DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Delta conveyance update

The Delta Conveyance Project environmental review process

At the December meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Carrie Buckman, Environmental Program Manager with the Department of Water Resources, gave an update on the Delta Conveyance project including the preparation of environmental documents; roles and responsibilities of the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority and the Department of Water Resources; the Stakeholder Engagement Committee; and next steps.

Ms. Buckman began with briefly recapping the history of the project. In 2006, the Department of Water Resources started development with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan; that shifted to California Water Fix in 2015 which was approved under CEQA in 2017.  But in early 2019, the Governor Newsom in his State of the State speech declared lack of support for California Water Fix as it was defined, and instead introduced a new approach to modernize conveyance with a single tunnel alternative.

In Executive Order 10-19, Governor Newsom directed agencies to recommend a suite of priorities and actions to build a climate resilient system and ensure healthy waterways, including assessment and consideration of a single tunnel conveyance system.  At that point, DWR withdrew the project approvals and rescinded the permits and the permit applications for Water Fix and all Water Fix planning ceased.  That project is no more.  Since that time, Ms. Buckman said they have been working to ‘turn the direction of the ship’ which is a fairly substantial effort.

NOTICE OF PREPARATION

The Department of Water Resources is planning to release a notice of preparation (or NOP) to start the planning process for the Delta Conveyance project that will document their intent to develop an environmental impact report or EIR.  The NOP will trigger the start of scoping, which establish the public comment period and public meetings to collect public comments on the scope of the environmental analysis.  The NOP will include a description of the proposed project objectives and a description of the proposed project.

The description is just a starting point so that the people can understand the type of project we’re looking at and comment on the scope of the environmental analysis and the range of reasonable alternatives,” she said.  “Sometimes there’s confusion that the NOP contains the proposed project and that represents a decision of some sort, but it does not.  This is starting point; the decision is made at the end.  It’s giving people an idea of what the project is so they have a way to comment.

Ms. Buckman said they expect to get a lot of alternatives during the scoping process which will lead to an alternatives formulation document that will analyze the potential to reduce environmental effects and how well the alternatives meet the project objectives, and then identify a reasonable range of alternatives.

She then gave a tentative schedule for the project.  They will be starting the CEQA process with the Notice of Preparation which will be released ‘soon’.  There will be a draft EIR for review at the beginning of 2021 and a final EIR in 2022.  They will be concurrently working on compliance with the federal and state Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Acts.  In the middle of 2021, they will begin working on water rights, Delta Plan consistency, and other environmental permits.

I do want to highlight that we’re not saying we won’t start anything until then,” she said.  “That’s when the intensive period of development for that efforts will start, but we’re planning to start early consultation for that as soon as we have a project.  The environmental efforts will build on the work done to date where it is applicable and still available to be used and appropriate.

DELTA CONVEYANCE AUTHORITY

The Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (or DCA) was originally established as a Joint Powers Authority between the participating water agencies to help with the design and construction of the California Water Fix project.

The board of directors is composed of elected board members from participating public water agencies.  The board was anticipated to have up to 7 members, but right now there are only four.  Two of positions are being held for federal agencies who might participate, and the position is waiting for changes in project description, so the Board may have between four and seven directors moving forward.

The DCA has a joint exercise of powers agreement with DWR that was originally for the design for California Water Fix but has been changed to provide design as part of the environmental planning and permitting process for the new Delta Conveyance project.  The DCA’s work is under DWR’s direction and oversight.

We have asked the DCA to develop preliminary designs for a proposed project and alternatives when we have them developed, and that will serve as the basis for analysis in the EIR,” said Ms. Buckman.  “We would like these designs to consider options to avoid and minimize construction-related effects where possible, so they are building in those measures up front.”

She then discussed the roles of DWR and the DCA.  DWR is the owner and operator of the State Water Project, so they are the lead agency under CEQA.  Under the authority of the California Natural Resources Agency, DWR will lead the environmental review and planning efforts, public outreach, public participation, and stakeholder engagement.  DWR will be responsible for managing the budget and schedule, and will report on progress to the state legislature and others.  DWR will direct and oversee the work of DCA and ensure transparency.

The DCA will conduct engineering and design work under the oversight of DWR that will inform the environmental review and planning process, identify potential engineering and design strategies to avoid or minimize effects, and assist in conducting public outreach, public participation, and stakeholder engagement activities.

The public water agencies are the beneficiaries and will eventually be funding whatever project comes out of the process, so they have a role as well.  They will inform both DCA and DWR with technical resources, and they are also part of the DCA board of directors and have some fiduciary responsibility as such.

STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT COMMITTEE

The DCA Board has started a stakeholder engagement committee to help identify ways to design and construct the project that would avoid or minimize affects to the local communities and the Delta as a place.  The stakeholder engagement committee has seventeen members that were selected to represent key stakeholders in the Delta, including five members from each of the counties, a recreation representative, environmental justice representative, agriculture representative, a water district that provides water within the Delta, a number of NGO representatives, and a tribal representative. There are five ex-officio members to provide information to the committee.

The committee members had to submit an application to be on the committee, and one of the questions that included was how they were planning to reach back out to the people they are representing to make sure that they are sharing information and receiving feedback so that their participation is not simply representing their own views but also the view of the groups that they represent.  Ms. Buckman noted that members do not need to agree that the Delta Conveyance project should move forward; in fact, most of the group opposes the project, she noted.

This is a committee to the DCA board, and as a committee, the topics are limited to the work being completed by the DCA, which is helping develop the conceptual designs for the proposed projects and alternatives in a way that minimizes and avoids effects to local communities.

There’s definitely a challenge to understand Stakeholder Engagement Committee’s role in terms of their participation with the DCA and their participation in commenting on CEQA,” she said.  “We wanted to be clear that that committee is not the right forum to comment on the CEQA documentation and the CEQA process.  DWR will be leading that effort, so DWR will have a separate public engagement effort that we will do as part of the CEQA process that includes scoping, public meetings, and other workshops.  This does not take the place of the public involvement, there will be a separate forum for that involvement.  This is focused on ways to reduce effects and changes that can be made to the designs to make them more sensitive to the local communities.”

SOIL INVESTIGATION INITIAL STUDY

The Department of Water Resources released a soil investigation initial study and proposed mitigated negative declaration.  The project is to conduct soil investigations throughout the Delta.  It includes potentially some soil borings on land or over water, cone penetration tests, and geophysical surveys.  It’s out now for public review and the public review has been extended through January 15 of 2020.  The purpose of the project is to gather data to inform and evaluate alternatives for the conveyance project and also to provide geotechnical information to other efforts going on within the Delta.

FOR MORE INFORMATION …

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