Wednesday, July 21, 2010


By Patricia McBroom

It’s July and 100 degrees under the sun on a boat without a canopy and no breeze.  This boat, the Endeavor, is carrying some 20 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences into the delta.  

The scientists do not complain about the heat as they focus in on a difficult task – figuring out how fish are affected by the complicated hydrodynamics of the delta and why their populations have plummeted in recent years to near zero.  They also get a primer on the sparse habitat that remains for nurturing fish in a water landscape aimed primarily at moving water around.

“We can’t just look at a water conveyance alone, said Jon Burau, hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “We need new micro habitats” where the fish can hang out. “Most of the delta levees don’t make good habitat,” he said, waving at the rock-lined, sparsely vegetated levees that have created ditches of swiftly moving water. A hapless fish can be carried up the waterway as fast as the Endeavor is motoring and he can’t cling to the rocks.

Although understanding the causes of fish decline was their first order of business, the national committee of scientists, tasked with reviewing the impact of water exports from the delta, gained another, broader task on this, their second visit to Northern California.

The U.S. Department of Interior is poised to ask the NAS committee to do an overall critique of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is due for presentation to the public next spring. The critique will have to be quick.

“February – if we get the material,” said Stephen Parker, director of the water science board of the National Research Council. Parker added that the NAS is often asked for critiques on projects but does not receive the necessary documents, so he wasn’t making any promises.

In this case, however, a draft is likely to be ready by late September for such outside review, according to Karla Nemeth, spokesperson for the California National Resources Agency that manages the BDCP. She said the agency has not yet received a request for review by the NAS committee, but is expecting one.

This blueprint for new infrastructure and habitat restoration in the delta has been on a very fast track since last winter. Money for the speedy planning and review process is coming from water exporters who would like to break ground, at the earliest, on a tunnel in 2012, assuming they get through the environmental review and permitting process between now and then.

That, of course, is a big assumption. Opposition to “The Plan” is fierce in the delta.

Every landowner between Courtland and Freeport in the northern delta has seen themselves as dots on a map (potential locations for BDCP operations), said Cathy Hemly, who owns a pear farm with her husband, Doug, on Randall Island. They are the fifth generation in the family to farm this property along the Sacramento River.

In one BDCP scenario, Hemly saw the dots for huge water intakes situated on either side of her property like bookends. A big “X” was scrawled over her 1850s stately, white house along the river. The ”X” was marked “Headquarters.”

“I feel like a Yosemite Indian, said Hemly, her eyes scrunched up in pain. “They say, ‘We’ve got such a good deal for you!’ It’s so galling, so presumptuous!”

Delta residents are not the only people who think they should have a voice in the deliberations. Nearly everyone agrees, at least on paper, that habitat recovery should involve local participation – even if you could build a tunnel without them.

And habitat recovery takes time, said Jonas Minton, water policy advisor to the Planning and Conservation League. No one knows how many acres of delta land or where will go under water for habitat, an extremely sensitive issue.

“We hesitate to put out a number,” said Minton. “That is as much Soviet style as what the State Government is doing. We think it makes more sense to talk with the people in the delta, with the scientists, to add the dimension of time.

“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow and it isn’t going to happen all at once. We need some experimentation, the kinds of things that come with the dimension of time.”

Next week: The Delta Stewardship Council meets the delta

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