Delta Stewardship Council discusses draft principles for Delta conveyance, storage, and water management operations

The principles will be considered for adoption at the November Council meeting

Delta Stewardship Council new logoThe Delta Reform Act created the Delta Stewardship Council and tasked it with adopting the Delta Plan.  As part of the Delta Plan’s comprehensive management strategy, the legislation required the Plan to promote options for new and improved infrastructure related to water conveyance in the Delta, storage systems, and for the operation of both to achieve the coequal goals.

The Delta Reform Act also set forth several requirements for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, one of them being that it be completed successfully as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan, and if so, it would be incorporated into the Delta Plan.  If this were to occur, it would have added significant detail to the Delta Plan’s provisions about conveyance, system operations, ecosystem restoration, Delta governance, finance, and other details.

DSC CouncilHowever, with the bifurcation of the BDCP into the California Water Fix project for infrastructure and California Eco Restore project for ecosystem restoration, the BDCP essentially will not be completed as an NCCP and will therefore be subject to the Council’s covered actions process.

At the October meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, councilmembers were presented with the draft principles which were revised based on input from councilmembers and panelists at the September meeting.  Executive Officer Jessica Pearson began the agenda item by reminding the Council that the reason they are revisiting this issue at this time is because a provision in the Delta Plan committed them to doing so, should the Bay Delta Conservation Plan not successfully be completed. Over the past several months, they have drafted principles and brought in expert panels to comment and advise, and based on input from panelists and the Council, the principles have been revised, she said.

Kevan Samsam then presented the revised principles for the Council’s review. “The principles provide a high-level framework for what we will do when we move forward under the Council direction for updating the Delta Plan,” he said. “What we’ll try and do at that point is transition from guiding principles into more actionable or implementing language, such as performance measures or recommendations and possibly even regulatory policies if that is what the Council’s desire is.

DSC Kevan SamsamThe principles were introduced at the last meeting, which included a robust conversation with the expert panel members, he said. “The panel did make some suggestions where we could strengthen some policy emphasis, but overall they were very supportive,” he said. “In addition to the panel members, we went these principles to some sister agencies to get some feedback from them, and we’ve also received some written comments.”

He noted that they didn’t receive any feedback that the principles had any holes in them; the comments were generally supportive with some offering specific language suggestions.

Council staff has also been working with the science program to make sure the principles are grounded in the best available scientific information, he said. “They are collecting new information that’s going to help us in this discussion of conveyance and storage and operations,” he said.

He then went through the principles themselves, noting that there are now 18 principles; there were 14 principles in the draft presented last month.

Delta Conveyance Principles

Mr. Samsam said that there is one new Delta conveyance principle; the several others have been updated.

  1. New or improved Delta conveyance infrastructure should enhance the Delta ecosystem, including restoring more natural flows, and increase the reliability that water available for export supplies can be exported.
  2. Flexibility is key to new or improved Delta conveyance infrastructure. Conveyance improvements should be able to adapt to changing conditions (hydrology, climate change, and ecosystem needs) both near‐term and in the future while continuing to provide benefits to the ecosystem and reliably convey available water supplies.
  3. New or improved Delta conveyance infrastructure should increase resiliency of the state’s water supply systems in the face of future threats related to climate change and levee failures due to sea level rise, more frequent flood events and earthquakes.
  4. The benefits of new Delta conveyance infrastructure should be maximized by integrating with new and expanded storage projects, implementing projects that increase water‐use efficiency and conservation, improving groundwater management, and restoring the structure and function of some key Delta ecosystems. New Delta conveyance infrastructure by itself does not create any new supplies of water.

Mr. Samsam then recapped the panel comments. “What we heard from the panel members last time was that this was an opportunity for the Council to change the tone of the conversation, and that conveyance can be used to provide real benefits to the ecosystem, not just minimize impacts. We also heard from the panel that conveyance is merely part of a system; it in itself can’t do a whole lot and needs to be integrated with storage and operations.”

We heard more about flexibility; one of the panel members even provided a definition of flexibility which we have incorporated into these principles,” he continued. “What we’ve learned from science is that we continue to learn more about how conveyance and functional flows can be a benefit to the ecosystem. We received several comments on the term ‘available water supplies’ as it pertains to principle #2. A lot of people thought that wasn’t very specific, and my suggestion was to keep it vague at this point, because I think we are talking about all water supplies, not necessarily targeting ecosystem or export water supplies.

DSC Susan TatayonCouncilmembers then discussed the principles. Councilmember Susan Tatayon asked about the last sentence on the fourth principle, ‘New Delta conveyance infrastructure by itself does not create any new supplies of water.’ “It implies that it might be a goal to create new water supplies … I’m wondering about the intent,” she said.

The intent was to remind that conveyance is not the end-all,” Mr. Samsam replied. “New conveyance will not necessarily produce a new drop of water. Conveyance, along with storage, along with reoperation, storage is where new water can be developed and captured. Conveyance merely helps to more reliably deliver it, so it was more of a point of emphasis.”

DSC Mary PiephoCouncilmember Mary Piepho says she likes the last line in #4. “I think it’s important for folks to understand who may not be so involved in the dialog and the debate that the BDCP, Cal Water Fix, whatever the proposed project is or is going to be and the cost of that doesn’t create a single drop of water in and of itself, and yet they could be very expensive and have some impacts that people can debate, but it can’t and won’t solve a problem. All it is doing is moving supply. If we don’t have the supply, we’re limited in what we can move.”

Vice-Chair Phil Isenberg thinks what is missing in the statement that is in the Delta Plan already that these work together. “It’s probably fair to say that most of the advocacy groups take a preferred solution approach and if left alone, their solution would proceed and everything else would be put on a back burner. Our approach has been, you need to work on conveyance, storage systems, and operations, not one alone, but all three together, but if they serve the coequal goal, then you’re likely to help move the debate further and get some improvements. I think maybe an addition to the preamble might clarify that.”

Water Storage System Principles

Mr. Samsam said principled #6, #7, #8 are new principles, and principles #5 and #9 have been updated. Some of the original principles were combined, based on some suggestions received.

  1. New or expanded water storage projects above and below the Delta are necessary. They should enhance the ability to divert and store water during wet periods, contribute additional flows during dry periods, improve system flexibility to meet the coequal goals, and provide multiple additional benefits such as flood control, recreation, or hydropower generation. Projects enhance the Delta ecosystem when they help better manage water quality and water temperature ‐ especially during dry years, and when they increase the reliability of water supplies for wildlife refuges. Storing water in wet periods to use in dry periods also increases California’s water supply reliability.
  2. New or expanded storage projects should be cost effective. The amount of new storage that can be added to the system is limited by California’s hydrology and topography. Smaller regional surface water storage projects and groundwater storage projects can sometimes provide significant benefits at a more affordable cost.
  3. Groundwater storage opportunities should be protected. Groundwater basins in the Central Valley provide the largest amount of existing capacity to store excess flows from wet years. This capacity is threatened by land use decisions and by land subsidence caused by groundwater overdraft.
  4. New or expanded storage projects should provide both immediate and enduring ecosystem and water supply benefits. Climate change and California’s changing hydrology will challenge the ability for existing storage systems to maintain the level of benefits they currently provide.
  5. New or expanded water storage projects are part of a system and should support a comprehensive approach to managing the water cycle. This also includes conjunctive management of rivers, groundwater, surface storage, floodplains, and wetlands that enhance groundwater recharge and improvements in regional water self‐sufficiency.

Comments from the panel included that groundwater storage was key and the existing capacity needs to be protected, Mr. Samsam said. “There were multiple calls for emphasizing local and regional storage. We heard that maybe new storage should be based on future expected hydrology, not a historic hydrology, but more forward looking than backward looking to reflect the changing climate. Storage needs to be flexible. They are being tasked with providing new and additional benefits than they were designed to provide, and if we’re going to start today, we need to be aware of those future, what might be asked of a future storage system.”

Mr. Samsam noted that this is something Dr. Jay Lund from UC Davis speaks to a lot. “Additional storage capacity comes at higher marginal costs, putting water into and pulling water out of storage can be costly, therefore location of new storage is very important. As far as the large scale water systems, there’s a limit on how much new storage can benefit those systems, but groundwater needs to be emphasized more. And again, he emphasizes looking at local and regional.

Councilmembers and staff discuss wordiness of principles, but no discussion related specifically to the storage principles.

Delta Water System Operational Principles

Mr. Samsam said of the operational principles, #10, #13, and #16 is new and the rest have been updated:

  1. Water exported from the Delta should more closely match water supplies available to be exported. This should be based on water year type and consistent with the coequal goal of protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.
  2. Storage and conveyance should be operated to provide more natural, functional flows to enhance Delta inflows and outflows by storing water in wet periods and reducing diversions in dry periods, consistent with the needs of the Delta ecosystem and water users.
  3. Operational decisions should be based upon more accurate, timely, and transparent water accounting and budgeting.
  4. Additional water supplies can be derived from more efficient reoperation of existing infrastructure.
  5. Water storage operational guidelines should adopt a multi‐year planning horizon to ensure adequate carryover of stored water in surface and groundwater reservoirs at the end of each water year to buffer against multiple dry years.
  6. Surface and groundwater storage, whenever feasible, should be operated conjunctively to reduce long term groundwater basin overdraft and improve groundwater basin recharge.
  7. Conveyance and storage infrastructure and their operation should provide real benefits to the ecosystem, in contrast to just protecting the ecosystem from further degradation.
  8. Operation of storage and Delta conveyance infrastructure should be informed by best available science, adequately monitored and evaluated, and adaptively managed to ensure progress towards well‐defined performance measures.
  9. Ecosystem benefits should be assured through contracts, operations and governance protocols, or other enforceable agreements.

The operational principles are where all the magic happens,” said Mr. Samsam. “The actual conveyance or storage system – those are immovable objects. It’s all about what you do with those objects and so operational principles I think is where we really can do some good work.”

Panelists again emphasized groundwater in their comments, he said. “Groundwater storage can be used to help with some of our other principles, such as carryover,” he said. “We heard that there needs to be additional focus on ecosystem benefits, and we added principle #10 that is off our definition of water supply reliability in the Delta Plan.”

We also heard that there might be opportunities to squeeze additional water out of the existing system, either through reoperation or through revisiting operational rules, and through the lens of new technologies that’s been brought to bear for weather forecasting,” he said. “We heard some concern that we also have to not lose sight of why those rules are in place for protection of human life, but what science tells us and scientific information, it’s probably more refined but we already know. Less spring runoff will make balancing reservoir management for flood control and water supply more complicated, so the operation of that is going to become more complicated.”

Mr. Samsam noted the recent study released about using farms to bank surface water for groundwater recharge. “That is something for us to consider as we move forward.”

Vice-chair Phil Isenberg agreed that the operational principles are important. “I think you’ve got the right approach here, but if I was thinking of any one thing that is lacking is a statement that we can’t wait for operational changes to be formally acknowledged over 50 years. It requires immediate action, not painfully slow action.”

Mr. Samsam noted that Robert Shibatani provided examples of reoperation from flood curve rule changes successfully. “I think the Council has an opportunity here to be that advocate and take somewhat of a lead in this and identify opportunities where we won’t have the in-fighting of interests but everybody can have the same goal,” he said.

DSC Phil IsenbergMr. Isenberg continued, “The other thing that the principles that you’re outlining here do is they recognize something that is hard for entities with separate statutory duties to easily deal with, and that is the coequal goals and the notion of interconnected activity is inevitable and ought to be encouraged, not discouraged. This is a declaration that water operations have to deal with ecosystem, that ecosystem has to deal with water operations, they can’t be viewed in isolation … that’s the fairly dramatic and hard to achieve status that the Delta Plan is trying to push forward, and I think what you’re doing fits into that very well.”

I want to caution my colleagues that we are looking at this through a drought-lens right now,” Chair Randy Fiorini added. “I remind us that 96-97 flood events were an impetus, from a reoperations standpoint, to create more flood space in reservoirs, so reoperation means different things to different people, depending upon what lens they are looking through, so we need to be careful.”

Councilmember Mary Piepho references Dr. Jeffrey Michael’s recent commentary on considering the costs and financing in the Council’s conveyance principles. Referring to their current effort with the Delta Levee Investment Strategy, “To not talk about costs of a project in this body does seem to be a contradiction. … We’re focusing on it with levees but then we’re silent on it when it comes to the principles of a project or conveyance, and I don’t think that’s consistent.

I feel compelled to point out that this discussion is really in the context of an amendment to the existing Delta Plan,” said Ms. Pearson. “The existing Delta Plan is a legally enforceable management document that includes regulatory policies, including policies that would apply to a covered action, such as a conveyance project, such as a storage project should it meet the definition of a covered action. So there are regulatory policies that we are currently operating in and that we are looking to potentially augment the Delta Plan in light of existing recommendations and regulations that address not just those big infrastructure issues, but also these reduced reliance issues.”

Next steps …

Staff will refine the principles based on today’s comment.  The Council will consider adopting the principles at their November meeting, scheduled for November 19 & 20.

For more information …

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