A California agency on Thursday unanimously adopted a broad, long-range plan to manage the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
After several hours of public comments and protests by opponents, the Delta Stewardship Council voted 7-0 to approve the final version of the Delta Plan, a blueprint for restoring the Delta’s ecosystem and improving water supply reliability.
The plan does not call for specific construction projects but contains policies and recommendations. The $14 billion twin tunnel project, which is being developed through a separate federal and state initiative, will be incorporated into the plan if the tunnels are approved and permitted.
Critics say the Delta Plan doesn’t do enough when it comes to restoring and protecting the Delta or its threatened fish species — and could negatively impact Delta communities.
The plan comes after years of concerns over an increase in water demand and the degradation of habitat in the Delta, which supplies drinking water for two-thirds of California residents and irrigates about 4 million acres of crops.
The ecosystem’s rapid deterioration has spurred regulations that limit Delta pumping. Farmers and water users whose water was curtailed have clamored for a stable water supply. In 2009, the Legislature created the seven-member council to come up with a plan to manage the estuary.
The plan could have a profound impact on the Delta’s landscape. Local and state agencies with projects in the Delta would be required to keep them consistent with the plan.
Another policy mandates that new urban development be located only within those areas of a city or county already designated for growth.
A third asks water users to reduce reliance on the Delta through measures such as water recycling, storm water capture, or storage.
The plan also mandates expanding floodplains by moving levees back and restoring wetlands habitat. It requires flood-proofing homes for residential developments in rural areas. And it prohibits developments from encroaching on several specific floodplains, including the Yolo Bypass and parts of Paradise Cut in San Joaquin County.
“The plan tells us how to get through the next 100 years,” said Phil Isenberg, the council’s chairman and a former Sacramento mayor. “Everybody has to conserve water all the time, everyone has to decrease reliance on the Delta, and everyone has to help with the environmental needs of the Delta. We’re running out of easy solutions, so everybody has to kick in.”
Critics say the plan — three years in the making, at a cost of $14.5 million in taxpayer funds — is light on details.
“The plan has a huge hole in its center,” said Jonas Minton, water policy adviser for the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League. “It does not deal with reversing the environmental collapse of the ecosystem.”
Most troubling, Minton said, is the lack of standards for how much water the Delta needs to be a healthy estuary. Another problem is the reliance on the unfinished twin tunnel project for both restoring water supply reliability and habitat.
Fish advocates say the plan does not help restore struggling fish species such as salmon.
“We feel the legislature was clear in its intention that the Delta be restored and native salmon runs and other wildlife be recovered in the process,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “We feel the Delta plan won’t do that.”
That’s because, McManus said, the plan is too narrowly focused and does nothing to control upstream reservoir releases connected to Delta pumping, which lead to less water flowing through the Delta during time periods when the salmon are most vulnerable.
Council officials say the plan is meant to get all local and state agencies working on the same page when it comes to creating and maintaining projects or programs within the Delta. As for flow standards, they are currently being updated by the State Water Resources Control Board, Isenberg said, and will be incorporated into the plan.