California Water Action Plan implementation coordination and progress; Integrating flood and ecosystem planning in the Yolo Bypass

DPIIC Meeting 1Janelle Beland and Kris Tjernell from the California Natural Resources Agency brief the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee on the progress in implementing the California Water Action Plan and the efforts to integrate flood and ecosystem planning in the Yolo Bypass.

The Delta Reform Act of 2009 created the Delta Stewardship Council and charged it with developing a comprehensive plan for managing the Delta’s ecosystem.  In May of 2013, the Council unanimously adopted the first Delta Plan, which contains 73 recommendations and 14 regulatory policies that touch on all aspects of the Delta, including measures to address flood risks, improve water supply reliability, restore and enhance the ecosystem, protect and improve water quality, as well as to preserve the Delta as an evolving place.

Click here for more from the Delta Stewardship Council.

The legislation that created the Council also mandated that implementation of the Delta Plan be coordinated through an interagency implementation committee. In April of 2014, the first biannual meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC) was held with high ranking officials from the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Natural Resources Agency, the Delta Protection Commission, the Delta Conservancy, water agencies, the state and federal fish agencies, and others in attendance.  Topics discussed in the first meeting included the California Water Action Plan, federal investments in the Bay-Delta region, the Delta Restoration Network and the Delta Science Plan.

On November 17, 2014, the second meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee was held.  Among the agenda items was an update on the implementation of the California Water Action Plan, a briefing on activities underway in the Yolo Bypass, presentation of the interim science action agenda, and an update on efforts to develop a investment strategy and study the possibility of creating an assessment district for Delta levees.

This meeting will be covered in two parts; part 1 will cover the California Water Action Plan and the Yolo Bypass; the second portion of coverage will cover the science action agenda and Delta levees.

Committee Chair Randy Fiorini noted that a lot of progress in California water has been made this year.  “The water bond passed, groundbreaking groundwater legislation has passed, the water storage studies discussed at the last meeting have been completed, and the first ever covered action, a habitat restoration project, is now underway in the Delta,” he said.  “There is a lot to celebrate.”

Janelle Beland, Undersecretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, on implementing the California Water Action Plan

In the summer of 2013, the Brown administration began the process of developing the California Water Action Plan that would articulate administration’s guiding principles for managing a more sustainable and reliable water supply for California, began Janelle Beland. The Secretary of Natural Resources, the Secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the Secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture, along with other state agencies participated in the formulation and writing of the plan.

CWAP Cover
Click here to read the California Water Action Plan.

There was a lot of coordination; it took us about 3 months, and then it was released in publicly in draft form in Late November,” she said. “We made amendments and revisions based on a lot of good input we received from the public, other agencies in the state and also some of our federal partners, and so it really helped to make the document sort of the living, breathing thing that it is today.”

The final plan, released in January with much fanfare, was a multi-agency effort guided by a lot of input over the months, she said. “It does serve as the road map for the Brown Administration on water policy, and many decisions involving water policy over the last year are the result of working towards implementing the water action plan,” she said. “We, as an administration, plan to continue to use this policy document as one that will help shape our water policy decisions over the next four years.”

We are required through budget language to provide a report to the legislature in January,” Ms. Beland said. “We have to submit a report to the fiscal committees and the chairs of the policy committees describing what our strategy is and how we’re going to move forward, what actions we’re going to take, as well as our expectations and plans for funding, and how we’re going to make this more of a reality.”

We’re off to a spectacular start,” she said. “The Governor’s 2014-15 budget provided $709 million in funding priorities for the Water Action Plan and we’re laying the fiscal foundation for implementing the near term actions with those actions. The plan itself was designed for us to undertake actions that we can either implement or finish within the next five years, so we are on a fast track.

Janelle Beland 1Ms. Beland said that $617 million was accelerated for drought response;$66.1 million went for additional actions to support the water action plan, and $25 million in cap and trade funds was appropriated to Department of Fish and Wildlife for watershed restoration activities.

Due to the drought, the Department of Water Resources expedited the grant process and prioritized those areas suffering greatest. Most of the $600 million in the drought legislation went towards Integrated Regional Water Management Grants, with the first $221 million awarded by the Department of Water Resources in October, she said, pointing out that the grants will fund over 100 local and regional drought projects, leveraging local dollars on a 3:1 basis.

The Integrated Regional Water Management program has had a lot of scrutiny because there has been fits and starts and some limitations in way bond language has been written, but there was a lot of effort by everyone to make sure we could make it as flexible as possible to meet the needs that are out there,” she said. “The amount of applications for what we had available was way in excess of what we were able to distribute. There is another $200 million that’s going to go out by the spring for the second half of what was in the legislation, and this is dependent on grant applications and projects and readiness of those projects to hit the ground.”

There were three executive orders from the Governor this year to help move things along to enhance the regulatory environment that we all work under and there was a lot of coordination to make sure that we could address the drought situation quickly and as easily as possible,” she said.

Water conservation is a big part of the Water Action Plan. The Department of Water Resources coordinated with ACWA to do a heavy push on outreach and education to encourage water conservation this year, utilizing advertising, billboards and social media to raise awareness. “We’re in between 10 & 11% statewide on average but not yet at the 20%, but some communities have exceeded the 20% that the executive order called for,” she said. “We don’t see how that would have been possible without the big push we’ve made on conservation and getting the word out, and providing tools and education to enable local water agencies and others help educate their consumers to meet the goals and objectives.”

State and federal water project operators and environmental and water quality regulators are working together in real time to exercise as much flexibility as possible under regulatory standards to allow for the capture and storage of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, she said. “We’re expected to continue our struggle with operations on the drought, but all of us are working together to provide the kind of flexibility and as much as we can under some pretty stringent regulatory standards and a lot of consternation with both the water agencies, agriculture, municipalities – everyone that’s served by the state and federal water projects, and balancing all that with the need for protecting species and conservation principles in general.”

DPIIC Meeting 2Ms. Beland noted that the voters did approve a water bond this year. “It was no small undertaking,” she said. “A lot of effort went into this, it is a $7.45 billion water bond – the first one we’ve had since 2006. It is mostly competitive grant based, but covers all of the principles in the water action plan and is going to give us a lot of the foundational funding support that we’re going to need going forward to accomplish many of the objectives of the water action plan.”

One of the big principles in the water action plan is increasing regional self reliance and integrated water management, and that is fundamental to our IRWM program,” she said. “We’re working with the legislature to see if there are additional things that we can do to strengthen that program and simplify it and prioritize the money in a way that makes sense for both the Department and the agencies that have to implement it as well.”

Another achievement is the beginning of the implementation of the Delta Plan, Ms. Beland said. “We were directed in the Water Action Plan to participate in this committee, and this has been an important organizing opportunity for us to work together,” she said. “A lot of credit is due to pulling this group together and having this form the partnerships and opportunities for conversations about how we can move forward together. We’re seeing a lot of success across all of our departments and agencies and entities in coming up with unique ideas on how we can support each other and coordinate to achieve success of Water Action Plan, the Delta Plan, and other things.”

The Water Action Plan has an entire chapter dedicated ecosystem restoration, and currently, there are at least three efforts currently underway:

Forest-related watershed management: An inter-agency group has been convened which includes the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Governor’s Office, CalFIRE, the Resources Agency, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. They are focusing on landscape level forest management and restoration efforts; the goal is to collaborate on landscape level forest management and restoration projects that result in more resilient forests and forest health through better management of these systems. “The way that we manage forests can often lead to better water quality, it can lead to better opportunities to capture and store water, so if the vegetation is a little bit thinner and planned out better, we have more opportunities for the water that does come down to refill aquifers, so there’s a lot of strategy and coordination that is going into this effort.”

Coastal watershed and estuarine restoration efforts:   There is an interagency group convening to advance coastal water and estuarine restoration that includes the Coastal Conservancy, NOAA, USEPA, the Resources Agency, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The goal is to identify specific geographic areas where we can combine and direct expertise and resources in order to maximize our effectiveness in implementing on-the-ground conservation projects and make measurable progress in meeting the objectives of the California Water Action Plan and other state, federal and other resource plans.

Enhanced stream flow: The Wildlife Conservation Board, in consultation with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Water Resources Control Board, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is developing a high-level strategic framework that will serve as a platform for the development of a WCB competitive grant program that supports multi-benefit ecosystem watershed protection, water transactions, and restoration projects that will result in enhanced stream flow. “The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has had success in this area in other states,” she said. “We’re hoping to work together with them to effect a change here in California and maybe get rid of some of the paranoia of things that have happened in the past and the fear of what this program has represented previously. I think we’re going a long way towards changing what it’s going to look like in the future.”

Another big accomplishment was the passage of groundwater legislation, another big function and expectation of the Water Action Plan, Ms. Beland said. “Nearly, 100 years to the day that we regulated surface water, we managed to do groundwater regulation in California, and now the fun begins, apparently.”

The main point of this legislation was to give communities and local jurisdictions the tools to sustainably manage their groundwater on their own; the legislation also provides for the state to come in and assist them if necessary, she said. “This would be a temporary intervention and it was always designed as temporary,” she said. “We aren’t interested at the state level in taking over groundwater basins and managing them, but to help work with communities to help them get to the right place.”

Beland Slide 19She then presented a slide with the key dates of the legislation. “There will be a lot of work done this year to clean up and further expand on some of the commitments we made during the legislative session,” she said.

The Delta Stewardship Council is working with DWR, the Flood Protection Board, the Delta Protection Commission and local agencies to develop funding priorities for state investment in Delta levees, she said. “A significant piece of the water action plan is better planning and prioritization for flood control, and that is also a key point and provision in the Delta Plan.”

The Water Action Plan calls for multi-benefit projects and greater alignment of efforts between the Natural Resources Agency, Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Delta Stewardship Council, and others to work to align flood protection and habitat restoration projects in the Yolo Bypass and other places that are significant for species as well as communities and agricultural protection, she said.

Kris Tjernell, Special Assistant for Water Policy for the Natural Resources Agency, on the efforts to integrate activities in the Yolo Bypass

Kris Tjernell then gave a presentation on the activities to integrate flood and ecosystem management in the Yolo Bypass. He began by noting that a key theme of the Water Action Plan is integration, alignment and interagency coordination, and working with all three levels of government, local, state, and federal, as well as different stakeholders. “I think it’s fair to say that there are few opportunities, at least from my perspective, in the Delta right now, any maybe even California, where the need, the opportunity and the people who are involved are all aligned to really get some good work done and that is in the Yolo Bypass,” he said.

Tjernell Slide 25Mr. Tjernell then gave some facts about the Yolo Bypass. Federally authorized in 1917 as a flood control facility, the Yolo Bypass is first and foremost a flood control facility, he said. He noted that it is roughly 60,000 acres located to the west of Sacramento, and that two thirds of the land is in private ownership and one-third is publicly owned, the majority being the Vic Fazio Wildlife Refuge and other lands in that area.

The Yolo Bypass is a tremendously important flood protection facility, he said. “In major storm events, as that comes barreling down the Sacramento River, roughly 80% of those flows spill over the Fremont Weir and are conveyed safely through the bypass as opposed to through the more channelized Sacramento River that runs directly adjacent to very important agricultural lands and urban areas.”

It’s an important wildlife habitat for a number of fish species and upland species,” Mr. Tjernell continued. “It’s a critical link in the Pacific Flyway; it’s important for migratory waterfowl and other birds, and of course it is a highly productive agricultural center for both Yolo and Solano Counties.”

Thernell Slide 26When we are talking about the biological opinions that are required for the ongoing operation of the state and federal water projects, and when we’re talking about eventual implementation of the BDCP process and in particular conservation measure 2 which is focused on the bypass, what we’re talking about are pretty significant uses of that land that are different than how they are used today,” he said. “That’s not to say they are going to be mutually exclusive at all with current land uses – that’s not the point. In fact, we think there are lots of opportunities for achieving both objectives of existing agricultural use and ecosystem restoration.”

What we’re talking about in particular is increasing the inundation regime for the bypass,” he said, noting that creating fish passage in particular will likely involve modification of the Fremont Weir and some issues related to the Sacramento Weir, and a more frequent flood inundation regime. “It will have some impacts on that region and some impacts on the agricultural production in the area,” he acknowledged. “The acreage that we’re talking there is significant, especially when compared to the overall size which is around 59,000-60,000 acres.”

Tjernell Slide 27He then presented a map of the Yolo Bypass overlaid with the state’s flood objectives, emphasizing that this is just a preliminary concept for flood projects in the bypass. He noted that the orange areas are the areas that are currently being thought of, at least conceptually, for increasing the flood conveyance capacity of the flood bypass. “We’re looking at relatively significant land use alterations, relative to the size of the overall bypass, along the order of 10,000 to 18,000 acres. Again, that’s very preliminary, but that’s the rough scale that we’re talking about. DWR Flood Management is considering the needs to increase the bypass capacity for both current conditions to help alleviate current stresses on the flood management system, and then also looking ahead to the next 50, 100, years towards the effects of climate change and the need to convey more water through the bypass then we are doing so today.”

Tjernell 28He then presented a slide of a map showing a representation of some of the local and regional concepts that have arisen. He said that several issues have come up through the course of the local and regional conversations, including the idea of ‘low-impact restoration.’ “The Yolo Bypass is a very strong agricultural center, and there an interest that when we do restoration in the Delta, we do so in a way that retains the sustainability for the local agricultural economy,” he said. “There’s also an interest in looking at the permitting mechanisms and permitting process for the biological opinions in particular. It’s potentially a mix of project level and programmatic permitting.” He noted that there is also an interest in a phased approach to restoration in the bypass.

Mr. Tjernell said that the Bureau of Reclamation’s value planning process recently completed their work, holding a briefing on October 31st to collect feedback. “Essentially, a group of local and regional interests along with with state and federal interests came up with concepts ways for the state and federal agencies to move forward on the biological opinion process specifically, and at the same time, really achieve local and regional interests,” he said. “I think it really served as a wakeup call in many ways to a lot of the folks who were involved in that process that was that there is actually a way, at least conceptually, to do ecosystem restoration in the bypass that also achieves state, local, regional flood management objectives and the preserves the ongoing productivity of the Yolo Bypass as an agricultural center for California, or at least for that County. It was a very creative process and a lot of great ideas bubbled up from that.”

Tjernell Slide 29Mr. Tjernell then presented a chart of the numerous forums and projects underway in the Yolo Bypass, such as a regional flood management process, an integrated water management planning process being led by Yolo and Solano counties, and Army Corps feasibility studies. He said the point of this chart is to show that there are a lot of different processes going on, but they are not all the same thing. “There are federal interests in the bypass, state flood management interests, local and regional interests; there are biological planning processes, BDCP planning process, biological opinion implementation and planning, and others as well,” he said. “They are not in general aligned to make alignment and integration as obvious as I think we would like it all to be.”

There are numerous challenges, with permitting topping the list, Mr. Tjernell said. “When you are doing any sort of a project, especially an ecosystem restoration project in a flood conveyance area, you have to take flood considerations into consideration, and you also have agricultural impacts to deal with, so there’s Army Corps of Engineering permitting processes you have to go through, not only the ecosystem restoration projects that we’re contemplating, but the flood projects themselves as well. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board permits, CESA, ESA, water quality from the state and regional water quality control boards – it’s very complex permitting.”

Tjernell 1There are financing challenges as well as local resistance and needs, he said. “When we are talking about projects, whether it be ecosystem restoration or flood conveyance capacity increase projects in an area that has been so central to both the economics and the culture of Yolo County and Solano County, there’s going to be potential for resistance,” he said. “There’s also an amazing opportunity for partnership there as well.”

Land acquisition is oftentimes the most challenging portion of the project, whether its flood improvement or habitat restoration,” Mr. Tjernell said. “Right now, we may be missing opportunities to see where a single acquisition, if done in coordination between flood and habitat restoration projects, could have overlapping objectives met by a single project, or at least in a coordinated set of projects.”

There are several restoration timelines, he noted, “The state and federal government are under pretty strict timelines when it comes to the implementation of the biological opinion and so that is another driving challenge that we are faced with on a day to day basis.”

The California Water Action Plan is the driving document for the state government as it relates to water management. Mr. Tjernell said that there are some interesting commonalities between the water action plan and the Delta Stewardship Council’s habitat issue paper. The California Water Action Plan calls for pursuing regionally integrated flood projects, integrating habitat and flood planning to maximize public benefits, and to implement near-term projects in the Yolo Bypass to increase floodplain habitat and associated fish passage, he said. The Delta Stewardship Council’s habitat issue paper calls for enhancing the Yolo Bypass to provide floodplain habitat and passage, addressing stakeholder and landowner concerns to avoid conflicts, and to focus restoration conversations to avoid redundancy.

It wasn’t explicitly stated in the water action plan, but it was certainly there thematically, this idea of alignment, integration, coordination, and lastly focusing restoration conversations to avoid redundancy,” he said.

Tjernell Slide 32There’s a lot of effort being put into the bypass, Mr. Tjernell said, presenting a graphic of the Yolo Bypass alignment process. He explained that the top line represents all the processes currently underway, including the more locally-driven flood management processes in the lower Sacramento River region and north Delta area, the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, the state-driven basin-wide feasibility studies, the federal interests which include the whole American River, Folsom Dam, and Sacramento Weir projects, the state and federal bioloigical opinions, and CM2 with the BDCP.

One of the basic ideas is given that there are all these, in some ways disparate efforts that are out there, is it possible to have a conversation, a single conversation, to really minimize and focus the conversation that is happening in many different forums,” he said. “Is it possible to pull essentially from that top line of planning documents and planning efforts, those projects, those concepts, those objectives that deal with the bypass in some way, irrespective of their outcome, whether they are flood based or habitat restoration based, recreation, agricultural preservation, etc, and essentially pull those from those documents and from those efforts to have a single coordinated conversation of some sort …to make sure that we are not missing a single opportunity for identifying and ultimately implementing projects that maybe have both flood benefits and ecosystem restoration benefits, possibly even recreation benefits, certainly local economic sustainability benefits, etc.”

Mr. Tjernell pointed out that there are a lot of benefits to integrated planning, such as accelerated permitting and implementation, new partnerships with local government and stakeholders, a single forum for discussion, a broadened financing strategy, coordinated land acquisition, and a proof of concept for what’s possible in the Delta.

We look forward to reaching out and working with our federal partners and local partners and other stakeholders on is this idea for opportunities for alignment where can we really put some points on the board in the Delta,” he said. “On a project that isn’t so small is of little interest per se outside of these conversations, but large enough to have real gravitas with it if successful; one that is reasonable and manageable enough to get done in the near future, so it can be exportable to the larger Delta conversation and hopefully to the larger ecosystem restoration conversations across California, as well as flood risk reductions conversations across California.”

So to sum up, this is really taking the charge that we’ve been given from the California Water Action Plan, the Delta Stewardship Council, and many different folks at all different levels to start thinking differently about how these different interests and objectives, planning processes, etc, can work together to truly achieve everybody’s objectives and maybe even more so than what we thought possible when doing it just by ourselves,” he said. “I think that’s key to integration and alignment.”

During the discussion period, Bill Edgar with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board noted that there are a lot of different coordination and integration meetings going on simultaneously and everyone is faced with limited resources. “As we migrate to this new idea or this new paradigm from coordination to integration, I think there needs to be a way in which we can refocus all of these coordination meetings and all of these committee meetings – eliminate them or combine them … I don’t think we have the resources to do both. We can’t sit in all these coordinating meetings and also do the integrating meetings. We’ve got get rid of some of the stuff we’re doing now … “

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