, including the protections in the existing biological opinions (which allow for an average of 4.9 million acre-feet of water exported from the Delta), are inadequate to protect and restore public trust resources in the Bay-Delta.
This biological evidence has only grown stronger since 2010, with the National Academy of Sciences, Delta Science Program, and numerous other scientists confirming that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was failing to use the best available science and needed a significant overhaul of the project and of the scientific methodology used to analyze the potential impacts of that project. In May 2011, the five state and federal agencies (DWR, DFG, USBR, FWS, and NMFS) issued a proposed alternative operational proposal to address the significant fishery problems identified in the preliminary effects analysis. These alternative operations criteria were supposed to be included in “a wide range of alternatives that will be evaluated in a detailed Effects Analysis.”
Nevertheless, for the last two years, the contractors have stubbornly ignored this overwhelming scientific evidence and clung to their desired project in BDCP, insisting that the environmental analysis focus on their proposal to substantially increase exports from the Delta over current levels. Again, to no one’s surprise, the draft environmental analysis of the contractors’ proposal that was released in late February of this year demonstrated that the proposal would worsen the ecosystem and lead to the extinction of several important species. And just last week, the Delta Science Program’s independent peer review identified numerous substantial flaws in the methodology of the BDCP effects analysis, reinforcing many of the concerns of the state and federal agencies.
Meanwhile, NRDC and its environmental partners repeatedly urged the contractors and the agencies to analyze a much broader range of projects, including ones that were far more likely to achieve the co-equal goals. (Analysis of a broad range of alternatives is also required by state law, under the Delta Reform Act.) The contractors rejected our approach, insisting that the effects analysis focus only on their proposed project, with a much more limited analysis of other alternatives in the EIS/EIR.
Now comes Kern County Water Agency in a letter to Secretary Laird on May 2, 2012 (and echoed by the State Water Contractors and others), expressing their shock and outrage at the fact that after six years of hard work, BDCP has not yet identified a permittable project. Really? If only the contractors had not ignored all of the input of the scientists, agencies, and other participants in BDCP, the process would not have spent the last two years analyzing a project that they knew was unpermittable.
But Kern went even further, threatening to “withdraw all funding for the BDCP” if DWR Director Cowin does not exercise “unilateral decision-making authority” to identify a preferred project by late May. That is a near impossible task for Director Cowin to do at this point since the only comprehensive effects analysis completed to date – thanks to the contractors – has focused on the contractors’ own unpermittable project.
As Hubert Humphrey reportedly said: “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.” The contractors have spent over one hundred million dollars attempting to achieve their desire to squeeze ever more water out of the Delta. But that goal was never what BDCP was intended to achieve. The state can meet the co-equal goals by: (1) reducing water exports and restoring flows and habitat in the Delta; (2) investing in the vast potential of untapped local and regional water supplies, like expanded recycling, improved efficiency and stormwater capture and reuse; and (3) improving the physical stability of the Delta itself, along with the Delta's export facilities. That type of project would achieve a real water victory in line with the directive of state legislature in the 2009 Delta Water Reform package.