7/25/12: Program Director Gary Bobker responds to the BDCP announcement

Statement by Gary Bobker, Program Director, The Bay Institute, on the Announcement by Governor Brown and Secretary Salazar Regarding the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan July 25, 2012

Today, Governor Brown and the Obama Administration announced a significant change in focus for and renewed commitment to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which seeks permits to build and operate a new water diversion on the Sacramento River that will augment the giant state and federal pumping plants in the south Delta that export water to the westside San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. How BDCP is designed and whether it is approved may largely determine the future of North America’s crown-­-jewel estuarine ecosystem (the Sacramento-­-San Joaquin Bay-­-Delta) and the reliability of the water supply for millions of Californians.

Far from meeting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act, California Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, and other statutes under which it would be permitted, the BDCP as defined during the Schwarzenegger administration – a project to build a massive new diversion facility, export as much water as possible to state and federal water project contractors, and hope that wetland habitat restoration could somehow offset the impact of further reducing ecologically critical freshwater flows – would have contributed to species extinctions rather than restoring the Delta ecosystem. Today, in announcing a new direction for BDCP, Governor Brown and Interior Secretary Salazar deserve credit for realizing that the old project had little merit and could not be permitted.

Some elements of the new project are very encouraging:
  • The new focus on achieving specific restoration objectives for endangered species and the ecosystem as a whole;
  • The acknowledgement that Delta outflows and other flow conditions play a key role in supporting species and ecosystem recovery;
  • The downsizing of the diversion facility and the potential for it to be phased in over time; and,
  • The new focus on securing alternative water supplies to reduce pressure on the Delta.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear that the new project will ultimately be more successful in winning permit approval. The governor and Secretary Salazar are still trying to put off the day when they have to answer the central, unavoidable question on which the success of BDCP hinges: how much water can be sustainably exported from the Bay-­-Delta system? The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that exports will have to be reduced in order to support species recovery and ecosystem restoration. Using better science in the future to decide whether to export more or less water is no substitute for making the right decision now about requiring the flows and export controls that actually allow the permit conditions for species recovery and ecosystem restoration to be achieved. Facing and settling this question definitively will earn the governor and the federal government the trust they need to move forward with such a complex and controversial project and prove to residents of the Delta, Northern California, and throughout the state that BDCP is not just a unpopular water transfer from the environment and Northern California to Delta exporters but one part of a larger package to save the Delta once and for all.

Setting operations at sustainable export levels is the most important of a number of issues that will require further resolution, including, the permit terms, decision-­-making process and independent science process that will be used to ensure that BDCP achieves its recovery and restoration objectives over time; whether and how the three intakes of a new facility will be phased in and tested; the design and sizing of a new facility and the rules to operate it so as to fulfill those commitments; and how not only new facilities but long-­-term restoration actions will be funded over the life of the permit.

Wanting to “get s—t done”, in the governor’s words, is a problem if you wind up with s—t as the outcome. The governor’s boldness in pushing for a new diversion facility needs to be matched by equal boldness in pushing for more flows and less exports to save the Delta and resolving other key issues.