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Modified Bay Delta Plan Still Draws Critics

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More of the Sacramento River could be heading to California cities and farms | Photo: Steve Cluberson, USFWS/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License

A $25 billion plan to reengineer the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay estuary has been trimmed down, but some say the project would still harm fish and other aspects of the Delta's beleaguered environment. The nearly $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, intended to address increasing demand on the Sacramento River's water as flows diminish over the long haul, was delayed in August by the California Department of Water resources in response to public comments.

Those comments mainly centered on two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels which would move water around the fragile Delta. In a name-check of the politically disastrous Peripheral Canal plan of the 1980s, opponents dubbed the tunnels the Peripheral Tunnels and say they would allow far more water to be diverted from the Delta and Bay than the estuary can spare.

Those tunnels haven't changed much in the new version of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, but the infrastructure to support them has been radically altered. The Plan now proposes fewer pumping plants along the "Peripheral Tunnels," and would spare most of the 9,000-acre Staten Island, a wildlife-rich wetland that would have been the site of massive construction infrastructure and new power lines. But those alterations to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan haven't rested critics' minds at ease.

In addition to reducing the construction impact on Staten Island, the new version of the plan would shelve three large intake pumps between Hood and Walnut Grove along the Sacramento River. Instead, river water would enter the tunnels at three 85-acre intake facilities along the Sacramento between Courtland and Clarksburg, impelled through the 35-mile long tunnels by a large pump at Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy, at the south end of the new tunnels.

From there, the water would go into the waterworks of the State Water Project, which supplies much of the state with water for drinking and irrigation. When the Sacramento is in flood, operators would be able to reduce power on the pumps and allow diverted water to reach the State Water Project at least partly by gravity flow, reducing the amount of energy spent to siphon up the Sacramento's water.

"Our antiquated water system isn't working -- regulations prevent us from capturing needed rainfall during drought, earthquakes pose a constant threat to freshwater and the environment still deteriorates," said Terry Erlewine of State Water Contractors, a non-profit association that represents public water companies throughout California. "Water may be surging through the Sacramento River, but -- even during storms -- we have to cut back water deliveries to meet environmental regulations. This project will fix the broken system, so we aren't losing water when it's most available."

But opponents aren't swayed by the amendments to the plan.

"You can dress it up, you can dress it down by making the project look less industrial," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the Stockton-based environmental group Restore The Delta. "But if you divert the Sacramento River from the Delta, it will kill the SF Bay-Delta estuary. It is still a water grab, and slightly lessening the construction impacts means nothing."

Restore the Delta says that the amended project, if built, will still pose a devastating threat to Sacramento River salmon and steelhead, as well as the endangered Delta smelt.

Opponents also cite the threat to the Delta's abundant bird life from a set of temporary transmission lines, which would pose a risk of impact injuries during their ten-year proposed lifespan.

Instead of spending $25 billion in tax funds and ratepayer dollars to build the project, a figure opponents claim is likely to double once interest payments and overruns are included, Plan opponents say the state should ramp up water conservation and efficiency programs, while spending some of that infrastructure capital to strengthen the Delta's existing levees and protecting the estuary by reducing net water exports from the Delta.

The changes to the tunnel section of the sprawling, 12,000-page Bay Delta Conservation Plan will be included in the Plan's formal environmental review and public comment period, slated for 2015.

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