A New Plan for the Bay Delta

Kim Delfino, California Program Director

The Bay Delta ecosystem extends from the rivers flowing from the Sierra Nevada into the San FranciscoBay and out into the Pacific Ocean. It is the largest estuarine ecosystem (where freshwater and saltwater mix) along the entire west coast of North and South America, and one of California’s most important ecosystems, providing critical spawning grounds for some fish species, and rearing areas and migratory pathways for others.  The Bay Delta is home to Chinook salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail and other fish species.  It is also home to millions of migratory birds, numerous raptors like the California state listed Swainson’s hawk, and other threatened and endangered species such as the riparian brush rabbit and giant garter snake.

Almost every year since 1967, from September to December, California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists put trawl nets into the waters of the Bay Delta to determine how fish populations are doing, which helps them measure the overall health of the estuary.  This survey is known as the Fall Midwater Trawl, and over the years it has illustrated in stark terms that fish populations in the Bay Delta are drastically declining, with some species hovering near extinction.

In 2002, the fish population crash really started for six species, including the tiny but important Delta smelt.  The Delta smelt is the Delta ecosystem’s proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” with its population numbers hovering at less than one percent of its historical population.  This ecological crisis comes on the heels of decades of armoring our rivers with levees, building dams, diverting huge amounts of water for our agricultural fields and urban areas, dumping toxic chemicals into our rivers and streams and introducing non-native species, both intentionally and accidentally.  The Bay Delta has also become ground zero in a battle over water in California, with large urban and agricultural water agencies fighting to keeping draining water out of the Delta.

For the past six years,  we have been working with other conservation organizations, water agencies and local, state and federal agencies on a plan to create a solution for the Bay Delta.  The planning effort – known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (“BDCP”) – has struggled mightily to reconcile the equally important goals of restoring and recovering the Bay Delta ecosystem and providing California with a reliable water supply.

For a long time, we focused on a project that would involve a huge habitat restoration effort in conjunction with a massive twin-tunnel facility to move water where it is needed. This approach raised major questions about how much it will cost water agencies and the public, how well it will really recover the Bay Delta, and how much water it will actually provide to water agencies.  So in July 2012, we set off on a different track. Defenders joined with its environmental organization partners to outline what I hope will be the ultimate outcome of this important planning effort.

After working hard with our coalition of conservation and business groups, this month we released our new proposal – a Conceptual Alternative – on how to “fix” the Bay Delta ecosystem, and address the complex water issues it faces. This alternative focuses on a smaller, less expensive water conveyance tunnel in the Bay Delta, with the savings directed towards water recycling, water conservation, increased water storage south of the Bay Delta and improvements to the Delta’s aging levee system.

This approach is good news for the Bay Delta’s wildlife species, such as sandhill crane, Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, because it will result in fewer impacts to sensitive riparian, wetland and river habitats. It may also keep more water in the Bay Delta system at key times of the year for salmon, steelhead and smelt.  Our plan will also provide important information about how much water should be in the Delta ecosystem at times that are critical for species like the Delta smelt, and it will show that Delta habitat restoration can be more focused on less risky projects that are more likely to benefit both fish and wildlife, particularly migratory birds. In addition to all these benefits, the package will also cost less than the $18 billion price tag for the current BDCP.

While the Conceptual Alternative may not be the final, ultimate solution for the Bay Delta, I believe that it is essential for the state and federal agencies responsible for the BDCP to analyze  the critical information that this package offers about cost, water operations, habitat restoration and alternative water supplies – all of which are key components for a successful solution. We hope that the federal and state agencies involved will take a long look at this proposal and see that it will help them move closer to attaining the goals articulated by the environmental community in July 2012.

Just one month ago, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that the Fall Midwater Trawl came back with bad news – the fish populations are continuing to dwindle – with the threadfin shad setting a record low population.  This most recent news highlights how critical it is that we find a solution – fast – to save the Bay Delta and its species from extinction.

Time is running out for the Bay Delta.  Multiple planning efforts have been tried and failed.  Defenders of Wildlife and our partners believe that the BDCP might be the last, best hope for saving the Bay Delta and the species that depend on it, but in order for the BDCP to come up with the winning solution, we needed a “game changer” – a proposal to highlight what we believe is essential if a plan is to work for all those who have a stake in it: for the Bay Delta, for water users, and for California.  With our Conceptual Alternative proposal, we believe we finally have that piece of the puzzle, and hope it will finally spur some action toward restoring the Delta for all those who rely on it for survival.

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