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November 8, 2011 > Calif. delta plan best for environment

Calif. delta plan best for environment

By Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. (AP), Nov 04 - A proposed long-range plan to manage California's freshwater delta is advantageous because of its benefits to the ecosystem and the reliable supply of water for farms and cities that it would help provide, according to a report released Friday.

Critics, however, said the draft of the Delta Plan by the Delta Stewardship Council, and its environmental impact report were too vague on how those goals would be achieved, and that alternatives submitted by other groups are better.

Formed by the confluence of California's two longest rivers - the Sacramento and the San Joaquin - the delta supplies drinking water for two-thirds of California residents and irrigates about 4 million acres of crops.

The ecosystem's rapid deterioration has spurred regulations that limit delta pumping. In 2009, the Legislature created the seven-member council to come up with a plan to manage the delta. Groups with an interest in the delta and its water have submitted proposals for alternative plans.

According to the new report, which analyzed five other options in addition to the plan, the alternative of doing nothing is environmentally inferior because it would be disastrous for the delta in the long run. Three alternatives are less ideal than the proposed plan because the options fail to curtail the increasing environmental deterioration to the delta ecosystem, the report said.

One alternative - which involved sharply decreased exports from the delta - was deemed ``slightly environmentally inferior'' to the proposed plan, because it would result in the greatest amount of water supply uncertainty and agricultural land losses. But it was deemed stronger than the proposed plan for stopping the decline of the ecosystem and its water quality.

All of the alternatives were said to be inferior to the Delta Plan when it comes to reducing flood risk, according to the report.

Officials said the draft delta plan is environmentally superior because it has more long-term benefits outweighing the negative impacts of construction and other actions than the other alternatives.

Both environmentalists and water agencies criticized the 2,000-page report released Friday for being too vague.

``There's not much substance to it, which makes it difficult to understand what the plan really does,'' said Nick di Croce, co-facilitator with the Environmental Water Caucus, which submitted one of the alternative proposals. His group was also concerned the council put little economic value on environmental benefits.

``Our biggest concern is there is no plan,'' said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. ``It's a huge missed opportunity. Here we are spending millions of dollars on a plan that doesn't seem to do anything.''

Quinn said the plan should include specifics, from how many acres of habitat would be restored to how much ammonia would be stopped from being discharged into the delta. Quinn also said he hoped the council would focus on other ecosystem restoration measures besides improving delta flows.

The current draft of the Delta Plan does not propose construction of a new canal or tunnel, or any other construction or physical action. The plan is meant to contain policies and recommendations, not a list of projects. However, it could lead to the construction of a new conveyance system, reservoirs, desalination plants, habitat and trails.

The lack of specificity, said Joe Grindstaff, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, is partly due to the fact that at least 25 separate plans that were to be incorporated into the Delta Plan - including the plan to build a new canal or tunnel - have not yet been completed. Once they are completed and approved, they would be considered for incorporation into the Delta Plan.

The plan, Grindstaff said, ``provides a vision for where we should be. It's enforceable. We will at least get a document that points us in the direction, that gets at the fundamentals, that we can build on.''

The report will help the council decide on the best approach to managing the delta, Grindstaff said.

Officials say the final version of the plan should be adopted by spring 2012. Officials said the council has spent $10 million on the planning process and the environmental impact report.

The public has until January to comment on the report.

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