Media call: Director Mark Cowin on the revised environmental documents for California Water Fix, formerly known as BDCP, more commonly known as the Delta tunnels

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Today, Mark Cowin, Director of the California Department of Water Resources, held a media call with reporters to discuss the revised California Water Fix documents released last week. David Murillo, Regional Director of the Mid-Pacific Region of the Bureau of Reclamation was also present, but Director Mark Cowin did most of the talking.

Here’s what he had to say …

MARK COWIN, Director of the Department of Water Resources

Thanks to all of you for taking some time today to learn more about our partially Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report / Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that we made available for public review as of last Friday. And for simplicity, I will simply refer to this as the revised documents for the remainder of this call.

Mark CowinPlease bear with me; this is a complicated topic and a complicated process and I’m going to take a little bit of time to try and provide some context and some background on how we got to where we are today and then give you a brief description of the new contents that are in these revised documents, and then ask David Murillo to add some comments.

I do want to provide some context for these documents. We’re going to spend time today talking about issues related to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but the improvements that we’re contemplating in these revised documents for the Delta are only one piece of the total investment that we believe is necessary to ultimately improve the reliability and sustainability of California’s water resources, and we’ve gone to some trouble to describe that more comprehensive plan in Governor Brown’s California Water Action Plan. We’ve talked about this plan before, it is available for anybody who wants to take a look and we’re doing our best to track our budgeting and our actions for Governor Brown’s water policy and agenda towards the California Water Action Plan. Of course the plan stresses the all –of-the-above approach to California water, the need for continued investment in water conservation, water recycling, more storage, better groundwater management and a host of other types of actions, including restoration of natural areas that help contribute to sustainability of our water supplies as well.

One important goal for those investments is to reduce future reliance on Delta water supplies, and while we strive for as much investment and as much progress as we can make in all of those local and regional types of projects and programs that will reduce that reliance, it’s unrealistic to expect that we’re going to eliminate our reliance on the Delta, which is such a foundational part of California’s water supply for 25 million Californians and about 3 million acres of farmland. So the most important message that I want to get across today is that no matter how well we do with billions of dollars of investment in other types of projects around California that are badly needed, and no matter how successful we are in habitat improvements throughout the Bay Delta system that help improve the viability of native fish and wildlife, we believe that we must modernize the way that we export water from the Delta through the State Water Project and Central Valley Project systems in order to achieve the level of reliability and sustainability that we all desire for our California water resources management.

So what do I mean by modernization? Well, a little background, and again, please indulge me … nearly half of California’s land drains to the Delta through waterways that eventually flow into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. They are our two biggest rivers in California and they meet in the Delta. The Delta is a system of intertwined channels that connect and water eventually makes it way out into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean from the Delta. In the southern part of the Delta, near Tracy is where we have two big pumping plants that divert water into the southbound canals that supply customers of the State Water Project and the CVP.

You all also probably know that for decades, we’ve wrestled with a number of high-stake problems in the Delta. First of all, several species of native fish that either live or migrate through the Delta have declined severely in population over the last few decades and even more so in the last few years as they suffered through drought conditions. One of those, the Delta smelt, has reached record low populations and has been in the news as of recent. Another, the fall run Chinook salmon sustains a coastal commercial and recreational fishing economy that’s worth tens of millions of dollars per year, and these and other species are protected by state and federal law for the sake of California’s natural diversity and for future generations.

Connected to the decline of fisheries is another major concern – the loss of water supply reliability that leaves us vulnerable to supply shortages and droughts. The two big pumping plants in the Delta that divert water from Delta channels, you’ve probably never heard of: Channels names Italian Slough, Old River, Middle River – operation of the pumps at specific times can actually change the direction of flow in those and other channels in the south Delta and effectively pull endangered and threatened fish off course into parts of the Delta where habitat values are low, predation is high, and mortality of those fish is also high.

So those reverse flows, under the current pumping regime, definitely have contributed to the decline of fisheries, along with a number of other factors. To minimize the harm, the federal and state regulatory agencies have written fairly tight rules that govern the rate of pumping and minimize the amount of these reverse flows that can occur in the Delta, and as a result, we often lose the opportunity to store water when it is abundant to help us get through dry years like this. The need to restrict pumping to protect fish means that water deliveries to the Bay Area, Southern California, and to San Joaquin Valley agriculture in particular have become more erratic and less reliable over recent years, in addition to the concerns that we face due to drought conditions and general shortage in water supplies in California.

Beyond the concerns of the decline in fisheries and resultant loss of water supply reliability, we also face the threat of total disruption of our ability to pump from the Delta into the State Water Project and CVP systems. The Delta channels are lined with earthen levees. Due to subsidence of lands due to cultivation for decades, some of those Delta islands are as much as 20 feet below sea level, so we stand in the threat of earthquake or floods that can collapse those levees and result in salt water rushing in from the Bay into interior Delta, which would disallow our ability to use the existing state and federal pumps. The shutdown could last for weeks or months depending upon how much fresh water was available to flush salt water out of the Delta, so this is another major concern and makes our system very vulnerable as it exists today.

So of course we’ve recognized these problems for many decades and there have been various efforts to address them. Since 2007, we have been working in a comprehensive way to help both native fish populations in the Delta and to improve water supply reliability for much of the state; after hundreds of public meetings and countless hours of analysis and advancement of state of the art science, in December of 2013, we released a draft plan that included plans to build both a better water conveyance system in the Delta and to contribute to recovery of more than 50 Delta species of concern, and we called it the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. That plan was envisioned as a habitat conservation plan under Section 10 of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and as what is known as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan under state law. The premise of the plan was pretty straightforward; the water districts that depend upon water pumped from the Delta would pay for the construction of new intakes and tunnels that would allow us to divert water in a way that’s less harmful to fish, and then in return, the operators of the Delta pumping plants, the California Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation, would receive 50 year permits to operate those pumps. Along with the investment in the new intakes, DWR and Reclamation together with an investment by the public at large would also protect or restore more than 100,000 acres of habitat over 50 years to help improve ecological conditions in the Delta.

In the public documents that were distributed in 2013, we considered and analyzed a number of different configurations and capacities for the new Delta conveyance system and the alternative that was preferred was called Alternative 4. It essentially involved three new intakes on the eastern bank of the Sacramento River north of Courtland, two large tunnels and smaller pipelines carrying the water about 40 miles from those new intakes to the existing pumping plants in the south Delta.   The new diversion upstream on the Sacramento River channels would work better for fish because we could employ state of the art fish screens that don’t require salvage of fish, and we could operate without causing the unnatural reverse flows in Delta channels that also lead to fish mortality. We’d still use the south Delta pumping plants together with the new intakes when reverse flows would not put listed species at risk, in part to help maintain appropriate water quality in channels for the southern Delta for agricultural purpose and for water users in that part of the Delta, but the new intakes would give us more flexibility to pump water from the Delta most often when flows are high and harm to fish would be minimal.

So, after an eight month public comment period, we at DWR and Reclamation began to consider in July 2014 a response to the many thousands of comments we’ve received. I have a note here that we received more than 12,000 different public comments, and after careful consideration, we began to have doubt as to whether or not a 50-year habitat conservation plan is realistic, primarily given the great uncertainty about future ecological conditions in the Delta under climate change. Complicating the matter is the fact that the state and federal regulators that would provide the permits face a lack of scientific data about how the Delta’s estuary might respond to large scale habitat restoration. We know that something on the order of 90% of native habitat in the Delta has been lost due to reclamation of those Delta islands, but what we don’t’ know in detail is just what kinds of habitat restoration, where the habitat restoration should be located, and how all of that together will help the fish populations recover and just how successful that recovery would be.

So that presents a high hurdle for the regulators to be asked to sanction the Bay Delta Conservation Plan over the next 50 years. We’re essentially asking regulators to determine the obligations of exporter water agencies over the life of the permit and given the amount of uncertainty inherent in a 50 year permit, the regulators would be compelled to ask water agencies for a high level of obligation; that is the water and money necessary to respond to uncertain conditions over a long period of time under the voluntary section 10 habitat conservation plan approach. We grew concerned that that level of obligation would force a business decision for the directors of the public water agencies that would pay for the new Delta intakes and that would drive the cost benefit beyond an affordable level. So it became clear to us that we may be asking too much of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and we stepped back and considered a separate approach to the dual goals of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability in the Delta. The result of that reconsideration was announced by Governor Brown in April of this year when he described our new proposed approach to accomplishing the dual goals of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability.

I want to stress through this new approach, we are still committed to achieving the dual goals, they are state law of course, and we see them as fundamental to achieving long term water supply reliability. Essentially we’ll always face regulatory uncertainty as long as fish species are declining and more protective laws are threatened.

The pivot that Governor Brown announced is essentially a change in the approach to permitting the construction and operation of the Delta conveyance facility under state and federal law, and our approach to restoring Delta habitat. Part of the change is described in three new sub-alternatives included in the draft documents that we distributed last week, and of those three sub-alternatives, one alternative 4A has been identified by DWR and Reclamation as their preferred alternative and proposed project, and we call it the California Water Fix. It includes the same basic elements of Alternative 4 in the original circulated documents: Three new intakes, thirty mile long tunnels, other pipelines to connect the three intakes to those 30 mile long tunnels, but instead of pursuing construction and operation of those facilities under a habitat conservation plan with a 50 year permit, we would propose to pursue the conveyance system under the more conventional Section 7 of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and through Section 2081 of the California Endangered Species Act. The large scale restoration that was contemplated in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan would still be pursued by state and federal governments under the new heading of the California Eco Restore, a separate effort from California Water Fix.

And in April, Governor Brown also directed the Department of Fish and Wildlife to get at least 30,000 acres of habitat restoration and land protection underway or finished before he leaves office in 2018. But apart from the roughly 15,600 acres that would be restored or protected as mitigation for construction and operation of the new conveyance system, the additional habitat restoration won’t be tied to a permit for the new Delta conveyance system.

We still believe we need both habitat restoration and a better way of moving water from the Delta, and this change in permitting approach can allow both of those efforts to move forward in a more efficient way and without delay. It does mean the DWR and Reclamation would no longer receive the regulatory assurance of a 50-year permit to pump water from the Delta; but again, the obligations that would be required to obtain those permits don’t appear to be worth the benefit provided by that regulatory certainty.

The new alternatives that are included in the recirculated documents are, the biggest revisions I should say are the inclusion of these new sub-alternatives 4A, 2D, and 5A. We analyzed operation of the proposed water conveyance just like the previous alternative 4, but as a standalone project, not tied in a regulatory way to more than the 15,600 acres of habitat conservation.

We also looked at alternatives with greater capacity, 15,000 cfs capacity that would include five intakes, and a smaller facility with one intake and a capacity of 3,000 cfs. We prefer the system with the maximum capacity of 9,000 cfs and three intakes, because it would allow us to take advantage of the high flows on the Sacramento River when they occur, and while we haven’t seen those flows in a long time, we are assured that the rivers will rise again. A 3,000 cfs system would leave us too dependent on the south Delta pumps to capture water supply. On the other hand, a 15,000 cfs with five intakes would provide even more flexibility, but it would result in additional footprint impacts and costs that would likely outweigh the incremental benefits, compared to the 9000 cfs facility.

Also included in the documents are revisions we’ve made to shrink the footprint of Alternative 4 and 4A, and we’ve talked about some of those efforts in the past. Since 2013, we’ve found ways to reduce and shrink the footprint by about 50%. Importantly, we’ve found a way to employ a gravity flow design that allows us to eliminate three pumping plants associated with the three intakes. That in turn allows us to eliminate the additional permanent power lines to energize those pumping plants, and to eliminate the need for multiple story buildings that would have housed the pumps and caused visual impacts along the Sacramento River.

In addition, we’ve redesigned the locations that we would launch the tunnel boring machines, where we would store the tunnel material, and the high voltage power lines away from Staten Island, which provides important habitat for sandhill crane, and we’ve done our best to minimize impacts to private landowners by relocating many of the project features to property already owned by DWR and reducing the acreage of lands that would need to be acquired from private or NGO landowners.

A few revisions, refinements that we have not talked publicly about yet that are included in the draft documents include eliminating the need for two concrete lined sedimentation basins, these are pretty massive bays that will be replaced by earthen bays and eliminate the needs for many truck trips and shrink by 75% the volume of concrete needed to build the intake facilities in total. A few other refinements: we’ve eliminated the need to build five acre earthen pads that are as tall as nearby levees or are dense structures along the tunnel route, and we’ve reconfigured the Clifton Court Forebay design in the south Delta to eliminate the need for a great deal of the earthwork that would have otherwise been needed in the previous design.

In addition to those changes in the alignment and description of facilities of the proposed project, we’ve also made revisions in the analysis that’s included in the recirculated documents, including improved fish and aquatic habitat analysis, improved analysis of the effects downstream of the Delta, and additional water quality modeling. Since we’ve released the draft documents back in 2013 for example, we’ve developed additional information about how we might use the material brought up to the surface by the tunnel boring machines in habitat restoration efforts. We’ve had comments that some folks found it difficult to understand our analysis of various project operations on fish species, so we’ve updated our analysis to more explicitly describe for each life stage of each species, what methods we use for analysis and how the various modeling results were weighed.

And in other areas of the document where previously we had drawn uncertain conclusions regarding impacts, we’ve now included additional analysis so we can draw more conclusive determinations.

Along with all of these changes of course, we’ve enhanced our description of the science and adaptive management process that we would hope to employ through this effort. We’ve got a great chance here to create a more transparent and inclusive adaptive management plan that uses better science and vigorous monitoring to help us achieve our goals and we at DWR and Reclamation look forward to working with other federal and state agencies to create a more robust science and adaptive management program moving forward.

I apologize for that fairly long-winded description but I think it’s necessary to get to the detail that we want to describe today. Clearly making any change in the Delta is difficult because the stakes are just so high, both in terms of the ecology and the economy of California, and many Governors have been stymied in their attempts to change the current system, but what’s clear to all of us and what keeps us working at this is that the status quo in the Delta just simply isn’t static or sustainable and it ultimately isn’t good for California. And we feel we’d be remiss if we didn’t try to fix this system that is so vulnerable to natural disaster and works so poorly for both native wildlife and the people of California.

It hasn’t been easy to get to the point we are today, and there’s plenty more work to do but we believe we’ve got a very realistic science driven and achievable approach to addressing these complicated water supply reliability and habitat protection issues that we’ve faced in the Delta for so long.

So with that, I will turn it over to David Murillo …

DAVID MURILLO, Regional Director of the Mid-Pacific Region, Bureau of Reclamation

Mark did a great job of summarizing the history of this project and the status and our path forward, so I will just add a few additional points to what Mark presented. This project is a priority for Reclamation and the revised document reflects that plan. And as Mark mentioned, this dual conveyance is just one piece of the California Action Plan and we all believe we’re in support of California’s plan and we all believe that this will improve reliability and sustainability of the water supply for the projects.

David MurilloAs he mentioned also, we do have to somehow figure out how we reduce the future reliance on the Delta for our water supply, but as he mentioned also, this doesn’t eliminate the use of the Delta. It will reduce the use of the Delta, and so we would continue to operate the pump from the Delta at times.

As many of you are aware, especially this last few years, if you followed our operations, you are all aware that our operations are limited; our pumping is limited, and it’s due to trying to protect the fish out in the Delta and some of those were mentioned: the Chinook and the Delta smelt. This year we’ve had to make tough decisions this year on some allocations that we’ve had to convey to at least the federal ag side so we believe that as mentioned before, that we must modernize the way that we pump from the Delta, and we believe that this does that.

And we believe that this revised document, this is just another step in the process for the public to weigh in, and then we also look forward to any additional input the public may have.

With that being said, I’ll turn it back over to Gloria …

Discussion period highlights …

Regarding the amount of water the project will provide:

Mark Cowin answers, “There is a range provided that speaks to two different sets of operating requirements or operating parameters that were previously analyzed. The proposed operations for Alternative 4 and 4A include a very specific set of operational parameters that would get us to the approximate 4.9 MAF per year on average. The two bookends on the range you’ve seen include different versions of the outflow requirements for longfin smelt, if I remember correctly, so they are points used for evaluating impacts but not our proposed project operations at this point. What the permit we would be seeking would be for the operations that would get us to the 4.9 MAF per year.”

“To go a bit further, this Section 7 approach to endangered species act compliance would not come with any permit term or regulatory assurance, so as conditions change in the Delta, as science improves and advances, we would be subject to new regulations; frankly they could either move pumping down or could potentially move it up, depending on the administration of the endangered species act by the regulatory agencies, but that would be through the normal regulatory process and would require revisions to the actual permit over time.”

Question about how do the tunnels related to drought, and would they help in years like we’re currently experiencing?

Mark Cowin answers, “Let me be clear; we don’t envision California Water Fix as a direct drought response. Clearly, when Mother Nature serves up years like we’ve had the last two or three years, water supplies are simply going to be limited for both water users and for populations of fish and people are going to suffer. The main point here is that with better conveyance, we’d be able to move water when it is available in those wetter years so that we’re better able to endure the drier years that we’re facing today, and science is showing us that with anticipated effects of climate change, we’re going to have more extremes in those types of weather patterns, and so more strings of years where we have flashier flood-like conditions and more strings of dry years like we’re experiencing the last three or four years. So the goal here is to be able to take advantage of the wet years to help us get through the drier years.”

On the 50-year permit:

Mark Cowin says, “I think there’s also a bit of truth to the notion that perhaps we oversold ourselves originally on the viability of a 50-year permit term and that regulatory certainty. Even under an HCP approach, adaptive management would be required, it could have resulted in lower water supplies; in effect, we would have just been prepaying for those loss in water supplies by anteing up the water or money necessary to obtain a 50-year permit.”

Regarding the economics, the loss of regulatory assurances is a major economic change; will there be a new economic analysis?

Mark Cowin answers, “A 50-year permit term would have been something that any investor in this project would have like to have been able to obtain, no doubt about that. And the business decision that remains without that as a benefit is going to cause some reconsideration. The basic message that I’m trying to get across is that we’ve conflated two, and this is a gross oversimplification … but there are really two basic issues that we’re dealing with regarding operation of the projects and restoration and protection of fisheries in the Delta. One, you can oversimplify, how much water needs to flow out into the Delta and how much can be exported as a result of those requirements? The second major issue is this problem of reverse flows.

“We are yet to see what ultimately might be required in terms of outflow to support restoration and protection of fisheries; we’ve got a project proposal that we believe will mitigate for the impacts of our project operations, but we will also have to seek permits under the SWRCB requirements and we’ll be subject to their authority as well as the continued authority of the state and federal fish agencies, so as we contemplate the future today, I frankly don’t know what the ultimate outflow requirements are going to be for the state and federal projects as well as the rest of the water users throughout the Bay Delta watershed.”

“What I do know is that regardless of those outflow requirements, by addressing those reverse flow issue, we can substantially improve our ability to export water from the Delta in a way that is protective of fish, and that translates into improved water supply reliability that can be measured in hundreds of thousands of acre-feet per year. We’ll have more detail on that through improved benefit-cost ratio soon, perhaps August, if things go well for us, so yes, we will have another revised cost benefit ratio economic analysis of these benefits in that kind of time frame … “

Click here to view the revised environmental documents for California Water Fix (Bay Delta Conservation Plan.)

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