State Water Board discusses updated flow objectives for San Joaquin tributaries

Picture of Tuolumne River by flickr photographer Jim Bahn.

Picture of Tuolumne River by flickr photographer Jim Bahn.

At their February 21st meeting, the Delta Stewardship Council heard an informational update on the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to revise flow objectives for the Lower San Joaquin River and southern Delta salinity objectives, as the Board begins to wrap up phase one of the update to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan (Bay Delta Plan), last updated in 2006, identifies beneficial uses of water in the Delta, sets water quality objectives for those uses, and determines a program of implementation for achieving those objectives.  This update of the Bay-Delta Plan takes on particular importance as the Delta Reform Act of 2009 requires the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to develop flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem before any change in the point of diversion is approved for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Additionally, the Delta Stewardship Council directs the State Water Board in the final draft Delta Plan Policy ER P1 to adopt and implement updated Delta flow objectives necessary to achieve the coequal goals by June of 2014.

The State Water Board is conducting the update to the Bay Delta Plan in four phases. This first phase, initiated in 2009, updates flow objectives to protect fish and wildlife in the San Joaquin River and its salmon bearing tributaries, as well as updating salinity objectives to protect agricultural uses in the Southern Delta.

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Mr. Les Grober from the State Water Board will update the Council on the proposal for new flow objectives.  He is joined at the table by Mark Bradley, staff engineer with the Delta Stewardship Council, and Jay Lund, representing the Delta Independent Science Board.

Mr. Grober began: On New Year’s Eve, the State Water Board released the 2000-page Substitute Environmental Document on the proposed objectives.  Mr. Grober explained that as a certified regulatory organization, the State Water Board can prepare an SED in lieu of a full-blown EIR, but the document contains much the same information as an EIR.  There are two parts to the proposal:  the San Joaquin River flow objectives to protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses in the San Joaquin River, and salinity objectives to protect agricultural beneficial uses in the southern Delta.  Since these two are related, it was easily carved out discretely from the full update, he said.

The process began in 2009; since then, there have been many public workshops, the scientific basis for the proposed objectives was developed, and all of those things were released for public comments, Mr. Grober said, noting that they received feedback from the Delta Independent Science Board as well.

Both the proposed regulations and the environmental documents are now out and available for public comment, Mr. Grober said.  The environmental documents evaluate the effects of the proposal, and that’s important because “with this type of a proposal, it’s not like the science just suggests there’s just one number that the flows need to be this to do this.  The flows need to be something within some kind of a range, so we need to consider the competing uses of water, because proposals such as this will come at no small water supply costs. … it’s all the competing uses: we have to consider hydropower, agricultural water supply, municipal, industrial, recreational, all of those things,” he said.

The SED considers the effects on all of those things, which is why it is 2000 pages long.  The easiest way to review this document is to read the 15 pages of proposed objectives and the executive summary, which has some of the summary effects, noted Mr. Grober.

The San Joaquin River flow objectives are to being updated to better protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses, specifically migrating salmon.  The proposed flow objectives are for the February through June outflow migration period.  Currently, the flow objectives are numeric objectives that vary by season and year type and are just for the San Joaquin River at Vernalis, Mr. Grober explained.  The proposal recognizes the need for continuity and connection of flows, so the State Water Board is now proposing flows for the salmon-bearing tributaries: the Merced, the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.  Rather than just a simple number, it is instead a percent of unimpaired flow “so it automatically varies by water year type and by the hydrology.  It provides a variability within years and between years; it is for the three salmon-bearing tributaries, a connection of those tributaries and through the Delta.”

The State Water Board examined a range of alternatives, looking at 20%, 40%, and 60% of unimpaired flow, and eventually decided on a proposal of 35%  To give a little bit of history, Mr. Grober said that in 2009, the Legislature directed the State Water Board through the Delta Reform Act to develop new flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem to protect public trust resources in order to inform planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the BDCP.  In 2010, the State Water Board issued a report that considered flow needs for the various tributaries and the Delta, but the Board did not consider any competing uses, he explained.  The report set the number at 75% of the unimpaired flow on Sacramento River and 60% for the San Joaquin River.  “60% is the high end flow if you don’t have to consider any competing uses, and 20% was more or less reflective of the current condition.  I say more or less because it depends what tributary you are talking about.  20% is generally lower than what is coming out of the Stanislaus, but it’s generally about the same or perhaps a bit higher than what’s coming out the Merced and the Tuolomne,”  he said.

Mr. Grober explained that unimpaired flow is a metric: “it’s not the same as a natural flow, but it’s something that we can measure and calculate that roughly approximates flows of a more natural pattern.  So it therefore provides a handy mechanism to develop a flow prescription because it achieves a flow of a more natural pattern.”

To put the 35% to put that in perspective, Mr. Grober said that currently on the Merced and the Tuolomne rivers during the period from February to June, some months and particularly in dry years, the percent of unimpaired flow can be in the single digits, even as low as 2% on occasion.  He noted that fishery biologists and ecologists think that 35% is too low, but on the water supply costs, 35% is quite a significant increase over the current conditions, particularly on the Merced and the Tuolomne, and that’s what results in the water supply costs that are disclosed in the environmental documents.

The proposal flexes as a percent of unimpaired flow, but the Board realizes that rigid adherence to any flow prescription, even something like that, is going to be less than optimal both for fishery protection purposes and for water supply purposes.  “So also in the program of implementation, we have the critical component that this can be adaptively managed.  So it doesn’t require rigid adherence to the 35%, but in various tiers and requiring the formation of various groups to evaluate real time conditions, it allows for changes in those flows within that February through June period,” he said.  As an example, the flows could be varied by having a higher pulse flow that might go upwards of 50% or more, but reduce to a lower amount during the shoulder months.  It would require analysis, he noted, “what would be required is some kind of coordinated operations group to manage this thing in real time, the requirement being to provide 35% unimpaired flow in total for the Feb through June period.  It’s a quantity of water to be used and best managed to optimize fishery protection and to minimize the water supply costs.”

Water supply costs evaluate not only agricultural water supply impacts, but impacts to hydropower as well, Mr. Grober said:  “As you would expect, by shifting flows now earlier into the spring months, this comes at some cost to hydropower generation.  Even if not in total power generation, hydropower is being generated at a less lucrative time.  … All of those things lead to water supply costs, so the board has gone with 35% to balance those things.”

With adaptive management, there is a mechanism in place for the Board to adjust the flow objectives from 25% to 45% “so that we don’t have to go through a long process in the presence of new information that says we should do one thing or the other.  And that of course has benefits and it has costs.  It provides some uncertainty as to what will it be,” he said.  “The ultimate purpose is to be a little bit more nimble in response to changing conditions and changing information amongst which includes climate change.  We have ability to periodically review and update the plan so if we started seeing greater effects from climate change we could make even more substantive changes to the plan, but still we’ve tried to build this thing to both have the flexibility and adaptability with sufficient certainty to achieve the goals of fishery protection.”

The other part of the proposal, the southern Delta salinity objectives, is less controversial and isn’t drawing as much comment, Mr. Grober said. He explained that currently there are two objectives, one for the irrigation season and one for the off-season.  The Board is proposing to use the off-season objectives year round because science has shown that this objective is sufficient to support all the crops in the southern Delta.  Mr. Grober also noted that the higher flows in the proposal during the spring period in the San Joaquin River “would have the added benefit of providing dilution flows, an opportunity for leaching salts in the southern Delta, so as a package, it would generally be of benefit to the southern Delta.”

There is a workshop scheduled for March, and the comment period has been extended to March 29.  The Board will make revisions as necessary, and release it again for another review.  The Board expects to be reaching a decision point in August or September, he said.

Chair Phil Isenberg asked for a brief summary about the adaptive management program.

Mr. Grober responded: Within 180 days of plan adoption and the approval by the Office of Administrative Law, a workgroup will be formed to figure out the details of how to implement the objectives.  The group will look at things such as the proposed 14-day averaging period, and might propose changes, “so some of those details where you would measure, how actually you would calculate this, and where you need to do this in the tributaries would be developed by that group.”

Then within 360 days, a Coordinated Operations Group (COG) will be formed to monitor conditions and make recommendations to the Board. “While any member of the COG that could suggest a divergence from the rigid adherence to the 35%, it would take the full COG on an annual basis to say actually change a percent or do something else,” he said. The program recognizes “that we could have gridlock or lack of concurrence on any proposal, so the Board on its own motion … could make some adjustment down to 25% or up to 45% to adaptively manage during that time period.”

I envision that there will likely be a role there for the Delta Science Program and to visit with the science board because we all know adaptive management is key to success for many of these things.  We think we’ve provided a sufficient framework and sufficiently incentivized that to occur, but it would be of course good to make sure that what is crafted is science-based,” he said.  The incentive is rigid adherence to the 35% of unimpaired flow,  “recognizing that is going to be far less than optimal, and that is where the incentive is … both from the fishery and water supply perspective, there is benefit for these two groups to come together to figure out a better way to do it.”

At this point, Councilman Randy Fiorini and Mr. Grober discuss VAMP and its relation to SJR flow objectives, whether the Stanislaus salmon fishery was doing better than the others due to its higher flows (Mr. Grober couldn’t speak to that), and the effect of Friant flows once SJR restoration flows are initiated.  (I’ll note the point in the webcast where this occurs, once it is posted.)

Delta Stewardship Council Engineer Mark Bradley gave the Council staff’s perspective, saying that the proposed flow objectives represent an overall improvement in current conditions as it would increase the flows in a way that would more closely resemble the natural flow regime.

Mr. FIorini took issue, noting that the Stanislaus River already has that level of flow, “and I think if you look at the record, the salmon fishery over the last 10 years hasn’t done any better in the Stanislaus than it’s done in the Tuolomne and the Merced, so I think what you just said is inaccurate.”

Mr. Bradley said that the 35% does represent an increase, and “the intent is, over a longer period of time, to more closely match the natural flow regime.  It’s not just about the volume, it’s about the functions, and that’s what we feel like would represent an improvement over the current conditions. … it is that pattern that represents the improvement, not just the flows.”

Mr. Bradley noted that the Coordinated Operating Group must prepare an annual adaptive management plan, and also that the 35% proposed flow objective is in addition to any background flows from the rest of the San Joaquin – “that’s not a huge amount but it’s an appreciable amount, so it is in addition to any of those background flows that would be there.”  He continued:  “It’s also important to know that this will not meet the 60% for fishery, it does not meet the needs of agricultural needs, this does represent something of a compromise and we recognize that.”

Mr. Bradley said Council staff has concerns about the makeup of the coordinated operations group, and suggests that the executive director work with the Delta lead scientist for input on who else should be included in this group. It’s also not entirely clear what happens if they don’t reach agreement he noted.  “It’s one thing to have 35%, it’s another thing to say how you are going to implement that.”

The SED doesn’t evaluate whether these flows will result in some water users having greater reliance on water diverted from the Delta as a result and Council staff would like to see more analysis on that, Mr. Bradley said.

Fiorini: “The reduced supply would directly impact Merced, Turlock, Modesto, Oakdale, South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts; is that reduced supply you are talking about?”

Mr. Bradley agrees, yes.

Fiorini: “So it’s clear it’s either fallowing of acreage and you cite 82,000 acres ,or it’s going to require more groundwater pumping.  In either case, it’s going to be problematic.”

Mr. Bradley: “Correct.  Or how that’s going to be implemented among the people involved.”

Mr. Bradley continued: It’s not specified here, but Council staff believes the data and information should be a public process.  “We presume that’s the case but it’s not explicitly provided for.

And lastly, Council staff suggests the State Water Board incorporate the natural functional flows as they are described in the draft Delta Plan, which is different than just the strict percentage of unimpaired flows:  “Natural functional flows look at what those flows functionally did, whether its interconnected habitat areas, looking at the peaks of the flow and what kind of functions those peaks provided, so we’re concerned that just a percentage of unimpaired flow doesn’t go as far as we’d like to see it go, and doesn’t’ go as far as we’ve discussed in the draft Delta Plan.

Delta Independent Science Board member Jay Lund said the science board has looked at the SED, and overall the science board was impressed with the broad thinking and flexibility embodied in this work, and the realization that there are many entities involved in managing this system and the objectives of the water quality control plan.

One of the things, one of my own personal observations is that we have a lot of planning going on, with different entities, and in the end, they have to come together, they have to work together, so I personally appreciated seeing at least one the plans reflecting that they are going to have to fit in with a bunch of other things and have some flexibility in their plan to do that,” said Mr. Lund.

Mr. Lund noted that there were come concerns that the recommended flows might not be enough to restore salmon, and that it might not just be flows, but also the geomorphical aspects of the flows.  There was some concern expressed that the 14-day averaging might make the flows less natural, but it’s not a bad starting point.  The board also suggests there should be monitoring plans and performance measures specified sometime in the future, as well as more detailed water quality and biological analysis, so over time, we can learn from our experiences, he said.

The science board will be writing a memo on this, and Council staff are developing comments as well.

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