A divided Zone 7 Water Agency Board of Directors voted to continue participating in the planning phase for the ambitious and long-discussed Delta Conveyance Project, following discussions about intricacies and concerns related to the matter last month.
The directors' 5-2 vote on April 20 comes with an a commitment of an additional $4.75 million in funding by Zone 7 for environmental planning for the proposed project.
"California's been fighting over the Delta for almost 110 years continuously, and we have never been able to figure out what to do with it ... It's a full century; it's amazing how much emotion the Delta has caused in the state," Director Sandy Figuers said.
"It's really wild, but I think this project has been ... one that has been pounded on, beaten on, sued over, lawyers have gone through it, that has survived," he continued. "And I think the core of it is solid. And I have to support it because we can't go another hundred to 200 years to come up with another solution."
However, despite the favorable outcome of the vote, deciding to continue participating in -- and funding -- the planning phase for the project was complicated by the still-pending results of environmental review processes, as well as the fact that by necessity, agencies not participating in the project would still see water quality improvements anticipated by it.
"At this point in time I can't support this," Director Olivia Sanwong said. "I look at the Delta ecosystem and I think it's such an important environment. For me personally, I really think a lot about humans controlling nature and unintended consequences and it's really tough for me to support this without seeing the EIR."
Zone 7 was among the 10 out of 18 state water agencies to agree to participate in the first two years of the anticipated four-year planning phase for the Delta Conveyance Project but check in and vote again before proceeding with the next two years of participation and funding in the planning process. Of those, six had voted to continue prior to the agency's April 20 meeting and vote, making Zone 7 the seventh.
With results of the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental impact report processes still pending, agencies that vote to continue participation in the planning phase will have the benefit of being able to review these results prior to committing to participate in and fund the next stages of the project.
The main benefit, however, is that these agencies would be able to have a voice in the project itself if they decide to participate past the planning phase.
"If for some reason we were to not approve this tonight and if we were to get off this project at this point, then we're out of it," Board Vice President Sarah Palmer said. "We don't have any say in what's going on."
Palmer added that what this would mean is that an agency who had stayed on board with the planning phase of the project could potentially then buy up shares of water that would have gone to Zone 7 if they continued participating, forcing the agency to then purchase them at a higher rate than they would have paid under continued participation in the planning phase.
In a presentation on the project ahead of the vote, Amparo Flores, manager of integrated planning, said that the project was "aimed at restoring and protecting the ability of the State Water Project to deliver water reliably."
Environmental changes to water flow and quality in the Delta region that are already underway include the impacts of sea level rise, which increases salinity, and a less predictable snow run-off season from the Sierra Nevada.
"We have got a system where we cannot rely on the Sierra snowpack," Palmer said "The snowpack leaves the ground and comes on down at earlier times than we've ever seen before ... so we've got extreme levels of water coming down, and not being able to capture them."
Infrastructure under the project would mean being able to switch to a different diversion point when there are obstacles in the Delta.
"The key here is that they're providing another tool for State Water Project operators to address these impacts," Flores said.
The need for some kind of project to update the aging, 1960s-era infrastructure that conveys water through the Delta for the SWP has been clear for some time, but the conveyance project has come to the forefront compared to other proposed plans, to the dismay of Board President Angela Ramirez Holmes, who cast a dissenting vote alongside Sanwong.
Ramirez Holmes said her major concern with the project had remained steady throughout the process so far, which was that it would never come to fruition.
"This idea does not yet for me clearly indicate that we will get all the things that we're promised for all the people that we're promising," Ramirez Holmes said.
"I just don't like all the eggs in one basket," she added.
Although Palmer emphasized that the project's current planning stage had accounted for the concerns and comments raised by significant input from a Stakeholders Engagement Committee that she chaired, Ramirez Holmes said she remained concerned that there would be lawsuits from environmental groups down the line, pending the results of environmental studies in the planning phase.
Despite concerns raised by Sanwong and Ramirez Holmes, the board majority ultimately sided with Figuers' and Palmer's affirmative position on the project, with directors Dennis Gambs, Laurene Green and Michelle Smith McDonald agreeing with Palmer's assessment that a vote against continuing in the DCP process amounted to an "exit ramp" that they weren't willing to take at this point.
The project is currently on schedule and on budget, according to Flores, with the planning phase set to continue through 2024. Participating water agencies such as Zone 7 will then have the opportunity to consider and vote on whether to continue to be involved past the planning phase.