Jerry Meral makes a case for the BDCP to the Redding City Council, and speaks to Northern California concerns
At their request, the Redding City Council heard a presentation by Dr. Jerry Meral, Deputy Director of the California Natural Resources Agency, on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan at a special meeting held on November 18, 2013. During his presentation, Jerry Meral explained why the administration felt the BDCP was needed, as well as addressed some of the concerns of Northern Californians.
“People often ask what is the BDCP? It’s actually a habitat conservation plan of the type that’s fairly common around the state,” began Jerry Meral, explaining that a Habitat Conservation Plan is a way for a county, city, or water agency to comply with state and federal endangered species acts while also allowing for development. “The plan is worked out; some piece of land is set aside for the species and the rest of the land can be developed.”
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the same basic idea, but instead it’s dealing with water. “There has never been in the state of California an aquatic habitat conservation plan,” said Mr. Meral. “Nevertheless, it follows the same basic principle, and what it’s trying to do is allow the state and federal water projects to operate in compliance with the state and federal endangered species acts, and the idea is that once we know what the rules are to comply with the endangered species acts, then we’ll know how much water we’ll have to serve throughout the state of California.”
Northern California gets all the rain and all the runoff, he said. “56 million acre-feet of our water falls sort of Sacramento and north, and only 15 million acre-feet falls to the south. This is very different from the way we use water in California; most of the people live in the Bay Area and Southern California and most of the agricultural use is in the San Joaquin Valley and down in the Imperial Valley. So naturally, we’ve developed a very impressive system of capturing the water and moving it because after all, at least in most years, the water normally falls in the winter, but most of our water use is in the spring, summer, and somewhat in the fall.”
‘We’ve established this very impressive water conveyance structure, really the most impressive in the world – although I’ll say the Chinese are catching up to us here – to move, store and use water throughout the state,” said Mr. Meral. “And its worked well for many years, so we’ve had the federal system starting in the 40s and the state system approved by the voters in the 60s, and it’s worked well to serve a great deal of the state of California from the Delta.”
“Today the Delta is a series of hundreds of islands where there are little water channels going by the islands; and the islands are surrounded by levees. Some of the levees have broken, like Frank’s Tract, and were never repaired,” he said. “Originally the Delta was a huge tidal marsh, 700,000 acres, probably the most impressive wildlife and fish feature that we had in the state of California originally. But almost all the Delta today has been converted to farmland, and so there are many ecological features left in the Delta, but we still have a very intense farming operation going on in the Delta that produces $700 million a year of agricultural products.”
In the natural course of events, the Sacramento River joins with the San Joaquin River in the Delta and the water would flow out into San Francisco Bay and into the ocean, but we’ve changed a lot of that, he said. “The way the system works today is that water comes down the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River, and instead of entirely going out into the Bay, some is used by the farmers, and a lot of it is pumped across the Delta through the channels down to where two state and federal aqueducts start, and the water goes south from there,” he said. “So we’ve reversed the flow to some extent in these channels and that’s caused a lot of fishery problems. The fish are confused … a lot of fish are killed down here in the pumps – salmon, smelt, steelhead, a lot of different species are killed down here because there’s no way to capture them all and transport them.”
A lot of critical infrastructure goes through the Delta, he said, noting that there are three highways, huge natural gas fields, and a lot of utilities. “It’s really the hub of much of Central California, really, but it has its problems and some of them are quite serious actually.”
He then presented a map of the Delta showing the land elevations, noting that blue indicates below sea level, with islands ranging anywhere from 5 to 30 feet below sea level. “It’s an extraordinary feeling to stand on one of these islands, especially in the Central Delta, and look up much higher than this ceiling and see an ocean going ship, heading to the Port of Stockton 30 feet above your head. It kind of puts it all in perspective that this could potentially cause a lot of problems.”
There are thousands of miles of levees protecting the islands, he said. “Unfortunately, those levees are built on a very poor foundation. They are built on peat soils or soft clay soils, and they were built mostly with clamshell dredges many years ago and built in a casual way by the farmers who originally reclaimed the islands, although we’re trying to improve them. Now the problem we have with this is that each of these islands that you see in blue here has failed at one time or another. Some of them have failed seven times. When they fail, you will see your tax dollars at work because the state and federal government come in, repair the failed levees, pump out the islands, mostly at state or federal expense, there’s some local share, and they go back into farming again. They are not polluted, particularly, so they can begin to farm again, but this is very expensive. The last time it happened, it was tens of millions of dollars to repair Jones Tract.”
The problem for the state and federal water projects is that if an island fails in the summer and there’s not a lot of flow in the Delta, water comes in from San Francisco Bay to fill the space that is created when the levee fails, he said. “Some of you may remember in 1972 when Anderson-Brannan Island failed, it was in the middle of the summer, probably from a gopher hole, who knows, you never find out what causes these things; the ocean came in to fill this space and the Delta became salty, and it was very difficult to pump water to the 20 million people who rely on it from the southern Delta.”
“The danger we’re really facing in the Delta is an earthquake threat, he said. “The USGS has said that there is a 60% chance of a major earthquake in the East Bay over the next 40 years and if that happens, many people predict that there will be as many as 20 islands fail at once. You’ve got to keep in mind that these island levees are based on very poor soils and we get liquefaction, just the same way they did in the Sunset District in the Loma Prieta earthquake or other places, such as in Kobe Japan. When you don’t have a good foundation, everything just slumps as you shake it, so this is what we fear would happen … “
Question from city council member: In the earthquakes that we have had, in San Francisco Bay Area, since we’ve been busy out there since the 1840s … how many of those islands have failed in any of the prior earthquakes?
“The last earthquake we had of large size was the Loma Prieta earthquake, but the shaking in the Delta was very limited because the Loma Prieta earthquake was centered over in the peninsula, so it was much further away than, for example, the Hayward fault,” responded Mr. Meral. “That was the only major earthquake we’ve had since we had the problem of the islands going below sea level – there hasn’t been a major earthquake to affect the Delta since that happened. The 1907 earthquake occurred of course, but at that time all the islands were still pretty much at sea level so we didn’t have this liquefaction problem.”
“A very interesting thing happened in the Loma Prieta earthquake, though,” he continued. “There was a old barn. It was a pole barn, and it had been demolished, but the poles were still in the ground, and the soil around that area liquefied enough so that the poles floated up, so when someone came out the next day, they saw these old poles sticking up out of the ground, which shows the liquefaction potential. But we really haven’t had a big earthquake since the Winter’s Fault back in the 1890s when the Delta was mostly not even reclaimed, so much of this is based on engineering science as opposed to experience. We really haven’t had that.”
If there is an earthquake and we have multiple island failures, then the sea water will come in and eventually the Delta becomes salty and you can’t export water, he said. “This is a serious consequence for the entire state of California. It would take a long time to repair the islands, pump them out and get fresh water going again. How long we don’t really know, we’ve never had a multi-island failure of this type. But certainly it would be more than 6 months and it could be up to three years. If enough failures occurred, it could be 10 years.”
Question from city council member: What about the times when we’ve had droughts and there wasn’t any water going down there? There must have been quite a salt-water claiming of those islands at that time.
“That’s exactly right,” responded Mr. Meral. “Back in the 1920s, before we had the dams that release fresh water into the Delta, we had noticeable salt water at the I street bridge in Sacramento – that’s how far up the tides came when we didn’t have the dams to push the salt water out back into the ocean. And so we do have salt water intrusion, especially in late summer and in dry years, we have it to some extent, but now with the operation of Folsom, Oroville, and Shasta reservoirs, we are able to repel the salt enough to at least meet the water rights of the farmers in the Delta. Now in a very dry year in the late summer, their water rights begin to expire, and salt water does come back up, so you are correct, that is a present day occurrence to some extent.”
Question:” I’m wondering … is it all that much of a problem that salt water comes into the Delta?
“Generally not, because we do operate the upstream dams to keep it out when we need to pump water in the southern Delta or to serve the farmers in the Delta with their water rights,” he said. “It hasn’t been a big problem since we’ve built the dams on the main stems of the rivers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. New Melones Dam in the San Joaquin Valley is used the same way, to repel salt in the southern Delta. It is a problem in a real dry year as the summer wears on and the water rights are not as strong, so there is more salinity intrusion, but it’s not nearly the problem it was when we had the huge drought in the 20s when there were no dams and they had terrible salt problems then.”
“In the Delta, we have 11 different fish that are rare, endangered, threatened, listed, not listed and of concern, and all of them affect water operations for the state and federal projects, some more than others,” continued Mr. Meral. “Some of them really restrict the ability of the state and federal water projects to operate in the Delta and they greatly affect the operation of Shasta Dam, so there is a need in Shasta Dam to maintain a cold water pool for the winter run salmon that are downstream all the way to Anderson. You see releases coming out of Shasta Dam to repel salt even more to protect the Delta smelt in certain years, and so the fish problems in the Delta really affect Shasta and Trinity, Folsom, Oroville and so on, even though they are hundreds of miles in some cases from where the fish problems actually are.”
Question: Before we had the dams and we had low water years and the salt did come in, what happened to the smelt then?
“The smelt are generally adapted to variability in the amount of salinity, so they tend to rely on high outflow in the spring, which we naturally had before we had the dams, and that seemed to keep them in pretty good shape,” said Mr. Meral. “The salmon without the dams did better because they were able to spawn way upstream in the headwaters, and so generally the fish species, really up until the early part of this century, were doing either fairly well or either moderately well. We have had a crash in part due to invasion of different organisms like Asiatic clam and so on, and in part because we’ve changed the environment a lot and now we’re trying to restore a little bit of it but I would say we’ll never get back to where we were.”
“This is an example of the endangered species problems that we have,” he said, presenting a picture of a rather empty-looking San Luis Reservoir. He explained that the reservoir is twice the size of Folsom and half the size of Shasta. San Luis Reservoir is filled with water from the Delta when there’s a lot of water, and then serves farmers and Metropolitan Water District with water in the fall. “It operates the way we really should operate, which is take a big gulp out of the Delta when the flow is high, and then not have to take so much when the flow is low. But the problem that we had last year is that in December we had a lot of rain, and the Delta smelt liked the turbidity that was in the Delta, and they came down to the pumps, we were told to greatly reduce the pumping, and we could not fill San Luis Reservoir in December.”
“People didn’t worry about that because November and December of last year looked like a wet year, so we said we’ll fill it later on, but we never had any more rain, and we were unable to fill the reservoir,” said Mr. Meral. “This is San Luis Reservoir today, it is at about 15% full, and here we are going into another potentially dry year without another back up water supply in San Luis. So there’s a real world effect of these endangered species regulations on the state and federal water projects, and they put pressure on the operation of Shasta, Trinity and Folsom because now the system is not in balance. In a sense, we’ve used up a lot of our supply in San Luis and we don’t have it as a backup so there will be a demand in a sense to take more water out of the upstream reservoirs, which is very unfortunate.”
“The BDCP is an attempt to respond to these endangered species problems and also provide the protection that we need from an earthquake, just as an incidental benefit,” he added.
“The most controversial feature of the plan is called Conservation Measure 1,” said Mr. Meral. “There are actually 22 conservation measures to protect the species, many of them are habitat restoration and so on, but this is the one that most people are interested in. It’s really a revision of a proposal that’s been around since the 1960s, and the proposal is pretty straightforward: we would build water intakes just south of the city of Sacramento, and build two tunnels underneath the Delta, about 40 miles long, coming to the state and federal water pumps down near Tracy.”
“This would have a multiple series of benefits. One is, if there was an earthquake, we would still be able to export some water, not as much as we do today but at least a substantial amount, so it provides an earthquake preparedness benefit that in fact is not necessarily part of the conservation plan but it’s a real important benefit,” he said.
“Another thing it would do is recreate a more natural flow in the Delta,” continued Mr. Meral. “Remember I said that the water now tends to flow through these channels and comes out here in the pumps which is a reversal of the normal flow going out to the ocean. By diverting water in the tunnels, we could reduce, not entirely eliminate, but reduce the amount of reverse flow. We would still be using these pumps to some extent but about half the water would now come through the tunnels and that would have, we believe, a substantial benefit for the fish.”
“In addition, [the pumps at the south Delta] is a dead end, so when the fish show up here, they are toast, basically. We do capture some and dump them back in Suisun Bay but it’s only a weak effort, and so most of the fish that end up here, including a lot of your baby salmon from Sacramento River are killed down here at the pumps or eaten by predators.”
In the north Delta, we would use fish screens very similar to the new screens that have been built at the old Red Bluff diversion dam, he said; that is almost exactly what we propose to build here: “Those screens are about the same length, same height, operate in the same kind of way so it’s a very similar facility.”
A city councilman asks about the size and capacity of the tunnels, and where the water was going to come from to fill them up.
“The tunnels can carry 9000 cfs total which would be the maximum amount of diversion,” said Mr. Meral. “They operate by gravity, they can carry 9000 cfs – you could look at it two ways. That is higher than the average late summer flow in the Sacramento River, that’s one way to look at it, or you could look at it as that’s only a few percent of the maximum flow during a flood, but in fact, the US NMFS has already given us criteria that say if the flow in the Sacramento is 4000 cfs, you can only divert 400 cfs. … you can ramp up, but never taking a substantial portion of the river. … Even in late summer when the fish aren’t there, you could never take even a third of the river, and most of the time, it’s only 10% because we’re trying to protect the fish that are coming downstream. But in direct answer to your question, the size is 9000 cfs. That was reduced from the old peripheral canal days which was 21,000 cfs, so it’s been cut by more than half from the original proposal, which is partly because people are concerned about building it too big, and partly because there are a lot of local impacts of construction and we’re trying to minimize those impacts on Sacramento County, which is where the project would be built. This is tunnel proposal is considered a conservation measure; we believe that it will serve both the earthquake protection benefit and providing conservation benefits to salmon, to Delta smelt, and so on.”
Question: What is the project cost for those tunnels?
“We estimate about $15 billion, and that would be paid for by the state and federal water users south of the Delta. No one up here would have to pay for the tunnels.”
“I want to turn to a few concerns that people often express in Northern California and try to address them briefly,” said Mr. Meral. He said that Northern Californians are concerned about the impact of the BDCP on the operation of the state and federal reservoirs located in the north state. “We decided near the beginning of this effort, a couple of years ago when we were getting into water operations that we would not do anything in this proposal to affect the operation of Shasta, Trinity or Folsom reservoirs, and the reason is that a lot of people rely on those reservoirs for recreation, for power, for water rights, for flood control and also for endangered species protection as well. The one reservoir it will affect slightly is Oroville, and that’s only during certain seasons of the year and the flows in the Feather River will be a little bit higher, but for the federal reservoirs, Folsom, Trinity and Shasta, there will be no impact.”
“Now that is not to say that those reservoirs are immune from all future impacts from everything,” said Mr. Meral. “As we see less snowfall in the Sierra and more rain, the reservoir operations are probably going to change somewhat. We can’t help that, but we’re not going to add on any additional impacts to the operation of those reservoirs.”
In the Delta, there is a lot of need, apparently according to some biologists at least, for water to flow out into the bay for water to protect the two smelt species – Delta smelt and longfin smelt, and upstream water rights holders are concerned the state and federal water projects will get a pass, he said. “They’ll provide the flows that they think they’ll need to provide for these smelt species, and you up here will have to provide water rights water to further protect these smelt species. In the past, the State Water Board has said we all have an obligation to protect these species, so people are concerned.”
“I think the right way to look at this project is as a protection to the water rights holders of Northern California. If we develop a Plan that the state and federal fish agencies say is adequate to protect the delta smelt and longfin smelt down here in the lower Delta, and that plan is accepted, it will be taken to the water board and the water board will be able to say, we hope, ok, you’ve adequately protected these species, we don’t necessarily need to go to the upstream water rights holders for more water to protect these species even further. That is not to say they couldn’t do that, they have the right to do that, but the bottom line is that we think this plan will help protect the water rights users of Northern California, and that’s perfectly legitimate because hopefully the species will no longer need additional flows. We’ll see if the water board accepts that, but we think there’s a chance.”
People are also concerned that if this plan is adopted, the state and federal projects will get a pass on all future water board water rights activities and will be out of regulation, he said. “The answer to that is definitively no. Anything we do in this Plan has to be approved by the water board, pursuant to our water rights, and in addition, they will review those water rights like everybody else is every three years as part of the basic plan. So the state and federal water users do not get a pass, they are still subject to all the regulations they are today under the water rights procedures that the state’s been implementing for many, many years.”
Another thing people are worried about is flood control, especially in the Yolo Bypass, he said. “In the Yolo Bypass, people are concerned that we want to put some water into that bypass and that it might affect flood control. Not only will we comply with all the flood control requirements the Corps of Engineers places on us, but we believe this will not affect flood control activities at all upstream on the Sacramento River and that they’ll be no impact on flood control operations.”
Mr. Meral’s presentation was then concluded, and the floor was open for public comment.
Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe
During the public comment period, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu tribe addressed the City Council.
“The Winnemem Wintu tribe is a tribe that is located on the Shasta; the McCloud River is our home watershed area. We have many questions about the connection between the tunnels, the building of the aqueduct down there to Tracy, and what is happening at Shasta. … How much more water does Southern California need from Northern California since that’s where it’s coming from?”
” … We have been asking the Bureau of Reclamation about the 1941 Act of Congress that took our land and allowed the Shasta Lake to sit on top of us, and so far, that bill has not been fulfilled in any sense of the word, and we’re claiming that we still have water rights, we still have access to that land because there was violations on that bill that were not carried out and somehow that has to be addressed in all of this water plan, now. … ”
” … We are also concerned with the fish … there is not even a draft biological opinion that the fish would recover under a process that they are doing to export water to the south right now. … right now the fish are failing, all of the fish are failing, and this new plan doesn’t appear to be able to assist them … we have to rethink what California looks like because California was a salmon state. We’re one of four on the Pacific Coast that can be a salmon state. The Delta is the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast, and we shipped salmon to New Zealand who had no salmon, and now they are the largest exporter of salmon in the world. That should be us.”
Questions and answers from city council members
Question from city council member: What about Sites Reservoir … they would pump water out of the Sacramento River in the wintertime to fill it, which would be the same time you would want to be filling the tunnels up for water going … I’m not seeing the Sites Reservoir filling it up, we’re going to fill the tunnels up to send water south, there’s too many questions here. For us up here in Northern California, it’s not that I’m not in favor of the BDCP, because I haven’t read it all the way through yet, but there’s too many questions to be answered from our perspective …
“There’s an interesting question of if you enlarge Shasta Reservoir or if you build the Sites Reservoir or if you want to continue to divert from the Delta, all of these things have certain flow conditions could compete for water, just like you said,” agreed Mr. Meral. “The question is do you fill Shasta, do you fill Sites, do you take water from the lower end of the Delta – that depends on an agreement that ultimately would have to be reached between the state and federal water projects. Undoubtedly an amendment to what’s called the Coordinated Operating Agreement; we have that agreement today but it doesn’t contemplate raising Shasta or building Sites. If those things were done, probably the Coordinated Operating Agreement would have to be amended or at least changed somewhat to accommodate those kinds of potential competitions you’ve just described.”
Same questioner asks how this tunnel compares to the tunnel being built by SFPUC for the Hetch Hetchy upgrade?
“The San Francisco system which supplies a couple million people in the Bay Area, not just San Francisco, actually needed a lot of earthquake retrofit; they are spending $4.6 billion total. The tunnel under the bay, I’m not sure what fraction of the costs that is; I don’t think it’s quite that much, but it’s comparable per mile to ours. We looked at their costs, we looked at our costs, ours is about 150 feet below the Delta, they are slightly less underneath the Bay. We think it’s quite comparable. The interesting thing about the SF project is that it was approved by the voters in 2002 at $4.6 billion, it’s almost done now, ten years later, and it’s come in almost exactly on budget. People always say these huge projects never can come in on budget. That one , which is very comparable to ours, actually came in at around $4.6 billion, so we hope that it’s a sign we’ll be accurate too.”
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