Peripheral Tunnel Plan Details Released at Public Meeting

Jerry Meral, Deputy Resources Secretary, listening to a question from a Delta advocate.  Photo by Dan Bacher. by Dan Bacher The Cal...

Jerry Meral, Deputy Resources Secretary, listening to a question from a Delta advocate.  Photo by Dan Bacher.

by Dan Bacher

The California Natural Resources Agency on August 29 held the first public meeting of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in Sacramento since the Governor announced his controversial plan to build the peripheral tunnels on July 25.

Jerry Meral, the Deputy Resources Secretary, began the meeting by emphasizing that although the state and federal governments had chosen a preferred project, “there are still a lot of steps that the project must go through.”

Meral updated the joint agreement announced by Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reiterating and expanding upon many of the points announced in the July press conference.

Meral said the project is based on Alternative 4, featuring a reduced conveyance size of 9,000 cfs and a reduction of the number of intakes from 5 to 3.

”The project is based on a gravity flow design to maximize energy efficiency and minimize environmental impacts,” said Meral. “The tunnels have to be larger because the water is not pumped through a powerhouse.”

Though no specific size for the diameter of the tunnels has been chosen yet, Meral said it would probably be a range of 33 to 35 feet. The energy costs have also been reduced from 250 mw to 50 mw with the gravity fed tunnel.

He also claimed the revised project addressed a number of key biological issues. According to Meral, the revised project: •Addresses upstream temperature and flow concerns •Reduces South Delta entrainment for all species • Increases Delta outflow in the spring • Reduces the construction and operation effects of the North Delta intakes • Includes "decision trees."

Meral claimed that by choosing 3 diversions over the original 5, they are trying to avoid the construction and operation effects of the North Delta intakes, as well as addressing the impacts on the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Though reduced entrainment in the South Delta is claimed, Meral admitted that BDCP was not even considering inclusion of a measure to screen at least a small amount of the pumping capacity in the south Delta to reduce known entrainment and ongoing fish kills. A speaker blamed the Metropolitan Water District for holding back a study that shows that smaller screens in the South Delta would be effective and feasible, and therefore should be included in the BDCP.

Meral said the so-called "decision trees" they are using to evaluate the project are a “way to protected species in way that addresses evolving science.”

“A range of alternatives will be analyzed in the EIR and EIS,” he stated. “They haven’t changed much. We have to go through a extensive analysis of all of the environmental alternatives.”

Russ Stein of the California Department of Water Resources reported further on the details of the conveyance proposal. The entire conveyance facilities, including the three proposed intakes, will take up a total of 2,700 acres. Each intake will have a capacity of 3,000 cfs.

“There will be three state of the art fish screens held to performance standards to protection passing fish,” Stein claimed. “We have convened a team to study this.”

The state will also construct a 925-acre “intermediate forebay” just adjacent to the Stone Lakes Refuge for temporarily storing the water pumped from the river.

They will be pumping water through a new forebay built next to Clifton Court Forebay, a facility of 840 acres including the water intakes and infrastructure. The new forebay will prevent the relatively “fish-free” water from the North Delta to be kept separate from the fish laden waters sucked into the existing Clifton Court forebay by the south Delta pumps.

The two tunnels will carry the water 35 miles to the existing pumping facilities. “There will be continued use of the current south Delta facilities,” he said.

In response to a question about whether reverse flows that have caused so much damage to fish populations will continue in the South Delta after constructing of the tunnels, Meral jumped in.

“There will still be reverse flows, but they will be less what we see now,” said Meral. “These tunnels are larger than if this was a pumping, rather than a gravity controlled facility – and less than if designed for 15,000 cfs.”

Though no actual numbers were provided at the meeting, the costs and funding would remain the same, with 75 percent from the water contractors, 10 percent from the Bureau of Reclamation, 10 percent from the State Water Resources Control Board and 5 percent from other state and federal agencies, according to Dr. David Zippin and Jennifer Pierre of ICF International.

Meral said the draft EIR/EIS will be available “this fall,” tentatively in October, and the final “approval” of these documents would ensue in the spring of 2013.

Tunnel Critics Respond

Tunnel critics voiced a number of concerns and problems with the plan presented by Meral and Department of Water Resources staff and consultants at the meeting.

“They are trying to take charge and represent this new plan as a phoenix rising out of the ashes,” said Burt Wilson of Public Water News Service. “The original BDCP crashed and burned. It failed once with the National Academy of Scientists, who said the plan just supported conveyance. Then the latest attempt was trashed by the Independent Science Board, who said the plan could hasten the extinction of winter run chinook salmon, Delta smelt and longfin smelt."

“They had to start over – trying to become a legitimate agency and a legitimate plan,” Wilson continued. “To me, the BDCP is walking on tenuous ground every step it takes. The reason for that is because their authority doesn’t come from the people of California, as it should, through a vote.”

Wilson also contested Meral’s claim that the revised tunnels were designed for just for 9,000 cfs of gravity flow water.

“They could be rigged from 9,000 cfs to 15,000 cfs with a few tricks here and there,” said Wilson. “The state and water contractors are looking at a future when they can drain the Sacramento River dry and they can put up barriers at Scripps Island. The water contractors want guaranteed water deliveries even in times of drought.”

"Burt Wilson and I had some pointed questions about the avoidance of discussion of the tunnel capacity," added Nick Di Croce, Co-Facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus. "I expressed skepticism since both Meral and the ICF consultant avoided discussing that during the talk of intake capacity. (That prompted a comment from Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District about some groups being 'paranoid' about dealing with government agencies; what a pot/kettle remark!)"

"After a lot of back and forth, the best we could get for an answer is that they are planning to only 'take' 9,000 cfs (intake capacity) and that the only way to get 15,000 cfs is if the gravity fed tunnels were pressurized. Conclusion: nothing has changed about the capacity of the tunnels; they still can be 15,000 cfs," Di Croce noted.

Dick Pool, President of Water for Fish and Secretary Treasurer of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said he is pleased that state officials appeared to be more willing to talk about the upstream impacts of the BDCP on salmon and other fish, something they had avoided before.

“They seem to be more cognizant and receptive than they have been in the past that this project must recover the salmon or it cannot proceed,” said Pool. “They are now concerned about upriver flow and temperature impacts on fish. Dr. Meral also said they have to reduce entrainment in the South Delta and need to have increased Delta flows in the spring. All of these are positive steps if they follow through.”

However, Pool wasn’t at all impressed by the current habitat plan, a project that would benefit mainly Delta and longfin smelt and a long list of terrestrial and marsh animal species.

“The salmon cannot be recovered by only working in the Delta. The current habitat plan only focuses on Delta reconstruction projects and excludes flow changes. It therefore does little or nothing for the salmon,” he stated.

The project would set aside 30,000 acres of aquatic habitat over 15 years. The project would also create more than 100,000 acres of restored and protected habitat, including 10,000 acres of restored floodplans, 65,000 acres of restored tidal habitat, 5,0000 acres of restored riparian woodland, 8,000 acres of protected grass land and 2,000 acres of restored grassland.

Osha Meserve, a Sacramento attorney representing Local Agencies of the North Delta and the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Association who asked a number of questions that BDCP officials never really answered, wasn’t impressed by the presentation.

She showed me a DWR document from 2010 that stated, “Considering the tidal variations in the Sacramento River and the BDCP operating rules, the proposed intakes may not be able to deliver the combined maximum target amount of 15,000 cfs.”

The Department of Water Resources has been trying to spin the reduction from 5 to 3 intakes as a measure to reduce local impacts but that is very deceptive, according to Meserve.

Thus “as far back as April 2010 DWR knew it could not use 5 intakes due to water availability and other constraints,” she emphasized.

“That makes a mockery out of recent ‘concessions’ to reduce local impacts. After 5 years, the project still maximizes local impacts and yet still cannot show it will help the fish we are supposed to be saving,” she said.

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