Choose your words carefully

The Delta Stewardship Council held its most recent meeting in the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg.  Maybe they heard that it was a cool hangout.

From the Council side of the discussion it was apparent that they were still trying to come to grips with their time line and legislative directive to produce a meaningful, defined and beneficial Delta Plan. There is still a substantial amount of uncertainty regarding the Council’s role in regulating California’s water system, and folks on both sides of the table are struggling to gain a better understanding of the scope of the council’s authority under the language of the legislation.

Two panel discussions were scheduled for the Thursday meeting. They were listed as “Focused Panel Discussions” on the agenda, so I will try and keep this summary and analysis as focused as possible.

The morning panel’s discussion was to focus on the Ecosystem of the Delta. The discussion in my opinion was more focused “around” the ecosystem as panelists were questioned, rather explicitly, on building a northern intake, determining the agricultural value of the Delta as a place, and deciding how best to carry out restoration efforts in the Delta.

The Panel consisted of Roger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District), Carl Wilcox (California Department of Fish and Game), Bill Bennett (UC Davis), Gary Bobker (The Bay Institute), and Leo Winternitz (The Nature Conservancy).  Russell Van Loben Sels, a local Delta farmer, was listed on the agenda, but wasn’t able to attend.

(Van Loben Sels has been out of the country and doesn’t recall being invited to participate.  He doesn’t appear to have been a confirmed speaker, and there doesn’t appear to have been any attempt on the part of panel organizers to find another Delta farmer for the panel.  That’s too bad.  Plenty of Delta people in-the-know could have provided a local perspective on the Delta ecosystem to balance all those outside-the-Delta views.)

Fish Guru Bill Bennett of UC Davis Spoke most freely and directly addressed the flawed premises behind much of the science the BDCP and other faux scientific reports that have been coming out about the Delta.  Each individual body has a view of the Delta in the future, and that view biases their reports.  Bennett told the Council that they need to define what it is that they want for the Delta.

Bennett prefaced his remarks with a statement of his own assumption that we intend to have Chinook Salmon in the system in the future. He was serious, and I commend him for it. He suggested many areas where there is room for improvement. As an example, he mentioned the current status of our hatchery techniques and the potential for improvement, citing a need for expanding the diversity in techniques for releasing and acclimating fish into the river system.

Some of the panelists brought outlines of their talking points.

Carl Wilcox (CDFG) brought in a list of Fish and Game’s top three priorities:

  1. Change the point of diversion for water exports from the Delta to the Sacramento River
  2. Improve and increase tributary inflow to provide more natural hydrology within the Delta
  3. Increase the amount of intertidal and floodplain habitat within the Delta as identified in Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Ecosystem Restoration Program Plan (ERP, formally CALFED ERP)

But when council members noted that both BDCP and CALFED seemed to lack justification for their goals and objectives, and asked Wilcox for some scientific or biological justification for DCFG’s objectives, Wilcox responded that these were longstanding policies of the Department. When asked for a graph, figure or page number where such justification could be found in any of the millions of pages of scientific literature or bureaucratic reports, he could provide none.  “It doesn’t exist” was his only response.

Leo Winternitz (The Nature Conservancy) brought in some “Draft recommendations to address Delta Habitat Restoration Needs (Based on BDCP Habitat Restoration Objectives).”  The two pager contained numerical acreage targets for restoration, with timelines for implementation, but was silent on the mechanism by which the lands should be obtained and what the justification for the targets was. They may just as well have been conjured out of thin air.  It also made me question their math skills.

But let’s go over the targets for kicks:

90,000 acres of aquatic habitat:

  • 65k acres tidal marsh
  • 10K acres floodplain
  • 5K acres Riparian Habitat
  • 40 miles of channel margin habitat
  • at least 10K acres Seasonal and Managed Wetlands
  • up 200 acres vernal pool complex

As for terrestrial habitat:

  • 2K acres Grassland communities
  • up to 32K Agricultural habitat, mitigation and preservation

At one point in the discussion, the Council solicited examples of regulations the panelists would implement if they were in the Council’s position. Oddly enough, panelists struggled and balked.  When asked for some scientific backing for the recommendations he had spent the last half hour expounding upon, Winternitz was only able to point to a picture from the Delta Vision Report (as if he had forgotten that the DSC chair’s name was on the by-line of the report) and spout some thoughts on what could be extrapolated from the photo, which seemed hardly enough to justify continuing the conversation.

I find it worth noting that when questioned about the appropriateness of the Legislatively-created Delta Conservancy being the exclusive body to carry out restoration projects, it was quickly pointed out that the law said “a” and not “the” body responsible for the work. This was supported by CDFG saying they didn’t see the Conservancy as being the “exclusive” body either.

[Restore the Delta is vehemently opposed to the governmental taking of lands for the use of habitat restoration or mitigation for past or future project operations. We believe that Delta communities are as deserving of protection as Delta fisheries.  We maintain that the best plan for the Delta is the creation of a world class region where profitable, sustainable agriculture and habitat thrive together.  The Delta holds the blueprint for sustainability within its past and its future.

Government agencies and other non-governmental agencies involved in the “Delta planning industry” bring nothing but economic harm to the Delta community by talking endlessly about taking 100,000 acres of Delta farmland out of production and by waving their maps and plans around at press conferences and agency meetings.  Perhaps this is their intent – transforming the Delta from a unique and thriving region with need for some improvement (like most places)-into a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.  But we also know that this approach will backfire on its promoters.

We recommend to the DSC and other governmental agencies that existing state lands (about 60,000 acres) be used first for wetlands habitat for fisheries.  In addition, we find much merit in Dr. Robert Pyke’s idea that sunken islands like Frank’s Tract should be restored for fish habitat purposes.

Beyond those efforts, which would go a long way toward creating habitat, Restore the Delta believes that opportunities exist over time for habitat creation as part of upgraded levees.  (It seems that most other countries in the world have figured out how to put habitat on secure levee banks along rivers; we should be able to do the same.)  And if local farmers voluntarily make land sacrifices for habitat creation on their levees or elsewhere, they should be compensated.

We have spent years and may millions of dollars supporting Central Valley farmers with cheap water deliveries and other subsidies for growing cotton and almonds for export.  Compensating farmers for helping with the restoration of Chinook Salmon, which we once canned at 5 million pounds per year in the Delta, seems to us a better use of public money.  After all Delta fruit and veggies, wine, and salmon is the food of the gods – or at least the food of  California culture – and are essential to a safe, secure, and sustainable local food supply.]

Back to the DSC story, Roger Patterson of Metropolitan Water district was on the panel as well, and as he was on the outer reaches of his expertise (I was unaware he qualified as an ecosystem expert), he kept his comments limited but focused.  He promoted the findings of the most recent PPIC report and repeatedly urged the council to “ensure BDCP get plugged in.” He pointed out that there were restraints on the Council’s Authority with respect to a conveyance recommendation, saying that in his view the Council’s Delta Plan should be a backdrop for BDCP.  You can’t blame the guy for doing his job.

The gravity of the law in the enabling legislation brings this discussion back to Earth.  The Council seems well aware of the fact that they have been handed a monumental task to be completed on a ludicrously truncated time schedule.  The guiding legislation did not sufficiently empower the Council to tackle all of the issues that face California’s water system

Solving California’s water problems is a task some on the council have watched go uncompleted for the better part of three decades (CALFED) at an astronomical cost to the taxpayers of our state and nation.  Solving them in less than a year just isn’t possible, and if the initial drafts of the Delta Plan are any indication of what they intend to produce, I would suggest that they try and be a bit more selective with the quality of their words and less focused on the quantity.  It would be a shame should all this time, money and resources go into yet another empty report that summarizes what is wrong with the system but offers no real world, on-the-ground.

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