A status report on the State Water Board’s Bay-Delta Plan

sanfranbaydelta_bigWith so much attention and focus on the Brown Administrations $18 billion tunnel plan, otherwise known as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, it could be easy to think it was the only planning process going on in the Delta.  However, there are two other important planning processes underway, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan and the State Water Resources Control Board’s update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  In this post, I will update the status of the State Water Board’s effort; in an upcoming post, I’ll update the status of the Delta Plan.

The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary Water Quality Control Plan, blessedly known as the ‘Bay-Delta Plan’ for short, was last updated in 2006.  It is a water quality control plan developed by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board), the state agency charged with protecting water quality as well as allocating water rights.  The State Water Board develops statewide policies and regulations for California’s water bodies under the authority of the Federal Clean Water Act and the state’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.

Click here for more from the State Water Resources Control Board.

This update of the Bay-Delta Plan is  focusing on evaluating the impact of insufficient freshwater flows as one of the stressors that may be contributing to the plummeting fish populations in the estuary.  Given that the State Water Board stated in a 2010 report, (pg. 15) “the best available science suggests that current flows are insufficient to protect public trust resources,” it is widely expected that the water board will adopt flow objectives that will require increased freshwater flows through the Delta.

The update of the Bay-Delta Plan takes on added importance as the Delta Reform Act of 2009 specifically mandates that construction of any new conveyance facilities cannot begin until the State Water Board approves the change in the point of diversion, and that such an approval must include appropriate flow criteria. Additionally, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan recommends that the State Water Board develop and implement flow objectives for the Delta watershed by June of 2014.


Bird in the brush at Three Mile Slough #2 04-2008 smallerThe Bay-Delta Plan identifies beneficial uses of the Delta’s waters and then sets water quality objectives to protect those uses. In determining water quality and flow objectives, the Board is required by law to balance the competing uses of water to protect public trust uses, including fish and wildlife, while also considering the public interest in drinking water, hydropower, agriculture and other beneficial uses. The State Water Board then determines how to achieve those objectives, usually by setting conditions on water right permits or licenses, or through actions such as regulation of discharges of pollutants or projects that manage agricultural drainage. The review, development, and adoption of water quality and flow objectives require public participation, as well as consideration of alternatives and preparation of environmental documents in accordance with CEQA.

The Bay-Delta Plan sets specific objectives for constituents, such as salinity or dissolved oxygen, as well as specific objectives for inflows to the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and for Delta outflow into the San Francisco Bay.  The Bay-Delta Plan also sets limits on the amount of water that is exported from the Delta.

  • For a list of the Delta’s beneficial uses, click here.


The Delta Reform Act of 2009 directed the State Water Resources Control Board to develop new flow criteria for the Delta’s ecosystem necessary to protect public trust resources in order to better inform planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, as well as the State Water Board’s processes.  In August of 2010, the State Water Board adopted the report, Final Report on the Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, which specifies the volume, quality, and timing of water necessary for the Delta under different hydrologic conditions to protect fish and wildlife.  The flow criteria does not consider other beneficial uses and has no regulatory effect.

Felicia Marcus explained the reason behind the development of the flow criteria in her speech at the UC Davis California Water Policy Seminar Series: “It basically was if the fish could talk, what would the fish ask for, and was a counterpoint to what the water suppliers had been asking for, so that as we moved into this planning process, both at the BDCP and the water board, that the fishes voice would be thrown into mix rather than ignored.”

The flow criteria is just one factor that the State Water Board will take into consideration when setting flow objectives as they are required by law to consider and balance all the beneficial uses, such as water for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and recreational uses, as well as protecting the public trust resources of fish and wildlife.

Given how contentious water issues can be, this balancing of competing uses generally means that if the State Water Board had done a good job of it, no one stakeholder group is going to be completely satisfied.

  • Read the report. Final Report on Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, by clicking here.
  • Cassie Aw-Yang of Somach Simmons and Dunn gives a nice summary of the flow criteria report here.


The update to the Bay-Delta Plan is occurring in four phases.

Phase 1:  San Joaquin River flow objectives and southern Delta salinity objectives.
Status:  Expected to be completed by August or September of 2013

So Delta SWBThe first phase of the update considers potential changes to the San Joaquin River flow objectives in order to protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses in the San Joaquin River and its salmon bearing tributaries, as well as salinity objectives to protect agricultural beneficial uses in the southern Delta.

On December 31, 2012, the State Water Board released the proposed revised objectives and the environmental documentation for public review.  The State Water Board is proposing new flow objectives of 35% of the unimpaired flows of the Merced, Tuolomne, and Stanislaus rivers for the period of February through June, which corresponds with the salmon migration period, as well as changes to salinity objectives for the south Delta.

In March of 2013, a 2-day public hearing was held; the public comment period closed later that month.  The Board will now draft the final objectives and environmental documents, respond to comments, and release the documents again for public review in June or July, with a final decision to adopt the new objectives expected in August or September of 2013.

  • For more information on Phase 1 of the update, click here.
  • For a fact sheet on Phase 1 from the State Water Board, click here.
  • For the proposed revised objectives and the environmental documentation, click here.
  • Les Grober from the State Water Board explains the proposed objectives to the Delta Stewardship Council; read it here.
  • For a visual representation of how the new flow objectives compare to the previous objectives, see slide 10 of this power point (sorry, I am unable to extract it.)
  • To review speaker presentations at March’s public hearing, click here.

Phase 2: Comprehensive review of all other objectives
Status: In process; expected to be complete by June of 2014

The second phase focuses on the other parts of the Bay-Delta Plan that aren’t covered in Phase 1.  This includes Delta outflow objectives, export and inflow objectives, and schedule for closure of the Delta Cross Channel gates.  The Board will also be considering new reverse flow objectives for the Old and Middle Rivers as well as potential new floodplain habitat flow objectives.

This phase of the update was initiated in January of 2012.  In the fall, six days of workshops were held for the Board to receive new information on the Delta’s fishery resources, the ecosystem and the low-salinity zone, as well as how the use of models and other analytical tools can be used to evaluate water supply, hydrodynamic and hydropower effects.

The Board is expected to release initial documents for review at some point during the summer of 2013.  The proposed objectives, along with the program of implementation, are expected to be adopted by the summer of 2014.

  • For more information on phase 2 of the update, click here.
  • To view videos and speaker presentations of the workshops conducted in Fall of 2012, click here.
  • For a summary report of the findings of the workshops, click here.

Phase 3: Implementation Plan
Status: This phase has not yet begun.

This phase will include determining the changes to water rights and other measures needed to implement the plan; work on this phase is not underway at this time.

Phase 4: Development of Flow Objectives for Delta Tributaries
Status: Just initiated; expected to be complete by June of 2018

tributary_mapPhase 4 of the update process involves developing flow objectives and implementation plans for high-priority tributaries to the Delta that currently are not specifically regulated in this way.    The process will begin by first determining the flow criteria for the protection of fish and aquatic life with an emphasis on protection of threatened or endangered species; this criteria will be then taken into consideration as the objectives are tailored to each tributary to address it’s unique characteristics, public trust resources, and beneficial uses.

The State Water Board is planning to develop flow criteria, flow objectives, and implementation plans for six to nine tributaries which will be selected from a prioritized list of rivers and streams and in consultation with fisheries agencies.  This phase is just getting underway; the Board expects to have this phase completed by June of 2018.

For more information on phase four of the update, click here.




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