Fate still unclear for nine species in Delta water tunnel plan

12/18/2013 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 8:47 PM

The state’s ambitious plan to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has two main goals: improve water supplies and remove dozens of native animals from the endangered species list. Yet for nine key species – including salmon, Delta smelt and greater sandhill cranes – it remains unclear whether the plan will ultimately help or hurt.

The first complete draft of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was released to the public last week. The $25 billion project calls for two giant water diversion tunnels on the Sacramento River, 100,000 acres of habitat restoration and other projects. Although it took seven years of study and encompasses more than 34,000 pages, the project’s effect on nine imperiled species is officially “not determined,” according to federal wildlife agencies.

Those nine species include some of the same imperiled fish that are symbolic of the Delta’s environmental troubles and which originally prompted the plan: Delta smelt, longfin smelt, three runs of chinook salmon, green and white sturgeon, and steelhead. The last is the greater sandhill crane, a majestic bird that roosts on land where tunnel construction is proposed.

Critics said they are surprised that a project intended to restore wildlife cannot clearly demonstrate whether these critical species will benefit or not.

“The whole idea is that it would be a conservation plan that has this (water) conveyance facility in it,” said Osha Meserve, a Sacramento attorney who represents local agencies in the north Delta. “This indicates it is not a conservation plan for those species.”

The project is overseen by the California Department of Water Resources. But the “not determined” findings come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. They are cooperating with DWR in preparing the document and are guided by federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

DWR and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reached a significantly different conclusion in the same document. These agencies evaluate the document under a different law, the California Environmental Quality Act, and concluded it will have a “less than significant” effect on the nine species – essentially a positive conclusion under the law.

The plan must satisfy both laws, as well as the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The federal agencies just decided it was too early for them to make that determination, because there were close calls from their standpoint,” said Jim Moose, an attorney representing DWR. “We’re hopeful the federal agencies will ultimately see it the way our scientists see things.”

Yet Moose said the “not determined” findings are not unexpected given the complexity involved. In many instances, such conclusions are based on computer modeling, which attempts to determine how proposed changes in water diversions and habitat will affect wildlife.

Maria Rea, Sacramento-area supervisor at the National Marine Fisheries Service, agreed.

“It’s not surprising in a project of this magnitude,” she said. “It’s unprecedented in the amount of new infrastructure and habitat restoration.”

Any conclusions by the two federal agencies in the final document, expected late in 2014, will decide whether the plan receives approval to proceed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Delta is a water source for 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland from San Jose to San Diego. But for the past two decades those water deliveries have been slashed unpredictably, under the rules of the Endangered Species Act, whenever water diversions kill too many imperiled fish. This has caused economic hardship for the farms and cities that depend on Delta water.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is seeking a 50-year operating permit under a different clause of the act that applies to habitat conservation plans. In return for massive habitat restoration, Delta water users would enjoy relatively stable water pumping rules that could not be easily changed for 50 years. The intent is to avoid the unpredictable cuts in Delta water exports triggered historically by the Endangered Species Act.

There are 57 endangered species in the Delta that may be affected by the project. To win those 50-year permits, the plan must demonstrate not only that it does not harm those species, but that it will contribute to their recovery – a much higher standard.

The plan proposes to shift about 50 percent of the Delta’s water exports to three massive new intakes along the Sacramento River, between Freeport and Courtland. These would divert water into the tunnels – 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter – that would deliver water to existing state and federal canals that start near Tracy.

Much of the concern about the project hinges on how diversion of water at this new location will affect aquatic habitat and the fish that depend on it.

The tunnel route also passes through thousands of acres of sandhill crane habitat. Although the tunnels will be 150 feet below ground, surface activities required for the decadelong construction process are expected to disrupt crane habitat and behavior. Another concern is that the birds could be killed by colliding with new power lines required for the project, both during the project and after.

The federal agencies found no “adverse” effects for 48 of the wildlife species covered by the plan. But it was unable to make the same finding for the nine in question. The reasons are different for each one.

For Delta smelt and longfin smelt, there is uncertainty about how their food could be affected by all the changes proposed in the plan. For sturgeon, there is a possibility the species could experience habitat loss due to flow changes triggered by the project on rivers upstream of the Delta.

One common concern for the fish is the changes resulting from the three new tunnel intakes proposed in the Sacramento River. They would lie in the migratory path for all of the eight key fish species.

Delta smelt and longfin smelt, for instance, evolved to travel on the Delta’s tides and currents and are not strong swimmers. They could find themselves hydraulically trapped by the pull of water diversions through the new fish screens – or pinned against the screens themselves. Either way, they would be more vulnerable to larger predators like striped bass.

In the case of salmon, juveniles attempting to migrate to the ocean could become confused or disoriented by the new diversions. Adult salmon could be harmed by higher water temperatures in rivers upstream caused by flow changes resulting from the project.

The state concluded these effects would be “less than significant.” But the federal wildlife agencies in some cases were unable to reach any conclusion, good or bad, and a “not determined” finding is listed in the documents.

Much of this work is based on complicated computer models that attempt to illustrate changes in the environment from new infrastructure, like the tunnel intakes, or when water released from a dam is increased or decreased at a certain time of year.

Moose, the DWR attorney, said the models create another potential layer of uncertainty, because people differ in their degree of confidence in the models.

“As amazing as some of them are, they are imperfect reflections of reality,” he said of the models. “They still leave people uncertain about whether the future will be as the model reflects.”

Rea at the National Marine Fisheries Service said part of the uncertainty is about how the fish will be affected by exposure to the very long intake screens proposed by the project. Each will be about one-third of a mile long, with all three proposed within a 4-mile stretch of river.

“It’s a mixed picture,” she said. “You really have to look at individual species and life stages and try to come to an overall conclusion about how the project would affect the species. In some cases, it’s still really quite unresolved.”

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