The truth be told: The Delta, the tunnels, and the tributaries, part 2

American River #3Panelists discuss flows and the Delta tunnels, as well as the State Water Board’s water quality control plan update, Prop 1, Folsom operations and the Delta, and more …

David Guy IntroAt the October 16 Mountain Counties Water Resources Association event, “The truth be told: The Delta, the tunnels, and the tributaries,” after the morning session of individual presentations, the panelists then engaged in a lively discussion moderated by Northern California Water Association president David Guy.  Participating in the panel discussion are Mark Cowin, Department of Water Resources; Roger Patterson, Metropolitan Water District; Don Nottoli, Sacramento County Supervisor; Ara Azhderian, San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority; Campbell Ingram, Delta Conservancy; Steve Rothert, American Rivers; and Andy Fecko, Placer County Water Agency.

(Note: For part 1 of this coverage, click here.)

Regulatory restrictions and the need for the Delta tunnels

Moderator David Guy started off with a question for DWR’s Mark Cowin. “I think people don’t fully grasp the pressure that you are currently under through the biological opinions and through the other regulatory requirements in the Delta. The status quo is not a very pretty picture for you and the folks south of the Delta, and I think obviously informs why you are looking at Cal Water Fix and you’re looking to partner with folks upstream in different ways, but would you take a moment and talk a little bit about some of the pressures that you’re under and the pressures you see the Department being under for the next 10 years while this solution is being explored further?

Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources) said that the last four years of extraordinary drought have been a completely different animal in terms of operating the state and federal projects. “We’ve learned a lot about the vulnerabilities of both projects and a lot about the ecology, the status of species, and the administration of the biological opinions affects water operations. Mark Cowin 5I think we’ve learned a bit about how to be more transparent with the information that’s driving operational decisions and we’ve improved our working relationship with the three state and federal fish agencies that actually own administration of the biological opinions and the Endangered Species Act. It’s like blackout bingo when you start looking at layering on the different regulations, both within the State Board’s water quality control plan, the two biological opinions, and then the state regulations on top of that. We’ve seen drastically decreasing windows of opportunity to move water from upstream to south, and that means both moving stored water in Lake Oroville in the case of the State Water Project, and opportunities for moving unregulated flow. We got through 2015 thanks to a couple of storms in December and January that allowed us to move enough water so that we provided a 20% allocation to SWP contractors. Effectively none of that water came from Lake Oroville; it was unregulated water that we were able to pick up through the pumps, based upon those couple of storms that came through.”

One of the more controlling aspects of all of these regulations are the restrictions against creating these reverse flows. Combine that with management of turbidity … it costs water. A physical solution such as California Water Fix would change the equation essentially and allow us to provide the same level of protection or greater to the covered species, and still give us opportunity to move both our stored water and our opportunities to move unregulated water in floods. So that is really the motivation.”–Mark Cowin, DWR

But we could have moved more water, Mr. Cowin continued. “One of the more controlling aspects of all of these regulations are the restrictions against creating these reverse flows. Combine that with management of turbidity; we’ve learned that fish like Delta smelt tend to travel where the water is cloudiest, so we’ve been doing our best to manage turbidity in the Delta and therefore keep covered fish away from the pumps, but it costs water. A physical solution such as California Water Fix would change the equation essentially and allow us to provide the same level of protection or greater to the covered species, and still give us opportunity to move both our stored water and our opportunities to move unregulated water in floods. So that is really the motivation. Trying to deal with these reverse flows is one significant part of the equation. There are other regulations that we’re all very aware of – providing Delta outflow at certain times to manage salinity, both for water quality and for the benefit of species, that’s another big part of this.

Our physical solution of relocating the intakes of the state and federal projects really is completely independent of the need for any flow for Delta outflow, so they are two separate equations,” said Mr. Cowin. “Through the BDCP, we tried to tie them all together in a comprehensive plan, that essentially was unworkable … at the end of the day, I believe that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t make itself flexible enough; at least the administration by the current regulators made it impossible for us to put that comprehensive plan together. So we are attempting to deal with reverse flows through California Water Fix. At the same time, we need to address the need for outflows and we continue to work with the three fish agencies and the state board to figure out what those ultimate needs are going to be; we support a voluntary approach where we can work with tributaries and upstream water users to come to solutions that are mutually agreeable. Add some public funding to the equation, and add some exporter funding into the equation to help create the kind of deals we need to provide water when we need it for the purposes of outflow.”

One thing I’ve learned since coming to work for Metropolitan is that when you’re an urban agency, predictability and reliability is really what it’s at,” said Roger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District). “What keeps me awake is thinking about how we are going to meet our board’s goal of essentially being able to get through the worst of times. We plan for the worst that we’ve seen, which I think with what’s going on now, so I’ve been suggesting to them we need to plan for a worse than we’ve seen because we seem to be setting new records. We had 2013 was the driest we’d seen, 2014 was the hottest we’d ever seen as a matter of record, this year is the lowest snowpack we’ve seen, we’re out on the edge.”

Basically every generation has to dig in their pocket and make investments to continue to move things … You just to have to keep reinvesting in the system, and we’ve known this for a long time.” –Roger Patterson, MWD

As we look back over the history in Southern California, basically every generation has to dig in their pocket and make investments to continue to move things,” Mr. Patterson continued. “In the 20s and 30s is when the Colorado River Aqueduct was built and that got us through until the 60s; we then invested in the SWP; the diverse plan started in the 90s, we’ve spent a little over $5 billion since then in that plan … We’ve spent about $1 billion to put ozone on our treatment plants. You just to have to keep reinvesting in the system, and we’ve known this for a long time.”

We have to make the right investments in the Delta, not just for us, but what works for the state and works for the economy as a whole,” Mr. Patterson said. “We’re on a glide path; we’ve lost 1 MAF of water supply over the last several years due to the conditions, many of which are predictable, and I just don’t see that turning around. We thought of alternatives … but when you’re growing at 150,000 people a year, you need all of those things that are really expensive in order to meet the needs of the population growth, and hold the base common. We’ve done it for 25-30 years, and I can see how it will work, but we’ve got to come to grips and make these kind of investments.”

I do think we need to talk about this overall state board proceeding and what that means to all of us, because it is related, but for us, when you have 19 million people, you have to have some kind of level of confidence that you can plan,” Mr. Patterson said. “Hydrology is fine; we know you get wet years and dry years and we manage for that, but when you add multiple additional variables in there, that’s when it gets really tough.”

Flows, the tributaries, and the State Water Board

David Guy asked Mark Cowin, what is the expectation of flows from Northern California? Is there an expectation that they will have to provide water to the Delta for this solution?

Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources) recalled how he was discussing flows just laMark Cowin 2st week with David Guy, trying to just be the messenger in terms of potential needs to provide additional flows as part of a solution to the state board’s current proceedings. “As it turns out, we really are on the same page. I hear too many conversations just about the need for flow as a given, but I don’t think that’s a productive way to start a conversation. Any ask for additional flows needs to be based on specific needs. Not all flows are created equal, some flows are going to be more beneficial to species, some are going to be completely unrelated to the health of the species, so it all needs to be bound in science, and obviously there’s plenty of disagreement on what the science is telling us now.”

It’s just a fact that we’re going to have to accept that adaptive management is going to be a part of moving forward in managing California’s water, so to the extent that we can invest in science and learn how better to use water efficiently for the benefit of fish and still improve our water supply reliability, that’s my big hope here.” — Mark Cowin, DWR

An investment in science is needed to give us better grounding for these decisions moving forward,” continued Mr. Cowin. “I think it’s just a fact that we’re going to have to accept that adaptive management is going to be a part of moving forward in managing California’s water, so to the extent that we can invest in science and learn how better to use water efficiently for the benefit of fish and still improve our water supply reliability, that’s my big hope here.”

Obviously the state board has their proceeding underway right now and they will come up with their own decisions,” Mr. Cowin said. “Our goal at the DWR and more and more comprehensively through the California Natural Resources Agency, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is to come forward with a proposal that will avoid the regulatory process that can go on for years and years and be subject to litigation and see if we can get to a reasonable approach that includes voluntary transactions and completion of other regulatory requirements in the tributaries, and try to put that together in a package that makes sense, both for the tributaries and for the Delta as a whole. It’s a monumental effort to weave that many conversations and agreements together, but the alternative is I think is pretty miserable. I’m not ready to tell you what your individual requirement or obligation is going to be moving forward; I think it’s different in different tributaries, and we need to get a better sense of just what the future needs for the Delta as a whole will be and add that into the equation, but I’m hoping that we can start some very intensive productive conversations in the next months and avoid a real confrontational divisive process within the state board proceedings.”

Moderator David Guy then turned to Steve Rothert and recalled that in his earlier presentation, he made two points: that we need to find alternative approaches instead of doing business as usual, and then that the unimpaired flow concept might not be the panacea that some would like it to be. “Would you articulate, when you put those two together, what is the better and the different approach, and how do we do business differently in your view with respect to flows?

ESteve Rothertxperience with previous water quality control plans has shown that the approach the board has taken has not been sufficient,” responded Steve Rothert (American Rivers). “The primary objective that has driven many of the requirements in the water quality control plan has been the doubling of salmon populations, per the CVPIA that was passed years ago. Previous plans have included that as an objective in the water quality control plan, and identified some things that needed to be done in terms of flows. They also provided a long list of recommendations and recommended actions that others should take or could take, but they weren’t requirements, and of course, what happened? Many of those actions weren’t taken, so what we see many years later, a decade or more later from the previous plan, is that not much progress has been made. In fact, you could argue that conditions have gotten worse for salmon and other native species, so we have to change the way the board is doing business.”

It’s our view that relying on a simple unimpaired instream flow metric will not get the job done, and it will likely produce lots of litigation that may never get resolved.  …  Meanwhile, all of you are facing uncertainty, the fish are facing continued poor conditions and downward trends in population, etc, and health, and we’re not getting anything done.–Steve Rothert, American Rivers

There are two important parts of the water quality control plan update; the objective that they are setting right now and the other part is the plan of implementation which is supposed to implement that objective and achieve that objective over time,” Mr. Rothert continued. “It’s our view that relying on a simple unimpaired instream flow metric will not get the job done, and it will likely produce lots of litigation that may never get resolved. Our attorney has done a litigation calculus and he estimates that it would not be before 2035 that we would have a plan of implementation that could actually go forward. Meanwhile, all of you are facing uncertainty, the fish are facing continued poor conditions and downward trends in population, etc, and health, and we’re not getting anything done. The lawyers are happy, but not much is happening on the ground.”

There’s a lot of common ground out there of people who want to get something done, and they want to know that the water or the money that they are committing to whatever water quality control plan action that they are required to do is going to be effective so it’s not wasted,” Mr. Rothert said. “It’s our view that while the objective can be the lofty double salmon populations over time, the plan of implementation has to be very specific in identifying exactly what we want to achieve and by when on each tributary and mainstem that the water quality control plan will address, as well as how we’ll measure that, who is going to do what by when and what happens through an adaptive management process should the actions that are identified and committed to and implemented not deliver the results. A plan of implementation like that has never been produced, never been implemented, and that’s why I think we find ourselves where we are today. We’re hoping that through conversations with David’s group and Roger and many others that we’ll be able to develop collaborative agreements that will set those objectives and identify the flow and non-flow measures to achieve the objectives that we identify. That’s our view.”

Collaboration and the Delta

David Guy turned to Supervisor Nottoli, and asked him to elaborate further on the lessons learned and the collaborative process which resulted in a settlement between East Bay MUD and Sacramento with the construction of the Freeport Pumping Plant.

Roger, Don, CampbellIt was several decades of litigation, and certainly the concern was for flows on the American River and the water quality and rights for the City of Sacramento and others that receive water off of the American,” said Don Nottoli. “It looked like it was going nowhere over a period of years, but the collaboration and a willingness for folks to step out and talk about solution sets and recognizing that in good solutions, oftentimes there are compromises built into that. I think it required a willingness by Sacramento County and East Bay MUD to find a solution that ultimately has worked out well. East Bay MUD has had the ability to draw water this year in a dry year protection, and it allowed us to address some of the issues in the southeastern part of Sacramento County as related to the conjunctive use program we have for surface and groundwater there.”

I think we need to continue to communicate and to try to find that common ground and recognizing that we are in this together. “People could argue about impacts, but I don’t think any particular region of the state should bear the brunt of those impacts.“–Don Nottoli, Sacramento County Supervisor

To draw some analogy to the current conversation, the tunnel project is on an order of magnitude much, much larger,” continued Mr. Nottoli. “By way of comparison, the Freeport pumping facility can do 289 cfs; the tunnels as proposed, at least in the preferred project with three of them, pumping plants that could take up to 3000 cfs, each one of those for a combined 9000 cfs, and so I think order of magnitude, certainly as it relates to the amount of water and to the impacts, that certainly is relative.”

“But to the larger point, I think we need to continue to communicate and to try to find that common ground and recognizing that we are in this together,” said Mr. Nottoli. “People could argue about impacts, but I don’t think any particular region of the state should bear the brunt of those impacts. … For all the work and the studies that have gone into the BDCP as a precursor to the California Water Fix, there are still serious questions, even to the question you asked a moment ago as it relates to flow. There’s no question that flows and all the various elements that go into that are critical; they are critical to the in Delta users, to folks that depend upon that water quality, to those who depend upon it for water intakes that support the cities and communities that take water out along the portions of the Sacramento and San Joaquin to the flushing action that’s important to the invasive weeds, and recognizing that water is critical to folks who would move it further south from the Delta.”

I’m a big believer that people can work together to find solutions, but it does require folks to oftentimes move off of where they are at,” Mr. Nottoli said. “I would close with this: other alternatives have been proposed, they may have been studied to some degree but they certainly have not been a part of the overall palette as it relates to the criticality of water transfer. We recognize that the Delta currently serves that purpose and through Delta movement of water, but there have been other alternatives, and they may have been looked at, at least in brief but we believe that to act as a partner in this, there needs to be a willingness to actually study some of those alternatives and not reject them outright. I’m not saying that’s always been the case, but so collaboration is important and yes, solutions can come. Sometimes they take many years, if not decades to achieve.”

Mark Cowin 3I just want to make sure I am as clear as I can,” added Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources). “When I say that the tunnels project is independent of flows, all I mean is that the tunnels as proposed are specifically proposed to deal with this reverse flow issue, regardless of how we deal with that reverse flow issue, either through construction of these new intakes, or continue dealing with this reverse flow requirement that’s in our biological opinions. The Department’s operation of the State Water Project and Reclamation’s operation of the Central Valley Project will continue to be subject to all of those requirements and regulations, so we remain committed and obligated to providing for the water quality standards that the state board has set in the Delta. We remain committed to the water rights process and the seniority process and the area of origin statutes in California, so my thesis here is that tunnels or no, the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project will remain committed to providing appropriate water quality to Delta residents, downstream users, and to the ecological needs of the species.”

We remain committed and obligated to providing for the water quality standards that the state board has set in the Delta. We remain committed to the water rights process and the seniority process and the area of origin statutes in California. So my thesis here is that tunnels or no, the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project will remain committed to providing appropriate water quality to Delta residents, downstream users, and to the ecological needs of the species.”–Mark Cowin, DWR

Mr. Cowin said he was completely sympathetic to Supervisor Nottoli’s comments about physical impacts to residents of the Delta, acknowledging that there would be impacts on people’s lives and a need for mitigation. He noted the refinements that have been made to the project to minimize those impacts, such as utilizing more public lands, using a gravity diversion rather than using pumping plants. “We’ve gone to some great extreme at this still very preliminary stage of consideration of the project to do our best to avoid those types of impacts to the residents of the Delta, but I wouldn’t be at all honest if I didn’t acknowledge that there will be impacts to the way the folks live their lives in the Delta, and all we can do is try to minimize that to the extent that we can if we move forward with the project.”

Roger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District) then shared his thoughts. “The State Board is going to proceed with the revision of their water quality control plan, with or without the tunnels. And with respect to the attention the tunnels have gotten, I’ve sort of thought of it as a bad distraction at times because a risk we all share is the direction and the approach that the State Board is taking with this myopic view on flows. I agree with Steve – it has not been serving us, and so we put a lot of time and attention on the tunnels, they are controversial, at the same time, I think we’re missing a much larger risk to all of us. I also agree that the solution to that risk is finding through equitable agreements and conversations to manage risks and manage better outcomes. At the end of the day, what we need to strive for are solutions that do more than just changing the volume of flow. … It’s overly simplistic, but at the same time, it’s within the grasp of the State Board and its something they are aiming to do, so we should be concerned about that, we should be working together as best as we can to set them off and into a different and I believe a far more productive direction.”

Flows and the State Water Board proceedings

Moderator David Guy then turned back to Roger Patterson, and said that it seems that in the last several years, the science surrounding flows seems to have started to shift. “A report that was released last week from the independent science board that asked a lot of questions but didn’t have many answers, I know there’s been a lot of published literature over the last several years that has started to look at that flow dynamic in the Delta a little bit different. Would you give folks a view of what you’re saying with that kind of shifting science and what you’re seeing?

The issue of flow is a religious issue,” said Roger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District). “It is really difficult to get people to take off their positional glasses and sit down and figure out what’s going on. And I don’t know who is right, but what we’ve got to do is fuel this collectRoger Patterson 2ive curiosity to figure out what the heck is going on and what is the best response. We’re seeing a few sparks of that. Nothing good usually comes out of litigation, but out of the last round of litigation against the federal government on the biological opinions, one of the things that came out of it was a collaborative adaptive management process … it got everybody in the room to put the questions out there and figure out how to jointly pursue it. Very frustrating; it was a slow start, a very slow start, but we’re starting to see some recommendations coming out of there that are more shared. It goes back to not one single person has it all right, so you get smart people together, you can start seeing a path.”

“We need to understand what are the causal mechanisms here and why are these changes happening. … We’ve spent 20 years developing a lot of science about the statistical analysis of flow and we spend very little time studying what those causal mechanisms are to our own detriment. And so we’ve increased outflow through regulatory mechanisms over that time, and we haven’t gotten desired results, and in large part, it’s because we’ve been addressing the wrong problem, I believe.” –Ara Azherian, SLDMA

Mr. Patterson said that a peer-reviewed paper was released last week on Delta outflow which concluded that on an annual basis, the amount of Delta outflow today is at least 85% of what it was pre-development. “People say, ‘that’s impossible, how could that be?” he said. “Their conclusion was basically back then, you would have the Sierra snowmelt coming off and it would spread out into the floodplains; it was essentially a big sponge, and we had lots of lots of deep rooted grasses with high ET … I would take that and say if you have anywhere close to that amount of flow, we know that we have only 10% or less of habitat, so where are you doing to start asking the hard questions about what’s driving this stuff? I think if we get people with differing views and I would suggest, get some people in from outside of California to join the conversation. We are not the only people that have struggled with these issues … I do think we’re seeing more shared curiosity about what is really going on here, and I think that’s got to lead us to better decisions.”

I personally am very worried about the State Board proceeding that is underway,” said Mr. Patterson. “It’s not just about flows. We need to be able to invest in passage, we need to be able to invest in gravels, we need to invest in lots of things and we need people with all the different views to get together and its going to be some heavy lifting, but I think the science is going to help us move forward.”

Ara Azhderian 2Ara Azdherian (San Luis & Delta Mendota Authority) added that there was a report released last week from the Delta Independent Science Board that essentially said that there are correlations between flow and at least longfin smelt, but it’s not enough. “We need to understand what are the causal mechanisms here and why are these changes happening. That’s not the first time that’s been said. If you back up 20 years and look at the early studies for spring outflow enhancement, they said then that we have these correlations, and what we need to strive for moving forward is a better understanding of the causal mechanisms. We’ve spent 20 years developing a lot of science about the statistical analysis of flow and we spend very little time studying what those causal mechanisms are to our own detriment. And so we’ve increased outflow through regulatory mechanisms over that time, and we haven’t gotten desired results, and in large part, it’s because we’ve been addressing the wrong problem, I believe.”

I would just add to be clear that I don’t think that flow is the only thing that we have to manage to improve the conditions,” said Steve Rothert (American Rivers). “Flow is what they call a ‘master variable’ because it affects so many other parameters in the river or in the Delta, and it’s obvious to everyone that rivers need water and fish need water, so there will be rivers and tributaries that need to either increase flows over what is going down the river today or manage better the flows and the amount of water that’s going down or to send it down at a different time, perhaps. And there are some stretches that I have no idea of what is needed and probably nobody does, but over time, we need to figure that out and have the science lead us.”

Steve Rothert 2The other thing that I wanted to just mention in terms of the water board process and how to improve it, I said that we need goals and objectives and we need an accountable plan where people are doing actions that can be enforced and can be measured,” continued Mr. Rothert. “The third thing is to actually follow the Clean Water Act and update the water quality control plans more frequently. The law requires that they be updated every three years. I think we’re in year 9 of the update of the 2006 plan, and it’s going to be perhaps another 20 years, because everybody is playing for keeps, because looking at history, because it almost feels like for keeps because it’s there on the books for decades. But if we approach this more in a trial basis and an adaptive management experimental basis where we’re updating it more regularly, then perhaps there would be a little more comfort with trying things that we don’t’ know exactly how it will turn out but need to gather more information to figure out the best and most effective approaches.”

Folsom operations and the Delta

Moderator David Guy then turned to Andy Fecko, and referring to the pressures on the American River and Folsom Dam in particular, he asked Mr. Fecko to give his thoughts about hos Folsom could be operated in the future to provide greater benefits to the ecosystem as well as the Sacramento region.

Andy FeckoMy thesis on flow, because it does drive Folsom operations to such a large extent, is that we’ve taken an inherently dynamic system in the Delta that used to vary in salinity and outflow from year to year, tremendously and in orders of magnitude, and we’ve tried to simplify it down to have the same water quality every single year through time, and that system and the species that are adapted to variability don’t response well to stasis,” replied Andy Fecko (Placer County Water Agency). “Because we have development of the Delta, we have human water supplies, we have agricultural water supplies and we have these species, we’ve tried to get stasis in the Delta to provide for all of those needs, but that’s not serving us well.”

Frankly there isn’t extra water in the upstream systems. You can say we need flow for the Delta, but to get flow for the Delta means you have to unwind all of the agreements we have made in FERC relicenses, in prior water rights proceedings, all of that has to be unwound to say now the Delta is more important, and it is truly in the upstream in most years, a zero sum game, and so I think that’s how we’re approaching the water quality control plan.“–Andy Fecko, PCWA

There are dry years and there are wet years, and we can do a lot with changing how the Delta works, and one of the reasons we have so many invasive species in the Delta is because they thrive in that static environment, and so we think variability is extremely important going forward and I think we ought not be afraid of it,” Mr. Fecko continued. “But there are problems with variability in the Delta. Salinity intrusion affects people like Contra Costa Water District who have intakes in the Delta, the North Bay Aqueduct, all those farmers that grow crops in the Delta can’t use water when it’s salty so there is problem a combination of some physical solutions needed there, but also some variability.”

What drives Folsom to a great extent is the fact that the other big reservoirs are days away from Folsom,” he said. “When you get a high tide or an onshore flow, the Delta gets salty and it gets salty quickly and what happens is because of the regulations currently in place in the Delta, you have to fight that salt off, and the way you fight it off is with Folsom Reservoir, so in less than 24 hours, you can have Folsom release down through the Delta pushing salt back out. What that does is it makes Folsom go up and down nearly every day in the summer, and it takes a pretty good slug of water to make that work, so it really impacts our ability to preserve the species of the lower American River, particularly steelhead, which are threatened. It makes it difficult to plan on actions and it makes it difficult to do habitat things, because the flow is constantly moving around on us, so in my view, some additional upstream storage could help with that.”

Clearly some infrastructure in the Delta that helps get fresh water to the affected parties is key,” Mr. Fecko said.  “I’m not ready to accept the paradigm that we have to keep the Delta static, and I think that the outflow issue that Roger talked about a little bit is prime up for that in the water quality control plan proceeding, and I think that is something that’s going to drive it all, because frankly there isn’t extra water in the upstream systems. You can say we need flow for the Delta, but to get flow for the Delta means you have to unwind all of the agreements we have made in FERC relicenses, in prior water rights proceedings, all of that has to be unwound to say now the Delta is more important, and it is truly in the upstream in most years, a zero sum game, and so I think that’s how we’re approaching the water quality control plan. We’re willing to question all aspects of how the Delta works.

Role of the Delta Conservancy

Campbell IngramModerator David guy then asked Campbell In gram to discuss the objectives and strategies the Delta Conservancy is working on.

Campbell Ingram (Delta Conservancy) referred back to his earlier presentation where he discussed the connectivity between the upper and lower watersheds and the role of conservancies in starting that conversation.

Flow may be a master variable, but restoration and all the other stressors – I don’t how any of that could not be a master variable in a very complex ecosystem. So I think our role essentially is to try to very strategically better understand what is it that we can recreate in terms of ecological function in the Delta, given where we are and what the current land uses are, and restore as much of that as we can.“–Campbell Ingram, Delta Conservancy

In planning for those conversations, we went and met with Felicia Marcus, and she was very direct. They are very interested in collaborative solutions being brought to them. Obviously there are proceedings in process that are happening but there’s also an opportunity for the upper watersheds and the middle watersheds to work collaboratively to drive their own fate and come up with their own solutions. … I think there’s a tremendous amount of flexibility in how the system operates and how water can move in between all of the nodes in the system more effectively, that can help deconflict all these issues.”

The Delta Conservancy’s largely is restoration, and I think a lot of the discussion today has gone to this somewhat separation of flow versus restoration in a very complex ecosystem where we don’t really understand the level of which restoration is going to contribute to recovery versus the level of which flow is going to contribute to recovery,” Mr. Ingram continued. “Flow may be a master variable, but restoration and all the other stressors – I don’t how any of that could not be a master variable in a very complex ecosystem. So I think our role essentially is to try to very strategically better understand what is it that we can recreate in terms of ecological function in the Delta, given where we are and what the current land uses are, and restore as much of that as we can, so that hopefully contributes to reducing the conflict and linking with flow issues as well.”

Prop 1 and Sites Reservoir

Mountain Counties Water Resources Association John Kingsbury asked about Sites Reservoir. “If Sites goes in, is that going to impact or help the Sierra tributaries? And second, if Sites does go in, from what I understand, it’s to pull the winter flows off of the Sacramento and put it into Sites, but if the tunnels go in, it’s for the big gulp, it’s to pull water off the Sacramento, so who is going to trump who – Sites or the tunnels?

Roger PattersonRoger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District) did some rough calculations on the possible water available for ecosystem benefits from building Sites Reservoir. “Let’s just say the state bought 40% of Sites Reservoir; that’s about a half a million acre-feet of yield, so that means that the state now basically owns 200,000 acre-feet that could be used for public purposes. That would be helpful because it could be managed to do all sort of things such as to change flows as they need to; and as we do some of the science we talked about, it could be used to back water into Shasta to keep cold water pool up. You could do a lot of things with how you would manage that public resource, so the question would be is would it be enough? This proceeding is still very important because it’s going to define what is enough. Coordination with the tunnels and Sites and all these other storage projects, those will be looked at together. Most of the time when I see that storm flows would be diverted at the tunnels, it wouldn’t be in competition with Sites. Sites is going to fill with about 4000 cfs when you run the two canals that fill it, so I think it’d be pretty easy. You always have to do an operations plan when you have various projects and that it’d need to be figured out how they’d work but I’m convinced they could work well together and we do need to make these kind of investments in storage to help us manage through these tough times. … I’m not saying you go out and build every reservoir site we can, but we need to be smart about making these investments so we can help meet both our environmental needs going into the next decades and our water supply needs so that it works, and I believe that if you do it right, there’s water there to make those work.”

Steve Rothert then offered his ‘non-lawyerly’ opinion on the question that was asked about how Sites would be operated with respect to the tunnels. “It’s my understanding, the Department and the Bureau have submitted an application to the State Board to change the point of diversion in their water right, so your water right is being reviewed for changing it so that the tunnels could work. If Sites were built, they would have to get a new water right for that diversion and storage – someone would. And they would have a priority date after the tunnels, and so I think it’s pretty safe to say simplistically that if the Sacramento flow were reaching a level where, simply the tunnels would have priority over a Sites diversion, if it came to that.”

Mark Cowin 4Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources) said that the $2.7 billion in storage funds in for Prop 1 is one of the more misunderstood provisions of any water bond in the past decade or two. “Let’s get very clear – This isn’t $2.7 billion to subsidize a local storage project; it’s $2.7 billion for a state partnership investment in storage projects, so I think one of the highest and best uses of that investment would be to produce flows as needed for the benefit of water quality and for fisheries. Any storage project that creates a new diversion is going to be subject to state board proceedings and has its own ESA obligations, so all of that will have to be factored in to how the project is operated. But to the extent, how should the tributaries look at Sites Reservoir, is it more of a problem or a potential benefit, I would tend to think it’s a potential benefit, to the extent that a project like Sites Reservoir could be used to manipulate the contributions of tributary flows, such that it could produce spring outflow for the benefit of longfin smelt for instance in the Delta, perhaps that relieves what might end up being an additional obligation on tributaries to provide those flows in the springtime. I do think there’s a lot of opportunity to use storage to help manipulate what are going to be tributary flow requirements into more manageable flows for broader benefit for the Delta.”

Steve Rothert (American Rivers) then offered his thoughts on Prop 1. “I and many others have been participating in a stakeholder advisory committee looking at the many complicated aspects of the guidelines and regulations that are being developed to spend that money and really it’s focusing on how to invest in the public benefits of any particular storage project, be it surface, groundwater, or conjunctive use, etc,” he said. “My impression is that the process is getting so complicated and so difficult, and yet the Commission is not setting up a process and the resources in a systematic and reliable way to compare different proposed projects. They are going to have a hard time figuring out how to spend this money, the way it’s currently planned. They don’t require a common methodology for quantifying public benefits and they don’t require a common methodology of doing cost-benefit analysis and proposing that to the Commission, so to use a very tired metaphor, they are going to get this fruit bowl of proposals, and there is going to be bananas, apples, oranges, kiwis, everything. I think they are going to have a really hard time comparing the different projects at an objective level, and that’s going to cause problems because there’s a lot of pressure for it to move out the door, and so we’re concerned that it will be difficult to make the best decisions on how to spend this money.”

In addition, they are not currently planning on integrating proposed projects, and we all know that how Sites or any water project could function depends in part on how other projects are going to function and operate,” Mr. Rothert continued. “There could be better benefits if coordinated in a way to take advantage of complementary characteristics. So we’re hoping that there will be a way to work with the Commission to really prioritize the public benefits of any new water that would be created …

Mark Cowin added that the California Water Commission has a really tough job in crafting these regulations. “The statute that they have to conform with is less than crystal clear … I do share some of Steve’s concerns about the emerging regulations. There’s more work to be done so the story isn’t written yet.”

Call for action for Sacramento region

Pam Tobin with San Juan Water District said that today, she’s heard about fish, tributaries, and agriculture, but hasn’t heard much about people. “Our ratepayers show up to our board meetings, and we have to check their pitchforks at the door, and they are unhappy about the regulations. They want to know how do they get ahead on the stick, because they are fed up. They see their water being released … talk, talk, talk – that’s kind of where we are. I respect the environment, but people are just as important as fish, if not more so, so when I go back to my board meeting and my public comes to me and says, what did you learn, all I can tell them is that you guys are still talking. It’s time for action.”

On expanding conjunctive use in the Sacramento region: “The public benefits that we think accrue from something like that are 65-70,000 AF of additional water in Folsom that adds flexibility to the CVP system, can be used for fishery purposes, and can be used to ensure that Folsom stays higher for the human needs of folks in Placer, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties, but frankly it’s a very expensive system. We think it’s worthy of investment from the state and federal government because we’re essentially trying to buy back some of that reliability that we’ve lost over the years.” –Andy Fecko

Moderator David Guy directed the question to Andy Fecko. “You mentioned the possibility of some additional conjunctive management in the Sacramento metropolitan area, the possibility of a new diversion on the Sacramento River, as well as the integration with a large regulating reservoir like Sites might be a package. Would you elaborate on that and how that may all come together? Might even help some of Pam’s concerns.”

Andy Fecko (Placer County Water Agency) said he agrees with Pam. “The Sacramento region grew up around a very reliable Folsom supply, and as that reliability has fallen off. Reliability has gone down tremendously, and so what we’re looking for is local solutions to bring that reliability back up. In the late 1990s, particularly the areas north of the American River, groundwater elevations were falling dramatically because almost all the agencies there were on exclusively groundwater wells. As part of our Water Forum commitment, what PCWA did was essentially expand our place of use outside of Placer County into Northern Sacramento County and we provided those areas surface water in wet years. Almost more than half of the years when the American River was wet, we would move some of our water from our reservoirs down to serve those former groundwater only customers, and in the 15 years since we signed the Water Forum Agreement and we added those places of use, groundwater levels have recovered dramatically. It’s a story of in lieu banking of groundwater. Go off of groundwater in wet years and go back onto groundwater in dry years, and if you do that, you not only exercise the basin, but your groundwater levels recover.”

Mr. Fecko said there’s a potential to expand that program much further. “It requires some backbone infrastructure, it requires a diversion on the Sacramento River that can move water from all the way the Sacramento River on the west, all the way back up to Pam’s district, right next to Folsom Lake, or from Folsom Lake all the way out to the Sacramento River, and along the way, integrate groundwater wells, and with that kind of flexibility, we think this region can use the groundwater resources that are available to us. It’s essentially just a great big giant underground storage reservoir that holds 100,000 acre-feet. But the infrastructure to get there is very expensive.”

Andy Fecko 2The public benefits that we think accrue from something like that are 65-70,000 AF of additional water in Folsom that adds flexibility to the CVP system, can be used for fishery purposes, and can be used to ensure that Folsom stays higher for the human needs of folks in Placer, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties, but frankly it’s a very expensive system,” continued Mr. Fecko. “We think it’s worthy of investment from the state and federal government because we’re essentially trying to buy back some of that reliability that we’ve lost over the years. There will be public benefits from it: there will be fishery benefits, there will be temperature benefits in the river, and there are benefits from flexibility to meet those Delta conditions. So we’re going to push forward pretty hard on that idea in 2016, and we’d like to be ready for the Water Commission, however they decide to do their regulations, and we hope that that kind of innovative thinking, using new surface water infrastructure, new connectivity infrastructure in a region, and the conjunctive use piece can be put together into a program that makes a real difference for our region.”

Tunnels and water transfers

Osha Meserve asked about water transfers. “Can somebody on the panel verify how many million acre-feet of transfers from upstream are necessary for the tunnels to operate as planned? I’ve seen 1.3 MAF in some documents. And in the future, if the tunnels are built and growth occurs upstream and these areas don’t want to continue transferring that water, will they be able to quit transferring the water? How are upstream areas going to make sure that they don’t bear the burden of what the projects need to operate in the new location, because as we know, the projects have been pretty aggressive in beating back additional requirements on them, so will those requirements come upon upstream users?

From Metropolitan’s standpoint, we don’t need any water transfers in order to make the system work,” said Roger Patterson (Metropolitan Water District). “What we need is the ability to capture our own surplus flows and move water out of Oroville. In drought years, we have entered into annual water transfer agreements in the past – this year wasn’t much, but 28,000 AF for the entire state project because it was so dry and they are voluntary programs. With the tunnels in place, you have the ability to do transfers without having that be a constraint, but as far as the need to do transfers, at least from our standpoint, that’s not something plan on relying on.

Ara AzhderianFor us, water transfers have become a way of life,” said Ara Azhderian. “When you look at the decline in supply and reliability that occurred through the 90s, our region responded with a multitude of strategies – we invested billions in high irrigation efficiency equipment, we’ve changed crops to essentially be able to underwrite those investments, and we pump more groundwater, but we’ve had to rely on transfers as well, and so I do see that continuing into the future. The biological opinions have impacted our ability to fully utilize that strategy. When CVPIA was passed, the notion then and it’s sort of a reemerging notion now is that water transfers and the water market are the solution to mitigating for regulatory impacts and so we did what we’ve been asked to do. The transfers that we do are all voluntary and so I don’t imagine a time when someone would be required to make the water available.

One last observation, at least with respect to the drought, the transfers haven’t just been the movement of water from Point A to Point B,” continued Mr. Azdherian. “Over the last two years, the growers in our region have advanced the US a quarter billion dollars worth of water that they’ve been able to use essentially to provide for winter-run temperature management, and so that water has sat in Shasta, it’s moved in the fall, and this year it sat in San Luis to meet federal obligations in the San Joaquin Valley and sat in Shasta. We’re still hoping to see that water move, so there’s been an enormous public and ecological and environmental benefit from those transfers occurring and our ability to work with the US to make that water available for those temperature management purposes.”

Rothert and AraI think I heard you ask a couple of other questions as well,” added Steve Rothert (American Rivers). “One I interpreted to mean, will upstream communities be able to say no to the transfers? I think Ara basically answered the question that these transfers are voluntary, but the area of origin laws, the 1931 County of Origin, the 1933 watershed protection statute, and the 1959 Delta Protection Act established the right of upstream communities to have access to water to develop. I think the courts have interpreted that to mean you can’t access that water from somebody else’s dam, but you can develop a water diversion for development in your area of origin, if that’s where you are.”

Just to reinforce that point, the State Board’s been very clear that the project in any of its future configuration will always be subject to future water rights considerations and updates to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, and that will continue as long as the project operates,” added Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources).

Tunnels, obstacles and limits

Rogene Reynolds from the South Delta referred to Mark Cowin’s earlier presentation when he referred to obstacles, “We all know the obstacles are the biops, the ESA, and everything else that is protecting the water quality and the species in the Delta, but I see the greatest obstacle is the actual limit of water available to develop, and my question to this panel, each of you individually, is what do you see is the real limit?

Mark Cowin 5We are at the limits of water supply development in California, there isn’t any doubt about that,” said Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources). “There’s no free ride anymore, no new water to develop, that’s why I said this morning, I do not see California Water Fix as a water supply development project. It’s a modernization of the State Water Project and the CVP allowing us to operate it in a more efficient and environmentally sensitive manner. We’re not planning on exporting new quantities of water unless the science actually leads us to a place where regulations acknowledge that there is more water available. I don’t see that happening. Our real motivation here is to stem the increase of more draconian regulations that further restrict water supplies throughout the state, so simple answer to your question, we’ve already surpassed any real new developable water in California. We need to learn to manage what we have now and do it in a more ecologically sensitive manner.”

Ara Azdherian had a different view. “Using Shasta as an example, as CVPIA and other restrictions have been implemented on the operations of the project, there has been a greater frequency of Shasta spilling,” he said. “Whether that’s just releases at the times that the flood control curves go into effect on October 1 or whether those are actual physical spills, that’s all water that used to be able to move, water that’s still available for CVP and water that’s been lost to the CVP’s use … so I do think there is water in the system that we were able to take advantage of previously that we can’t take advantage now today. Certainly if we’re building a Sites or we’re building tunnels, we’re going to optimize our ability to capture those big flows when they’re here so there’s a lot of water in this state. Typically, I don’t view our issue as being a quantity problem as much as it’s been a management problem and that management problem has been largely driven by regulations, so I do agree with Mark that going forward, the fastest path to new water is changes in the regulatory environment, but we’re going to need the science to help support that, and frankly because this isn’t just about the science, we’re going to need different policy choices to support that as well.

Water quality issues in the upper watershed

An audience member identifying himself as hailing from Tuolumne County said one of his concerns are the fires, and the water quality impacts that will follow, as well as capacity in the rim dams. “My concerns with all the water quality and all the water moving around is two things: the increased fire danger and the unraveling, we have hydrophobic soil, etc, that we repel, and we have a lot movement of soil coming down, which are going to basically just fill in the dams that are already silted in from previous stuff, so what are you guys thinking about enhancing capacity in the existing reservoirs?

Panel longshotSteve Rothert (American Rivers) spoke to the issue of forest management and preventing catastrophic fires. “I think the last few years with these phenomenal fires up and down the state, it has demonstrated that we haven’t done a good job of managing our forests in many places, and it needs to be improved. American Rivers has been working with some folks to identify common ground in forest management. It turns out there’s a fair amount from our perspective to work from to treat more of our forests for forest health and also to protect our water resources that the forest service really supports, so we’re hoping that over the coming years, our efforts and the efforts of many others will be able to change the way we’re managing our forests so we can reduce the risk of these catastrophic fires that fill up the reservoirs. My understanding is that many of the rim reservoirs actually have been filled with many cubic yards of sediment, but by and large, the storage capacity of many of them are not significantly reduced, thankfully, at this point.”

Andy Fecko (Placer County Water Agency) said forest and watershed issues are critical for his agency. “One storm that dropped an inch of rain ten days ago has brought down trees, mud, rocks, all through the watershed, and it’s going to cost my ratepayers a bunch of money, there’s no doubt that the impacts of wildfire are immediate and real and then long-term. It’s going to take a decade or two to recover that watershed to where it stops disgorging this material,” he said.

There is a success story on expanding capacity at Folsom Reservoir in the joint project to build the new spillway, Mr. Fecko pointed out. “The joint federal project at Folsom now with the new spillway infrastructure allows you to release much more water earlier in the storm cycle, and what that allows you to do in essence from a water supply standpoint is to run closer to the flood control curve so that you’re conserving more water through the winter and as you see storms coming, you can prerelease water. We have real time sensors now throughout the entire watershed and we know down to plus or minus a very small margin how much snow exactly is in the watershed and what the storms are like coming in. These forecast based operations allow us to not over-release and not under-release at Folsom, and what that has the practical effect of doing is you end every storm with where you started, and so you can run much closer to your flood control curve and you can go into the summertime higher at Folsom and provide some additional water supply reliability. I think that’s applicable west-wide, frankly. I think that every reservoir that’s an Army Corps reservoir or a Bureau reservoir throughout the west ought to be taking advantage of technology and forecast based operations to improve how intelligently they operate.”

Audience 1Steve Rothert (American Rivers) said that it’s ‘appalling’ that the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, who can address the very issues that we’re talking about – forest health, water quality, and protecting these water resources – they received something less than 1% of the total amount of money provided by Prop 1, and yet the Sierra Nevada produces 60% depending on the year of the water resources in the state. “I just find that unbelievable and I don’t’ really know how it happened … political processes are messy. But I think your group and the representatives that represent the Sierra can’t let that happen again because if we’re going to have a sustainable and reliable water supply in California, we can’t be investing half of 1% of the money directly into the Sierra, that’s just ridiculous … “

Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources) said we can all take that as an action item. “The simple answer to the question is that it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass a water bond, and votes are based upon population, so most of the funding sources are related to where the populations are. You might start with a much more balanced proposition, but by the time you get it through the legislature, it’s going to be always weighed towards population-based influence. I don’t think that’s going to change, but I do think it’s possible to work such that those representatives of the big population centers understand that it’s in their interest to invest in the upper watersheds and tributaries and that’s something we can all work on.”

Tunnels, Delta salinity, and the tributaries

An audience member asks about the tunnels and Delta salinity. “Is that going to put the pressure on the headwaters and tributaries to work on the salinity problem within the Delta? How can you move bypass and work on reverse flows without requiring more water out of the tributaries, whether it be the Stanislaus, Folsom, Tuolumne … “

Panel good allAt the end of the day, it’s the same amount of water being exported from the Delta from a different location, so the standards that projects operate to are still on the projects to meet, so the net balance is the same, the project operations are a little different, the water is exported from a different location, but it doesn’t put any additional burden on the tributaries or other non-project facilities,” answered Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources).

… and what if it remains dry?

Another audience member asks what is the plan if 2016 turns out to be as dry as 2015, and Melones and Folsom and McClure and all of the reservoirs are down in the 10-12%?

If it doesn’t rain, we’re all in trouble,” replied Mark Cowin (Department of Water Resources). “That’s essentially the plan. We operate our water projects based upon probability. Last year was maybe the third or fourth driest year on record, we managed to get by. We pulled reservoirs down further. One thing that you all might be interested in is the SWP actually came to the assistance of the CVP in providing use of Oroville storage to repel salinity such that less burden would be placed upon Shasta in order to maintain cold water pool there and less burden would be placed upon Folsom Reservoir, so that kind of project integration of course assist in this a lot. At the end of the day, it’s got rain a little bit or else we’re all going to be further stressed and we’re going to see continuing increase in the kinds of impacts we’ve seen over the last two or three years.”

For part 1 …

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3 comments

  • The truth is that California has too much agricultural demand for water. It must also acknowledge that the described irrigation efficiencies that are claimed by agriculture come at a cost of lesser groundwater recharge and greater groundwater depletion. An argument for continued agricultural expansion because of these false efficiency arguments is simply not justified. Taking more water out of the Delta flows does not provide any solution for any interest other than those of Kern and its co-conspirators. Solutions to the water supply for agriculture will require less permanent crop plantings in the desert regions where excessive water use is unavoidable. Best management practices dictate that water loving crops not be grown in a desert without a plentiful supply of water that can be obtained without damage to other’s water supply.

  • Joe Hill

    Too little water at times; too many people and demands on the water; too much agricultural use; too much Northern California being pumped to desert lands that were worthless without water. Money; power; real estate. Neo-liberals talking and managing will not do the right thing.

    http://www.outsideonline.com/1926421/leave-wilderness-alone

  • I labored through the whole thing and I am struck at the facility these folks have with words. I’m not sure how to describe it. Maybe there’s a term for the kind of group-speak PC babble I was reading. The entire proceeding could be shortened to 10%of it’s length if there were no necessity for B.S. These people were jockeying around for position so much that the whole point of the thing has become obfuscated.

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