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Now, now, let’s all be reasonable

Wednesday afternoon, as the Water Board hearing continued, Jerry Meral and consultants held a public meeting to take questions on the first four chapters of the administrative draft of the BDCP, released just a week ago. Dozens of Delta residents showed up for this meeting, and they were mostly well-prepared with thoughtful questions. But it’s a good bet that NOBODY has had time to read the four chapters. Chapter 3 alone is 821 pages long, and that doesn’t include figures or appendices.

The routine for these public meetings is that Meral or a consultant will make a presentation, and then Meral will ask for questions. In other words, he isn’t interested in hearing what people in the audience think. He’s prepared for rhetorical questions and general grandstanding. Each question and comment gets a soothingly reasonable response, but only the most direct questions actually get an answer. On Wednesday, the answer was often, “That will be covered in the EIR” (the environmental documents scheduled for release this coming summer).

Some questions came up regarding the Water Board’s determinations of flow criteria. Since the Water Board seems poised to adopt San Joaquin River flows considerably lower than those the Board identified in 2010 as necessary for recovery of fish, it was reasonable to ask whether BDCP, which is after all a habitat conservation plan, would operate with higher flows if that was determined to be necessary for fish. Meral said “Yes.” (But why would the water contractors pay for that?)

Asked why BDCP doesn’t wait until after the Water Board has completed its work on flow criteria, Meral said that the Water Board is actually relying on BDCP for details about flow needs for the different species, since the Board doesn’t have the resources to do that research itself. He suggested that BDCP is actually collaborating with the Water Board on determining flow criteria.

Still missing from the material available are clearly presented details that would tie this plan to individual properties and thus to the lives of actual people. Osha Meserve of Local Agencies of the North Delta (LAND) handed out copies of a figure showing intake and barge landing locations in the North Delta (and including areas for the “tunnel muck” the tunnel drilling will generate in mind-boggling quantities). But this is a view from thousands of feet in the air.

Melinda Terry of the North Delta Water Agency noted that Conservation Measure 2 (CM2), Yolo Bypass Fisheries Enhancement, parallels work already going forward in the Yolo Bypass by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation. This is work identified in the 2009 Biological Opinion to modify both the Fremont and Sacramento Weirs to inundate the Yolo Bypass more frequently and for longer durations, not for flood control protection, but to create fish habitat.

Terry called this “prestidigitation” – sleight of hand where a magician fools the audience by having them watch one hand while the other does the magic trick. She mentioned other projects going forward at Yolo Ranch on Prospect Island. Work under the Biological Opinions (BiOps) will go forward on these projects with or without BDCP, but BDCP, if permitted, will receive habitat credit for them and manage them, and the funding sources are the same. She asked for greater transparency in these parallel processes, and Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District said they shouldn’t be parallel at all but should be integrated.

There are 22 Conservation Measures in BDCP. The very first – CM1 – is Water Facilities and Operation. It has always defied logic to say that operating peripheral tunnels to take large amounts of fresh water is actually a conservation measure for an area that has already been transformed by reduced flows into a place hostile to native species. But all the Conservation Measures are really Cosmetic Measures: attempts to put the lipstick of ecosystem restoration on the pig of conveyance tunnels.

Wednesday’s meeting lasted four and a half hours. Toward the end, Meral confirmed that BDCP would use eminent domain proceedings to take farmland for habitat restoration from those who are not “willing sellers.” He likened BDCP to a freeway project that can’t be stopped by one landowner. That’s a bad analogy, though: a freeway may be disruptive, but it doesn’t usually destroy the economy of an entire region.

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