Will the BDCP be the Death of the Delta?

The Friant Kern Canal, as seen from Rocky Hill. Photo by: Jordon Dean
The Friant Kern Canal, as seen from Rocky Hill. Photo by: Jordon Dean

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), discussed at some length during Rep. Devin Nunes’ interview, is not your garden-variety disagreement between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, the issue does not cut through party lines, nor is it completely regional. For very different reasons, Rep. Nunes’ opposition to the BDCP has found him in league with liberal Bay Area activists–the same activists he describes as environmental extremists.

Half of the BDCP, that is not subject to the water bond on the November ballot, are two massive water tunnels, 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long. The intake system for the tunnels will siphon off 9000 cubic square feet of water per second and flow 150 feet underground. The tunnels would be tall enough to comfortably fit an adult giraffe, wide enough for three freeway lanes, and carry enough water to serve 35,000 homes a day. The theory is that the tunnels will be a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to transport water south of the delta to Los Angeles and Central Valley farmers. The intake system will be located above the delta and have better screens so that massive fish kills would be averted. The older pumps would still be used, but not to the same extent.

The tunnels have been compared to another controversial conveyance system, the Peripheral Canal, that Californians voted down in 1982. Unlike the Peripheral Canal, the tunnels do not need voter approval. Governor Jerry Brown and the water contractors, including the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are campaigning hard to get these tunnels built. Gov. Brown has promoted the tunnels as accomplishing the “co-equal goals” of restoring the Delta ecosystem and providing water supply reliability. The tunnels would be paid for by the water contractors.
But a wide variety of organizations is campaigning against the tunnels. Besides many scientists who have studied the issue, most Northern California legislators and environmentalists say that the tunnels will ultimately lead to the death of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“It is oxymoronic to believe you can restore a river by removing water. Construction of the tunnels will ultimately lead to more water being taken out of an ecosystem, not less, and result in the ultimate destruction of the ecosystem,” Dan Bacher stated in a recent Fish Sniffer Magazine article, “‘Death of the Delta’ coffin will go on tour”.

The article continued, “In an effort to dramatize the impact of the tunnels on the Delta, a coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and family farmers held a “Death of the Delta” funeral and press conference before a public meeting of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan began at the Woodlake Inn in Sacramento on April 4. The centerpiece of the Restore the Delta event was a coffin emblazoned with names of the victims of the project if Gov. Brown’s plan’s goes through. They included “NorCal Water Supply,” “SF Bay Water Quality,” “Delta Smelt,” Salmon,” “Orcas,” “Port of Stockton,” “Port of Sacramento,” “Family Farms,” and a list of Delta towns and cities.”

In Tulare County support has been mixed. Supervisor Allen Ishida will present a letter or resolution to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors opposing the Water Bond and Tunnels sometime in June.

Assemblywoman Connie Conway said, “We have a saying in the Valley: ‘Agua es vida – water is life.’ Our population has doubled in the 40 years since the state’s water system was built, and yet we continue to receive less and less water. There’s no doubt that California needs a safe, clean and reliable water system. I’m still reviewing the draft portions of the plan that have been released, but it’s imperative that all stakeholders make their voices heard, especially after October when the final draft is issued.”

Dennis Keller, of Keller & Wegley Engineering, said that not all the studies and environmental reports concerning the BDCP have been concluded. He did say that whatever they decide, it will have a huge impact on Tulare County’s Friant Kern Canal water users. The health of the Delta is directly linked to the Madera and Friant Canals. When water is diverted out of the Delta it doesn’t just head down to the Westlands Water District and Los Angeles, but is also pumped into the Delta Mendota Canal that feeds the Friant and Madera Canals. The Friant Kern Canal presently enjoys the number one appropriations rights from the Delta.

But, Mr. Keller says, he is too busy right now getting enough water for farmers in the Kaweah Delta Watershed to read all the reports.

Kim Loeb, the Natural Resource Conservation Manager for Visalia, said, “Anything that would reduce the water going to the Friant Kern Canal, and especially the east side farmers, would have a great impact on Visalia’s ground water. Anything that affects the Valley’s water supply has a domino effect on everyone’s resources. When deliveries to the Friant Kern Canal are normal, farmers don’t pump water, and the left over water percolates into the underground aquifer.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others have proposed an alternate plan to the tunnels that include a 3,000 cubic-foot-per-second tunnel and 40,000 acres of habitat restoration and preservation, both of which are being studied.

The NRDC stated, “All of California would benefit from increasing water conservation, recycling and storage. These programs must proceed regardless of what is done in the Delta. But they cannot entirely replace water supplies diverted from the Delta, which is absolutely necessary for California’s economy.”

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