Santa Clara Valley Water District BDCP workstudy session, Part 1: DFW’s Carl Wilcox

As a large water supplier dependent on Delta water for a large portion of its water supplies, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has been holding a series of workstudy sessions to examine the Bay Delta Conservation Plan more closely. The first workshop, held on October 11 and covered in this post featured a panel that included Mark Cowin, the Director of the Department of Water Resources; Sandra Schubert, the Undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture; and Dr. David Sunding, the economist who has conducted the economic analysis for the BDCP.

Wilcox 2On November 8th, the Santa Clara Valley Water District held the second of four workshops, this one focusing on the impacts to the Delta and the Delta perspective.  The first speaker for this workshop was Carl Wilcox, policy advisor to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who gave a presentation on the elements of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  John Cain from American Rivers and Leo Winternitz from the Nature Conservancy followed, each discussing the independent science panel’s recent review of the BDCP and giving their concerns and suggestions for improving the plan.  Finally, fourth generation Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels gave an in-Delta perspective, speaking about what Delta farmers think about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

(Note:  I am going to cover this workshop in three parts, but due to the holiday week, I will be posting the remaining two parts tomorrow.  Expect light postings through the rest of the holiday week.  Happy Thanksgiving!)

Carl Wilcox, Department of Fish and Wildlife

Carl Wilcox began by saying he’s been involved in the development of the BDCP since 2006, representing the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s perspectives and working to incorporate elements into the plan that would help them make the determination that the Plan could be approved under the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA).

Wilcox Slide 2The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is about water supply reliability in the context of ecosystem restoration, he said.  “In an NCCP, there is a very high standard in that the plan needs to achieve a conservation standard, not just a mitigation standard, so that ultimately in providing our approvals, we’re going to have to make determinations that the Plan is contributing to the recovery or conserving the species,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “That’s within the context of the Plan Area, so for some species, like Delta smelt or longfin smelt, the Plan Area encompasses pretty much the totality of their range, or significant portion of their range or breeding, spawning or rearing habitat; and from that perspective there is a very high objective relative to meeting that conservation standard as opposed to looking at species which only use the Delta for a portion of their life history or a portion of their distribution.”

The standard is a little different, relative to salmon, he said.  “We’re looking primarily at what can be done in the Delta to improve the conservation of salmon species, and that’s focused primarily on improving survival of migrating adults and juveniles through the Delta so they can make it to the ocean and have better recruitment to the ocean and hopefully higher returns.  …

Wilcox Slide 4The biological goals and objectives are key components of the BDCP, he said, noting that the goals and objectives are focused at the landscape levels, natural community levels, and species levels.  “The BDCP has very specific goals, particularly for the fish species that in many cases are tied to abundance, ultimately, and distribution,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “Those are our long term goals and the conservation measures are designed to achieve those goals and we’ll be evaluating performance based on the progress made towards achieving those goals.  So for the fish species, particularly Delta smelt and longfin smelt, there are very ambitious objectives relative to population and abundance.”

Monitoring and assessment is key to assessing the achievement of the objectives through the implementation of conservation measures, he said, noting that the BDCP has 22 conservation measures.

The one that is somewhat controversial is the conveyance itself,” he said.  “From the Department’s perspective, the Department has maintained the position since the 60s that the current diversions in the south Delta are probably the worst thing you could be doing for managing water within the Delta and exporting it.  Historically, it has recommended that conveyance be done in a different way to protect species within the Delta from the effects of having a south Delta diversion, so from that perspective, changing the point of diversion, at least in part, is an important component of providing for conservation.  That said, there also needs to make sure that it is done in a way that is protective to species within the system.

Wilcox Slide 10Habitat restoration is another major component of the BDCP which goes to the coequal goal of restoring and enhancing the Delta, he said.  “The Delta is a very altered place; there’s not much left of the natural communities that occurred within the Delta,” he said.  “Actual tidal habitat within the Delta is less than 5% of what historically existed and much of it is in fragmentary pieces.  But the science is building around the idea that if done right and in the right places, it can provide substantial benefit to the aquatic ecosystem.  Our paradigm for that is a place known as Liberty Island in the north Delta which is in effect a passive restoration, but seems to work quite well from the perspective of improving local productivity and also serving as habitat for a number of the fish species of concern as well as terrestrial species.”

The 80,000 acres of restoration would include both tidal components as well as floodplains, he added.

Most of the other elements are targeted at reducing particular stressors within the system that the project applicants have an ability to address,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “Not to say all of the stressors in the system would be addressed under the Plan.”

The current proposal includes three 3000 cfs screened diversions in the north Delta, and a new structure at the Head of Old River to help keep salmon in the San Joaquin River away from the south Delta diversion facility with the objective of approving the survival of those runs through the Delta, he said.

Conservation Measure 1 and the facilities and operation Wilcox Slide 6are focused on the actual operations of the project to minimize effects, keeping in mind that this is a dual facility program,” he said.  “The focus of operations is to the maximum extent, to take operations out of the south Delta, particularly in the winter and spring and provide a north Delta diversion point that can be operated in a protective way to provide water supply in a more environmentally friendly way, and basically get away from some of the constraints to south Delta operations that currently exist because of the biological opinion requirements and other restrictions from a water quality perspective.”

The recognition of outflow requirements and outflow needs as currently understood is particularly important from the Department’s perspective, Mr. Wilcos said.  “This is certainly an area of heated debate, but I think from the Department’s perspective, we view currently that the outflow requirements embodied in the fall X2 or low salinity requirements in the current biological opinion for Delta smelt as well as the need for spring outflow for longfin smelt are important components, and until there is better science to say that they are not needed, that those need to be components of the plan and I think are represented in what is described as the decision tree in the Plan currently.”  He added that there is a great amount of scientific investigation and work that needs to be done to resolve that question by the time operations would begin.

Wilcox Slid 8He then presented a slide that showed how the north Delta diversions would be operated and what minimum bypass flows are required before diversions can be initiated, noting that it’s an incremental step-wise so that maximum diversions only occur when there are suitably high flows within the Upper Sacramento system to allow for full diversion.

Relative to the initial operations of the north Delta diversions and where you land within the decision tree process, ongoing science will be important to address those issues and clarify the needs,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “The other component is the importance of getting habitat in place to better understand its role in contributing to the needs of the covered species within the plan that are affected or have relationships with outflow.”

It’s important to get substantial amounts of habitat in place within the next 15 years to be able to understand the effect of that habitat in relationship to the abundance and health of many of the listed species, he said, noting that about 80,000 acres of the 145,000 is restoration; the remaining 65,000 acres are conservation, preservation or protection of existing habitats, including agricultural lands.

Wilcox Slide 11The reserve system for BDCP is focused on the areas of conservation zones within the planning area, with restoration activities focused primarily within what are known as the restoration opportunity areas, such as Suisun Marsh, the Cache Slough Area, and south Delta,” he said.  “I think we’re beginning to understand that the west Delta is even more important than we had recognized previously and we’ll probably see a shift of some of the restoration activities, maybe from other areas like the south Delta, up into the west Delta.”

Wilcox Slide 12Conservation Measure 2, Yolo Bypass fisheries enhancement, is critical for salmon and improving conditions for them, Mr. Wilcox said.  A major component is to improve fish passage for salmon and sturgeon through the system; the other aspect of this is providing an alternative migratory route for migrating juvenile salmon coming out of the Sacramento system so that they have an alternative path that takes them away from the north Delta diversions.  He noted that juvenile salmon are able to grow bigger because there’s more food and less predation.  “There’s a lot of information that tells us if salmon can get on to the flood plain, they’re going to grow bigger, and growing bigger as a juvenile fish generally means that you’re going to have higher survival, both getting to the ocean and returning,” he said.  “So there’s a lot of work with fishery management going on in the bypass right now that will help us better understand that by the time we get to ultimately to implementation.  It’s really important to get this component planned and start implementing sooner than later.”

Conservation Measure 3, Natural Community Conservation, Protection and Preservation, adds up to about 62,000 acres, he said.  It addresses particularly alkaline wetlands, vernal pools, and grassland habitats and these for many of the terrestrial covered species.  It also addresses the cultivated lands which are important particularly for the conservation of covered species like sandhill cranes, and Swainson’s hawk, and also giant garter snake which is particularly tied to rice cultivation, particularly in the Yolo County area, he said.

Conservation Measure 4, Tidal Marsh Restoration, calls for 65,000 acres of tidal marsh restoration with 16,300 acres to be implemented by year 10.  Mr. Wilcox said Liberty Island within the Cache Slough area is a good example of what they are trying to achieve.  He also noted that Suisun Marsh was also important.   “One of the components of the plan is to provide for accommodation for sea level rise and climate change, so a component of this 65,000 acres is grassland or adjacent upland preservation so that the marshes have some place to migrate into the future,” he said.

Conservation Measure 5, floodplain restoration, would restore 10,000 acres and is expected to be done in conjunction with flood enhancements as part of the FloodSafe program, he said, noting that the target area was in the south Delta.

Another component is Conservation Measure 6, Channel margin Enhancement, which would ‘soften’ the bank or channel margin along the Sacramento River and its associated tributaries or distributaries, he said.  “There are areas that much of the bank habitat has been hardened for flood protection purposes; these hardened shorelines are not very good for native species and tend to be really good for predatory fish, particularly non-natives like black bass and striped bass, so by softening them we can convert the habitat suitability.  There is an indication that more natural shorelines are better suited for juvenile salmon survival and provide lower quality habitat for predators and you see potentially less predation in those situations.  Again this is targeted primarily in conservation zone one along the Upper Sacramento River.

The riparian component calls for about 5000 acres, and this is important to terrestrial species in the south Delta and the San Joaquin River, such as the San Joaquin brush rabbit and the San Joaquin woodrat.  “These species are endangered because of limited habitat availability and this component would address expanding habitat for them and provide for their conservation,” he said, adding “this component will be done in conjunction with the tidal restoration, floodplain enhancement and channel margin work.”

Conservation Measure 8 provides for conservation for grasslands within the Plan area.  “There’s not that much in reality and most of it is in the Cache Slough, Solano County, and Yolo County, which is where a lot of this would be targeted,” he said.  “These are grazing lands currently and grazing is an important component of managing these lands so it’s a situation where they may go into a preserve status but they would continue to be grazed and contribute to the local economy.”

Vernal pools are a relatively small component and would be done in conjunction with the grassland; these are mainly found in Solano and Yolo counties within the Plan area, he said.  Nontidal marsh restoration, basically freshwater marsh enhancements, will improve habitat for garter snakes and sandhill cranes in particular.

An important component is ongoing management, so once the reserves are established or the habitat is restored, then it needs to be managed into the future,” Mr. Wilcox said.  “It’s just important to recognize that that’s an ongoing commitment within the construct of the Plan and a requirement for us to be able to approve it.”

There are a number of other stressor reduction actions; probably the most noteworthy is the idea of controlling predators on a localized basis, he said.  “We know that there are situations where there are hot spots within the system associated with structures or other things, and in particular, the north Delta diversions could have targeted predator control programs associated with them to minimize their presence to improve survival of juvenile salmon passage.”

Wilcox Slide 24Mr. Wilcox then presented a slide of the implementation timeline, noting that most of the conservation measures would be completed by year 40.  “There’s a component of this that we need to assure within our permitting and it’s called rough proportionality, so that conservation needs to be occurring in at least rough step proportion to what the impacts of the project are,” he said.  “It’s a little bit different than traditional NCCPs where those are basically approving development and loss of habitat; this is more associated with improving conditions of the species in relationship and particularly in the construct of the decision tree and initial operation of the north Delta facilities, so we have to see improvement before we’re going to be able to do something other than the high outflow perspective of the operations.”

For timely implementation, Mr. Wilcox said that the most important components were CM 2, Yolo Bypass Fisheries Enhancement; CM 4, Tidal Marsh Restoration, and CM 15, Localized Predator Control.  He noted that more work is needed to better understand and know whether or not we can effectively improve particularly salmon survival through targeted predator removal actions at specific locations, as well as if modification of the habitat will make it better for native species.  “These are critical components in making the decision tree decision.”

The NCCPA has a long list of requirements, one of those being that the plan must incorporate adaptive management and be supported by a robust monitoring program, he said.  “I think the Delta is one of the most studied places there are, and we’re only going to be studying it more, to be able to support future management and operations decisions,” he said.

This plan is really different than a lot of others in that it’s trying to change an ecosystem,” he said.  “Whereas most plans are targeted at preserving remaining components, this is really trying to change the way the system operates, which is very different from most NCCPs.”

The conservation measures need to provide for the conservation of the species by conserving landscape and integrity and particularly function, he said.  “Within the Delta there are a lot of issues; the critical component is changing the way it functions and changing hydrodynamic processes which again is fairly different from what we see in other plans.”

Targeting improved and maintaining connectivity between the restored lands, maintaining environmental gradients – this is particularly important, both within the aquatic environment relative to water chemistry, such as where the low salinity zone is relative to where the suitable habitat is, that would be a gradient; also elevational gradients within the system to accommodate future climate change.”

The assurances are based on the ability to implement in a timely manner to maintain proportionality between effects and species objectives; and then there are provisions that ensure adequate funding, which is always the fun part of implementing these plans,” he said.

Assurances are an important component of these plans, particularly from the permittees perspective,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “They want to know that the game’s not going to change on them in the future; our ability to do that is particularly tied to the certainty that lies around whether or not the conservation plan will achieve its objectives.  In the context of this Plan, we have many uncertainties, so that makes it difficult and that’s why we have particularly the component of the decision tree in that theoretically, if all else fails, there’s the flow component that’s still there that we recognize as being very important.  I think that really gets to the bottom line relative to what assurances look like.”

Discussion Questions

Question from Director LeZotte: One of my concerns has been outflows … what is you’re sense about the mechanisms that are going to be in place … who is going to be making flow management decisions?  What is going to go into that … ?

Within the construct of the plan, the operations criteria are pretty specifically spelled out in CM1,” Mr. Wilcox replied.  “Within that, there is a real time operations component, similar to what occurs today, through the water operations management team where there’s real time monitoring going on with the species, and decisions or recommendations get made about what OMR* [Old and Middle River flows] should be.  There are some things that are discretionary within a management range that’s prespecified, and then there are things that are set standards.  One of those standards would be that north Delta diversions can’t increase the reverse flows at Georgiana slough beyond what they would be under natural flow and tidal effects, and that’s just a given; that’s the way the operations for the north Delta diversions need to be managed.  Those can be gauged and the operators can ramp operations up or down to respond to that, as opposed to a more real time operations decision making process relative to what OMR should be in the south and Delta.”

(*Mr. Wilcox explained  that OMR meant Old and Middle River flows and how negative those could be based on where Delta smelt are or what salmon entrainment was at the facilities.)

Director LeZotte:  You talked about an adequate amount of funding to meet of all of this … My concern is that we’ll have the ability to do diversions and then not the ability to do what we need to for the species, funding-wise.

This is always an issue with these large plans,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “And, for lack of a better word, the public contribution to them.  Again, NCCPs are a higher standard than just a mitigation plan, and consequently they rely on a public funding component that historically has come from the state and federal government, as well as local sources. …  I think if we look, and this is past and not future, where that money is going to come from, it’s been managed pretty well.  I can look at the Contra Costa Plan which has been very aggressive, even through the economic downturn, in working with their local partner, the East Bay Regional Parks District, who generates most of the local funding through their bond measures, but also in leveraging state and federal funding.  Even though they haven’t been taking in much mitigation money, they’ve already achieved a third of their conservation objective within the first five or six years of the plan, which is pretty phenomenal.  Most of what they expected to come from the state and federal government has arrived.  … There is not a requirement that you have everything locked in the bank, but that you have expectations that at a minimum based on past practices and what would happen, so I think ultimately, whether there is a bond in the near term, there’s probably going to be a bond to achieve some of these purposes. There’s been a lot of money put to this in the past through past bond actions, so that’s my perspective on how funding is going to work, but it’s above my pay grade … “

For more information:

  • Click here to watch the video of this meeting.
  • Click here for Carl Wilcox’s power point.
  • Click here for coverage of Santa Clara Valley Water District’s first workstudy session.
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