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Making Sense of Impact Reports on California’s Delta Tunnels Project

The final version of the environmental impact report for California WaterFix still lacks clarity and adaptability, says Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Davis.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
This aerial view looks north over the Middle River and the west levee from South Bacon Island Road in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources

On June 23, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared that California’s plan to build two massive underground tunnels to transport water from the Delta to Southern California, known as California WaterFix, would not adversely impact the Delta’s already threatened fish species, such as the Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

While the service’s announcement was lauded by WaterFix proponents, environmental groups such as Restore the Delta and the Sierra Club are arguing against the finding and vowing to continue to fight the project in court.

The confusion over what exactly the science says may come in part from a lack of clear communication. The final environmental impact report/environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS) was released in December 2016. The two-volume report is not only dense, it can be confusing – especially for the general public and policymakers, says Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Lund also chairs the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) of independent researchers who review scientific programs, reports and management of the California Delta. A week before the Fish and Wildlife Service released its statement, the DISB issued its review of the WaterFix EIR/EIS. In it, Lund and other researchers highlight that not enough effort is put toward making these reports understandable for lay people or policymakers. Water Deeply talked with Lund about what this report did well and how such reports can be improved.

Water Deeply: This was the final version of the EIR/EIS for California WaterFix. What changes were made from the previous version and what did the independent science board think of them?

Jay Lund: Well, first of all, this is a very complex and large project. It has many, many different kinds of environmental impacts that the project proponents have to address. The purpose of our review is primarily to look at the scientific adequacy of that review. With so many targets you can’t possibly hit them all exactly. We’ve had a long series of reviews – I think about four or five, maybe – at different stages in this development of this EIR.

At each stage we’ve made comments. By this final one we still had a few remaining comments but some of the improvements that they had made, particularly over the most recent one, was they had quite a bit more on adaptive management.

Water Deeply: What exactly does adaptive management mean when it comes to these tunnels and why is that so important?

Lund: The Delta is a very big and complex place and it’s always changing. The probability that your plan is going to be exactly right and perfect is pretty close to zero. What the field says, and what the law says now, is that for such projects you should be planning them in an adaptive framework, where you do some things, you collect some data, you have some science program that goes along with it, you get some conclusions from that science as you’re moving into it. [And] then you revise your plans, you revise your activities and continue moving forward.

Water Deeply: What does adaptive management mean for, say, the fish? How is it different for fish than for agriculture?

Lund: Well I think some of the uncertainties that we have in planning these projects is how the fish will react. Even before you [start] a big project like this, you will want to have some kind of a fish monitoring effort. Then you want to see how the fish behavior might have changed or how the health of the fish has changed. Hopefully you do this science in a way that gives you some insight as to not only did they change but why did they change, so as to help you figure out what the next step should be of the project.

You’ve got similar issues that will come up with water quality and agriculture. When you [start] the project, does it change the water quality in different parts of the delta in ways that were not expected at the time that the plan was developed? Then there should be some process in place for seeing how you would adapt the operations or modify the capacity in the project to address some of those problems.

Water Deeply: In your opinion, what was the biggest takeaway from this paper and the review?

Lund: I think the biggest takeaway we had was on the missed opportunities that the EIR process had to develop a much more coherent comparative evaluation of alternatives, and to really structure a more productive discussion of the problems that we have in the Delta, and the alternatives available for solving the water supply problems that this project focuses on.

Up until this last revision there were really no summaries for most of the chapters. The summaries still are pretty thin and not particularly insightful. With so many details many of which are pretty well laid out, there’s not a lot of stepping back for a broader audience, and even for a policy audience, to say “okay, well which of these seems more important, which one should we be focusing on and what kind of insights does this give us for state policy and what the project ought to be?”

What are the major uncertainties for the performance of these alternatives? How do we compare them across alternatives and what should we do when these alternatives don’t perform the way we thought they should, we thought they would? Maybe we’ll get lucky in some cases. Maybe we’ll get unlucky in some cases. How do we organize ourselves to respond to those likely conditions? One thing’s for sure, for any plan, any prognostication on this problem is going to be at least a little bit wrong. How do we prepare ourselves for that, that certainty that it’s going to be not quite right? That’s the adaptive management part.

Water Deeply: You mentioned that it was difficult for the public or even policymakers to pull out the important information from the review. Can you talk about that why communication for this kind of environmental impact report is so important?

Lund: Okay, we can go back to the 1960s legislation for [the National Environmental Policy Act] and early 1970s legislation for [the California Environmental Policy Act], what’s the purpose of these environmental impact reports, environmental impact statements? They’re to help governmental decision-makers make informed decisions about what’s going on, what alternatives there are, the likely relative impacts of the different facilities and how they should be regulated by the government.

Well, if you just lay a 30,000-page plus report on the desks of normal decision-makers, you might have fulfilled the letter of the law but you’re not really providing them [with] a lot of digested information that they can use. You’re not really helping them identify what the major trade-offs are among those alternatives, what are the major things that could go wrong that a government agency might want to be prepared for? Those are the kinds of insights I think that the intent of the law probably had back in the 1960s, early ’70s.

Water Deeply: In the debate over the tunnels, one side will claim the science says the project is better for the fish while the other side will say the science shows the opposite. Do you think confusion about what exactly those effects will be comes from a lack of clear communication?

Lund: I think that’s why we thought this was a tremendous missed opportunity. Here was a major effort that the legal intent of this is to clarify the science and the factual basis for the problem and the comparison of the solutions. This is an opportunity for the project proponents to lay out an argument in a clear, understandable way with lots of good scientific and technical background to back it up. You can have all your 30,000, 50,000 pages of detail but you should at least have an accompanying document or a front part of the document that lays out the insights that you get from all of this as they relate to the public agency’s decisions on these projects.

Water Deeply: What’s the next step now for the Delta Independent Science Board?

Lund: Well, we have a meeting in July. We’re going to be working on our plan for the coming year or so as to what some of our next review topics are. We’ll also be continuing on some of the reviews that we’re working on, on topics of water quality in the Delta and monitoring of environmental conditions in the Delta. We’re also going to be looking at reviewing some of the planned amendments to the Delta Plan from the Delta Stewardship Council on conveyance, storage and operations. We have some other reviews that we’re working on but we’re happy to have this large one done.

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