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Dueling Proposals Are The Latest In Plan For Sacramento Delta

February 21, 2013 1:14 p.m.


Barry Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst, with the Water Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council

Dennis Cushman, Assistant General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority

Related Story: Dueling Proposals Are The Latest In Plan For Sacramento Delta


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diegans heard dueling proposals last night to fix the San Joaquin delta. They debated the environmental and supply problems facing the delta which provides as much as 30% of Southern California's water. From his state of the state address, here's governor Jerry Brown's solution to the delta's problems.

NEW SPEAKER: My proposed plan is two tunnels, 30 miles long and 40 feet wide, designed to improve the ecology of the delta with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration. Yes, that's big, but so is the problem.

CAVANAUGH: The tunnels would be built under the delta, and the price tag comes in at $14 billion. A smaller, less extensive plan is now being proposed as a so-called portfolio-based conceptual alternative to the governor's proposal. The plan has a lot of supporters, including the San Diego County water authority. Here to tell us about it are guests, Barry Nelson is senior policy analyst with the water program for the natural resources defense council. Of welcome to the show.

NELSON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis Cushman joins us as well, assistant general manager with the San Diego water authority. Hello.

CUSHMAN: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: The governor's plan is aimed at providing Southern Californians with a reliable water supply into the future and help restore the eroding ecology of the delta region. What is it about the plan that misses the mark?

NELSON: Well, are there are two fundamental concerns about the plan. On the one hand, a lot of scientists are concerned if we take too much water with that big facility, we'll fundamentally harm the delta ecosystem. We've done too much of that in the past. We think we need stronger standards that reflect the current state of the science. One concern is what the environmental impacts will be. Another concern is how much water that system will reliably deliver and whether it's worth the investment. Whether we should be putting $14 million worth of egg, full, in one basket or whether we'd be better off with a broader approach, investing in a delta solution. We absolutely need a solution in the delta. But also investing in local water supplies, as many Southern California water agencies are planning. So the real question and the theory we're testing is that we might be better off not putting all of our -- all of that money in just one facility but actually investing in locally in Southern California and local water supplies.

CAVANAUGH: Your alternative plan does also -- it does include a tunnel under the delta though, right?

NELSON: That's right T. Does want

CAVANAUGH: Just one.

NELSON: Just one tunnel and smaller than the governor's. He talked with two tunnels 30 miles long, 40 feet in diameter, that's a really big piece of infrastructure. So we would have a smaller tunnel that saves billions of dollars that we could spend on other strategies like improving Delta levies and investing in water recycling in Southern California.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis, there's a heavy component in this alternative plan of conservation, recycling, desalination. Do we have confidence that we'll be able to rely on those water supplies or that extra water that we save by conserving or recycling?

CUSHMAN: Well, in San Diego County we are already well underway, two decades underway on a water supply diversification strategy that has already seen major reduction in our demands on supplies from the metropolitan water district which is where we get bay delta water. We've already cut our dependence on bay delta water by more than a half. We in the 24 local water agencies in San Diego County have collectively brought on more and diverse and local water supply projects that have reduced our demands for imported water from the delta. That's well underway. We are now under construction in Carlsbad on the Carlsbad seawater desalination project which will bring 56,000 acre feet of highly reliable local water supplies from that project. In San Diego County, we're confident that the supply diversification and conservation programs that we've been pursuing here for 20 years will provide the reliable water supply necessary to support not only today's population and business but for generations to come.

CAVANAUGH: But these alternatives would be in place no matter which plan to restore the delta gets the final go ahead. So why is the San Diego County water authority supporting the effort to get this alternate plan studied?

CUSHMAN: Well, because the alternative plan recognizes a few important factors that the current planning for the bay delta does noconsider. No. 1, the planning does not consider all. The development already in place and planned in Southern California and other areas of the state that are depending on supplies from the bay delta. Just in Southern California, water agencies in the metropolitan service agency are planning up to 1.2 million acre feet of new local water supply development. The bay delta portfolio approach alternative recognizes a couple of important factors. One, that money is not unlimited. And if we're making these investments in local supply development that reduce our dependence on bay delta water, they should also inform the sizing, the scope, and the cost of that bay delta solution.

CAVANAUGH: Barry, I wonder if you could remind us -- give us a brief idea why we need a reconstruction plan for the San Joaquin delta in the first place.

NELSON: The bay delta drains 40% of the State of California. It's the largest estuary on the west coast of north or South America. It's an enormously important ecosystem. Most of the salmon, the vast majority of the salmon caught off the California coast we all love it eat, that comes out of the golden gate through the bay delta system. It's not well known. It's an enormously important ecosystem, and the health of it has cratered in the last decade. We have to stabilize and restore that ecosystem. We're costing salmon fishing jobs in California. As an environmental resource, it's enormously important, it's also a hugely important water supply source, and right now it's vulnerable. The second big problem in the delta is that delta lands are deeply subsided. It's protected by a network of -- so it's comparable to think of Katrina in New Orleans. That kind of a disaster would be the infrastructure of the delta for a quarter million residents who rely on that water system.

CAVANAUGH: When do you know if this plan will be included for study?

NELSON: Good question. We're still trying to understand what the state's timeline is. The state is trying to move rapidly toward a final plan. They've told us that they expect to have the next generation out by early to midsummer. So we have to know within the next month or two whether the state and federal agencies are going to seriously evaluate this proposal. And we're not asking that the state throw out the big facility entirely. We're simply saying that we think we may have identified a smarter way that might be more cost effective, produce better water, and fewer environmental results.

CAVANAUGH: Where can people find out about this plan?

NELSON: My blog is on the NRDC website, Barry Nelson on our blog called Switchboard. They can find everything reported to that proposal.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. We will revisit this subject.