San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

Delta Wetland Project resurrected
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14,850 acres of farmland threatened

BY CRAIG W. ANDERSON

SJFB

If the Delta Wetlands Project is successful, agriculture on Bouldin Island, shown in the picture, will be gone forever.

Like a 25-year-old zombie, the Delta Wetlands Project has lumbered out of the shadows again to threaten Delta farmland by flooding two islands for water storage, turning two others into habitat and eliminating 14,824 acres of productive farmland in the process.

The Delta Wetlands Project – a public-private partnership of Semitropic Water Storage District and the corporation Delta Wetlands, owner of the lands involved – intends to flood Bacon Island and Webb Tract and to convert Holland Tract and Bouldin Island into habitat islands. The plan is when wet years occur, that water on the flooded islands could be pumped south to be stored underground in Kern County – by Semitropic – to be used in dry years. The water supply for Southern California would be enhanced, much as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s twin tunnel system would ship additional Delta water southward.

Farm Bureau concerns
"Farm Bureau has concerns about retiring land and the impact the project would have on neighboring islands and tracts," said Bruce Blodgett, SJFB executive director. "Whenever more than 14,000 acres of productive farmland is removed from production, it’s a concern."

EIR revelations
The Environmental Impact Report for the project reveals the estimated loss of 12,506 acres of prime farmland, 271 acres of farmland of statewide importance, 100 acres of unique farmland and 1,957 acres of farmland of local importance.

San Joaquin County would lose a total of 8,390 acres (8,132 of prime farmland) and Contra Costa County stands to lose a total of 6,534 acres, 4,374 being prime farmland.

Ripple effect on businesses and jobs
Removing nearly 15,000 acres from crop production would have a ripple effect, as for every dollar generated in ag value another three dollars is generated by the multitude of businesses associated with agriculture. Remove the crops and the economy is hurt and long-time jobs are lost.

Among the positive aspects of the project claimed by Delta Wetlands website is that the conversion will "provide significant new employment and income for the region" an assertion subject to debate.

Good land threatened
"This is good land, prime and unique, and a very significant amount to take out of production," said Dante Nomellini, Jr., an attorney based in Stockton who deals with water issues. "The project has put up $5 million to mitigate the land loss but the landowners [Delta Wetland Properties, a project proponent] will buy land 200 miles away from the Delta as mitigation."

He said San Joaquin County officials are addressing the loss of productive ag land and they "want the mitigation done in the affected counties, not 200 miles away."

Nomellini commented, "To their credit, Delta Wetlands Project said they will be building up levees on the flooded islands."

Seepage danger
Opponents of the plan say the flooded islands will seep water into surrounding land and, said John Herrick, Stockton attorney and spokesman for the South Delta Water Agency, "Our experience is that once an island is flooded, it seeps into neighboring islands every time and I don’t see how Delta Wetlands can flood islands without affecting their neighbors."

The neighbors are eight islands, six tracts and one cut, along with Highway 12 which cuts across Bouldin Island slated to be a habitat.

More EIR comments
The draft EIR of 2010 became the final EIR "after a few changes were made to it via an addendum," Nomellini said. "But the addendum didn’t change the ag land figures."

EIR documents describing the project note, "This conversion [to flooded and habitat-only islands] and subsequent loss of agricultural production is not consistent with [Contra Costa] county’s agricultural principles to maintain and promote a healthy and competitive agricultural economy or to protect and preserve areas suited to prime agricultural production."

"No mitigation is available to reduce this impact to a less-than-significant level," the EIR said.

The EIR also quotes crop information from 2007 as noted in the 2008 San Joaquin County agricultural commissioner’s annual crop report, and crops and their production may have changed in the intervening five years.

Another note in the EIR says, "In 2008, Webb Tract produced approximately 55 percent of Contra Costa County’s field corn crop … [the] loss of Webb Tract’s agricultural production would substantially reduce the countywide production of this crop."

Bouldin Island’s conversion to habitat would result in a "net loss of an estimated 15,344 tons of corn, 2,967 tons of rice and 8,492 tons of tomatoes," again based on the 2008 San Joaquin County crop report reflecting 2007 crop production.

Portions of Holland Tract would be exempt from conversion to habitat – marina properties, parcels on the southeastern corner of the island, the Wildlands parcels and several small parcels along the levee held by outside interests – and "a net increase in crop production [would result] because no harvested crops are currently grown on Holland Tract." That assumption was based on 2007 information.

Defeat not defeating
Despite the defeat of the current lawsuit to halt the Delta Wetlands project – San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Teri L. Jackson ruled the project’s EIR to be legally adequate and supported by substantial evidence – Nomellini said "There are reasons for an appeal and we filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 10. We’re at the environmental stage now and the permitting stage is yet to come."

Possible settlement
Central Delta Water Agency is working on a settlement with Delta Wetlands so the agency can protect neighboring lands from seepage and flood control impact, Nomellini said.

A lot to be agreed upon
The road ahead could be a long one because, noted Nomellini, "At some point the project will need a federal environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Protection Act and a state EIR will also be needed. The Delta Wetlands Project must agree with all Delta programs such as the Delta Stewardship Council and federal environmental regulations and requirements as well."

It appears a final resolution and approval of the Delta Wetlands Project is several years down the road where that zombie resides, ready to take prime productive farmland at the whim of a public-private entity.