Radio show transcript: Jerry Meral and Jonas Minton discuss the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

Delta July 2013Earlier this week on West Marin Community Radio’s show, Post Carbon Radio, Deputy Director of Natural Resources Agency Jerry Meral and the Planning and Conservation League's Jonas Minton had a congenial debate on the merits of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Here's a transcript of the program.  For ease of reading, the host comments will be in italics.  (There were two hosts, Herb and Bing, but I soon lost track of who was who – my apologies.)

Host #1:  Today our program is about water, the blue gold that flows so freely from our faucets.  The water we take for granted, but water is precious.  90% of our body weight is water; there is no life without water.  Wars are fought over water.  And with climate change, there is now drought in the Middle West; in California, there are predictions of less snowpack in the winter in the Sierras and therefore less runoff later in the year.  And it will be more arid in the southern part of the state.  Currently in California, there is a major water project being planned so today we are airing the issues on California’s water future.  We’ll be talking about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the Delta tunnel plan. 

Host #2: Now is the time when I get to introduce Jerry Meral, who is in fact the man of the hour on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  A little bit about Jerry Meral – first of all, he is a local resident here in Inverness.  He was retired until he selflessly decided to rejoin Jerry Brown’s administration to head up this project.  Prior to that, he had a prior history with Jerry Brown’s first administration back in the 70s.  And following that, he was the executive director of the Planning and Conservation League.  Jerry, we’d like to welcome you and perhaps you can unveil the mysteries, of which there are many, about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Host #1: Our guest on the telephone today in Sacramento is Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser for the Planning and Conservation League.  Founded in 1972, the Planning and Conservation League provides research that serves as a catalyst for public policy change to solve critical environmental problems.  He has been working on issues surrounding water use and water policy issues for over 20 years.  Jonas is a former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, and he served on a team that secured federal Wild and Scenic River protection for more than 1200 miles of California rivers.  Jonas Minton, welcome to Post Carbon Radio.

One of the hosts then asks Jerry Meral to start by giving a basic outline of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Jerry Meral:  Thank you, Herb and Bing, for having both of us on the show today.  It’s certainly a timely topic; it’s visible in the newspapers these days, the Governor’s water plan.  You picked two guests that are more closely bound than you might think because when Jonas worked on that wild rivers plan, he was working for me when I was Deputy Director of Water Resources, so we go back a long ways.

The Governor’s plan is pretty straightforward, really.  It’s trying to solve environmental and water supply problems at the same time in the Delta, and it’s being done through the method of trying to comply with the state and federal endangered species acts.  We have 57 different species in the Delta that are of concern – plants, animals, fish, wildlife and a lot of other species that aren’t even listed on that list like waterfowl that we’re trying to protect and enhance.

The state endangered species law is very strong, and it says not only that you must avoid jeopardy for these species, but you must contribute to their recovery.  Our goal is to try and help these species recover and at the same time to maintain the state’s Delta water supply which is very important.  A little less than 20% of our state’s water comes from the Delta and that includes all the water for northern Contra Costa County, 80% for southern Alameda, about half for Santa Clara County, and then anywhere 20 to 70% more in the San Joaquin Valley, and about a third in Southern California.  So, even though it’s only 20% of our water, it is a very large share of our urban water supply in California.

Host:  Not only that, where the water is comes from is a critical point for the Delta, which is the heart of the water system in California.  Let’s talk a little bit about the tunnels themselves.  The tunnels are designed to bypass in some ways the Delta, although my current understanding is that they begin around Hood, which is in the upper Delta, and they will go about 35 miles.  

Jerry Meral: Yes, you’ve got it right.  A part of this plan is to avoid the problem we’re having today.  We’re diverting water from the south Delta and that’s very harmful to fish.  So we have a lot of fish in the south Delta that get trapped by the pumps and even exported down south.  We want to avoid that and in order to do that, the idea is to build the tunnels.  They were first proposed by the Department of Fish and Game (now called Fish and Wildlife) about 50 years ago as a means of avoiding a fish trap in a sense.  Now, in fact, not all the water would be diverted into the tunnels if they were built; about half the water would continue to come out of Delta channels, but we think by reducing it that much, we can avoid these fish trapping problems, so it’d be a mixed system, but we are trying to follow what the fish agencies had said for a long time is necessary.

Host: Let’s describe the tunnels. The tunnels are 35 miles long, they are 35 feet in diameter, and there are two of them.  Those sound enormous.  When you think about it, there is no building that is this high anywhere here in West Marin as far as I know.

Jerry Meral: Yes, that’s right, we have a 25 foot coastal permit that limits that.

Host: But if we look at the façade of the Grandey Building, that in itself is no more than half the height roughly, or maybe 2/3rds.

Jerry Meral: Well I don’t know.  Grandey could be 30, but it’s something in that range.  The reason for the large size is because we want to have the water flow by gravity.  We don’t want to pump.  Now there will have to be some pumps to pump it out of the river, but we don’t want to have to pump it across the Delta, so we could avoid a huge energy investment by making the tunnel larger.  When you do that, you have a bigger facility, but you can go by gravity.  The smaller the tunnel gets, the more you’d probably have to pump it, so we save a huge amount of energy by using gravity flow.

Host: And then there is the question … what do you do with the large amount of land that you’re going to be digging out to put the tunnels in?  Why don’t you talk about that and perhaps talk about what’s going on in the Delta and on the Delta islands.

Jerry Meral: The material that you excavate when you’re digging the tunnel with these big tunnel boring machines will be dirt.  It’s just what’s underneath the Delta.  It’s never been disturbed by humans.  It won’t have any toxic materials in it – it’s primordial, in a sense.  We think that the material will be extremely valuable.  The people in the Delta we’re talking to now are already saying ‘could we have some of that to fill in low spots on islands, can we use it to bolster levees, can we use it to restore habitat,’ so actually I think there already is a high demand for that material.  And it will be clean.  We will be adding materials to it that make tunnel boring machines work but they are not toxic.

This has been done elsewhere.  In the South Bay, they just built a very large tunnel, the Irvington Tunnel replacement, the first tunnel underneath the bay, interestingly enough, and they used almost all of the material to restore wetlands in the refuge, so we’re pretty confident that this material will be pretty useful and will be in high demand.  But it is a large volume; it’s millions of cubic yards.  This is a very large tunnel, even though it’s narrow in a sense, it has to go a long ways.

Host:  Jonas, you have a critique of the Delta tunnel project, and what are the alternatives?  I think there is a portfolio of other solutions.

Jonas Minton:  First, let me say that we agree with Jerry Meral and the Brown administration that the Delta needs improvement.  Let’s just remind our listeners where the Delta is.  Not everybody knows it.  It’s an area of about 700,000 acres.  It’s triangular shaped, from Sacramento to Tracy (by Stockton), and then to Rio Vista, so it’s a pretty big area.  In fact, it is the largest estuary on the west coast of the hemisphere, so it’s a very important biological resource.

One of the things that is concerning to us is what the people who will get water expect to get.  It’s a pretty expensive project, around $25 billion is the current estimate.  Seven years ago it was estimated at $3 billion and now it’s up to $25 billion.  Our concern is that when water interests in Southern and Central California pay that much money, they are going to want to get a lot of water from the Delta.

What we’ve learned in the past 50 years is that the water diverted or exported from the Delta has had major impacts.  We’ve seen the crash of fisheries dependent on that estuary, dependent in large part on the freshwater coming into and going out of the estuary.  That’s not to say that water diversions are the only cause for this environmental collapse, but independent scientists have agreed that the Delta needs more water.

The theory behind this project makes some sense.  It’s called ‘big gulp, little sip' and what that means is that in wet years, when there is excess water – when its flooding, more water will be diverted, including through these large tunnels.  The tradeoff would be that in dry years, such as the one we’re experiencing now, diversions would be less than they would be otherwise.  So ‘big gulp, little sip.’

The concern is that after these southern California and Central California water interests pay upwards of $25 billion, it will convert into ‘big gulp, big gulp,’ and everybody has been wrestling for decades to try and identify are there any possible assurances that that would not occur.

The other thing that is troubling to us is the sequence by which this project would proceed.  We believe that the first step should be identifying how much fresh water the Delta needs.  That kind of tells you how much water is left for beneficial uses elsewhere in the state.  However, the current approach is one of ‘build it now and figure it out later.’  That causes us concern when the people with a lot of money and a lot of votes in southern and central California, once it is built, are the ones who will set the rules.  It won’t be Jerry Meral – I would trust Jerry to do a great job, but over the next 50 years, Jerry’s going to move on to other good things.

So those are some of our concerns, and that caused us to suggest an alternative.  One that would have a tunnel but a much smaller tunnel, and it would take the savings, the significant cost savings, and invest them in water conservation, water recycling, and stormwater capture, particularly in southern California.  We know that much of this water that is diverted from the Delta goes down this long canal to uses in those areas where it is used once and then discharged to the ocean.  We think that in this climate change world, we can no longer can afford to do that.  By investing in those kinds of programs, we reduce the need and could actually reduce the total volume of exports from the Delta.  So that’s what our alternative focuses on.

Host:  Let me ask Jerry a question.  Jonas mentioned that the plan would cost $25 billion, but I’m not sure that includes interest on bonds … ?

Jerry Meral: Well there are a lot of ways of looking at it.  The capital costs of the project, the tunnels, if you built them today, would be in the $14 billion range.  The habitat restoration that we want to do, it’s a very important part of the plan – that would be $4 – $5 billion.  This would be the largest habitat restoration program ever undertaken in the western United States.  So those are the out front costs, and then you can add in costs like operations, maintenance, and interest and get it up as high as you want, but I think most people want to know if you built it today, how much would it cost, so those would be the numbers.

The costs of building those tunnels would be borne by the water users, including mitigation for the tunnels, and the general public would pay for the habitat restoration, which is typically done in these habitat conservation plans.

Host:  The financing, which as you’ve pointed out, will not be public financing.  The last time there was an attempt to do something like that, you were involved with that in the original Jerry Brown administration, it failed because in part because it was a publicly financed program and for some other reasons at well, but this means … since there is no public financing in terms of a bond issue that will be before the public, the public will not be voting directly on whether we should have a tunnel program or not.

Jerry Meral: Well, it is true that there is public financing for the habitat part.  There’s a bond on the ballot today that would be voted on next November if it stays on the ballot that includes some funding for habitat.  There is a possibility that the public will vote on the habitat, but not on the tunnel part.  Last time, in fact, it was assumed the contractors would pay most of that cost, but the reason it appeared on the ballot was because it was a referendum that was placed on through the signature process.

Host: Can you perhaps anticipate this happening now … there may be groups that might want to do this?

Jerry Meral: There’s a subtle difference between a referendum and an initiative.  A referendum is where the Legislature passes a law and the voters for some reason don’t like it so they gather signatures and put the law on the ballot.  But someone could do an initiative, they could gather signatures and say we don’t like this or whatever, they could go through the initiative process.  There’s no sign of that happening now but theoretically it’s possible.

Host: The current plan to get this forward.  Right now you’re in the process of working out the plan in some detail.  And some chapters have been released?

Jerry Meral: On the website, baydeltaconservationplan.com, I encourage all of your listeners to go to that site and see what we’ve got there.  We have all of the draft environmental impact statement and the draft of the Plan itself.  I have to tell you for full disclosure it’s about 25,000 pages.  But we have a lot of very concise summary material, and that’s just the administrative draft.  Sometime in fall, we’ll put on the website the actual for public comment draft and people can send in their comments.

Host:  The comment draft will be for the EIR/EIS?  How does the EIR/EIS fit into this schedule?

Jerry Meral:  The same thing.  We’ll put the plan out and we’ll put the EIR/EIS out, which looks at the environmental effects of the plan.

Host:  Ok, so it will be the fall when it becomes a public matter for public discussion.  …   Jonas, would you like to weigh in on the conversation?

Jonas Minton: There are a couple things that I would add.  As Jerry noted, there’s a lot of material that’s been produced.  I am reminded of that quote by UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden.   His quote was ‘never mistake activity for progress.’  Jerry Meral is one of the most accomplished water managers I have ever met in my 35 years.  However, he has such a Herculean task, which is why many of the most important issues are still unresolved.  These are some of them:  how would these tunnels be operated?  Which is to say, how much water would be diverted in wet years?  A critical question.  Amongst those water users, those interests in Southern California, how much are they willing or able to pay for a share?  And this is a subject of intense discussion between those water interests.  And a third major issue is, is this project permittable under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts?  As Jerry pointed out, in the spirit of public disclosure, for which we commend them, they have put out pre-draft information about the environmental impact report and environmental impact statement.  However, the state and federal permitting agencies have not really given it a particular good grade, identifying areas of inadequacy and perceived bias in the materials, so it’s very difficult what Jerry is trying to do for the Brown Administration, and most of the key points are still unresolved.

Host: Jerry, do you have some things you want to say?

Jerry Meral: Well, that’s not inaccurate in that it’s true.  We haven’t settled on any operating plan.  The issue is still unresolved.  The water contractors have to pay for this; they are still discussing how to do that, but it is, as they say in Britain, early days, even though this program has been going on for seven years at great expense, but when we put out the official draft, we hope to resolve a lot of these issues.  We had a statement from the National Marine Fisheries Service that they have some level on confidence that while they did raise some very important points, we can resolve them in time to put out an official draft of the plan and the EIS this fall.  Jonas is right, it’s a very complicated plan, very complex in its financing and its operation, and we are not done by any means, but hopefully when we come out with the draft, we’ll have something that people can get their teeth into.

Host: One other point.  The Legislature – some people have described what the legislature did is to punt.  They have essentially created a situation where they are not going to have to vote on the specifics.  Again, this sounds very complicated.  Can you explain that?

Jerry Meral: In 2009, the Legislature passed a whole package of bills, some of them dealing with this subject that created the Delta Stewardship Council.  They gave a whole lot of criteria they wanted to include if this program went forward.  In the EIS, there were very specific alternatives we had to look at.  They talked about financing.  I wouldn’t say it is fair to say that they punted; they really addressed this issue.  Now, the Legislation did not pass unanimously.  The people in the Delta didn’t like it and some environmental groups didn’t like it, but it did pass, and we are following it.  They also passed a bill that said that the urban water users in California had to reduce their use 20% by the year 2020, and for the theme of the show here, Post Carbon Radio, water – in its various uses – is the largest user of energy in California in terms of pumping it, heating it, disposing it and so on, so reducing use in urban areas is tremendously important from an energy point of view and I think maybe one of the best things they did in that legislation.

Host: So the legislation that passed that essentially created the framework, and you referred to an organization that I’d like you to explain a little further – the Delta Stewardship Council.  But they [Legislature] will not then have to go back to it and approve what you come up with.

Jerry Meral: Yes that’s right, the only thing the Legislature will have to do is – they put the bond act that we described earlier on the ballot next year.  Actually they put it on the ballot in 2010 and its been deferred twice because of bad polling, and if they wanted to put it off again, they would have to act each time they did that, or they could amend it, some people have said it should be amended, but they don’t have to act specifically on the proposed BDCP; they sort of authorized it in 2009.

Host: I want to bring back a ghost that you may not want to remember.  The Chronicle said Jerry Meral said that the tunnels won’t save the Delta.  How do you explain that?

Jerry Meral: Well, I’m sure the Chronicle was right in the sense.  Certainly no one in the Delta would think that they are being saved by the building of the tunnels.  There are a lot of pieces to saving the Delta.  We need to work on the levees, we need to work on land use, we need to restore fish and wildlife, and no single plan, even the whole BDCP, will save the Delta all by itself.  We need a combined state program.  Actually Jonas might want to comment on that because he’s working on short term fixes to Delta problems, so I think the tunnels wouldn’t save the Delta, but we can do a lot to save the Delta in a lot of different ways.

Host: We have a caller so we’ll come back to this. 

Caller: Gray Brechin, UC Berkeley … what has been missing from the discussion so far is history and politics.  Anybody who is aware of water in California realizes that these are inextricably mixed together and in particular, the reason why the Delta is in such dire environmental shape at this point is largely because of the State Water Project which was the dream child of Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown.  And in an interview he did with the regional history office here at the Ben Croft library, he admitted to Malka Shawl ( sp?) that he actually lied to the people of California in drastically underestimating the cost of the State Water Project, but that was only the economic cost.  The environmental cost wasn’t considered at all.  Now here at the UC California we had a magnificent water resource center archive built up over 50 years which was absolutely essential for understanding what is happening to water in California.  And 3 years ago, the administration had that moved down to UC Riverside, and it recently essentially has been put out of business.  The water resource center archive was absolutely critical, not only for scholars like myself, because I used it for writing my dissertation, but also for journalists to understand what California water politics is and why we’ve gotten into such a mess.  I wonder if Jerry Meral can actually tell us what happened to the water resource center archive, which I am sure he must be very familiar with it.

Jerry Meral: I was a donor to it and I’m appalled to hear you say that it’s no longer in existence.  I gave a lot of material to the archive.  I know they moved it to Riverside, but that was the last I had heard, and I’m sorry to hear if it’s no longer functioning because I totally agree that scholars like yourself and many others have used that archive for research over many years, so I’m sorry to hear that if that is the case.

Caller: There should actually be an investigation, a state investigation, into what actually happened. …  It was a stand-alone collection and it’s now, as I understand, being blended into the rest of the collection after being three years with no acquistions so it is ceasing to exist.  I’m not sure what’s going to happen to your papers.  It’s a tragic loss to California and to the world.

Note to readers:  How about a Maven investigation – cheaper and faster than the state.  So at this point, I picked up the phone.  I spoke with Jessica at the Water Resources Collections and Archives (as it is now called) at UC Riverside who assured me the collection a fully functioning collection; you can make an appointment to come in and see it.  They’ll do things like scan documents if you can’t make it there or do intra-library loans:   “We provide all the same functions and services as was available when it was in Northern California,” Jessica told me.  You can visit them online here: http://library.ucr.edu/wrca/  –Maven

Host: Let’s talk about the underlying thing that the caller was calling about – the history.  Pat Brown’s original water plan which oversimplifying … it shipped a lot of water over the Tehachapis to Southern California and the way that people who are most disturbed by it would say ‘to fill the swimming pools of Southern California.’  Sometimes I think what Jerry’s trying to do is straighten out his Pop’s mess.

Jerry Meral: It’s important to put everything in perspective.  The State Water Project exports somewhere over 2 million acre-feet by itself to the Bay Area actually a lot, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California – that’s a pretty tiny fraction of the total use of water in the Central Valley but it’s an important fraction; everybody agrees with that.  The Central Valley Project is a larger exporter of water, but we need to look at the Delta as a whole and look at the export of water, as Gray has written about it very expertly, by San Francisco and East Bay MUD who don’t contribute an awful lot to the health of the Delta.  They do environmental compliance upstream.  We are trying to treat the Delta as a whole.  The exports are important, everyone agrees with that, the impact of upstream dams and reservoirs, of global warming, which is really changing the way the Delta works – we can’t deal with these things just in isolation, so we’re going to have to deal with it at the State Water Board where they deal with it sort of globally, and also through the other regulatory processes that we have.

Host: Again, some critics have raised the issue … to take the flip side of what you are saying, this is just the beginning, that this will lead to further incursions upstream on several rivers and raising Shasta Dam – that this is in the offing as part of the results of this kind of activity.

Jerry Meral: It’s sort of odd to say this but this project is really about adaptation to climate change.  What we’re going to see in the Sierra is a change from a snow regime to a rain regime.  And that’s a terrible loss, because the reservoirs in the state that do the most for us are the snow reservoirs.  They accumulate huge amounts of water; the water melts gradually, it comes off in a nice even sort of way, and we can make use of it in the time of the year that we need it.  And as we shift into the rain regime, we’re going to see big storms in the Sierra; they are going to come down really fast, they’re going to cause flooding probably, and we’re going to have to change the way we manage water in the state.

Part of that is going to impact the Delta, and so we include accommodation space in our habitat development work in this program.  So, for example, we want to create 65,000 acres of tidal marsh, mostly in the northern Delta – in Solano County and in Yolo County, and we also have to acquire ultimately land that is at higher elevation to accommodate sea level rise.  So the whole program is very responsive to climate change.  We have to be aware that the Delta is going to change and our whole state water picture is going to change as well.

Jonas Minton:  Let me just observe a couple of things.  The first is that the Delta is a very complex ecosystem.  It has been damaged by a variety of land use actions, as well as the increased diversions.  And the comment about learning from history is quite appropriate in this case.  We can look at estuaries and riverine systems around the world to see what happens when fresh water is reduced.

A close example is the Trinity River, not too far from you up the coast.  Back when major diversions were accomplished, you might say, from that river, its health just plummeted.  Well, people said ‘let’s do a lot of habitat work, let’s create more spawning areas for the fish’ and so forth but none of those worked.  What the river needed was water, and as a result of some actions over the past decade, the river got more water and the fish got healthier.  So there are some lessons that history can provide us here.  And in this case, taking more fresh water from the Delta or even taking these historic high amounts from the Delta is likely to have the same results: continued degradation on the path of extinction for several endangered species.

Host: So what is the way out of this?  I address this to both Jerry and Jonas.

Jerry Meral: Well I think we would probably say the same thing.  We need to do more water conservation, more wastewater recycling, more groundwater storage because that’s a good way of doing the ‘big gulp’ as Jonas described, and do what legislature said we have to do: reduce reliance on the Delta.  That was part of that big law that was passed in 2009 that said you must reduce future reliance on the Delta.  I think everyone agrees with that; there’s no great benefit to anyone in the state to take water out of the Delta if they can use their own resources, and we want to invest state bond funds in that very program.

Jonas Minton: Let me add a bit more.  Jerry is correct that the legislation called for reduced reliance on water from the Delta.  However, there is a fundamental disagreement about what that means.  Now some people say that a plain reading is that there would be less water diverted from the Delta.  But those who would pay the $25 billion or more say it means something else.  It means that they would in essence take the same amount but for their future increases in demands, they would meet those from local sources.  Their position as I understand it is that they want to be able to continue to take as much water as they could have taken in the past.  So that semantic difference has real meaning, and that’s one of the issues that Jerry is wrestling with pretty much on a daily basis with those who would pay.  Does reduced reliance on the Delta actually mean reduced diversions from the Delta?

Jerry Meral: I would say that is right, even more so, in a way.  The amounts that were taken in the early part of the century were pretty large.  We’ve told the water diverters that they are highly unlikely – virtually very unlikely – to ever get back to those kinds of levels, so I agree that it’s very likely in the future that the amount of water exported from the Delta will go down as compared to what we’ve diverted in the past, just because of climate change, which has huge impact, and because of increasing regulation to protect the fisheries – and that’s even if we do this project.  If we don’t do this project, the Delta is subject to a lot of perturbations –earthquakes and so on, we could have levee collapses, and also there could be increased regulations.  I think it’s a question of how much it’s going to go down, not whether it’s going to go back up.

Host: Let’s talk about two parts of it.  One, we’ve talked about the people who are going to pay.  Some water agencies or some of the entities potentially involved, they don’t want any part of it.  They are opposed to it.  And … why don’t you talk about that opposition that’s come from some of the people in the water resource community?

Jerry Meral: Well, there’s no question that there’s opposition to the program in the Delta.  They do not want this for a whole variety of reasons that we could get into.   We haven’t had any opposition from those who currently export water from the Delta but we haven’t had any support either.  They, like many other people, are waiting to see what the draft documents look like.  How much water they can get, what will be their costs – it’s not final yet.  So I would say they are not committed to the program yet but they are very interested in it and most of them are putting money into the planning process.  There is no group that currently exports from the Delta that said they are actually opposed as far as I know.

Host: So the opposition comes from the water agencies that have not been participating in the export of water …

Caller: Ignacio (indistinguishable last name)  calling from Berkeley.  I want to thank you for holding this really important discussion that has come much too late for the consideration of the public of California.  Seems to me like this idea has been hanging in the air and every time it gets exposed to the public, it gets rejected for good reasons.  It is not really about an engineering project but a social and policy politics project of the state of California.  I wonder if there has been any real consideration of how consumption can be reduced, especially in the south, how we can have a limit to much growth we can have, how much real estate can be developed, and so on and so forth.   And I will be thankful for any guidance on where to look for alternatives instead of providing more and more water to developments that should not be sustained.

Jerry Meral: It’s important to note that Southern California is one of the world’s leaders in water conservation and wastewater recycling, and is frankly far ahead of the Bay Area, I’m sorry to say that as a Bay Area resident, but their amount of reuse and their per capita use is really exemplary.  Now it isn’t as low as it could be and it could get better, and we want it to get better, but it’s very good.  We also need better water conservation in the agricultural sector, but again, those who export water from the Delta are paying a lot, so their efficiencies are pretty high compared to farmers nationwide.  So we need to do more by way of water conservation.  The City of Los Angeles has added millions of residents without increasing its water use over the last 15 years, so we are doing these programs, but they are not sufficient.  We need to do a lot more because people are coming.  We have to accommodate them, but I think we can do it with the amount of water we have today.

Jonas Minton: Let me expand on that.  Certainly California, including Southern California, is more water efficient than they were twenty or thirty years ago when Jerry supervised me at the DWR, and actively promoted water conservation.  Many of the results are from his work back then. However, there’s a lot more work that can be done.  The same California Department of Water Resources that we used to work for have updated their state water plan, and they have identified literally millions of acre-feet of recycled water and conservation potential that’s not being realized.  For those folks concerned about climate change, even if these tunnels in the Delta flow partially by gravity, this water will still be the most energy intensive source of water.  Compare that to water conservation which is actually usually a net energy improvement.  Water recycling uses half or less the energy than pumping water all the way from Northern California.  So yes, much has been done, but study after study has shown that there is tremendous untapped potential.  We think by using that potential and looking at some of the agricultural possibilities, it will be possible to achieve reduced diversions from the Delta, keeping more fresh water to restore that ecosystem.

Host: Let’s talk about one group that you’ve mentioned, this Bay Delta group that is an oversight group?

Jerry Meral: That’s called the Delta Stewardship Council, and it was created in the 2009 legislation, the Delta Reform Act.  There are seven members appointed by the Governor and the speaker and others.  They supervise all activities in the Delta.  So if you have a land use change, it might go through the Delta Protection Commission which is another body, but it ends up at the Delta Stewardship Council, and they will also have to approve this plan.

This plan, when it’s finished and approved by our state Department of Fish and Wildlife will have to go before the Delta Stewardship Council through an appeals process and be approved by them.  And they have very high standards they have to meet; they have to meet the reduced reliance on the Delta standard and water conservation and so on, and that will be a level of review the plan will have to go through. They are doing a lot more; they have recently issued the Delta Plan itself, and if you go to their website, you can see that plan.  It’s also long but pretty easy to read and they have summary documents.  But unfortunately that plan is being litigated by virtually every interest group who feels that they have been abused – the landowners, the exporters, some of the conservation groups – all feel the plan is inadequate in one way or another.  Which may be a sign that adding them all up together, it is adequate.  We’ll find out.  It’s a very important body; and Phil Isenberg, the former assemblyman from Sacramento and former mayor of Sacramento, is the chair of that body.

Host: So we not only have a [Bay Delta Conservation Plan], but we have a Delta Plan, so they shouldn’t be confused, and the Delta Plan is focused on preservation in the Delta?

Jerry Meral: It’s everything.  Our BDCP, if it’s approved by the biological agencies, will become part of, one piece of, the overall Delta Plan.

Host: So this complex plan that you’re heading up is only one part of an even more complex effort.  Somehow, the notion of human engineering that goes on seems to be so staggering, it’s hard to keep it all in place.

Jerry Meral: Yes it is, and there are other Delta bodies; I think we have four or five state agencies who are primarily or entirely devoted to the Delta; it’s probably the most government-ized piece of real estate on the planet.

Host: One thing I would like to throw in is I understand the tunnels themselves will take ten years to construct.

Jerry Meral: Oh probably, something like that.

Host: But the ecological protection will be implemented over 50 years.

Jerry Meral: That’s right, starting right away.

Jonas Minton: And to add to the complexity of coming up with a solution, let me give you a scale.  As Jerry mentioned, the BDCP has been going on for seven years.  So far it has cost about a quarter of a billion dollars, and this is why I think it is costing so much.  In this case, Jerry Brown administration inherited BDCP from the Schwarzenegger administration.  And contrary to the advice of some, including the Planning and Conservation League, what they did is they started off with the project they wanted, and then they’ve been trying to explain or justify or scientifically demonstrate how it could work.  And again in the past 7 years, the cost has gone up from $3 billion to $25 billion, the permitting challenges have become greater, not less; and the scientific questions have not gone away.  It’s really hard to thread the needle or find the sweet spot with this effort.

You commented that there are a plethora of other efforts underway.  There’s also the Delta Protection Commission, the Delta Conservancy, there’s Department of Fish and Wildlife – there are numerous federal agencies with a  hand in this kitchen, and we think that by inheriting this project where they figured out what they wanted and then tried to justify it – it has made it difficult for the water exporters, the people who would get the water, to objectively look alternatives like how much increased water conservation be achieved and how would that affect the diversions from the Delta.  Yes there is scientific uncertainty, and using the precautionary principle, I guess our first concern is, as they tell physicians, the first priority is do no harm. We think we can do better than do no harm, but it really requires that kind of comprehensive look at what we can do with things like conservation and recycling, some habitat restoration in the Delta, and other measures.

Jerry Meral: Well, we’re trying to do that.  The project has changed a lot; it was originally proposed to be 15,000 cfs, but in 2011, we got a letter signed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Planning & Conservation League and others, that said you should reduce the size of the tunnels from 15,000 to 9,000, and after a lot of thought and consultation, we actually responded positively to that request and we did reduce it from 15,000 to 9,000.  That is not to say we’ve selected an alternative; under CEQA, you have to be very careful not to pre-decide what you’re doing, so we have the proposed project at 9,000 but we’re willing to look at the 3,000 that Jonas described and several other sizes, but we did reduce the proposed project from 15 to 9 at the request of most of the conservation groups.

Host: The other part of the complexity that we’ve sort of mentioned but should be fully understood is the number of agencies that have to sign off.  I heard a hundred have to be … is that?

Jerry Meral: I don’t know if it’s a hundred but it’s a lot.  We have the Corps of Engineers, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Central Valley flood board, and it goes on and on.  But this is a highly complex project, it’s a huge project, and we have a lot of regulations to make sure it’s done right, so that’s not a problem.

Host: Do you think it will be underway before Jerry leaves office?

Jerry Meral: Yes, because I’m confident if he runs for reelection, he’ll be reelected, so we’ve got five years to go, so I would say yes.

Host: Jonas, I’ll give you the final words.

Jonas Minton: We certainly, as I said, agree that things need to be done in the Delta.  We think that the BDCP process could be improved.  The only way one really gets to a solution is by involving people, bringing them in, getting some agreement, and some acquiescence.   Currently there is such substantial opposition to the program as its currently described, that being a water developer in the past myself, I just can’t see how they bring this to a finish.

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7 Responses

  1. Jerry Cadagan

    The comments by Jerry M. towards the end of the interview about tunnel size need clarification. He says the tunnel size was reduced from 15,000cfs to 9,000cfs. That’s not literally true. The Tunnels are still designed to have a capacity of 15,000cfs. The reduction he talks about was in the intake pumps to feed the tunnels. The most recent proposal calls for 3 intakes at 3,000cfs each, or a total of 9,000cfs.

    But Jerry’s boss, John Laird, has admitted in a recent State Senate hearing that the Tunnels could be pressurized and actually carry 15,000cfs. Many of us are concerned that the exporters will quite quickly want to add a couple of more intake gizmos and totally fill the tunnels. That wold require energy to get the water through the Tunnels, rather than gravity which is the current plan. Our concern is exacerbated by the prospect that the exporters would suggest removing Wild & Scenic protection from one or more of the North Coast rivers like the Eel and moving some of that water over to the Sacramento River to help fill the Tunnels. The fact that Congressman Tom McClintock is now sponsoring legislation to partially delist W&S from the Merced River is viewed as a way of setting a precedent for future W&S de-listings.

    Reply
  2. Jan McCleery

    I caught Jerry Meral’s spin attempt to try to to back out of his prior statement that the BDCP wasn’t about saving the Delta. Unlike what he is trying to portray on the radio show, he didn’t originally say the tunnels won’t save the Delta. He said, “The BDCP isn’t about saving the Delta”. But it was a good try. No one EVER claimed he said the tunnels would save the Delta – that would be ludicrous. They will tear up the Delta during the 10-15 years of construction. Horrible, horrible.

    Reply
  3. Jan McCleery

    Another comment – what is this new spin? Jerry says the tunnel muck “will be dirt. It won’t have any toxic materials in it ..’ That is not what his BDCP Plan says. The BDCP plan chapter 5 describes in detail the tunnel “muck” as they call it. A combination of wet mud and the foaming agents, chemicals (unspecified), polymers and bipolymers that are used in the drilling process. (Sounds kind of like a fracking process to me). This “muck” is so toxic it needs to be stored in a lined pond to insure no leakage to contaminate either the ground water or nearby sloughs. It sounds nasty and I’ve heard this stuff reeks really badly.

    There has been a lot of pushback about this muck. So now it’s just “dirt”? I don’t think so. At least not according to his own BDCP plan.

    Reply
  4. Rogene Reynolds

    This discussion needs to include the fact that “habitat restoration” is slated in the BDCP plan to condemn over 100,000 acres of prime Delta farm land. This amounts to over 20% of the productive Delta. This land has been successfuly farmed for over 150 years. Delta residents have a right to be furious! It makes about as much sense as bulldozing 20% of the City of Sacramento, or San Francisco, or any other part of this state that has been settled for the same length of time. It’s not “conservation” – it is confiscation!

    Our Delta levee and island configuration has been established since the 1870’s. Everything worked pretty well – even after the Central Valley Project came on line in the 1930’s. The problem with the Delta ecosystem crash has to do with the overpumping since the 1960’s. Fish need water. It’s time to recognize the limits of the hydrology, and dial back the amounts diverted from the Delta.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Rogene Reynolds, South Delta

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  5. Bob Potter

    The reaction of people in the Delta to the BDCP and the Delta Plan provide a classic example of where welfare systems take us as a society. Delta land owners enjoy crop subsidies, financial subsidies to levee construction, levee maintenance and levee repair, free water that they siphon from the CVP and SWP systems. They understand that if the water supply system is tightened up too much it will expose their situation and demands will be made that they pay their fair share.

    Reply
  6. Kerri Timmer

    A missing element in this conversation is the potential impact of the BDCP and Delta Plans on the Sierra Nevada — the high-elevation forests and rivers that provide much of the water that flows into the Delta. I agree that the Delta needs improvement; but so, too, do the Sierra watersheds that feed the Delta system. Deputy Secretary Meral (who, in full disclosure, used to be my boss, too) talks about the changes to Sierra snowpack — the State’s “natural” reservoir system — due to climate change. But it appears that no one is talking about what happens to the source areas if there is less water available in the snowpack and more water is required to be moved downstream for Delta restoration and supply. Increasingly dangerous wildfires, worse air quality, flooded communities, impacted local economies, reduced habitat for species, more carbon emissions…. These are just a few of the potential impacts we can expect in the Sierra and the rest of the state. While the BDCP and Delta Plans may be “treating the Delta as a whole,” they fail to acknowledge the Delta’s reliance on an even larger system. That entire system, from source to sea, must be addressed if we have any hope of solving the State’s long-standing economic, social and environmental challenges.

    Reply
  7. Gene Beley

    The BDCP twin tunnel plan will be a hydrogen bomb on the California Delta for boating and recreational oriented businesses that support many of the Sacramento River burgs. This BDCP project would ban boaters from using the public dock in front of the businesses in Walnut Grove, for example, and put in a 300 ft. barge dock during the project. The big Boathouse marina just across from the Chinese historic community of Locke would become ancient history, and a third marina dock across from the Mokelumne River would also be taken, because they provide a conflict with the fish screens. As one goes through the Delta, it’s almost like the BDCP has discovered every favorite place of boaters and plopped down a 24 hour construction site, complete with night lights, large barge dock, and pile driving machines to chase away everyone for miles around. Let’s face it, once the boaters, water skiers, wakeboarders, and fishermen see this, they won’t come back; they’ll find other outlets or just sell their boats, which will be a tough sell then. The marina owners and waterfront restaurants won’t be able to survive. Read Chapter 15 RECREATION of the BDCP EIR on the Internet… just this one chapter alone reads like a horror novel. Definition of “Temporary”: 2-10 years or more (life of construction). And to do eminent domain on Delta farmers who don’t wish to sell their farms is criminal to enrich other farmers in Southern California. It is simply a transfer of wealth and a bad trend in America. It may also be a step towards privatization of water like with the Kern Water Bank controlled by Roll Global, which is owned by Stewart and Linda Resnick of Beverly Hills. They have Sen. Diane Feinstein in their hip pocket. That won’t come as any shock to most of you, of course.

    Reply

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