May 22, 2016

Charlton H. Bonham: Brown’s Delta Plan Will Restore Habitat

By Charlton H. Bonham
Special to the Mercury News

Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s announcement of a modified approach to restoring Delta habitat and securing water supplies for 25 million Californians reinforced the state’s commitment to habitat conservation in the Delta.

After an unprecedented public outreach effort and in response to thousands of public comments, the decision was made to separate the Delta water conveyance facility and habitat restoration measures into two distinct but complementary efforts: California Water Fix and California Eco Restore. We listened to Californians and changed course.

The new effort calls for 30,000 acres of restored habitat underway over the next four years, not 100,000 acres restored over the next 40 years, but the fundamentals of our efforts in the Delta have not changed.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is one of the most highly altered places in the world, starting with the Gold Rush, when Sierra Nevada mining debris flowed down to sloughs and rivers and landowners drained marshes to create farms. The estuary once had freshwater wetlands and salt marsh the size of Los Angeles and San Diego combined. Now they are down to a size smaller than the peninsula of San Francisco. We need to start restoring these habitats, and we need to start now.

California Eco Restore, the new conservation effort, relies heavily on science, not speculation, to guide future efforts in the Delta. The initial target of 30,000 acres of habitat restoration is a start; we expect to undertake more restoration in future years. California Eco Restore includes shovel-ready projects and the money to get them started.

These projects include multiple fish passage improvements, floodplain and tidal marsh restoration, and sandhill crane habitat enhancement. They will provide more places for native fish and wildlife to forage, breed, and hide from predators.

I’ve been in the environmental restoration field my entire professional career. I’m not aware of a time in California history that a governor has come out and clearly said we are going to restore habitat in the Delta on his watch. I’m not aware of a time where a list of projects was put on a map with a timeline and instruction from the governor to go get it done in the next three and a half years.

We now have new funding tools and an opportunity to work closely with our state and federal partners, Delta local governments, landowners and public water agencies to make these restoration projects a reality. This is unprecedented.

By decoupling the habitat conservation and water conveyance portions of the previous plan, we can start restoring the Delta, right now. California Water Fix, the improved effort to modernize California’s aging water delivery system, must be permitted by state and federal wildlife and water quality regulators on its own merits.

With the California Water Action Plan as an overall roadmap for the next five years, we can work toward solutions to many of the issues confronting our water resources and our environment. California Eco Restore and the California Water Fix, increased water recycling, expanded water storage and sustainable groundwater management are all part of the solution.

I know that climate change, drought, major storms and earthquakes all threaten fish, wildlife and California’s water supply. Any effort to bring the Delta habitat back into balance faces real challenges, but we must start now before it’s too late.

Charlton H. Bonham is director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He wrote this for the San Jose Mercury News.