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First Portion of $14 Billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan Released

Mar 14, 2013

State officials in Sacramento today released a portion of a new plan to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and improve water reliability for southern California residents and farmers. Known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the controversial project includes a $14 billion proposal to build two tunnels to carry water around the fragile ecosystem to users south of the delta. 

The information released today largely deals with environmental concerns and water conveyance. Included in the draft report are some 200 goals for the improvement of fish and wildlife populations. They include everything from goals for growth rates of individual fish, to overall increases in species populations. The proposal also outlines 22 “conservation measures” including new water infrastructure projects.

The centerpiece of the plan calls for the construction of two 35 mile-long tunnels, each 33 feet in diameter, which would carry water from the Sacramento River beneath the delta to existing pumping plants near Tracy. Other elements include cross channel gates to improve fish migration, and new state-of-the-art fish screens at intake locations.

Supporters say the tunnels are necessary to ensure water deliveries to southern California in the event of an earthquake, and to improve the health of threatened species. Current pumping operations in the delta can actually reverse the natural flow of the estuary, and have resulted in the deaths of delta smelt, which get caught in screens at the pumps. Experts say the pumping operations have also impacted salmon populations.  

Governor Jerry Brown has been a staunch advocate of the tunnel plan. But almost as soon as it was released, the proposal drew criticism from congressional Democrats  and environmentalists.  They say the tunnel proposal  is a threat to northern California water rights and fishermen, and will harm the delta's fragile ecosystem. Those opponents include Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton).

“Once again, the Governor is attempting to rush forward with his deeply flawed plan to build tunnels that will send our water south and devastate the families, farmers and small business owners who rely on a healthy Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for their livelihoods,” said McNerney in a written statement.  

He called on Brown and President Obama to give the federal government a role in determining the course of delta restoration and infrastructure improvements. 

“These people deserve to have their interests represented in any plan related to the Delta, and I will continue to call on the Governor and the Obama Administration to give them – and all of the people in our region – a voice in the process,” said McNerney.

Around 25 million Californians receive at least some of their drinking water from the delta, which also supplies water to thousands of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland. 

Supporters of the $14 billion project say that it would create around 137,000 new jobs over the next 50 years. The project would be paid for by the customers of public water agencies south of the delta.

The effort to craft a plan that will satisfy both environmental and economic interests has been many years in the making. 

“Getting to this point has been a long, complicated journey, but we have worked through some truly difficult issues. We are now closer than ever to finally safeguarding a water supply critical to California's future and restoring vitality and resiliency to the Delta ecosystem,” said California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin.

Officials will hold two more events in April to release the remaining portions of the report, which deal with implementation of the plan, potential alternatives and funding sources.