Franks Tract “Restoration:” A Solution looking for a Problem

Let’s be clear about what is happening. The California State agencies have long viewed the California Delta as a pipeline for taking water from the mountains in the north to the Central Valley farmers and to L.A. That is all. Nothing more, nothing less. This latest Franks Tract project is simply another plot to try to allow the exporters to continue to take too much water from the Delta without the resulting salt water intrusion getting into their exported water.

The State agencies care not a twit about the people in Northern California, their economies, communities, the fish, or the Delta way of life.

I take that back – they “care” about the fish because the Delta Smelt’s near extinction is causing them to periodically shut down the pumps. So the exporters need to “prove” they are doing something to “save the fish.” They know their small efforts won’t really save any of the endangered species – it’s just smoke and mirrors.

Bottom line: They want a salinity block so they can export even more. So they “throw in” some “smelt habitat” (suspect) and conduct a survey and tell the locals they want this project. I’m surprised the CDFW has agreed to participate in this scam.

This has been going on for years and years. For some reason (do you think it could be money in politics?), even before Governor Brown, wealthy Central Valley farmers (who live in Beverly Hills and other locales), L.A. developers, and water exporters who support them have been paying for projects that they think could restructure the Delta to allow them to continue exporting the current levels (that are too high) and take even more. To make it a virtual pipeline. Wall it up or tunnel under it: a pipeline.

Does anyone wonder why we in the Delta fear the Tunnels? The tunnels are sized at a capacity to drain the Sacramento River totally. Of course they wouldn’t do that . . . would they? Think Owens Valley.

In case you want to see how the piping works, here’s the Delta:

The first/top diagram show the Delta area, the next two are the natural water flows out of the Delta to the ocean, then the natural influx of the tide from the ocean. The last one, bottom right, shows the unnatural flow north-to-south down Middle River (the little blue arrow going south to the pumps), caused by too much water been exported out

The need for more and more water from the Delta continues to grow year after year. L.A. developers continue to build, farming profits continue to rise. In particular, the demand for almonds and other nuts to ship to Asia has driven farmers to convert line crops into year-round, water thirsty orchards and to expand the acreage of orchards seemingly without bounds. To meet the need, water exports continue to ramp up.

Without enough fresh water, the fish in the Delta begin to die. Fish need water – ya know?

Without enough fresh water flowing through the estuary, salinity starts to intrude. This is a huge problem for the exporters.

So, they look at the Delta and say, how can we block the salinity intrusion?

Of course, the real solution is to reduce export levels. That would also save the fish. But that would mean telling the almond growers and L.A. Developers to limit expansion and that ain’t gonna happen.

Instead their “solution” is to reconfigure the Delta.

The first place that the salt water coming in from the ocean can get diverted towards their pumps is through Franks Tract.

“Aha!” they say. Let’s stop the salt water from coming in right there.

In 2007, there was the Draft_Franks_Tract_Pilot_Study_Summary_Paper_2 to control salinity. The purpose of the study was “to alter the Delta hydrodynamics in the vicinity of Franks Tract to reduce salinity intrusion into the central and south Delta.”

Study Alternatives

If you live on Bethel Island, make your living there, your economy is based on boating, just looking at the dams everywhere has got to turn your stomach. Bethel Island isn’t labeled above (I wonder why) but it’s the island right next to Franks Tract, southwest, where the label says “Operable Gates in Sand Mound Slough Alt #2”. That alternative makes me personally really mad. We owned a home on Soundmound Slough at that time. (Yes, if you noticed, they even labeled the slough name incorrectly.) I never was notified about any study being done that would block access off to my docks!!!


The 2007 project listed impacts (including that gates “can create adverse impacts to fisheries, local ecosystem, water quality, and/or recreation” (which is an understatement). But they have no mention (none, zero, nada) about the impact on the people living there !!!!!

By the way, the project above was by Bay-Delta Live, an organization funded by “state and federal agencies.”

Fast forward to 2018. Nothing has changed. Now, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), funded by Metropolitan Water District. Once again, they look at this “system”, this “pipeline” to try to figure out how to block salt water intrusion. How to “re-plumb” the system. Only now, to make it sound more altruistic and because, due to the strong reverse flows to their over-worked pumps, the now-endangered fish get entrained there and environmental law suits make them stop pumping periodically, so they claim they are going to create a “total marsh for Delta Smelt.”

Furthermore, I found lots of flaws in their research. This clearly was a project to stop salinity and get some “kudos” points for supposedly thinking about the smelt.

So let’s focus on the smelt. Why put a tidal marsh right there? Franks Tract is the primo bass fishing spot in Northern California, the State is, once again, attacking the body of water that was set aside as a State Recreation Area!

The CDFW looked for scientific “proof” that Franks Tract was an environmental mess. They quoted two papers by a scientist that seemed to back up their claim. (On further review, the papers didn’t do that, but people don’t read the references, right? Just quoting them and saying they prove your point should be good enough? Not for me!)

That body of water, Franks Tract, flooded in the 1930s and since has become home of fish, including the favored sporting fish the striped bass and black bass. The location has made the area a primary location for bass fishing, which drives a thriving economy in Northern California. A community has built up around that area: boaters, marinas, restaurants. Economically it is supported by the weekly bass fishing tournaments, boating enthusiasts, and other Delta lovers spending enjoying the area. Waterfront homes look out on the scenic body of water. Quick access to fast water is key in property values.

So why would the State suddenly plan a project that would totally destroy the economy, homes, and a State Recreation Area?

Carl Wilcox, the CDFW project manager of the Franks Tract Feasibility Study, answered that question in the Brentwood Press this week. He said, “The islands are relatively shallow and will require less fill material to raise.. and the property are already owned by the state.”

In my comments below to the CDFW I pointed out that both the west side of Webb Tract and of Holland Tract are as shallow or close). And wait – Metropolitan owns Webb and Holland. At least one is slated to be a “habitat island.”

Why damage the community of Bethel Island, the bass fishing industry in Northern California, and remove an important State Recreational Area just because the state owns it? Isn’t there some stewardship involved, some public trust that says if the state declares and area a recreational area and an entire community with marinas, homes, and other businesses are established, you don’t just abandon them and fill it in with dirt?

And here’s even a more frightening fact:
In this latest study, a reference was made that one of the “considerations” was if they should put a weir in Piper Slough. DON’T THEY REALIZE THAT WOULD BLOCK PEOPLE FROM GETTING TO THEIR HOMES VIA THE WATERWAY, DESTROY HOME VALUES, BUSINESSES, AND THEIR WAY OF LIFE? This is insanity.

I posted earlier about my review of the Franks Tract Feasibility Study, aka their “Restoration” project. They call it a “Restoration” project because their goal is to restore all of the Delta back to the way it was before the 1870’s – when it was just a tidal floodplain. Doing that ignores reality – that levees have been built, fertile Delta farms created, favored recreational boating waterways exist, communities established, etc. It’s like going to Heavenly Valley in the Tahoe area and saying, “We’ve decided to turn this are back as it was in the 1800s so we’ll be shutting down skiing and sorry if your home values are now destroyed.”

I emailed my comments to California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) that:

“I am extremely disappointed that when you came to meetings and heard such adamant objections, that your original plan is given a positive spin. What would it have taken for your organization to take a step back and say, “This doesn’t sound like a good plan at all. It will cause too much hardship on the local communities. Are there other alternatives?” and focused on those rather than on your original, flawed plan. Drop the original plan to wreck Franks Tract.

More than that, in reviewing the report, I do not believe it builds the case in support for this project, in support for picking Franks Tract. I found significant flaws.

There are two stated objectives for this project: Creating habitat for Delta Smelt and reducing salinity flows into the Central Delta. I think your real goal for Delta Smelt can be accomplished as well using one of MWD’s already-owned islands like Webb or Holland without impacting local economies and communities. Why Franks Tract? The justification for your choice is without merit. I think it’s all about an alternative to the False River Dam for blocking salinity. Not about fish at all.

Worse, part of the improvements for Delta Smelt include eliminating “non-native species” – i.e., the bass. But bass fishing is key to the economy and Franks Tract is the primo bass fishery in the state (or even beyond that). Bass fishing tournaments are significant for not only Bethel Island but related industries. The choice of Franks Tract seems to be based on a Grossman report listing “hot spots” for predation. But that report didn’t have any analysis of Franks Tract, just that it was listed in the BDCP EIR. Thirteen “hot spots” were listed in Grossman – most were due to dams, like HORB, which have been shown to block migration paths, trap the fish, and make them available for predation. In fact, it said more analysis was needed regarding Franks. BTW – in Franks Tract you are proposing a dam next to Smelt habitat. Won’t that create a new site for predation?

But moreover, your own Deputy Director Stafford Lehr says “There’s too little known right now. The consensus of the research is there’s more going on (with native fish declines) than predation. That’s the department’s position.” So I don’t see how you can use Grossman’s list of “hot spots” as justification for choosing Franks Tract, going against your own department’s position. In the same article, Peter Moyle, a veteran fisheries scientist at UC Davis, is among the researchers who say striped bass are unfairly blamed for the declines in native fish. He described the striper as a “scapefish,” whose numbers have suffered marked declines in recent decades, alongside native fish. The real issue, he said, is what humans have done to the environment by over-allocating water to competing interests.” I raised that question in the meetings – it’s the over exporting that is causing the need for smelt habitat and salinity walls. I wish CDFW would push back on that, to protect the fish and wildlife per their charter.

As far as salinity, the simulations do show freshening water at Clifton Court Forebay, but it makes the key South Delta recreational waters saltier, lowering water quality on Middle River and Mildred Island. That is where people swim and recreate. So the trade-off you are making is better water for the exporters while increasing toxic algae blooms and other health and safety issues for Delta citizens.

In addition, the simulations show that Bradford Island will be surrounded by saltier water all of the time. They use Delta water for feed for their cattle and to water the cattle. What will that do to their operations? Plus more saltwater will go up the San Joaquin. What about the farmers there on the way to Rio Vista? This report is totally focused on the exporters and is not balanced.

I did see the Bethel Island alternative had been included on a page, but although it is lower cost, it sounds like it is being summarily dismissed saying,
“At this time, results suggest it would have lower water quality and salinity intrusion reduction benefits than the CDFW approach.”

The report, if balanced, would have had a pro/con matrix and traded off the huge negative impacts of the original plan versus the alternative. (Personally, I’m not sure the local project is as good as status quo, since it still makes navigation in/out of the major marinas more restrictive and puts a barrier in the middle of the recreational area).

Perhaps I have become jaded. For those of us who have been involved with the BDCP for years and years, where that group chose the through-Delta alternative up-front and although they included other alternatives like desalination (which was summarily thrown out) and other canal/tunnel routes, none were seriously studied or considered regardless of impact to the local communities. They continued on their “preferred alternative” even though the construction was absolutely the worse for the Delta. It seemed like the other alternatives were thrown in only to meet EIR requirements to study “alternatives.” Your report doesn’t even include other alternatives like building the tidal marsh on one of the nearby islands MWD owns. And seems to have dismissed the local alternative. So you can see why when your report still trudges along the same path as before our meetings, giving lip service to what you heard from meetings and putting a note in about one other alternative seems less than genuine. How can you list all of the negatives on the community without any comments about addressing them?

Finally, most people answering your survey (99%, I’d say) said to do nothing to Franks Tract. Leave it alone. Anything you do will have negative impacts. Even the token improvements were mainly not desired by most respondents. Most didn’t want an anchorage. They want it natural, scenic, open. I do not see where the local concerns and comments were truly incorporated in the report. If they were, the report would be far different.

Just honest feedback. Next step needs to be to totally revamp the project or kill it.

Here’s more details:

CDFW Report

The “Brentwood Press” came out with a good article about the plan and included quotes from the CDFW lead in this project, Carl Wilcox, that I used in this blog.

Next steps for Franks Tract restoration.

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