“The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature.”
— Lewis Thomas
Conventional wisdom says that Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fisheries have collapsed because of loss of the pre-reclamation mosaic of habitat, so only more habitat will restore them to health.
But in fact, reclamation of Delta islands was completed by the third decade of the 20th century, yet fisheries remained relatively stable until the state and federal export projects became operational and began to export millions of acre feet of water every year.
There is now more habitat in the Delta than there was eighty years ago: almost 223,000 acres of “conservation lands” scattered throughout the Delta, according to The Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The BDCP proposes to create or restore approximately an additional 150,000 acres of aquatic, riparian, and terrestrial habitat in the Delta. The question everyone should be asking is this: Do habitat restoration projects actually benefit native fish species?
In case after case, the answer is No, according to a detailed analysis submitted by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance to support its comments on the BDCP. The analysis is “Overview of Habitat Restoration Successes and Failures in the Delta.”
The authors of this analysis, Thomas Cannon and Bill Jennings, point out that previous restoration efforts have failed to adequately meet the habitat requirements of native fish. “Successful restoration of native species requires restoring the conditions under which they evolved and prospered. This entails increasing outflows, mimicking the natural hydrograph, improving water quality, protecting the critical low salinity zone (LSZ) and reducing export of primary productivity. However, these are the essential elements BDCP cannot provide.”
The last thing BDCP wants to provide for habitat restoration is more fresh water, especially in critical dry years.
According to CSPA, “The majority of restoration projects in the more than 222,902 acres of existing ‘conservation lands’ scattered throughout the Delta have failed to achieve their forecasted goals.” The habitat restoration analysis looks in detail at 24 places in the Delta where restoration has been undertaken. It is, for the most part, a litany of failures.
“The main habitat features of importance include salinity, turbidity, tidal flows, productivity, and water temperature. Creating habitat that meets most or all of these criteria is extremely difficult but necessary. Very few of the restoration projects undertaken to date meet these criteria. Many implemented and proposed projects have fatal flaws (e.g. Liberty Island – lethal water temperatures) and did not consider these basic needs when designed and built (e.g. Decker Island, Kimball Island). Many project areas have actually deteriorated after purchase and little actual restoration was implemented (e.g. PG&E’s Collinsville property). Other projects failed because necessary funds to restore, maintain and adaptively manage the areas were never provided (e.g. Chipps Island, Franks Tract). Consequently, many of these restoration sites evolved into havens for an astonishing assemblage of invasive plants and fishes and adversely impacted native species (e.g. Big Break, West Sherman Island, Donlon Island). A number of projects that could be considered a success have had mixed results with unintended consequences (Yolo Bypass). . . . [Few] restoration projects have been designed with the needs of fish in mind.”
The report includes an attachment that analyzes the self-serving analyses and wishful thinking in BDCP’s habitat assessments for seasonally inundated floodplains, tidal natural communities, channel margin enhancements, and the Cache Slough and West Delta Restoration Opportunity Areas (ROAs). It also examines what it calls the major flaws in BDCP’s habitat restoration proposals. These include:
• Too much focus on tidal marshes that the fish will not use and that provide little indirect benefit to fishes through foodweb enhancement.
• Disregard for neglected areas that need restoration funding to fix poor habitat conditions “despite decades of pleas from their government and NGO owners and managers.”
• Disregard for water quality in the Delta, not just water temperature and salinity, including methylmercury in tidal marshes and seasonally flooded habitats.
• Important areas left out of the plan altogether.
• Lack of emphasis on fixing necessary hydrological connections.
• No attempt to address non-native invasive aquatic species that undermine native habitats and fish communities.
One of the strategies that has proved most effective–creation of channel margin habitat–is essentially ignored by BDCP, which proposes to restore only about 20 miles of channel margins.
The tunnels have been evaluated as a project, but all the habitat conservation measures have been analyzed at a programmatic level. In other words, they lack the kind of specific details you see in a project to which a real commitment has been made. There’s a good chance that some of them won’t be implemented in time to serve their intended purpose, if in fact they are ever implemented at all. Meanwhile, the tunnels will be built and operating.
In its BDCP comment letter, CSPA points out that “Conservation measures CM 2-21 [everything but the tunnels] together comprise a stand-alone publicly funded project to restore the Delta’s ecosystem,” a project that is not dependent on CM1, the tunnels. Some of the non-tunnel conservation measures in BDCP were Action Items in the 2000 CalFed Record of Decision but were never implemented or were implemented with unintended adverse consequences. They should be required mitigation for adverse impacts of the present export facilities, not offered as conservation measures to support permitting of a new facility.
Other conservation measures are already underway, having been approved, financed, and managed by others, and they will likely proceed whether or not BDCP is permitted. Says CSPA, “These actions should be considered part of the baseline or no-action alternative in the EIR/EIS and not included in BDCP’s portfolio of habitat mitigation measures.”
As things stand right now, says CSPA, “BDCP is not restoration; it is a death sentence for an estuary.”
CSPA submitted separate comments on the water quality analyses in BDCP, supported by a water quality assessment by G. Fred Lee & Associates.
Says CSPA, “The EIR/EIS and Delta Plan fail to contain a technically defensible analysis and discussion of the likelihood and extent of degradation and adverse impact to Delta water quality caused by alternative conveyance or increased exports.” There will be a higher percentage of low quality San Joaquin River water in the Delta, and it will stay there longer, with bioaccumulation and oxygen depletion getting worse.
BDCP has focused on effects of salt while ignoring “the universe of chemical constituents and pathogens degrading and impairing Delta waters.” CSPA’s letter says that “any credible environmental review should evaluate the impacts of potential hydrologic modifications on a pollutant-by-pollutant basis.”
“Delta water frequently contains a cocktail of as many as 15 pesticides, many of which interact additively or synergistically.” They bioaccumulate and act together to stress the already weakened aquatic ecosystem. Water quality criteria don’t even exist for some of the chemicals found in Delta water, and the Priority Pollutant List used by BDCP is decades old and doesn’t include chemicals (emerging pollutants) that have been identified as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and so on.
BDCP also didn’t use the best available models for predicting how the operation of the tunnels would affect water quality. They used modeling that would minimize the impacts of diverting 2.5 MAF of freshwater around the Delta, which is already severely polluted and suffering from a chronic lack of flow and inadequate water for dilution.
A sampling of inadequacies identified in this comment letter:
• The EIR/EIS’s analysis of the family of metal that includes copper, cadmium, lead, silver, and zinc is “technically wrong.” “The analysis of aluminum is deficient.”
• “Analysis of potential impacts related to pH is deficient.” The pH factor is important for both drinking water and aquatic life.
• “The assessment of pesticides fails to meet minimal requirements for a disclosure document.”
• “The evaluation of salinity and electrical conductivity is deficient.” So, for example, BDCP does not address crop yield reductions and associated lower profits earned if irrigation water is too salty for irrigation purposes. “[The] project does not fully protect the identified beneficial use of irrigated agriculture.”
• “The analysis and discussion of pathogens is fundamentally flawed.”
• “The analysis of water temperature is deficient.”
CSPA’s comment letter also explores the reasons why adaptive management has not been effective in the Delta and should not be expected to be effective under BDCP.
“Managers and decision makers have routinely rejected the ‘adaptive’ recommendations made by scientists, biologists and technical review teams. Resource and regulatory agencies have failed to adopt and implement recommended criteria and failed to enforce existing criteria. Financial resources have been lacking. Adaptive management has not only failed to reverse the downward spiral of native species in the estuary, it has chaperoned them to the brink of extinction.”
In the case of water quality, as in the case of habitat restoration, politics almost always trumps science.
On July 16, the California Water Commission (CWC) got an update from the Department of Water Resources and Glenn Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) on a project everyone has been referring to as “North-of-the-Delta Offstream Storage,” or NODOS. This is pronounced like the caffeine supplement NoDoz.
Several minutes into the presentation, Sites Reservoir, the actually NODOS project, was finally mentioned. But the terminology being used makes it clear that this project is part of a larger Delta strategy.
A little background:
Proposition 43, the Water Bond currently on the November ballot (first placed there in 2010 but twice postponed) includes a requirement that the California Water Commission develop and adopt, by regulation, methods for quantifying and managing public benefits of “eligible” water storage projects. “Eligible” has usually been understood to refer primarily to Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Dam.
The section of the Water Code (Section 74744) that includes this requirement will not become operative until and unless voters approve it in a Water Bond.
The CWC, funded who-knows-how, has been meeting regularly for four years and occupying itself with a variety of activities, such as hearing arguments about DWR getting onto private land in the Delta to gather core samples for tunnel planning. However, the public benefits quantification activity was the main reason given in 2009 for the Water Commission, which hadn’t been active for years, being resuscitated and given appointees.
Section 79743 of the Water Code identifies five types of public benefits eligible for public funding under Chapter 8 of the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act (the Water Bond on the November ballot):
• Ecosystem improvements like changing the timing of water diversions and improving flow conditions and temperature to benefit fish and wildlife, including those in the Delta.
• Improving water quality in the Delta or other river systems and cleaning up groundwater resources.
• Flood control benefits.
• Emergency response.
How do you quantify the benefits of ecosystem and water quality improvements to the Delta aquatic ecosystem and to native fish and wildlife? (That “native” is specified in the Public Benefits Review Draft.) There’s a lot of detail about this in the Draft Guidelines released by the CWC last November for public comment.
Proponents of Sites Reservoir are clearly gearing up to make a case to the CWC if and when funding for surface storage becomes available. Their July 16 presentation emphasized “wet” benefits or “wet” objectives” rather than, for example, power generation or recreation. Sites would, they said, be operated in conjunction with Trinity, Shasta, Oroville and Folsom to provide increased water supply, meet instream flow requirements, and improve water quality. (You can see the PowerPoints here and here. If you get a password request, just go to the California Water Commission website and click on the July 16 meeting. You should be able to access the presentations there.)
We won’t get into a discussion of all the reasons why Sites Reservoir is a bad idea, i.e. Mercury fields, trans-evaporation of possibly 1/3 of stored water due to winds and sun. Notes one long-time observer, “There’s a reason why old mining towns in that area had names like Chrome and Cinnabar. Sites Reservoir will just end up shallow, muddy, and toxic, and the interests who built it will have to clean it up.” What’s of interest from a Delta perspective is who thinks Sites and other increased upstream surface storage (like the disastrous proposal to raise Shasta Dam) is a good idea, and why.
According to Thad Bettner of GCID, the smallest version of the Sites project — the least expensive and the easiest to fund — has just water supply and ecosystem benefits. It has benefits with or without BDCP, but the presentation clearly tied benefits to BDCP operation, especially with climate change.
Ron Jacobsma of the Friant Water Authority spoke later in the meeting on the subject of Temperance Flat Dam, which is not affordable for agriculture. They’re looking for ways to operate Temperance Flat to change Delta export levels. Presumably, urban beneficiaries mean more bond funding.
What, exactly, is the connection between new upstream reservoirs and BDCP? The comment letter on BDCP submitted by the Environmental Water Caucus shows how the purpose of the Tunnels project is not only to increase supply reliability for current water project contractual commitments but also to enable market transfers of water across the Delta from willing sellers in the Sacramento Valley to buyers of water south of the Delta. (See pages 148-149.) Those making a huge capital investment in the North Delta intakes will have an immense incentive to use them in all years, not just in wet years. The kind of “flexible” storage and operation that Sites Reservoir represents will make that possible.
Another use of Sacramento Valley water purchases is “enhanced environmental flows” (EEF) that BDCP can use to meet adaptive management requirements if habitat doesn’t function as planned (and it won’t). Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that BDCP wants to fund EEF purchases with public funds.
In practice, willing sellers of surface water north of the Delta often substitute groundwater for their own irrigation purposes, drawing down aquifers at the expense of their neighbors. To see where that can lead, we only have to look at the overdrawn aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley. GCID’s Bettner told the CWC, “Where state legislation goes on groundwater greatly changes the storage debate.” Yes.
Sites Reservoir, Temperance Flat Dam, and the Tunnels were always part of a single grand scheme. The “historic” 2009 legislation and the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration were predicated on unrealistic assumptions about the amount of water the system could provide, both on the surface and from underground. It takes a serious drought to make the flaws obvious to everyone. But too many interests still think they can wring unsustainable amounts of water out of our over-committed system. All they need is one more dam, one more canal.
It has always been clear that the contractors would try to find a way to compensate for taking too much water from the Delta by trying to coordinate BDCP with operation of increased upstream surface storage. We’re not convinced that any water bond language, regardless of noble intent and crafted writing, will keep water interests from gaming California’s fragile water system to benefit Delta exports. There are millions of lucrative reasons for people to do it.