Delta Flows: February 10, 2015

• If it ain’t broken…
• History repeating itself…
• Not Really Fixing It

If it ain’t broken…

By Stina Va

Local and state Delta agencies continue to disagree about current state efforts to change priorities and funding for Delta levees.

Currently, two efforts are under way: The Delta Stewardship Council is developing a “levee investment strategy” to implement its Delta Plan levee strategy, and the Delta Protection Commission is studying the feasibility of creating a Delta levee assessment district to fund levees that may not be covered by state or federal liability. The Council seeks to prioritize levees for investment, and the Commission hopes to create a funding base to ensure funds are available to invest.

But local Delta leaders argue that these state-led approaches are not so cut and dried. They argue that the state and federal governments have direct interests in Delta levees since their water projects and other crucial infrastructure rely on them.

At the January 29th Delta Stewardship Council meeting in Sacramento, vice-chair Phil Isenberg said, “The Delta believes that the highest level of [flood] protection should be given without regards to cost,” vice-chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, Phil Isenberg, stated as the Council discussed their initiative to rewrite their levee investment strategy. “We should only be involved in state levee funding if there is clear, unmistakable, reliable benefit to coequal goals,” he said.

The coequal goals are the two goals of water supply reliability and eco-system restoration that the Council enforces. Applying only these goals excludes Delta economic interests like farming, tourism, residences, and recreation, however.

“Rewriting this [levee investment strategy] does not help, it undermines all the progress we achieved,” Thomas Zuckerman, a local stakeholder with the Central Delta Water Agency, insisted to Council members, adding, “We haven’t had a levee failure. Something here is working.”

Back on January 12th, the State Assembly committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife heard expert analysis from Ellen Hanak at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) suggesting that the state is short between $800 million to $1 billion for needed flood control investments annually and that vulnerability to floods is high and rising due to population growth, warming temperatures, and rising sea level. California’s highest flood risks to life and property are in the Central Valley, and the Delta is at the Valley’s lowest point.

In a report on its proposed Delta levee investment strategy, Stewardship Council staffer Cindy Messer wrote, “potential costs are very high and may be estimated as exceeding potential [flood] damages to the lives and properties that these levees protect…. Payment for damages also has the ability to affect all State interests, whether flood related or not,” the document warned.

Notably, the state only claims it is liable for project levees, which constitute 385 miles of the Delta in comparison to non-project levees, which are 732 miles of the Delta (according to Maven’s Notebook). In contrast to project levees, which are a state, federal and local investment, non-project levees are built, improved, and maintained by local entities such as Reclamation districts. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have stated that they have zero interest or liability in investment of non-project levees.

Currently available statewide flood control funding includes $1.1 billion of Prop 1E and $395 million of the recently passed water bond, Prop 1. For Delta levee programs, $295 million is allocated to continue levee projects. In earlier presentation to the Delta Protection Commission on January 15th in Stockton, CA Department of Water Resource’s David Mraz stated, “10 million may provide 5 miles of levees… there’s not enough state funding available to pay for all levees”

“Project levees are a higher priority for state investments,” Isenberg argued during the board meeting. But Zuckerman countered, “When there is one levee failure, it places tremendous stress on the other islands…can’t look island by island – we should try to bring general levee system up to minimum standard.” (If you want to find out more about levee standards, please see our previous newsletter article here .)

Given that federal investments are non-existent for Delta levees, Zuckerman also stated that, “It isn’t quite true that federal government doesn’t have liability. Under the National Disaster Act, federal government has considerable liability. The best thing we can do is to make sure the Federal government is involved with levee failure prevention.”

The Delta Stewardship Council also directed the Delta Protection Commission to conduct a levee assessment feasibility study that will look into the option of establishing a regional fee to supplement lacking state investments with local funds.

“The Feasibility Study will recommend [and evaluate] whether and how to create an Assessment District with fee assessment authority to provide adequate flood protection and emergency preparedness for the benefit of all beneficiaries of Delta levees and flood protection infrastructure,” wrote DPC staff in its request for proposals to prepare the feasibility study.

Delta Stewardship Council member, Patrick Johnston, emphasized that more money should be spent on areas where there were a higher amount of people or an urban population, rather than “a few people living on open space agricultural land.”

“Hey, if there are other Delta beneficiaries, let’s get them to pay,” DSC Chief Deputy Chief Officer Dan Brown exclaimed, rather optimistically. Maybe they can pay for levee projects in the 2nd tier, he suggested. (The 2nd tier would be projects that meet less goal and objectives of the co-equal goals and likely would not receive full funding for levee projects.) “I don’t think we will get to say, hey you know we’re out of luck,” Ray added.

Isenberg suggested getting public utilities like PG&E to pay and new Council member and Supervisor from Contra Costa County, Mary Piepho, suggested railroad companies, since Delta levees protect their rail lines too.

Council member Aja Brown, who is Mayor of Compton, California, further suggested that the Council’s levee strategy “identify zones of reliance, from a Southern Californian perspective, in equal share to Delta levees,” seemingly conveying that perhaps water districts delivering water to Southern Californians, such as the Metropolitan Water District, pay a fee as well.

A few blocks away the same day, a Delta Protection Commission (DPC) subcommittee on the Assessment District feasibility Study convened to address controversy about consultant firm M. Cubed, who was chosen to conduct the feasibility study. M. Cubed was the former lead economics consultant for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), from 2006-2013. Facing Commission resistance to approving a contract with M. Cubed at its January 15th meeting in Stockton, the Commission formed a subcommittee of Supervisor of Solano County Skip Thomson, Norman Richardson (mayor of Rio Vista), and Brian Bugsh, chief of the California State Lands Commission.

After an hour of interrogation on the scoring process and addressing criticisms of M. Cubed’s previous heavily bias economic analysis for BDCP, the DPC subcommittee voted unanimously to approve M. Cubed to do the study. M. Cubed explained that that the lead economist for the BDCP will not be on their team and that part of their team includes Bob Twiss, a well-known consultant that wrote San Joaquin County’s public comment letter on the BDCP.

Melinda Terry with the local North Delta Water Agency and the Central Valley Flood Control Association told Commissioners that the scope for the feasibility study did not include the role of local Delta Reclamation Districts, whom Terry represents in the Delta. “If the study decides we do not need Reclamation Districts anymore, landowners will be like, ‘hell no!’” Terry exclaimed. She mocked the idea of the Assessment District as a “big pit that decides where local money goes.”

M. Cubed representatives at the meeting assured Terry that they would reach out to work with them soon when conducting the feasibility study.

“I don’t care which team will do the study,” Terry also added. “We don’t want the study undermining good work that went on in the Delta.” She echoed Zuckerman, saying that the Delta Subventions program, which administers grant money to Delta levees for improvement and maintenance, was “the only example of a successful program.”

She implored the commissioners, “What is it that is broken that you are trying to fix?”

These issues will likely be on the agendas for the next meetings of the Delta Stewardship Council on February 26 in Sacramento, and the Delta Protection Commission on March 19 in Rio Vista.

History repeating itself…

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

RTD would like to remind its readers and public officials that the estimate to bring Delta levees to the highest seismic standard is $2 to $4 billion and that such an investment would not only protect Delta communities (urban and rural), but also Southern California’s water supply.

The idea, frequently repeated by Isenberg and Johnston, that the State cannot afford to protect the Delta’s project levees as the Delta’s reclamation districts continue to maintain and upgrade the non-project levees is ludicrous. The cost of the Delta tunnels with habitat, construction, financing, and operation costs will top $60 billion, plus that project will not protect the people of the Delta, which will experience 100% of the loss of life in the case of a serious flood event. The comments by Isenberg and Johnston speak to the agenda they carry on behalf of funders they work with for other organizations and to settle past political scores. It is all quite tiresome.

Not Really Fixing It

By Stina Va

Delta Conservancy board members voiced a variety of concerns and acknowledged that the stakes are high with the grant guidelines for implementing ecosystem restoration funds from the recent voter-approved water bond, Proposition 1, at their January 28th board meeting in Sacramento.

“There’s so much risk for this body in not getting it right the first time,” Conservancy board member Mike Eaton said. He stressed to other board members that Prop 1 grant guidelines for habitat and species restoration projects should be rewarded in a manner that uses a competitive and balanced process.

Prop 1 assigns responsibility for administering $50 million of bond proceeds to the Conservancy for competitive grants to multi-benefit ecosystem, watershed protection, and restoration projects. As the primary state agency formed to implement ecosystem restoration in the legal Delta and Suisun Marsh, the Delta Conservancy (DC) will oversee grants of up to $9 million each year for 5 years. The Conservancy anticipates the minimum grant amount being $100,000 and the maximum being $2 million.

Since the Conservancy actively works with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) on the Plan’s eco-system restoration efforts, it is important to monitor how guidelines will be formed and ultimately how funds could be used to mitigate the disastrous negative impacts of the BDCP tunnels.

The Prop 1 grant program plan, according to executive director Campbell Ingram, is to have grant applications and guidelines finalized by July, begin solicitations for projects in July, and “have money going out the door by fall.” To evaluate proposals, the group plans to pull together an “objective representational” group, which would include DC staff, and a separate technical and scientific review component.

Board members preferred a longer process for grant proposals, given their concern for staff workloads. They also felt this process would be more competitive, as opposed to the shorter time line of evaluating project proposals. Eaton worried about “burn-out, error, and public perception.” Board member Eddie Woodruff brought up the issue of complexity in applying for grants, pointing out that the “big fish always have an easier time” getting grants. He recommended a solicitation that would be widely advertised and accessible. Doing so would require a semi-annual or annual grant evaluation process.

“The Delta has been starved for a long time, 50 million dollars is not enough given restoration vision for the Delta,” Ingram said, acknowledging the controversial goal of quickly getting money out the door to projects. He explained it would take two years to award grant money using an annual process.

Board members also expressed concerns with the requirement for the Conservancy to distribute funds in a geographically balanced manner. Board member Karen Finn asked, “the applicant is not being scored based on geographic location – not getting points, but the DC will be judging based on state priorities anyway?”

Board member Dolly Sandoval suggested that the guidelines should not be held too strongly to the language, especially if the Conservancy receives many proposals from one area and yet only one proposal from another county, “do we fund the one in that area?”

“The Delta is a statewide area, it’s not a pie split into five pieces,” board member Finn reminded her colleagues. She emphasized the statewide need to restore the Delta as a whole.

“I agree, absolutely but there are very, very important regional distinctions with the Delta, in terms of ecology, the current situation,” Ingram explained. “There are circumstances in the Delta that will cause you to expect that a lot of that [restoration] work won’t happen in San Joaquin County for the foreseeable future, it might lag behind the rest.”

“This will become a potential issue over time,” Member and Supervisor of Sacramento County Don Nottoli acknowledged.

Restore the Delta will continue to monitor how the guidelines for Prop 1 will ultimately be formed and how the water bond money will be spent. Draft grant guidelines and application can be found at the Conservancy’s website, as well as its next meeting agenda for February 18, 2015 from 3:00-5:00 p.m.

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