FRESNO — California water officials released on Thursday the first part of a $23 billion plan to restore and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and guarantee a stable water supply for millions of Californians.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, known as the BDCP, is a federal and state initiative financed by California's water contractors, which includes recommendations for a twin tunnel project in the delta to carry water to vast farmlands and thirsty cities.
The plan's first four chapters, released by the California Resources Agency, spell out the dismal state of the delta and detail conservation strategies to restore its dwindling fish species.
The chapters include a description of the proposal unveiled by Gov. Jerry Brown in July: the 35-mile twin underground tunnel project that would replace the delta's current pumping system. The project would have a total capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second and include three intake pipes. It would cost $14 billion to construct and $5.8 billion to operate and maintain over the 50 year life of the plan. Construction and operation costs would be covered by water contractors.
The chapters also describe more than 200 biological goals and objectives for 57 fish and other species — such as the growth rates of individual fish and overall increases in a species' population — which will guide implementation of the plan over coming decades.
Officials acknowledge the plan does not guarantee specific water supply deliveries — those will be dictated by the health of the species. That means if species don't recover or don't recover quickly enough, less water would be pumped, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency.
Officials also say it's currently not known how much outflow is needed for the recovery of fish species, or how habitat restoration will affect that balance. Scientific studies would accompany construction over the next 10 to 15 years, officials said.
But without the plan, officials said, species will continue to decline and regulations will further curtail water deliveries, which is unacceptable for California's economy.
The State Water Project and Central Valley Project currently pump water from the delta to 25 million people and to 3 million acres of farmland. But in recent years, as fish populations continued to plummet, federal management plans have limited the amount of water that can be pumped from the delta in order to protect fish species.
In addition to the twin tunnels, the plan also calls for creation of more than 100,000 acres of new habitat — floodplains, tidal marshes and grasslands — at a cost of $3.2 billion, to be paid by taxpayers; 30,000 acres of that habitat would be created in the next 15 years.
Water agencies praised the release of the chapters Thursday, calling the plan a "milestone" in solving the state's water crisis.
"The BDCP is likely our best opportunity to put California on a path to retool our water system for the 21st century," Timothy Quinn, executive director of the statewide Association of California Water Agencies, said in a statement.
Water contractors and federal and state officials say the twin tunnels, coupled with new habitat, would improve the delta ecosystem, protect the delta from levee failures and earthquakes, and strengthen the state's water supply.