Delta_smelt_fish_in_hand (Web)
Habitat degradation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta threatens many species of fish, especially the Delta smelt. photo by Peter Johnsen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here we go again. Just last year, we were invited to have our say on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the state’s failed proposal to pipe water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Now the twin tunnels are back with a new name — California WaterFix — and the key difference of no longer being linked to extensive habitat restoration. Permits are up to federal and state wildlife agencies, and funding is up to the water users, who are mostly Central Valley farmers and Southern California water agencies. We have until October 30 to get our comments in.

About half of California’s freshwater flows through the Delta, which has been heading for trouble since people diked its many islands for agriculture about 150 years ago. Today those levees are crumbling and, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, breaks big enough to threaten water supplies are likely. The Delta supplies about 13 percent of the state’s water and 43 percent of the Bay Area’s water.

The Delta is also a major thoroughfare for California’s salmon. Two-thirds of them migrate through the Delta, and several salmon runs are threatened or endangered. Other at-risk fish include the famous Delta smelt, the less-known longfin smelt, and the green sturgeon. What these fish have in common, aside from the misfortune of their deteriorating ecosystem, is that they live in salty water as adults but migrate back to freshwater to spawn. And this is part of their undoing in today’s Delta.

At the southern tip of the Delta, two sets of pumps drain water into state and federal water projects, respectively. Sucking water south through the Delta disturbs the natural east-west flow of water between the rivers and the sea. “The south Delta is more like a lake,” said UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle, explaining that migratory fish navigate by tidal currents. “It’s confusing to the fish, they don’t know where to go.” Another problem is that the pumps crush fish.

The proposed tunnels could help solve both problems. About 30 miles long, 40 feet across, and up to 150 feet underground, the tunnels would carry water from the northern tip of the Delta to the pumps in the south. “Moving water directly to the pumps could be less confusing to the fish,” Moyle said. “That’s the theory, anyway.”

The tunnel intakes would be like three gigantic mouths on the Sacramento River, each capable of gulping up to 22,000 gallons per second. While the plan also calls for screens designed to protect fish, the intakes could still be risky for fish. So the project can’t go forward without “incidental take” permits for endangered fish from wildlife agencies; these permits allow harm to listed species or their habitat in exchange for habitat conservation. And permitting the BDCP’s vision for the tunnels looked unlikely, in part given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 30 pages of “red flag” comments.

BDCP was a 50-year plan that bundled the tunnels with large-scale restoration to meet the 2009 Delta Reform Act’s goals of water reliability and ecosystem restoration. According to the state, combining the two projects was a major holdup to permitting the tunnels. Wildlife biologists thought the long-term impact on endangered species was too uncertain, and doubted that the BDCP could deliver the extensive habitat restoration it promised.

Now the state has split BDCP into California WaterFix and California EcoRestore. This means the tunnels are no longer linked to a 50-year permit and large-scale restoration. The new plan does include up to 15,600 acres of habitat restoration and protection, but this is only about a tenth of what BDCP promised. But while separating BDCP into two parts may facilitate permitting the tunnels, critics are as vocal as ever.

Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program, said the NRDC is open to rerouting water from the north Delta to the south. But he doesn’t like the state plan. “Moving the point of diversion doesn’t address the primary problem that outflows from the Delta are too low,” he said, adding that outflow to the sea correlates with the health of Delta fish populations. “New intakes would increase the potential to take water from the Delta, and the State Water Resources Control Board has waived a lot of environmental flows during the drought.”

The board acknowledged in a 2010 report that recent Delta outflows are too low for fish. According to the report, we would ideally let 75 percent of the Delta’s water flow through it and out to sea during the rainy season. But in dry years, outflows have been as low as 30 percent. By law, the board must balance environmental water needs with those of cities, agriculture, and recreation.

Fish need water most during dry years. “When flow is high, salmon just pass through the Delta,” said Jeffrey Mount, a fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “When flow is low, it’s hard for them to get through without being picked off by non-native predators,” which include two species of catfish and several species of bass.

Mount understands why the state is moving forward with the twin tunnels. “The current strategy has not worked and the state needs to work towards a decision,” he said. And uncertainty over the tunnels is unavoidable. “It’s a big experiment, and we don’t really know what the environmental benefits will be,” he added, explaining that it’s hard to predict how climate change will affect future droughts and sea level rise.

As long as we use water from the Delta, we are in for an engineering fix one way or another. “It’s an engineered landscape — we have eliminated all of the original Delta,” Mount said. “An engineering solution is inevitable.” The only question is whether we will get to choose how and when to do it, or whether we will let a catastrophe like levee failure dictate the terms. Either way, people will survive. But we’ve been getting nowhere on a fix for decades and the longer we delay, the closer the Delta’s endangered fish slide toward extinction.

That said, Mount is “agnostic” on California WaterFix, citing its colossal expense. Costs could run $15 billion, according to the California Department of Water Resources, the lead state agency on California WaterFix.

We can’t vote on the latest incarnation of the twin tunnels, but we can make our voices heard. You can learn more about California WaterFix at and can send comments to [email protected] or BDCP/California WaterFix Comments, P.O. Box 1919, Sacramento, CA 95812.

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.