Whatever your expectations were, lower them

The contempt that Jerry Meral and the BDCP planners have for the “public” is embodied in the space they’ve chosen for the monthly BDCP public meetings. The man behind the desk in the lobby of the Pagoda Building in Sacramento has to tell you which elevator button to push to get the correct floor – it’s the button labeled “CV.” Once you get there, good luck finding a seat where your view won’t be blocked by one of four enormous pillars. (Yes, attending such a meeting is like living through a subplot from a Thomas Pynchon novel.)

And don’t expect to be able to come prepared. Staff released thousands of pages of plan draft and environmental documents the same day as the February 29 meeting. Nevertheless, a lot of audience members brought excellent questions.

ICF consultant David Zippin gave an overview of the 10-chapter, 5800-page BDCP Administrative Draft and talked a little about the 807-page Chapter 3 – Conservation Strategy. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the day’s presentations.) The section on adaptive management and monitoring is STILL incomplete. ICF consultant Jennifer Pierre handled Chapter 5 – Effects Analysis.

Zippin briefly discussed Chapter 8 – Implementation Costs & Funding Sources. He announced that they have likely funding sources to pay for all costs: building and operating the project, conservation measures, and generating an endowment to operate the project in perpetuity. Total for the 50-year program: $23.1 billion. Of course, that doesn’t include adaptive management. Or debt service.

Deanna Sereno of the Contra Costa Water District asked whether that program cost was an estimate of mid-point construction, with inflation taken into account. It wasn’t. Those are 2009 costs.

The document evaluates only one alternative – the biggest and most expensive. When planners scale it back, as they will certainly do, we can all be reminded of how much worse it could have been.

The audience was told that BDCP documents are not supposed to be clear to them because the primary audience is regulatory agencies enforcing the endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act. (Perhaps like clues in a Pynchon novel, the upcoming EIR will contain a secret code.)

BDCP claims to mitigate and contribute to recovery for all 49 terrestrial species in the Delta, as required by the ESA and the NCCP Act. For the 1100 fish species, results are not so clear. For example, planners say the BDCP would help salmon and sturgeon but be of minor or no benefit to Delta smelt and longfin smelt.

Zippin explained why there is no static baseline against which to compare the benefits of the project. Conditions will change over 50 years (planners say climate change will make conditions worse) so the baseline will change. And since they assume that many covered species will continue to decline, we shouldn’t expect to see major improvements in the system overall as a result of the BDCP. It just won’t get worse as much.

This is an extraordinary admission for a habitat conservation plan. It is tied, of course, to the matter of flows. In a discussion of how BDCP fits with other Delta plans and programs, Joe Grindstaff of the Delta Stewardship Council and Les Grober of the State Water Resources Control Board engaged in a chicken/egg discussion about BDCP modeling and flow objectives. Repeated audience questions failed to get anyone to commit to anything until California Spigot blogger Patricia McBroom asked, “How can you choose a conveyance size without knowing flows?”

Said Jerry Meral, “It is hard to think that flows from the projects will change much.” He said that he doesn’t expect the Water Board (which must approve the BDCP) to change the water flow standards so much that the project will become inoperable.

Translation of the secret code: In the end the Water Board will give BDCP the amount of water it wants.

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