Maven’s Minutes: The Senate Select Committee hearing: The Next Decade in the Delta

On Monday, October 15th, Senator Lois Wolk, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Delta Stewardship and Sustainability, held a hearing at the Contra Costa County Administration Building in Martinez. The hearing, titled “The Next Decade in the Delta”, highlighted the efforts and successes of recent Delta stakeholder coalitions. Calling it a step forward, Senator Wolk said: “We’re going to be focused not on what divides, but rather what common purpose we may have.”

Senator Wolk invited the first panel up, introducing them by noting that she had received a letter from the Coalition supporting 43 near-term projects and signed by 34 individuals that represent a wide variety of stakeholders: “They include Jason Peltier and Roger Patterson for Metropolitan Water District, but also Barbara Barrigan-Parilla for Restore the Delta, and frankly that’s news on its own.”



Jonas Minton, Water Policy Advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, began by telling the story of how the Coalition was formed. About a year ago, there was a growing realization that although long term projects were underway, near term actions were needed. So Minton and the others the panel decided to see if there was anyone else who also similarly inclined.

Mr. Minton went first to Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin, who agreed to provide a small amount of funding for mediation assistance from Susan Sherry, Executive Director of the Center for Collaborative Policy. “That was key, because we set out to do this on an impossibly short schedule with an impossibly small budget, so we needed a combination referee, marriage counselor, and magician,” Mr. Minton said.

Eighty people attended the first meeting, a wide range of stakeholders such as Delta counties, farmers, water exporters, reclamation districts, environmentalists, as well as other federal, state, and local agencies. Over a six month period, over 50 project proposals were submitted and of those, 43 were found worthwhile by Coalition members.

Support was specifically defined to mean that the projects are worthwhile and should receive thorough and timely review; it was not meant to request any bypassing of permitting requirements or to imply any financial commitments.

Stakeholders remain committed to ironing out the details, including local cost-sharing and trying to determine which projects are likely to proceed early. The Coalition is asking the permitting agencies to constructively engage in a timely and thorough manner and for the funding agencies to compare these projects with the priorities they have for the remaining funds. And lastly, the Coalition is looking for minimal funding to continue their momentum.

Click here for the Coalition for Delta Projects transmittal letter and project list.


Jason Peltier from Westlands Water District said it was very satisfying to work constructively and collaboratively with people who are often at odds with each other. The process showed the mutual frustration with decision making as well as a common desire to make progress in the near term. And more: “It also fills a shortcoming of the larger BDCP planning process relative to the Delta and that is failure to focus on the short-term. Regardless of how conveyance is addressed and resolved in the years ahead, there’s no question that immediately, for the next decade plus, we absolutely reliant on the current configuration of the Delta and that reliability brings great uncertainty for all,” said Mr. Peltier.

However, Mr. Peltier said it is important not to overstate the significance of the Coalition; while it’s a step forward , it was easy because the members didn’t delve deeply into the projects and try to put them through the rigors of the planning process.

Mr. Peltier said that the biggest test is to make government work, and to see “if we can touch the water in the Delta with some kind of a project and not get hung up in ESA restrictions because it’s all critical habitat. I don’t know that we touch the water hardly at all in any of these projects because that’s the line across which decisions don’t seem to be able to go.”


Tom Zuckerman with the Central Delta Water Agency began by stating that there’s a lot of unfortunate publicity about the fragility of levees in the Delta. He noted that the Central and South Delta water agencies have been working for many years on levee projects and “we are making progress with limited amount of state support and a lot of local support; we haven’t been sitting back and doing nothing; we’ve been strengthening these levees to the extent of our financial resources.” He pointed out as an accomplishment that the Delta hasn’t suffered a major flood from high water in 20 years. Jones Tract was a summertime flood, not from high water or from an earthquake.

The 1982 flooding of McDonald Island, the location of a PG&E large underground natural gas storage facility, caused PG&E to realize the importance of levee maintenance to protecting their infrastructure. The utility initiated a cost-sharing agreement with the reclamation district to strengthen the levees. “We began to realize that 80% of damage result from massive levee failure is not to the SWP or the CVP but is to the infrastructure that exists in the Delta – roads, transmission lines, railroads, gas lines, recreation industry, etc,“ Mr. Zuckerman said.

Subsequently, EBMUD stepped forward in a similar manner to strengthen levees protecting the Mokelumne Aqueduct, with EBMUD picking up much of the local costs and state programs picking up the rest. “We’ve done some remarkable things in the Delta at costs which were a fraction of what some of the outside people thought were necessary to create these strong levees, earthquake resilient type of levees, broader in base so they won’t fall down in earthquakes,” Mr. Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman came forward with a number of projects for the Coalition that would protect the export corridors and as it turns out, there was broad consensus on that. And what was really surprising to people was the limited costs: “Based upon actual figures that have been incurred recently on the EBMUD work, we’re talking about protecting the Middle River corridor through the Delta for $60 million, not billions that you hear some times. Old River Corridor might cost $120 million. And that’s complete. That would include local shares and other beneficiaries,” he said.


Since 2006, the Contra Costa County Water District has called for immediate actions on urgent issues in the Delta in recognition that other processes would take a long time. This project list is consistent with CCWD’s priorities and includes emergency preparedness, levee improvement, water quality, water supply, and ecosystem projects, Mr. Gartrell said.

However, while the most challenging issue is funding, another is getting projects through the permitting projects, Mr. Gartrell noted. CCWD has done a lot of projects within the Delta and consistently found that even with projects that are broadly supported, it still requires two years of permitting, design and environmental work for every one year of construction.

This is due in part is because DFG, Army Corps, NOAA and Water Board staff are overburdened; but there could be other ways to go through permitting, Mr. Gartrell said. He offered as an example, levees can have much in common and present the same sorts of issues, so perhaps a general permit could be developed that would have certain requirements for mitigation and other issues.

Mr. Gartrell also noted there is a need to get all potential beneficiaries in the room to negotiate cost sharing agreements for levee improvements.


The focus on near-term projects is what brought the Delta counties into the Coalition process, because “we’ve been advocating for near-term solutions in the Delta for years and saw this as a unique opportunity to move projects forward,” said Douglas Brown, Coordinator for the Delta Counties Coalition. The approach represented a radical shift in addressing the problems, because in the past, the counties have either been excluded from the process or relegated to shouting from the sidelines, he said. However, the counties have an important role to play: “The counties are uniquely positioned to ensure that worthwhile near-term projects within our jurisdictions move forward. With our engagement, much can be achieved,” Mr. Brown said. However, the Counties are woefully understaffed and underfunded and need resources to participate.

While the Delta Counties are supportive of the projects on the list, there are a number of other worthwhile projects that could also be included. The Delta Counties Coalition is specifically supportive of Sunne McPeake and Charles Gardiner’s efforts to identify more expansive near-term solutions that integrate through-Delta levee improvements with specific ecosystem restoration projects such as low-flow fish screens for the forebay at Clifton Court, invasive aquatic vegetation management and habitat improvements that are incorporated into levee projects. The Delta Counties Coalition is also supportive of broader efforts of other coalitions to identify near-term projects both within and outside of Delta that can achieve water demand reduction, greater water use efficiency, water reuse, increased storage, and greater regional self sufficiency.

The state has virtually ignored near-term actions, Mr. Brown said: “The state has focused and directed funding almost exclusively to long-term projects in the Delta to the detriment of near-term solutions. If the Delta were a vehicle, the state has changed out the engine while neglecting to fill the tank and change the oil. The work of this committee can help change this paradigm.”


Randall Neudeck testified on behalf of Metropolitan Water District, saying that Metropolitan is comfortable in advancing this preliminary list to the governor and other state agencies so they can incorporate these into their own planning efforts to prioritize projects.

However, advancing this list is not a commitment by Metropolitan or any other stakeholders to finance any project, Mr. Nuedeck said. Metropolitan will examine funding needs and commitments on a case by case basis.  This is consistent with Metropolitan’s Delta Action Plan and board policies which support the principle of beneficiary pays commensurately.

Metropolitan is a strong supporter of the water bond which includes $2.25 Billion for Delta projects. Of that, $1.5 billion is for restoration projects and $750 million is for local matching grants that will be available to Delta counties and cities to support delta sustainability options. “MWD stands ready to participate in legislative efforts to reevaluate contents of the bond, but at this stage it would be premature of Metropolitan to judge how any such effort would reshape the bond package,” Neudeck said.

Metropolitan is actively engaged in near term projects, including work to improve habitat for salmon in northern Yolo Bypass. Metropolitan has provided seed funding and helped with the acquisition of additional state and federal funding for the project. Metropolitan is on the ground working with landowners and making progress, Nuedeck said.

Metropolitan fully supports coequal goals, and Metropolitan’s Delta Action Plan recognizes the need to simultaneously advance near, mid and long term projects: “Advancing the coequal goals will not be possible without the success of the longer-term planning process now underway. Efforts to identify achievable near-term projects are not a replacement for the need for the longer term planning processes necessary to stay on track and make essential decisions.”


Susan Sherry, Executive Director for the Center for Collaborative Policy, acted as the facilitator for the Coalition and said there were five reasons why the process was successful:

  1. These historic adversaries came together by their own initiative and they were self-organizing.
  2. The ‘BDCP was left out the room’.
  3. The sole focus was of the group was on near-term projects.
  4. The process was structured to be low risk and high gain: we had ‘big tent’ criteria, we fastidiously avoided prioritizing projects, and we carefully defined what support means.
  5. Those four factors provided conditions that meant the Coalition could be really efficient with minimal transaction time and stakeholders doing their self preparation; we worked to keep it simple.



Jim Tischer, Program Specialist for CSU Fresno’s California Water Institute, talked about the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. The water workgroup is one of several functioning committees of the partnership, which includes the eight counties starting in Kern County to the south, covering the area from Tejon Ranch to near Sacramento. This is a much larger focus than the Delta Coalition, noted Mr. Tischer.

The Partnership has a created a list of 22 projects that are currently out for review by the respective boards of supervisors and the water committee; the list will be brought forward publicly when they’ve been affirmed, Mr. Tischer said. The criteria used to select projects for the list was that the projects do no harm, the projects had to benefit a large area, and the projects had to move the region toward self sufficiency. The projects on the Partnership’s list include water quality projects, groundwater recharge, and conveyance with a small “c”. The most important part of the project list are the linkages, Mr. Tischer said: “What we’re trying to do is move forward in a coordinated manner with identified linkages across the board.”


Sunne-Wright McPeak of the Delta Vision Foundation also talked about the San Joaquin Valley Partnership, and noted that other counties have formed their own coalitions as well: “The theme that is running through all of this is leadership begets leadership, and we want to continue to nurture it.”

Ms. McPeak said that what is remarkable is the progress from the ground up: “It has taken very little resources but some resources to actually bring everyone together and to sustain the stakeholder engagement, and that we do need to find a way to encourage that.

Ms. McPeak argued that the Legislature needs to be a catalyst and focus the energy so these processes can continue instead of simply dissipating: “There’s no better way than you, the legislature, taking some sort of action in the new session, be it a resolution, be it actual legislation, that encourages these processes, perhaps also funds them, and puts a timetable to what needs to happen. … Collaboration is in danger of not having its optimal impact without this hearing resulting in a specific action within the legislature.”

Near-term projects should not exclude establishing a strategic levee system and thru-Delta conveyance, but supporters of the BDCP will need to be assured that improving thru-Delta conveyance is not an exchange for the BDCP. “We cannot wait 10 to 15 years for new conveyance; we’ve got to get something done in the nearer term,” said Ms. McPeak.



Anton Favorini-Csorba from the Legislative Analyst’s Office said that current Delta spending is roughly $404.5 million; however, of that amount, $123 million for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is included in the figure but that portion is being paid for by SWP contractors. The remaining funds come from bonds. Mr. Favorini-Csorba conservatively estimates that unappropriated bond funds from Propositions 50, 84, and 1E total about $582 million. In addition, the Natural Resources Agency is compiling a list that will include other funds not included in the LAO’s report; this amount could be over $1 billion. This list is expected to be ready later this fall.

Mr. Favorini-Csorba suggests the legislature consider that federal funding is limited, local cost shares for reclamation districts and other local entities can be difficult to raise, and identifying beneficiaries is difficult. Permitting can be slow and costly, although Mr. Favorini-Csorba noted that this seems to be a problem more at the federal level and not so much at the state level.

In regards to the Coalition’s list of projects, Mr. Favorini-Csorba recommends prioritizing the different projects to help ensure the highest priority activities receive funding. Also, many of the projects are still in the conceptual stage and require more studies and engineering analyses to more accurately determine their feasibility and costs to implement. And finally, the primary criteria for selection seemed to be projects that everyone could agree on; however, the use of other criteria may identify different projects.

Mr. Favorini-Csorba recommends the legislature considering unappropriated bond funds for funding near-term actions. Identifying beneficiaries that are willing to contribute funding can help, because projects with more groups willing to partner on funding have more priority than other projects. Mr. Favorini-Csorba recommends collecting more information from the Coalition on the submitted projects and also that the Delta Stewardship Council review the list of projects.

Click here to read the Legislative Analyst’s Office Report, Funding and Options for Near Term Actions in the Delta.



Randy Fiorini, vice-chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, praised the efforts of the Coalition to Support Delta Projects and other similar coalitions who have come together to try and solve problems. Now that the Delta Plan is in its final stages, the Council is working to establish an implementation committee of high-level agency officials who will work to implement the Delta Plan. The Council is also working on developing a Delta Science Plan that will better coordinate research in the Delta, as well as address communication, strategies and data management of the current research work that is occurring.

The Delta Stewardship Council role is not a superegulatory agency role; it is one of coordinating activities and synthesizing the work of the agencies that do have responsibilities in the Delta, Mr. Fiorini said: “We recognize that there are conflicting interests; we recognize that there are limited funding, but be that as it may, we intend to move forward and near term actions are first up on the list.” Twenty of the Delta Plan’s 70 recommendations call for near-term actions including projects such as water supply, thru-Delta conveyance, additional storage capacity, ecosystem restoration and risk reduction.

We need to implement projects now, but to be realistic we need to start small; groups like the Coalition can help identify where ‘the most bang for our buck can occur’, Mr. Fiorini said, but these projects need to be prioritized because of the limited funding. But there is much that can be done right now: “While we wait on the BDCP, we need to focus on thru-Delta enhancements and additional storage. We need to locate and begin construction on habitat restoration projects that have the greatest chance of success. We need to prioritize levee investments and target the spending. And finally, we need to improve emergency response preparedness and plan for public safety and water supply reliability. Near term actions are the key to long-term success of the Delta Plan and the achievement of the coequal goals.”

Note: Mr. Fiorini is standing in for Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council Phil Isenberg, who was unable to attend due to illness. Click here to read what Mr. Isenberg planned to say, if he had been able to attend.


Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources, also praised the Coalition: “I know it took a lot of personal investment on the parts of the individuals that participated, but I think it’s always valuable to engage in constructive conversation, especially when it’s aimed at finding common ground and it’s especially true in the Delta, where we have a long history of talking past each other on many issues. I’m very pleased this effort has gone forward and the Department could play a small role in helping to make it happen.”

Mr. Cowin notes that by listening to the testimony today, some may think that nothing is happening in the Delta, but he believes we are making significant and meaningful progress on a lot of different issues, primarily due to Prop. 84 and 1E dollars available. “My notes indicate we’ve invested approximately half a billion dollars in the Delta through Proposition 84 and 1E funds – or at least committed those funds to date,” he said. The funds have paid for levee improvement projects, emergency response preparedness and materials stockpiling, emergency communication, and ecosystem restoration projects, such as Dutch Slough and McCormick Williamson. Mr. Cowin also noted the importance of completing urban and non-urban levee evaluations to add to knowledge base for prioritizing and making future decisions.

The cooperation of multiple agencies, economic conditions, cutbacks and fundamental capacity issues at every level of government are significant obstacles to getting things done quickly, Mr. Cowin said, noting that it is a problem more at the federal level: “Some of these federal regulatory agencies just have too much on their plates and not enough bodies to see to all the work that needs to be done.”

However, perhaps even more challenging are the funding issues: “I believe the most significant challenge in moving forward is the need for more stable sources of funding and clarity about policies for cost allocation.” Mr. Cowin noted that it takes years to move projects from concept to completion, so without viable financing plan for those projects, those processes to develop these projects tends to dry up. Stable financing nurtures development process for getting projects on the ground.

There’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit particularly when it comes to projects in the Delta, and frankly, the need is far greater than available resources, and prioritization is less important to me under these circumstances when we know that there are so many good projects that need to be constructed,” Mr. Cowin concluded.


Ken Vogel, Chair of the Delta Conservancy, said that the two coalitions represented here today present a unique opportunity to advance near-term projects in the Delta: “These grass roots efforts have produced, in my opinion, a significant step forward in advancing the goals outlined in the water legislation of 2009. … I believe these processes provide a great example of how to work best with local communities to achieve and promote mutual objectives.” The Delta Conservancy participated in and supports these processes and stands ready to help to continue the effort, he said.

Mr. Vogel concurs with the Delta Vision’s report card assessment on near-term actions: “There are many near-term needs in the Delta and there hasn’t been enough progress in moving them forward.” As evidenced by the various coalitions, “there are numerous broadly supported near term projects which will improve the Delta. Implementing as many of these projects as possible and as quickly as possible is essential to restoring and sustaining the Delta’s viability for the future.”

The Delta Conservancy can and should have a lead role in implementing the restoration and economic development projects, Mr. Vogel said, noting that Conservancy staff has worked with all of the listed restoration projects to identify immediate funding needs, with the expectation that the Conservancy would seek and distribute funding to these projects.

Availability of funds is key to implementing these projects, Mr. Vogel said, and regulatory funding agencies must partner in this implementation process and be ready and willing to streamline permitting processes to reduce time needed to receive permits: “Unless these near-term actions are seen as priorities for all involved, implementation delays and cost escalations will be likely results.”


Chair of the Delta Protection Commission Don Nottoli talked about the Commission’s Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) which was adopted in January of 2012. The ESP measured key elements of the Delta economy, developed strategies to enhance the economy, and analyzed four important proposals in the Delta Plan on the region’s economy. “The analysis in this Economic Sustainability Plan showed that it is possible to protect and enhance the Delta economy and the day to day life in the Delta and yet be consistent with the coequal goals,” he said.

One of the key findings of the ESP was that ongoing investments are needed to strengthen and improve the levee system and it is imperative that state and federal partners maintain their commitment to provide a consistent source of funding for levee improvements, specifically the Delta Levee Subventions and Special Projects Program, Mr. Nottoli testified.

The Delta Reform Act called for implementation of other aspects of the Economic Sustainability Plan, including the establishment for a Delta Investment fund to implement this plan. So far, no appropriation has been made to the investment fund due to the budget problems, said Mr. Nottoli, so the Commission is doing what it can with limited resources.

The Commission is considering creating a regional assessment district for levee assessments. This would allow levee assessments on those who benefit from levee projects but are currently not providing funds for levee maintenance and improvements, thereby providing a source of revenue and reducing reliance on uncertain subvention funds. However, Mr. Nottoli said that there are many hurdles to establishing a district, and currently, the Commission is discussing whether to do a feasibility study.

The Commission is also working with DWR on a grant for emergency preparedness planning with the five Delta counties that would include risk assessment of likely levee failures, stockpiling of emergency response materials and evacuation planning. In May of this year, the five Delta counties received a grant of $1.7 million to fund construction of a new radio site and to help fund equipment to improve regional communications operations and radio coverage in the Delta.

Currently, the Delta Working Landscapes program has 11 habitat projects underway in partnership with private landowners to establish farming practices that help improve the water quality of agricultural water discharges, create additional habitat for wildlife and planting vegetation for levee stability. The Commission is seeking continued funding for the Working Landscapes Program.

The Commission agrees that more can be done to implement near-term actions for levee improvement, water conveyance and habitat restoration. However, “these projects should be implemented as part of a partnership with the Delta, and not imposed on the Delta.”

The Commission applauds the efforts of the Coalition, and the Commission views these projects as important elements in addressing the issues of environmental quality, levee improvements and water conveyance in the Delta. The UOP Center for Economic Forecasting estimates collectively would generate 8000 jobs and have combined labor value-added impact of $1.4 million, Mr. Nottoli said: “We believe these projects are good for the Delta and good for California.”


Yolo County Supervisor Jim Provenza testified of the need for funding for the Delta counties to do studies of impacts of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. Yolo County aggressively sought funding two years ago and did obtain enough money to do studies such as an agricultural impact analysis of the conservation measures and the impacts of the BDCP proposals on the County. The analyses determined that some of the scenarios would be costly for Yolo County, and so currently the County is working in cooperation with the BDCP to lessen the impacts and provide for mitigation. However, most of the funding for those studies is now used up: “We’re stuck. We can’t go forward until we get more funding. And we would like to be able to go forward in a way that allows us to keep up with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process and allows us to be participants,” he said.

Mr. Provenza said that for all Delta counties, there needs to be funding of studies and for local participation as the initial funding provided to the counties is simply not enough: “I think that is a crucial aspect, because as we go through and do the short-term projects, we’re all going to be part of whatever happens in the long term, and it’s important that we understand the impacts in each of our counties, that we develop alternatives that might have less impact, and that we be in a position to work together with state agencies and water contractors to make [Bay Delta Conservation Plan] work.”

Mr. Provenza, also a member of the Delta Conservancy, urged funding for the Delta Conservancy as well: “It really hasn’t been funded and needs to be funded. Somehow we need to find a way to provide enough funding to do much more because there’s so much potential there, an excellent Commission and very, very good and experienced staff. … I urge the Committee to do whatever it can to make sure the Conservancy is funded.”


Senator Wolk discussed with Mr. Cowin the use of contractors to speed up the permitting process, and federal funding for projects, and Proposition 218 and local funding.

Senator Wolk asks Mr. Cowin about his thoughts on the 2014 bond

Senator Wolk: “ These bonds are never easy to pass. Certainly not now and I don’t expect the economy to improve. I think it is important that we have as much consensus around this as possible, because I do believe that we have needs that must be met and we do need funding to continue in the water policy area. I am wondering if you have any thoughts the process for creating a more consensus bond?”

Mr. Cowin: “I’m going to tread lightly here. The administration clearly is still developing its policy regarding the existing bond and how we would like to move forward. I can tell you from my past experience that I understand approaching the idea of a user fee of any sort is extremely difficult. I still have scars on my back from our proposal in 2006 to create a public water fee. Nonetheless, I sincerely believe, and this is my personal opinion, that any sort of general obligation bond is going to have to be put forward in combination with some sort of user fee approach to provide some sort of partnership in funding these types of projects. I think that will be an important component of getting support for another general obligation bond.”

Mr. Cowin continues: “The other challenge we all have is this dilemma that’s caused me some frustration in trying to define earmarks versus specificity in state investment. So on one hand when we put forward proposals that provide general pots of funding for specific purposes but don’t define the specific projects that would be funded, that’s viewed in some quarters as ‘buying a pig in a poke’ – they don’t really know what you’re buying under those circumstances. On the other hand, when we get very specific and list projects, then it’s seen as earmarks and undue influence for getting on the list or similar sorts of attacks. So it’s a tough proposition and I think there’s some balance that can be done there to describe the types of projects that will be used with the funding provided, provide commitments for how decisions will be made for cost shares and provide the assurance to voters that they now what they are getting, but it’s difficult treading, as you well know.”

Senator Wolk asks Mr. Fiorini where the list of Delta projects fits into the Delta Stewardship Council’s plans?

Mr. Fiorini answers: “Our responsibility is to develop a comprehensive plan. These projects on this list fit into that comprehensive plan. And over time we’ll determine where they fall into in terms of priorities, and we’ll be working with the Coalition. We’re in a simultaneous process, I’m certain, that in the next few months many of these things will be on the Council’s list. “

Mr. Fiorini continues: “We need to keep in mind that particularly when it comes to levees … there’s a crisis, an immediate need to formulate a plan of action and build on the good work that has already gone on, both at the reclamation district level and at the Department of Water Resources, but we need a strategic plan for the state of California’s investment. There has never been a Delta levee plan, and one of the recommendations included in our plan is to work with various agencies, DWR, CVFPP, DPC, local agencies and the California Water Commission, to develop a strategy in the next two years that will help us determine where money should be spent in the most effective manner.”

Note: The preceding is not an absolute transcript of the hearing, although it represents most of it. For complete coverage, please view the video.

Click here to watch the video of the hearing.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email