Calif. council set to adopt delta management plan

FRESNO, Calif. - A California agency is set Thursday to adopt a broad long-range plan to manage the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Delta Stewardship Council will vote on whether to approve the final version of the Delta Plan, a blueprint for restoring the delta ecosystem and providing water supply reliability.

The sweeping plan doesn't call for any specific construction projects. But the $14 billion twin tunnel project, which is being developed through a separate federal and state initiative, will be incorporated into the plan if the tunnels are approved and permitted.

Critics say the Delta Plan is too vague when it comes to restoring and protecting the delta -- and could negatively impact delta communities.

The plan comes after years of concerns over an increase in water demand and the degradation of habitat in the delta, which 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. Farmers and other water users whose water was curtailed have clamored for a stable water supply. In 2009, the Legislature created the seven-member council to come up with a plan to manage the estuary.

The plan could have a profound impact on the delta's landscape. Local and state agencies with projects in the delta would be required to keep them consistent with the plan.

Another policy mandates that new urban development be located only within those areas of a city or county already designated for growth.

A third asks water users to reduce reliance on the delta through measures such as water recycling, storm water capture, or storage.

The plan also mandates expanding floodplains by moving levees back and restoring wetlands habitat. It requires flood-proofing homes for residential developments in rural areas. And it prohibits developments from encroaching on several specific floodplains, including the Yolo Bypass and parts of Paradise Cut in San Joaquin County.

"The plan tells us how to get through the next 100 years," said the council's Chairman Phil Isenberg, a former Sacramento mayor. "Everybody has to conserve water all the time, everyone has to decrease reliance on the delta, and everyone has to help with the environmental needs of the delta. We're running out of easy solutions, so everybody has to kick in."

Critics say the plan -- three years in the making, at a cost of $14.5 million in taxpayer funds -- is light on details.

"The plan has a huge hole in its center," said Jonas Minton, water policy adviser for the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League. "It does not deal with reversing the environmental collapse of the ecosystem."

Most troubling, Minton said, is the lack of standards for how much water the delta needs to be a healthy estuary. Another problem is the reliance on the unfinished twin tunnel project for both restoring water supply reliability and habitat.

Flow standards are currently being updated by the State Water Resources Control Board, Isenberg said.

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