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Drought brings attention to Bay Delta Conservation Plan

San Diego's success in diversifying its water supply is muddying the waters of Northern California's Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

In 1991, the San Diego County Water Authority relied on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 95 percent of its water, including both Colorado River water and the State Water Project in the north. The remaining 5 percent was from local surface water.

Today, the Water Authority gets just 46 percent from MWD. The rest is from the Imperial Irrigation District transfer agreement, American Canal lining project, conservation efforts, recycled water and groundwater.

These changing statistics became a major point of discussion last week between Dennis Cushman, the San Diego County Water Authority's assistant general manager, and Andrew Poat, a consultant to the state-run California Resources Agency.

"San Diego has been a real leader in the implementation of these sorts of plans," Poat said. "To get ahead of the issues, not simply wait for a species to become listed as endangered."

There were 15 alternatives considered before the comprehensive Bay Delta Conservation Plan now in public comment was chosen, Poat said. The plan would consist partly of about 145,000 acres of restored and protected habitat — contributing to the conservation of 57 species of fish, plants and wildlife — and new water supply infrastructure. Three water intakes and two 30-mile gravity-flow tunnels are planned, which would give a combined capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second.

Land use lawyer Cary Lowe moderated last week's discussion, hosted at the Wyndham San Diego Bayfront by the advocacy group Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.

A recent addition to the C-3 board of directors and a former chair of the San Diego City Council’s Water Policy Task Force, Lowe framed the event not as a debate, but an informational dialogue. The goal was to bring attention to possible work in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region, which, although 500 miles away, affects San Diego.

San Diegans have a stake in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan both as partial financers of the project and recipients of some of its water. Lowe said that recent attention to the state's water situation is overdue.

A strong contrast was clear from Poat’s and Cushman’s presentations.

"We are less reliant on the Bay Delta and the State Water Project than the rest of Southern California, at least urban Southern California," Lowe said, making the same comparisons to the Bay Area and Central Valley. "We look more to the Colorado River and to locally generated water than we do to the State Water Project. That wasn't true historically, but it is true today."

The 2020 projection has the Water Authority relying on MWD for only 30 percent of its supply, with new seawater desalination and additional Imperial Irrigation District transfer water making up the projected difference.

Still, Poat said, with the Water Authority relying on the Bay Delta for roughly 20 to 25 percent of its water, the region has to care about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

"All of this started a long time ago," Poat said, adding that in 2009 the state Legislature began sending proposals that would protect the Bay Delta region's watershed and its species, rather than reacting to situations.

"The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is part of a new strategy, which is not to sit back and wait and see what happens and then deal with problems as they come," Poat said. "It's to take a look into the future, make whatever investments are necessary to ensure that we don't just get water, we don't just get habitat — that we get both."

Cushman said the region's changing reliance on MWD makes it not as cut and dry, though.

"This is an important part of the discussion about the Bay Delta," Cushman said, since the Water Authority is not only one of the 26 agencies served by MWD, but the largest.

The second-largest, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, recently announced plans to slash its MWD purchases in half. While most of the other MWD member agencies are, as Cushman said, "very small agencies with not a lot of stake, financially, in the discussions," most are making similar plans.

That makes the Water Authority ask who will end up paying for the Bay Delta plan and who would receive its greatest benefits. MWD has pledged to be the foundation of the plan's financing, with a minimum investment of 25 percent.

"Metropolitan, in turn, gets more than 85 percent of all of its revenues from the sale of water," Cushman said. "Metropolitan has very, very few fixed sources of revenue. If the largest agency, the second-largest agency and all of the agencies are reducing their purchases … who's going to be left to pay for this project?"

Cushman showed the 2013 vision of the BDCP program's budget breakdown for the proposed $24.7 billion project, and compared it to a recently updated one with an increased reliance on public water agencies for cost coverage.

The 2013 estimate had public water agencies paying for roughly $16 billion, while the new breakdown had them also chipping in on parts that had earlier been covered solely by state and federal funding.

Cushman said the impact to San Diego ratepayers could be from $1.1 billion to $2.2 billion, while the region might see a water supply benefit of about 54,000 to 78,000 acre-feet of water.

The evaluation of those effects on San Diego ratepayers is one of many points of inquiry that Cushman said the Water Authority has raised with the BDCP program during the public comment period open through June 14. The Water Authority also questions the transparency of the program because the BDCP website doesn't show four letters from the Water Authority.

"The Water Authority is being called upon to pay the second-largest share of the BDCP in the state," Cushman said. “Our ratepayers are being counted on to pay the bill, but the Water Authority has been ignored."

Cushman said the Water Authority has also never received a response to the letters, which date back as far as summer 2012.

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