$25 billion delta plan to be discussed this week

01/13/2014 10:09 PM

01/13/2014 10:10 PM

After seven years of work, the plan to fix California’s biggest water problem is 34,000 pages long, roughly 24 times the size of “War and Peace.” And it does not read like a novel.

It’s the highly technical Bay Delta Conservation Plan. To help people understand it, state leaders are appearing in a dozen cities, starting this week in Fresno. Released in mid-December, the plan will be available for comment until April 14.

The $25 billion plan is a high-stakes blueprint to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a vital water supply hub that continues in ecological decline. The plan features two large water tunnels and habitat restoration to protect many species of animals.

The Fresno meeting will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the downtown Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center. The next meeting will be Thursday in Bakersfield.

There will be no presentation or panel. State water leaders say the meeting is an open house where people can approach experts at informal exhibits and ask questions.

Those wishing to make a comment will be directed to a court reporter. Written comments will be accepted as well. The process is part of the legally required review of the plan.

“We’ve reached an important step,” said spokeswoman Nancy Vogel of the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re actively soliciting comments from people to help us refine the alternatives and better understand the potential impacts.”

The plan, which could become final by the end of the year, holds a lot of interest for the southern two-thirds of the state.

The Delta is the source of water for 25 million people as well as irrigation water for 3 million acres of farmland, much of it in the San Joaquin Valley. The Delta also has been a battleground for decades over declining fish species, such as salmon and delta smelt.

State water leaders have released Delta plan drafts over a few years to iron out trouble spots with many interest groups. Plan changes, such as reducing the size of proposed tunnels, have been made to accommodate concerns, officials said.

But strong opposition remains from environmental, fishing and delta communities. Issues swirl around costs, water yield to cities and farms, benefits to nature and loss of farming land in the Delta. The project is expected to wind up in court.

In the Valley, the agricultural water community says it is important to understand all facets of the monstrous document.

Farm water users, along with Southern California water customers, would foot $17 billion of the $25 billion project cost to pay for the tunnels, operation and maintenance.

Farm districts hope the project will get them a more reliable flow of Northern California water, which has been limited by drought and environmental protections in the Delta for dying fish.

The tunnels would connect the Sacramento River with large pumping plants in the south Delta, excluding the Delta and its sensitive ecosystem from the water export equation.

But does the $17 billion contribution pencil out for water users? Will there be enough water to justify the cost? It’s too early to know without more finely tuned studies proposed for the next few years, they say.

Along with Metropolitan Water District in Southern California, the biggest funding contributions will come from farm water entities, Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency. All are studying the costs.

“It’s a business discussion,” said Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham. “We know the risk of doing nothing is great. The status quo is not sustainable.”

Westlands will make comments by April, he said. The Kern County Water Agency, which buys Northern California water from the State Water Project, is expected to make comments on the plan, too.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen it all in one piece,” said Brent Walthall, assistant general manager for the Kern water agency. “We’ve got review teams going through it. The state has done a good job getting this document to the public. Now we have to respond.”

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