Paul Stanton Kibel (Associate Professor, GGU School of Law) and Kalla Hirschbein (Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources)
The Bay Delta refers to the area where the freshwater of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge just east of San Francisco Bay. Pursuant to the 2009 Delta Reform Act, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is being developed to provide a framework to resolve longstanding tensions between the diversion of freshwater flowing into and through the Bay Delta and the need for enhanced freshwater flows to restore the Bay Delta’s ecological health and fisheries.
One of the more contentious environmental issues to be addressed in the BDCP is a proposal to construct a new “isolated conveyance facility” that would divert water north of the Delta and convey such water (via either an above-ground canal or an underground tunnel) south of the Delta to farms and cities. The isolated conveyance facility proposal is similar to the “peripheral canal” proposed (and rejected by California voters) in the early 1980s. Proponents of the isolated conveyance facility maintain the proposed point of diversion (north of the Delta) would improve water supply reliability, and reduce the number of smelt and juvenile salmon that are currently entrained (killed) in diversion pumps now operated as part of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and California’s State Water Project (SWP). The current CVP and SWP diversion pumps are located mostly on the south end of the Delta. Critics of the isolated conveyance facility, however, counter that the facility could lock in high levels of freshwater diversions for many decades and that such continued diversions would contribute to the ecological decline of the Bay Delta and its fisheries.
In early May 2011, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its review of the draft of the BDCP. The NAS review was highly critical of the draft BDCP, particularly in terms of the draft’s lack of substantive analysis of potential alternatives to an isolated conveyance facility. According to the NAS review, the draft BDCP failed to adequately analyze the downstream impacts of the facility on the Bay Delta or explain how operation of the facility would comply with the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act. The NAS review concluded that the draft BDCP appeared to be a “post hoc rationalization” for a decision to proceed with the isolated conveyance facility.
The NAS Review of the draft BDCP echoed critiques by California fishing groups, who have faulted the BDCP drafting process for not including representatives of commercial and sportfishing interests. These groups maintain that direct participation of such fishing interests in the BDCP drafting process might have resulted in a more rigorous analysis of the adverse environmental impacts associated with the proposed isolated conveyance facility. As Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association commented upon the release of the NAS review: “Fish have evolved over millions of years to rely on strong freshwater to carry them to the ocean. It is unclear how the isolated conveyance facility proposal to allow freshwater to increasingly bypass the Bay Delta altogether will help restore these natural ocean-bound flows essential for our smelt, salmon and steelhead fisheries to recover.”