Director Mark Cowin updates Metropolitan’s Bay Delta Committee on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and addresses EPA’s comments, plus Randy Fiorini of the Delta Stewardship Council on the Council’s five priorities

Metropolitan Water District SealThe latest information on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan took center stage at the September 23rd meeting of Metropolitan Water District’s Special Committee on the Bay Delta.

The meeting began with a presentation by Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources, who updated the Committee the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and how the Department is responding to the comments from the EPA, as well as provided an update on the drought, groundwater legislation, and the Yuba Accord. He was followed by Randy Fiorini, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, who discussed the priorities of the Delta Stewardship Council for the upcoming year.

In the next installment of coverage from this meeting posting tomorrow, Metropolitan’s Steve Arakawa gives an update on the status of the cost allocations for the BDCP.

Mark Cowin, Director of Department of Water Resources

Director Mark Cowin began with an update on the drought. “This has taken a lot of our attention and energy this year.  We’ve had, by many counts, one of the one or two or three driest years on our historical record in 2014, and that comes on top of a couple of other dry years prior to that, and of course that’s had a big impact on water users across the state.

In many respects, I think the fact that impacts have been fairly isolated and specific to certain parts of the state and sectors is a testament to the investment that we’ve all made in California’s water infrastructure and water management. The fact that we could endure a drought and dry conditions as we have with as little impact on our way of life and economy and our environment I think is extremely important and should give us the momentum we need to continue to make those improvements so that we can endure the challenges in the future.

As we move into October, our eyes turn to 2015 and the potential for continued drought conditions, and we all are very hopeful that that’s not the case. There’s lots of stuff you can read in the paper day to day about different forecasts, but frankly at my department, we aren’t taking any of that seriously. We have fairly equal probabilities at this point of it either being dry or being wet next year, so forecasts really aren’t driving our actions right now. We are attempting to prepare for the worst, and we consider the worst to be a repeat in 2015 of the conditions that we saw in 2014.

In preparing for a potentially dry 2015, we’re first starting with a look back on the decisions and operations that we made in 2014,and we’re working with state and federal agencies and water users across the state to get a better sense of what occurred, what the impacts of our decisions and actions were, and particularly how we can improve communication and coordination moving forward. I think that’s been a big issue for us. Last year, we learned a lot as we were doing and ended up with very little time to communicate the reasoning behind some of the decisions we made, so trying to improve that coordination and communication going into 2015 is important to us.

We also want to do an assessment of potential needs going into 2015. Last year in January, we did a quick, hurried assessment of potential human health and safety needs across the state. We want to do a little more diligent planning for the potential impacts and hot spots that we might expect in 2015, so we intend to begin working with all of you on that. We’re also working with state and federal agencies on getting a jump on how we will define the issues and try to reach the balance between water supply and environmental protection, water quality, all of the issues that we work so hard to balance last year.

There is a little bit of bright news on the drought front. As part of the drought response, the legislature passed and the governor signed a drought appropriation, so among the various appropriations the Department of Water Resources has $200 million in grant drought awards that we will be announcing hopefully in draft form in the coming days. This is through our Integrated Regional Water Management Program, so all of those rules and processes are still in effect, but we are focusing on projects that can have a nearer-term impact or response to drought conditions and we’re hoping that we can do some good if we do see continued drought. We’ll be making those award announcements shortly and we’ll have a 30-day public comment period and then hopefully final those announcements and get the funding agreements in place before the end of the year.

On other fronts, of course it’s been a very active final few months in the California legislature session. A couple of important accomplishments – approval of a revised water bond for California, $7.5 billion. I consider it very important that this bond was passed and signed by the Governor to replace the existing bond that had endured a lot of criticism and enjoyed very little support. This bond will provide an opportunity to continue investment in California water and continue making the kind of progress that we’ve been making over the past decade or two.

Groundwater management was another area where I think we made significant progress with the signing of a package of groundwater management bills. I think most Californians agree that improved groundwater management in California is long overdue. We’ve been essentially trying to budget with an unbalanced checkbook for way too long.

The legislation in summary requires local agencies to organize to sustainably manage their groundwater basins. It provides those new agencies with new authorities and responsibilities including the responsibility to develop sustainable groundwater management plans and implement those plans on a schedule. The focus is on the areas with groundwater basins of the highest priority; that meaning suffering conditions associated with overdraft and where water needs are highly dependent upon that groundwater use.

Of course, the controversial element of the legislation is a state backstop that provides authority for the State Water Resources Control Board to step in in the event that local groundwater management agencies don’t achieve what they are required to achieve. I think the administration has been very clear that that’s not the goal of the legislation or the intent of the administration. We want to make sure that local agencies are successful in implementing these sustainable groundwater management plans, so there is a lot of work to be done to organize, to educate, and to achieve the goals of the legislation, but I think it’s a very important start.

The biggest effects of this legislation, or the direct effects anyway, are going to be in the Central Valley, not here in Southern California, but I think we all know that all California water issues are interconnected. To the extent that we’re dealing with significant changes in water management in one part of the state, it could have indirect effects on Southern California, but I think everybody can agree that in the long run, we’re all going to be better able to manage our water resources with sustainable groundwater management as a policy across the state.

I might mention just briefly we’ve been working on extension of the Yuba Accord. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with that accord that was negotiated back in 2005. It resolved important streamflow issues, provided fishery benefits on tributaries to the Sacramento River, and provided additional flow for the Bay Delta system. Most importantly, I think that the accord demonstrated that collaborative efforts can work to resolve these very thorny types of problems and can serve as a model for additional settlements in the Central Valley tributaries and beyond. We are negotiating an extension of that accord as called for in the original agreement at this time; I hope that we are very close to getting to agreement on the terms of that extension and I believe, if it hasn’t already happened, I expect that a proposal to help fund that agreement will come before this board and I urge you all to consider it carefully and I hope you will support it.

Finally, I can’t get away without talking about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. I think we continue to make hard earned progress on developing the plan and we’re currently working on three parallel fronts.

One is resolving those final issues that we’ve been working on for years now – essentially the terms of the proposal with the three state and federal fish agencies. I think chief among those remaining issues are the details of how adaptive management will work and who is going to be obligated for implementing adaptive management changes and how the associated costs will be allocated between not only the state and federal water contractors, but among the state and federal governments as well.

A second front is scoping the work necessary for a recirculated BDCP CEQA/NEPA document. We are motivated primarily to recirculate the document because of physical changes to the proposal – the proposed facilities included in the BDCP, including changes to alignment of the tunnels and changes to the facilities themselves, but as we consider that recirculation, we want to be responsive to the many comments we’ve received during the first public comment period on the NEPA documents. We are continuing to work through those thousands of comments and distill down to the issues that we believe we need to address in a recirculated document.

Of course, the comment letter we received from the federal EPA made a lot of news around the state and we want to be sure that we address EPA’s issues as high-priority as we consider what’s necessary to include in a recirculated document.

Let me just say that we were somewhat surprised by both the content and the tone of the letter from the EPA. We’ve worked at a staff level with EPA for years now and we’re taken somewhat by surprise by their letter. But since they made their comment letter public, we have had productive meetings with the EPA and I believe that we have an understanding of what we need to do to demonstrate to EPA that we don’t intend to violate water quality laws and to demonstrate more clearly our proposal and the analysis behind it … While it was a considerable blow to the momentum of the proposal, I do think we’re on track to address EPA’s concerns and that’s going to be tantamount to the success of our proposal.

The third front on the BDCP is to develop a scope of work and an organization for completing the section 7 consultation with the federal agencies that is necessary as part of the permitting process. This really takes on many of the issues that are already included within the BDCP proposal. We’ve been concerned about the timeline and potential scope that the federal agencies might insist upon for that section 7 consultation, but I think in the last couple of months we’ve made great progress in getting to an agreement on an approach and how we’re going to organize ourselves to complete the necessary work. So while we don’t have anything to show for that yet, I’m very satisfied with the progress and essentially the commitment of the federal administration to make this happen as efficiently as possible.

So that’s the news from Sacramento. I would just say that this really has been a difficult year for water managers across the state, and of course we all know that opportunity comes with those challenges, and I think we have made good progress in achieving some successes in light of that opportunity, including the revised water bond that will be on the ballot in November as well as the groundwater management legislation and our continued progress on BDCP.

Governor Brown’s administration is committed to making progress on all the fronts necessary to improve California water management over the long run as articulated in the California Water Action Plan. I think it was about this time last year that we began working on that water management action plan, and the drought in 2014 diverted some of our attention from the broader comprehensive approach in the long term nature of that action plan, but it continues to be our guiding light and provides the framework for all of the actions we take. We’ll be turning our attention back to that plan. It probably needs some freshening for its first birthday and will be the driver for the Governor’s budget for water resources, so we’ll be working with you all on any needed amendments or changes to that action plan in the coming months.

So I think I’ll stop there …

MWD Director Glen Peterson asks Director Cowin, “I’ve been concerned for years about Twitchell Island, Sherman Island and these other islands run by the state and that we’re still farming. We have been doing that programs on these islands, but it seems like we don’t have a master plan, and people in the Delta are very critical of us, the state … they are very critical about not developing our own lands and yet wanting to take lands out of production to develop some good habitat and things like that. … My concern is that we don’t seem to have a master plan. … It seems to me that there should be a master plan for how we’re going to develop Twitchell and Sherman so we can take it to the community and say this is what we intend to do in the future …

Mr. Cowin agrees.  “I think that’s a valid criticism. We do need a long range plan that shows how our future activities on those two islands will fit into BDCP and the rest of our intentions for activities in the Delta. I would just say that it’s difficult, obviously. Not all islands are created equal in the Delta. Some are more appropriate for different types of habitat and different types of activities and Sherman and Twitchell aren’t necessarily the primary types of physical location and geography that would lend itself to the best types and most efficient types of restoration activities in the Delta at this point. But we do need a longer range plan for how we intend to make use of those islands. I agree with you that the continued use of agriculture on that island is something that I’ve questioned before. It’s difficult to demonstrate that stopping agriculture will prevent any more or any less water use than native vegetation will, so it’s difficult to come up with a water savings to assign to that sort of action, but all those are the challenges that keep us from getting to that long term strategic plan, but I don’t deflect the criticism. I do think we need to work harder on developing that plan.”

Director Peterson responds, “It’s not an attempt to be critical … A simple thing like gas wells. If you build a house on Twitchell Island, you have to build your house above the levee. All these gas wells are below the levee and that’s going to be a liability of the state when all their electronics and everything blows out, at least getting that under control would be helpful because to me, I see those islands as liabilities and they should be assets …

Director Wunderlich asks then Director Cowin to talk more about the EPA’s comment letter.

Mr. Cowin replies, “To some extent, there are so many different agencies and different interests to work with on a project like this that it’s hard to mind them all sufficiently, but this entire incident just underscores how important it is to devote the necessary resources to continuous interaction with all of these agencies that have a role in approving the plan … We have had a whole lot of conversation with federal agencies since the EPA letter and we’re reminded constantly that EPA isn’t in the practice of writing love notes to the folks that it regulates so we shouldn’t be overtaken by the tone and the depth of the letter.

However, it still is of great concern to us and the fundamental misunderstandings of what we’re proposing are of concern to us. There are many, many comments contained in the EPA letter, but the one that concerned us the most was the suggestion that we intended to operate the project in violation of water quality law. Essentially where that misunderstanding comes from is in the analysis, which is state of the art analysis, but it’s based upon a monthly timestep model which doesn’t account for the daily types of decisions that we make when we operate the project, so while we have committed that we would not violate the standards that EPA is concerned about, the modeling would suggest that we would.  Our response to that is that we’ll deal with those challenges on a day to day basis, so essentially it’s up to us to describe that in a much more clear way.

You really would have had to get into the back appendices of the 20,000 page documents in order to gain the full appreciation of our approach to the analysis, and we need to have the short story that’s clearer and more defensible up front in the document and that’s our intention, but we do continue to work with the EPA to make sure we understand exactly what their concerns are and if we need to do additional analysis as part of this recirculation, aside from just telling a clearer story, we’ll get that done.”

Randy Fiorini, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council

It was then Randy Fiorini, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, to have the floor.  “I have been greatly influenced by representatives of the Metropolitan Water Agency of Southern California. Over the years, I have gained a great appreciation for the work that goes on down here. … One of your board members has been one who I have spent a special amount of time with over the last four years and that’s your vice-chairman Gloria Gray who is with us today. Gloria was one of the inaugural members of the Delta Stewardship Council, appointed by the speaker of the Assembly, and she served for four years through a very, very hard working period of time for the Council as we developed the Delta Plan, the Delta Science Plan. Before I talk about the work that’s underway, I wanted to acknowledge Gloria’s service. We have prepared a certificate of appreciation …

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in 2009 in the Delta Reform Act as the legislature’s desire to help create a long-term comprehensive plan to help carry out and achieve the coequal goals of water supply reliability for the state and a restored, healthy ecosystem in the Delta. A large task. It took us a little over three years to develop the Delta Plan that consists of 14 regulatory policies and 73 recommendations. It was adopted in May of 2013, and we have been working on implementing that Delta Plan since that time.

In addition to the Delta Plan, we were also called upon to develop a science plan for the Delta that was presented to the Council in December of last year and endorsed by the Council as a vehicle to help coordinate and synthesize multiple activities related to science and the Delta. Our slogan is One Delta, One Science. Many, many activities are not well coordinated and oftentimes one agency is not aware of what another agency is doing, so we’ve developed a plan to help coordinate activities, synthesize the information, and make it available for the use of many of the folks that need access to information.

Another entity that was prescribed by the legislature was to create a Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee. That committee met for the first time last April. It consists of ten directors and secretaries at the state level, seven agency leaders at the federal level – a high level group that came together to meet to discuss the priority issues facing their agencies. It’s designed to help create a better line of communication.

I have to confess as the chair of that committee, if I had done a better job, Director Cowin would not have been surprised by the letter from the EPA because I would have been on it and coordinated that and made sure, so we’ve got some work to do at that high level in terms of improving levels of communication.

What I want to talk to you today is explain to you the five high priority areas that the Council is committed to and is working on. Most of those touch the work that you do here.

First of all science. I mentioned we have a Delta Science Plan. It’s not enough to have a plan; you have to have a way to implement it. So the Council this Thursday will be receiving from our Delta Science Program an interim Science Action Agenda. It’s a two year road map for applied science in the Delta. It’s posted on our website; there is a 30-day public comment period. The way this Interim Science Action Agenda was determined was by interviewing seventeen key agencies, developing a list of 315 actions that are of importance to each combined agencies, and then distilling those down into 7 priority science action areas that will serve as the roadmap for Delta science for the next two years when it is completed and endorsed.

The second area of priority is flows. As you know, one of the requirements for the BDCP permit will be an update of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The State Water Resources Control Board has that authority and we have urged them to move expeditiously unto a conclusion. We’ve supported that with two science panels that have advised them on Delta inflow issues and Delta outflow issues and we will continue to work closely with the Water Resources Control Board to reach a successful conclusion to that process.  

Levees are the third area of priority. 150 years of levees in the Delta and we have yet to develop a comprehensive plan for levee management. We were asked by the legislature to create a levee prioritization plan. We are currently working with the Department of Water Resources, the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, the Delta Protection Commission and local agencies to help advise the state on how to prioritize state investment in Delta levees. It’s an 18 month to 24 month project. We’re taking as comprehensive a look as we can. We’ve developed an issue paper to help define what it is that we are trying to achieve. That issue paper will soon be posted on our website and will be available for review at our Council meeting on Thursday.

We selected a consulting group that post-Katrina were hired to develop a levee plan for Louisiana, and the tool that they developed has been employed in Louisiana now for a couple of years with great success, so with that as a model, with that as a vision, we hope to develop a similar product that can be used into the future to help guide state investments in Delta levees.

Parallel to that, the Delta Protection Commission is working on a levee assessment district. Their desire is to spread the list of beneficiaries and funding for levee work in the Delta; the examples of additional entities would include CalTrans and utilities that operate in the Delta.

The fourth area is land use. One of the few regulatory authorities that the Stewardship Council was given is called covered actions. It really was designed to prevent doing further harm to the Delta, and under the legal construct organized by the legislature, any plan, action, or activity that is permitted by a state or local government has to be consistent with the Delta Plan. That process is in place; we had our first covered action come to us. It was a subsidence reversal project led by DWR on Sherman Island, it went without appeal and so we’ve had our first successful covered action. It’s now underway.

If it were to be appealed, we’d hold a special hearing, we’d review the evidence, and we’d determine whether or not it’s consistent, and if it’s inconsistent, we make recommendations as to how to make it consistent.

The fifth priority area is habitat restoration. It is really the hardest thing to do in the Delta. There is such a resistance to change. Science tells us that the landscape in the Delta must change if we’re going to achieve the coequal goal of a restored healthy habitat, so we are working diligently to try and find ways to improve trust and cooperation towards some significant movement on habitat restoration front.

In the Delta Plan, we identified six priority restoration areas that should be preserved until plans can be thought through for habitat work. The California Water Action Plan endorsed by the Governor highlights our role in assisting with habitat restoration. The most recent action we’ve taken is to develop another issue paper outlining what the next two years should look like in terms of land acquisition, recommendations, and streamlining of permitting. That’s a huge issue to move projects along and to address some of the concerns that local agencies. Counties have offered up as a problem such as removing land form the tax rolls, so we have an issue paper that outlines some steps that we think we’ll get us further down the road to success over the next two years.

Do we have a plan? There are lots of plans in play in terms of habitat restoration. The Delta Conservancy is working on a Delta Restoration Network where they bring local agencies, state agencies, and federal agencies together to try and find common ground; the fish agencies are working on the Ecosystem Restoration Program; federally court driven is the Fish Restoration Program Agreement led by the Collaborative Adaptive Management Team – all of these activities are underway in an effort to try and restore a healthy ecosystem and our job is to help coordinate these activities and ensure that when impediments are found, that ways are found to overcome those.

And lastly, just very briefly, other areas that we monitor that are not of the highest priority but are nonetheless priorities: the BDCP. We have two roles. As an independent state agency, regarding BDCP, one is as the responsible agency, we’ve commented from time to time on the progress on the BDCP. The Independent Science Board, ten internationally respected scientists who serve the Council to advise us on science matters. They reviewed the EIR/EIS document recently and had lots of good things to say about that document. They had a few comments about the need to add a little more rigor to the adaptive management component, but overall it was a very positive report submitted on the BDCP EIR/EIS.

We also have an appellate role. We are preparing for that, anticipating that when the BDCP is permitted, that there will be an appeal. The first appeal will go to the Delta Stewardship Council and we will have to determine – there’s a very narrow range that we will review and that was the permit conditions specified are fully met, and it’s likely that when it is permitted, we’ll be holding a hearing and the procedures for that are all spelled out.

The Governor’s Water Action Plan, we are intimately involved in that, assisting in those areas where the Stewardship Council is called out and where there is an overlap with water action plan and the Delta Plan. We’ve offered our support for additional storage. We’ve offered our support for better management of groundwater, we’ve offered our support for the need to fund all of these activities that we talk about that are so important.

And so with that …

Coming on Tuesday: An update on the status of the BDCP cost allocation discussions between contractors.

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