An environmental impact report in search of a project

Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Delta Plan are due by February 2.  A common observation among those commenting is that the Delta Plan doesn’t provide a clear and specific project for which the environmental impact can be evaluated. And if it is a programmatic EIR, what are the measurable standards for evaluation of programmatic success?

Dr. Robert Pyke is a civil engineer specializing in geotechnical, earthquake and water resources engineering.  He was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Paterno case.  Dr. Pyke has reviewed the Delta Plan Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), particularly the section that deals with flood risk (Section 5).

He notes that the Draft EIR fails to describe a project that meets the requirements of both CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) and the Delta Reform Act of 2009, which started this whole process.  It lacks concrete measures to simultaneously improve water supply reliability and restore the Delta ecosystem while protecting and enhancing the Delta as a place.

(Restore the Delta will interrupt to note yet again that the Delta Reform Act creates mutually exclusive requirements, so it isn’t surprising that no one has yet come up with a project to meet them.)

The only quantifiable targets associated with meeting the objectives of the Delta Plan relate to maintaining or increasing total agricultural acreage, and income from agriculture, recreation, and tourism.  Dr. Pyke notes that you can’t do any of these things without an aggressive program to maintain and improve Delta levees, a program that would have substantial beneficial impact on Delta flood risk.  But the 5th Staff Draft (on which the EIR is based) does not include such a program.

According to the Draft EIR, the Delta Plan’s “proposed project” (whatever it is) seeks to improve the Delta flood management by encouraging actions that could lead to setback levees, floodplain expansion, levee maintenance, levee modification, dredging, stockpiling of materials, subsidence reversal, and reservoir operation.

No one knows yet which projects will actually be implemented.  So again, it is impossible to evaluate their environmental impact.  But the fact that no projects were identified didn’t keep the authors of the EIR from doing “qualitative assessments” of  “the potential increases in flood flows, elevations, and velocities that could be caused by the implementation of projects.”  They used “general principles of hydrology and hydraulics” applied to projects already completed or in construction that might bear some resemblance to the proposed projects.

The Draft EIR analyzes five alternatives to “the project,” but not in detail.

  • A No Project Alternative (for which the Draft EIR claims that exports of water would be greater than under the proposed project, whatever the proposed project is)
  • Alternative 1A – Export More Water Out of the Delta; Decreased Emphasis on Local and Regional Water Self-Reliance; Focus Levee Improvements on Protecting Water Supply Corridors  (and give less attention to other levees)
  • Alternative 1B – Export More Water Out of the Delta; Reduced Conservation and Water Efficiency Measures; Only Voluntary Actions by State and Local Agencies; Coordination, not Regulation; Large Number of Additional Studies Before Action
  • Alternative 2 – Decreased Export of Water from the Delta; Increased Emphasis on Ecosystem Restoration throughout California
  • Alternative 3 – Increased Emphasis on Protection and Enhancement of Delta Communities and Culture; Protection of Delta Agricultural Land and Less Ecosystem Restoration; Fewer Regulations for Delta Counties

The Draft EIR describes key components of the Economic Sustainability Plan adopted by the Delta Protection Commission and peer-reviewed by a panel assembled by the Delta Science Program.  Dr. Pyke notes that recommendations regarding levees from the Economic Sustainability Plan would reduce flood risk and therefore reduce environmental damage from flooding.  But the recommendations didn’t make it into any of the alternatives – another example of Delta expertise being overlooked when DWR consultants get to the draft that matters.

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