The Bay Delta Conservation Plan in the Nutshell of California Water Policy

By Brinda Sarathy

This massive project is the first big water project in the nation to be designed not just for human consumption but also for the needs of other species and the environment as well.  It is a conservation oriented plan, but aimed at conserving much more than what people alone need.

Geographical thinking

Thank you for having me here today.  I want to situate my talk within the prism of critical geography, which urges us to see places as produced in relation to one another and created through dynamic flows of labor, capital, and natural resources.   These flows, moreover, always take place in the context of social relations that are riven by power relations sedimented over time.

In the context of this conference, geographical thinking compels us to understand our ability to be here in Southern California, at this historical moment, partly as a result of flows of imported water (not to mention the congealed labor in the infrastructure of water conveyance).  The production of this landscape— as a result of massive water projects like the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Central Valley Project, Colorado River Aqueduct, and State Water Project—also represents the fruition of particular social values and visions about maximizing resource efficiency.  Every drop must be harnessed for human use.  Water not harnessed was considered wasted.1 Such notions drove the quest for developed water in this state from at least the late nineteenth century on, and I contend that we have yet to leave this era of hydraulic dreams.

California, and the arid U.S. Southwest more generally, embody what environmental historian Donald Worster aptly termed a “hydraulic empire,” rooted in the advanced technological mastery of water and consolidated through alliances between government technocrats and agrarian and urban elites. I argue that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which represents the largest technological fix to water conveyance since the State Water Project and which I will get to shortly, is an outgrowth and continuation of hydraulic era visions.  Yet, the BDCP (or the Plan) is also different because it represents the crossing of different social values: hydraulic era thinking, which prioritized human use, with the environmental values borne in the post-1970s period that firmly placed the ecosystem/non-human nature as a stakeholder in water politics.  The Plan essentially holds as co-equal the goals of ecosystem restoration and supply reliability.  The environmental interest is therefore on par with those of human needs, and this represents a fundamentally reconfigured set of social values from that of earlier hydraulic periods.  

At the same time, we still continue to reconfigure our land and waterscapes for human use today.  There is not an option to not interfere. Rather, the question is how to intervene, but be guided by altered principles and the needs of different stakeholders, of which the environment is now one.  

Overview of the Bay Delta

The California Delta is a system of waterways and islands at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and is connected to the Bay through the Carquinez Strait.  Prior to the1800’s, most of the Delta was a tidal wetland, of which nearly 60% was submerged by daily tides (see map below).2 For several months each year, “the tule marshes became a wintering ground for migratory waterfowl, including Canada geese, pintails, cinnamon teal, whistling swan, and others.”3  In the 1800’s European settlers began farming in the Delta, diking and draining these previously flooded lands.  In the late 1870s, John Muir would muse that one day “the entire valley would be irrigated from end to end and carefully managed.”4  Muir’s prediction is the reality of the Delta today.

The contemporary Delta is largely agricultural, much of it reclaimed and protected by a series of levees. It also supplies water for 25 million people via the CVP and SWP, and is crucial habitat for land and water species unique to this ecosystem. 

All this, of course, comes at a price: the 1,100 miles of levees in the Delta are vulnerable to seismic activity and breaches.  Land subsidence makes flooding in Delta farms and communities more likely and more devastating, with most of the Delta at 5 to 25 feet below sea level.  A decline in fish populations, like the endangered Delta Smelt, is due to a combination of increased mortality at pumping facilities, a decline in habitat and water quality, and reduced food availability due to invasive species.5

The Delta’s regulatory history6

The Delta in addition to being the most engineered wetlands in the nation is also highly regulated.  The Central Valley Project (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or “Bureau”), built during over the Depression years, began exporting water from the Delta in 1951 with water going largely to Central Valley agriculture.

The State Water Project (Department of Water Resources or “DWR”), funding for which narrowly passed in 1959 via the Burns Porter Act (with a margin of 174,000 votes out of a total 5.8 million ballots cast) began larger-scale water exports to the south through the California Aqueduct in 1972.


The State Water Resources Control Board (“Water Board”) sets water quality standards for salinity control and protection of fish and wildlife.  In the late 1970s, court holdings noted that the public trust doctrine permits the Board to reconsider past water allocation decisions and to amend water rights if necessary to protect fish and wildlife, and that the Board’s water quality role is not to protect water rights per se, but “beneficial uses”.

In the midst of all that was going on at the State Water Board, a statewide ballot initiative in 1982 proposed construction of a canal to convey water directly from Northern California to Central and Southern California, bypassing the Delta.  The initiative was defeated 63%-37%, with Bay Area counties voting against the canal by more than 90% margins.  In essence, California voters saying “no” to large water infrastructure projects.

Between 1987 and 1992, California experienced a six-year drught, further intensifying the debate over Delta water management.  Various regulations and policies increasingly began to focus on both water supply and ecosystem issues related to the Delta.

In 1992, the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act reallocated a portion of Central Valley Project water supplies to benefit fisheries and the ecosystem.  Some of these restoration projects stemming from CVPIA are in peril in light of our current drought.

A number of other initiatives have also played out in the Delta, including fraught partnerships between state and federal agencies under the umbrella of CALFED.

In 2008, a strategic plan was developed via the Delta Vision project (a blue ribbon taskforce appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2007) and articulated 12 recommendations, the first of which was that the ecosystem and a reliable water supply are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta.

In 2009, the State Legislature passed SBX71, the Delta Reform Act, which provides a framework to achieve the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply to California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.  We can see that various institutions were created out of the Act including the Delta Stewardship Council, charged with creating a comprehensive management plan for the Delta  (the Delta Plan), and tasked the Department of Water Resources with drafting a multispecies conservation plan (the Bay Delta Conservation Plan). 

The Delta Reform Act also required the State Water Board to develop new flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem in order to protect fish and wildlife. 

What is the BDCP?7

In a nutshell, the BDCP is a 50-year habitat conservation plan being prepared as a Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) under California’s Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act and the state’s endangered species regulations and as a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) under federal endangered species act regulations.  This holistic/ ecosystem approach to conservation planning is a departure from trying to save a single species such as the “triage” efforts under the ESA, which is often critiqued for doing too little too late.  The BDCP is made up of specific actions, called Conservation Measures. The BDCP includes 22 conservation measures aimed at improving water operations, protecting water supplies and water quality, and restoring the Delta ecosystem within a stable regulatory framework.

The BDCP establishes conservation zones based on distribution of physical and biological conditions and this natural community based approach allows for achieving multiple habitat objectives on the same land base.  Ultimately, the Plan is aimed at 56 fish and terrestrial species, their habitats, and the Delta ecosystem.  Adaptive management, which incorporates feedback loops based on on-going scientific assessments of conservation measures, will lead to fine-tuning of restoration programs.  This flexible strategy “address gaps in knowledge regarding Delta ecological processes and species biology and ensures increasingly more effective and responsive to changing ecological conditions in the Delta”.8

Conservation Measure 19

Since first proposed, Conservation Measure 1, “water facilities and operations,” has been refined largely in response to potential impact on Delta communities.  There has been a reduction from 5 tunnels at 15,000CFS to 3 tunnels at 9,000CFS.  The proposed tunnels are now to be underground instead of as surface canals.  There has also been an alignment shift away from Delta communities and onto public lands.  In addition, the new intermediate forebay has shrunk from the originally proposed 750 acres to 40 acres.  Finally, pumping plant heights at intake facilities reduced from 60 feet to 30 feet.  

Existing SWP/CVP pumps in southern Delta can cause or increase reversal in river flows, potentially altering salmon migratory patterns and decline of sensitive fish like delta smelt.  Relocating main point of water diversion to North Delta and establishing new operating criteria to improve east west Delta flow, and water volume, among other criteria.  The basic idea is that the BDCP would improve native fish migratory patterns and habitat conditions and allow for greater operational flexibility.

In the following graph10, we can see how operations of the North Delta diversions will be subject to specific year-round criteria—namely average river flows—aimed at minimizing impacts on fish and meeting water quality standards.

Operations here are fundamentally tied to hydrologic conditions, and thus variation in supply is almost a given.  In short, there must always be a minimum Sacramento River flow before water could be diverted through the tunnels.

Of note here is that the 9000 CFS maximum possible diversion is reached at river flows of 30,571 CFS. Reduced river flow, will lead to significant reductions in the volume of diversion, with NO allocation/diversion at river flows at or below 5000 CFS.  The DWR has classified Water Year Types by WET, Below Normal or Dry, and Critical.  As you all probably know, we are in a “critical year” with 0 % allocation for the CVP.

What will also be key here is the frequency of water year types.  Note that the data above only depicts frequency for Sacramento River flows between 1949-2009, with 53% for wet/above normal years and 34% for below normal or dry years.  What happens as this frequency changes? What if the ratio of critical to wet or above normal years radically alters in the face of climate change? Will “critical” water years become the new normal?  If so, we are talking about significantly reduced diversion volumes/allocations.  One might ask whether this is a tunnel for a trickle??

Implementation schedule11

The BDCP seeks to restore and protect more than 150,000 acres of habitat over its 50-year permit duration. The following graph demonstrates the proposed sequencing of the implementation of habitat protection and restoration in the BDCP.  Conservation measures that address water operations and other stressors will be implemented beginning soon after permit issuance. Construction of the proposed conveyance facilities would begin approximately 2 years after permit issuance and continue for an estimated 9 to 10 years.  Operations could begin as early as year 11.


The total estimated cost of implementing the BDCP over the 50-year permit term is $24.75 billion (in undiscounted 2012 dollars).  Capital costs over the 50-year permit term total $19.85 billion. The majority of these costs (73 percent of capital costs) is associated with construction of water intake and conveyance facilities and will be incurred by year 10 of BDCP implementation.

Operations and maintenance (O&M) costs are estimated to be $110 million per year near the end of the 50-year permit term ($4.9 billion over 50 years). Approximately 70 percent of O&M costs are associated with Plan administration, monitoring and research, and implementation of conservation measures other than water conveyance.

Total estimated costs of implementing BDCP over 50-year period, $24.75 Billion

Estimated Operations and Maintenance Costs, $4.9 Billion

The billion-dollar question: funding13

The BDCP proposes that a “beneficiaries pay” principle, meaning the cost will be borne by those who receive the benefit. The beneficiaries of the BDCP water conveyance facilities include certain municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users served by the SWP and CVP. Participating state and federal water contractors are asked to contribute approximately $17B, or 68 percent of the total funding.

Habitat restoration is also considered to provide a broad public value. Accordingly, DWR expects partial funding by a variety of state and federal sources.

Initial state funding may come from two future water bonds, including the water bond approved by the California State Legislature in 2009 for the statewide ballot. This bond was postponed until the Nov. 2014 ballot. The Legislature is currently considering amendments to this bond. Subsequent water bonds that would partially fund the habitat restoration and other stressors reduction actions are also expected to occur during the 50-year permit term. The current estimate for state funding of BDCP over the 50-year permit term is $4.1 billion, or 17% of total BDCP funding.

Points to ponder

At the end of the day, the BDCP is far from a done deal.  Indeed, the only certainty in the Plan is the guarantee of and planned responses to variability.  Given the impact of climate change on altered hydrological conditions, including river flows, the Plan outlines how diversions ultimately are tied to variable water supplies. This is meant to provide water users a means with which to plan for the future and provide a stable regulatory framework.  Yet, it also raises the question of feasibility.  How feasible are water supply benefits? Will it be worth the cost to beneficiaries vs. other water sources and conservation efforts, especially with prospects of dwindling river flows in the realities of climate change?

Moreover, we already know that the original $11billion bond measure is not going to pass in legislature. Other water bonds are currently being proposed and many northern California senators are pushing for a water bond to fund restoration outside of the BDCP.  Most recently, a $6.8 billion water bond towards safe drinking water, water quality and water supply sponsored by Senator Lois Wolk (D-Solano) has received support from 3 policy committees in Sacramento.14

Thus, although the BDCP may get environmental clearance and certified EIR and EIS documents, there is a real chance that there will be a shortage of state funds. Who will foot the shortfall? The beneficiaries? This goes back to the issue of feasibility.  It is of note that no contractors have yet signed a letter of intent, so the rubber still needs to hit the road.

Other arenas of resistance to the BDCP will most certainly include litigation, both from environmental groups and owners of private property, who will be affected by construction and restoration projects.15  And finally, there is an assumption on the part of the Department of Water Resources that the public will approve partial funding for the Plan given past endorsements for large conveyance projects.  This assumption, however, fails to note that although the State Water Project—the last major hydraulic era project to get a razor thin margin of public support— passed, its successor, the Peripheral canal, was soundly defeated.

In thinking about places geographically, as produced in relation to one another, the BDCP raises fundamental economic and political questions about the ways in which we will continue to rely on imported water in this new phase of the hydraulic era, and how this will impact our lives and landscapes.  Will the California public be willing to foot part of the bill to help restore the Delta ecosystem and, in doing so, help uphold the doctrine of public trust?  Will private contractors, who hope to gain from the water supply reliability benefits promised by the Plan, decide that massive new investments in conveyance infrastructure are worth the cost? Or will other conservation measures and efforts to expand local water sources, through reservoirs and increased reliance on groundwater, be better options?  At the end of the day, scientific evidence (species decline, habitat loss, etc.) makes clear that the status quo has put the Delta ecosystem in peril and poses increasing risks for the millions of people who depend on Delta water (seismic threats, etc.).

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan thus embodies a new phase of the hydraulic era, where human and environmental needs are held in tension and must be arbitrated. The Plan implies new ways of thinking about efficiency.  Rather than asking how to harness every drop for human use, as did earlier cohorts of civil engineers and their political counterparts, the question today is how can we use water more efficiently by reducing our own consumption so that what was previously considered “wasted water” may once again also contribute to in-stream flows for non-human species and ecological purposes.  However imperfect, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is an ambitious attempt to move in this direction, and it behooves us all to learn more about this project and the state of California water more generally.16

For more information and related analysis on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, please visit:


1Gidwani and Reddy, “The Afterlives of ‘Waste.’” Whipple et al., 2Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Investigation: Exploring Pattern and Process.

3Worster, Rivers of Empire, 8.
4 Ibid., 10.
5 “Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Highlights,” 3.
6“Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) - The Regulatory History of the Delta.”
7 “Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Highlights.”
8 Ibid., 78.
9 “Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Highlights.”
10 Ibid., 33.
11Ibid., 84.
12Ibid., 86–87.
13 Ibid., 86–89.
14“First Water Bond to Earn Passage from Committee Gets Second Round of Support.”
15 Boxall, “Appeals Court Backs Landowners on Access for Delta Tunnel Tests.”
16 The public comment period on the BDCP and related EIR and EIS documents ends on June 13, 2014.  See link provided above for more details.



“Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Highlights.” California Department of Water Resources, December 2013.

Boxall, Bettina. “Appeals Court Backs Landowners on Access for Delta Tunnel Tests.” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2014.

“First Water Bond to Earn Passage from Committee Gets Second Round of Support.” Senator Lois Wolk. Accessed March 21, 2014.

Gidwani, Vinay, and Rajyashree N. Reddy. “The Afterlives of ‘Waste’: Notes from India for a Minor History of Capitalist Surplus.” Antipode 43, no. 5 (2011): 1625–58. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00902.x.

“Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) - The Regulatory History of the Delta.” Save The Bay Blog. Accessed March 21, 2014.

Whipple, A.A., R.M. Grossinger, D. Rankin, B. Stanford, and R.A. Askevold. Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Investigation: Exploring Pattern and Process. Richmond, CA: San Francisco Estuary Institute-Aquatic Science Center, 2012.

Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

© Brinda Sarathy, 2014