June 24, 2008

Better Delta Protections Demanded

By Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jun. 24--Staff Writer

Five members of Congress from Northern California fired a warning shot Tuesday across the bow of a swift-moving plan that calls for a controversial aqueduct to deliver water around the Delta as its centerpiece.

The letter accuses the federal regulatory agencies that must approve the plan of failing to protect Delta fisheries in the past and pointedly asks for assurances that the latest plan to save the Delta will fare better.

"It is troubling to us ... that this Bay-Delta planning process seems to be driven by those with an interest in (Delta water) exports, rather than by those who depend on a healthy watershed and sustainable fisheries," said the letter, which was signed by Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez; Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek; Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton; Mike Thompson, D-Napa; and Doris O. Matsui, D-Sacramento.

The congressional letter said the two federal agencies that must approve the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, approved and participated in the last effort to fix the Delta, known as CalFed.

But key Delta fish species have since crashed and its salmon runs have declined more sharply than other West Coast salmon, leading many to call the CalFed effort a failure.

"And while we appreciate that it is essential that the federal agencies charged with ensuring the long-term health of California's fisheries participate in this process, we must

evaluate the situation in light of the failure of the CalFed program and of your agencies' recent track record on fisheries protection," the congressional letter said.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is being championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration and the state's biggest water users as a way to fix the Delta's problems, comply with endangered species laws and get a new aqueduct built around the Delta.

The plan would exempt massive Delta pumps from traditional endangered species permits that regulate water pumping in ways that are supposed to protect Delta smelt, steelhead and imperiled salmon runs.

In place of those permits, a sweeping conservation plan would be developed to conserve fish.

At the center of that plan is a proposal by water users to build a canal or pipeline that would take water around the Delta. Doing so would remove the threat that the big Delta pumps pose to fish in the south Delta. But such an aqueduct, which would most likely be used in combination with the existing pumps and plumbing, could increase pollution in the Delta by reducing the amount of dilution from the Sacramento River, critics contend.

The conservation plan also would grant 50-year assurances to water agencies that they would not face further water supply disruptions.

Among the concerns highlighted in the congressional letter: How can regulators provide long-term assurances given the fact that they still do not know exactly why smelt and salmon have crashed and what role the pumps might be playing?

"The last thing we need is a repeat of CalFed, and unless the fish agencies are held accountable to do their job and protect our threatened ecosystem, that's what we're going to have," said Ann Hayden, a water policy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund who is participating in the conservation plan development.

Another participant representing water users said the conservation plan would address the array of threats to the Delta.

"The idea of the conservation plan is to put in place a whole bunch of measures across the spectrum so that they (fish) recover," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of major water agencies including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Zone 7 Water Agency in Alameda County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

"The BDCP is the most likely vehicle for attaining recovery of those species that they care about," King Moon added.

The congressional letter asks the wildlife agencies to answer a series of questions by Aug. 1.

Spokesmen for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the fisheries service had no comment, saying their agencies had not had time to review the letter. But they said they would respond to the questions.

The Department of Water Resources did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The conservation plan for the sprawling Delta is on an extremely ambitious schedule that seeks to have the plan approved and permitted before Schwarzenegger leaves office after elections in 2010.

By contrast, a similar plan that covered only development in eastern Contra Costa County took 10 years to develop.

Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or [email protected]


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