Wednesday, September 17, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Solano County agencies criticize state Delta plans

Delta plans criticized 8_1_14

Pedestrians walk over the Sacramento River on the Walnut Grove bridge, Friday. A number of Solano County agencies have criticized the state's Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which builds huge tunnels to transport water to Southern California and the Central Valley. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

By
From page A1 | August 03, 2014 |

FAIRFIELD — Solano County agencies say the state’s plan to reshape the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could harm drinking water quality for local cities, deal a blow to county agriculture and make Suisun Marsh sloughs saltier to the detriment of waterfowl.

At a minimum, they want the state to get back to work on its Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The 30,000-plus pages already existing and covering many Delta topics don’t include enough analysis of Solano County issues, according to local officials.

A critical juncture has been reached in the evolution of the state’s Delta proposals. The deadline for agencies, groups and individuals to turn in comments on the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan and associated environmental documents was Tuesday. A number of Solano County agencies responded.

Now they hope that somebody at the state is listening, a feeling they haven’t always had in the past.

“In light of the current formal draft and the fact that there are few meaningful changes from the earliest drafts, we can only conclude that all of the outreach relative to the BDCP has been nothing more than a ‘check-off-the-box’ exercise with a predetermined outcome already in place,” Solano County Resource Management Director Bill Emlen wrote in Solano County’s comment letter.

Twin tunnels

California wants to build twin tunnels to transport water exports targeted for Southern California cities and Central Valley farms under the Delta for 30 miles. The goal is to allow the state and federal water projects to avoid pumping conflicts with rare fish at the present south Delta pumping facility. The state must comply with environmental laws for the massive building project.

As a result, the state has released its draft, 50-year Bay Delta Conservation Plan and environmental documents. Among the many proposals is preserving 227 square miles of wildlife habitat, including the restoration of 102 square miles of tidal wetlands.

The state documents present the plan as good for both state water supplies and the environment. But local officials remain skeptical.

Solano County isn’t prime Delta country and the twin tunnels would be located in other counties, but the Delta is in the county’s backyard. Eastern Solano County contains 134 square miles of the 1,153-square-mile Delta, much of it used for farming. Suisun Marsh is just south of the Delta.

Because of the county’s location, local officials think the state’s Delta plans will hit home.

Drinking water concerns

Fairfield, Vacaville, Vallejo and Benicia get a portion of their water from the Delta through the state’s North Bay Aqueduct, with pumping done from Barker Slough in eastern Solano County.

Even with the twin tunnels taking water under the Delta for Central California and Southern California, the North Bay Aqueduct would still be pumping water from Barker Slough. One crucial point for Solano County is how upriver diversions for the twin tunnels would affect Delta water quality in the slough.

Changing the Delta water regime with the twin tunnels would further affect the balance between fresh water washing down rivers and salt water pushing in from the ocean, Bay Delta Conservation Plan critics say.

Among the “significant impacts” listed in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the increase of bromide at Barker Slough. Bromide is associated with salinity from sea water. It reacts with chemicals during the water disinfection process to form brominated trihalomethanes, which studies have linked to tumors and other health problems.

Dealing with increased bromide levels at Barker Slough would mean making “considerable water treatment plant upgrades,” the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan said. Should the twin tunnels become a reality, Solano County officials want the beneficiaries elsewhere in the state share in the costs of solving any linked, local bromide problems.

“Mitigation could be paying for moving the intakes or paying for more water treatment or alternative water supplies,” Solano County Water Agency General Manager David Okita said. “It’s a concern. The type of things to fix the problems are expensive. We’re not sure there’s a willingness to spend that type of money to fix our problems.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan mentions doing further studies on Barker Slough bromide issues once the twin tunnels begin operations.

Duck clubs concerned

Suisun Marsh near Suisun City is the largest contiguous estuarine marsh in the United States. It is home to 150 privately owned duck clubs and to state wildlife preserves. It is just south of the Delta and the quality of its usually brackish waters depends on how much fresh water flows through the Delta.

Representing marsh property owners is the Suisun Resource Conservation District, with a board appointed by the Solano County Board of Supervisors. Board President Tony Vaccarella of the Four Winds duck club signed the district’s comment letter on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The district is concerned that state plans to reshape the Delta could also reshape Suisun Marsh, and not for the better.

“Implementing a project that systematically degrades and reduces the existing Suisun Marsh managed wetlands habitats, functions, values and water quality is unthinkable and unsupportable by SCRD,” Vaccarella wrote.

In fact, the district requests that the state drop the Bay Delta Conservation Plan project.

Vaccarella took the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to task for saying that Suisun Marsh is managed to provide seasonal freshwater wetlands for waterfowl. Instead, the marsh is brackish – a mix of fresh and salt water. Brackish marshes contain a greater diversity of plant species than regional saltwater marshes and freshwater marshes, he wrote.

Duck clubs manage wetlands behind levees, flooding and draining the land to grow plants favored by waterfowl. They in a sense farm their properties.

One district concern is that parts of the marsh under the state’s Delta plans could grow saltier at crucial times of the year. That in turn would hinder the duck clubs’ efforts to grow certain plants on their managed wetlands.

Vaccarella and the district also expressed concerned that state efforts to buy land for tidal wetlands restoration in Suisun Marsh would mean less managed wetlands owned by duck clubs. Tidal wetlands are different than managed wetlands in that they involve the tides flooding and draining the land daily. Restoration can be done by breaching levees. Tidal wetlands can benefit rare fish such as the Delta smelt.

If a “tipping point” is reached with tidal wetlands restoration in the marsh, the remaining managed wetlands will no longer support enough waterfowl, Vaccarella wrote. Then the remaining landowners will cease investing in their properties.

The end result would significantly reduce the number of wintering waterfowl and “effectively eliminate SRCD and the private duck clubs,” Vaccarella wrote.

County concerns

Solano County submitted an 91-page comment letter to the state. In it, Emlen writes that the proposed Delta project will convert tens of thousands of acres of eastern Solano County farmland into wildlife habitat.

“The resulting economic, environmental and social impact on the county and its agricultural base could be devastating,” Emlen wrote in a letter reflecting discussions undertaken by the county Board of Supervisors.

All of this would be done for a theory that large-scale ecosystem restoration can compensate for a signficantly modified natural system and reduced freshwater flow, Emlen wrote. But the Bay Delta Conservation Plan documents themselves are hardly reassuring that the targeted, rare species will rebound, he wrote.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan fails to explore alternatives with less impacts on Delta communities, Emlen wrote. A project involving a smaller water conveyance system and less ecosystem restoration would greatly lessen impacts in Solano County and still achieve the state’s core objectives, he wrote. He mentioned looking at new desalination technologies, water recycling infrastructure and groundwater remediation.

Solano County recognizes that the state must develop new, statewide solutions for water supply challenges, Emlen wrote.

“Shared sacrifices must clearly be part of the solution,” Emlen wrote. “The county is ready to be part of those discussions. What is unacceptable is the current solution which clearly places the burden on the Delta region in an inequitable way.”

Business option and what’s next

Also submitting a letter on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was SolAgra, a company that has leased 2,422 acres on Ryer Island in eastern Solano County and wants to build a solar energy farm there. It also proposes to grow crops beneath the solar panels and would need fresh Delta irrigation water to do so.

SolAgra proposes another way for the state to move Delta water, with pumps to be located on publicly owned Sherman Island at a point just before fresh river water turns brackish. During droughts, water supplies could be augmented by desalinating the brackish water, company Chief Executive Officer Barry Sgarrella wrote. SolAgra’s proposed Ryer Island solar power plant could provide the energy needed for the endeavor, he wrote.

The state Department of Water Resources will receive comment letters on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan from agencies, groups and individuals all over the state. State and federal agencies will reply to the comments in a final version of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its environmental documents.

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or beberling@dailyrepublic.net. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling has been a reporter with the Daily Republic since 1987. He covers Solano County government, transportation, growth and the environment. He received his bachelors of art degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
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