If there are notable new nuggets in the latest Bay Delta Conservation Plan draft, released in part today, it may take a while for them to surface.
But for now, here are some highlights from a press conference/call held today.
• Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said that based upon past media reports he suspected many reporters would describe the new draft as a new chapter in California water wars. “That is an unfortunate narrative,” he said. “After seven years of very intensive effort we’re in a position to put forward a responsible, comprehensive plan,” although, as he acknowledged, not without controversy.
• He said the plan enjoys an “unprecedented amount of consensus” between government agencies.
• Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said his department will ultimately review the plan and decide whether to permit it. For now, he said, the framework of the plan has “some solid components.” “The news today is that a plan is out,” he said. “Many have said it would never come out. Some have suggested it couldn’t come out. It’s out.”
• He emphasized that the plan isn’t just about fish. It covers 57 species, including some notables like the sandhill crane and Swainson’s hawk.
• 100,000 acres of habitat will be restored over 50 years, he said. “We’re talking about restoration potentially visible from space,” Bonham said.
• Asked about how much water the project might actually provide, Cowin said there is no guarantee for the water users. Whether water is available will depend on the more than 200 goals and objectives in the plan, and will be consistent with water rights.
• It’s still unclear exactly how much water will be needed to flow through the Delta, he said. Average exports over the past 20 years are about 5.3 million acre-feet of water per year; at one end of the spectrum, those deliveries could decline up to 10 percent, and at the other end of the spectrum they could increase up to 5 percent. So, exports could go up or down. But doing nothing, he said, will leave exports at “far less” than 5.3 million acre-feet in the future.
• Asked why people should trust this effort, Bonham mentioned the “commitment” to those 200-plus goals and objectives, and emphasized how specific they are to each species. “They are specific at a level I don’t think we’ve been talking about in the Delta before,” he said. “They’re measurable, so we’ll be able to track failure and success in achieving them.”
• Asked whether the project can be done without a water bond, Cowin said the majority of funding will come from the water users who stand to benefit. But state and federal funding will be needed to complement that funding. “A water bond would be a great start,” he said.
• Asked about the timeline for construction, Cowin said that the goal at the moment is to get the plan done and hand it off to the wildlife agencies that need to approve it. “I can’t tell you how long that will take at this point,” he said. He added that once the permits are in hand, “We intend to move forward aggressively on habitat restoration,” creating 30,000 acres of habitat the first 15 years. He referred to that as a “Herculean effort.” But he offered no ballpark guess as to when tunnel construction might start.
• Asked whether screens on the new Sacramento River pumps will really protect fish like migrating baby salmon, Bonham said enough water will be sent downstream to make sure the fish are able to pass by the sucking of the pumps. He said the screens will be based on “2013 technology and pretty well-established screening criteria which didn’t exist decades earlier.” Similar-sized screens are already in place on diversions farther up the Sacramento River, he said.
• Asked whether upcoming environmental documents will examine non-tunnel alternatives, Cowin said the state “continues to look at other options” but added that “we’ve spent seven years toiling on a plan that deals with Delta issues alone. If we attempted to make this a statewide HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan), I don’t know when we would ever produce a plan.”
• Asked if he was worried about a lawsuit, Cowin said, “I’m always worried, but I’m not an attorney. We obviously believe we’re studying an appropriate range of alternatives. This is an expensive planning process and we’d be foolish to do so in a way we thought was legally vulnerable.”