Legislative hearing: Pending Delta decisions and their potential economic and other impacts on San Francisco and the Bay Area, part 1

Delta satellite sliderbox 2Secretary John Laird discusses Cal Water Fix with respect to the Bay Area; State Water Board’s Diane Riddle updates on the ongoing Bay Delta water quality control plan review process

On March 11, the Senate Select Committee on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta held an informational hearing in San Francisco that focused on the California Water Fix project and the State Water Resources Control Board’s update to the Delta’s water quality control plan, and what the impacts of the decisions made regarding those projects would have on the Bay Area.


Senator Lois Wolk, the Committee chair, opened the hearing with some introductory comments.

Whether we look at the Gold Rush, the early fish industry, or today’s hub of fine food, wine and farm-to-fork movement, the economy, the ecosystem, and the identity of San Francisco and the Bay Area have long been connected to this extraordinary watershed, the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary,” she said.  “The watershed is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. It includes the inland Delta, the confluence of California’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, the Suisun Marsh, San Pablo Bay, and the San Francisco Bay, the final outlet to the ocean. And of course, all of this begins in the Sierra.”

The Delta is the junction point between California’s mountain rivers and the salt and brackish water from the bay; the Delta is also the junction point of conflict in California water,” Senator Wolk continued.  “The fresh water from the Delta flowing into the bay creates many rich, vibrant and interconnected habitats that support fish, shellfish, marine mammals, birds, and our own communities.  In turn, these resources support important tourism, recreation, and fishing industries for the entire region and for the state and beyond. No other resource is as critical to maintaining his delicate balance and sustaining the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary as the presence of fresh water.

The Delta is the conveyance point for California’s two large extraordinary water systems; the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project,” she said.  “Exporting the water is an important action that occurs. Exporting water to the Central Valley, Southern California, and parts of the Bay Area. These exports, along with upstream diversions, drastically reduce the flow of fresh water reaching the bay. Bay Area communities, like Contra Costa, divert directly from the Delta. Others, like East Bay MUD and the San Francisco PUC, divert water upstream of the Delta and are affected when water quality in the Delta falls below safe levels.”

In addition to providing water for the ecosystem and our communities, the Delta has extraordinarily rich soil that supports over half a million acres of farm land,” said Senator Wolk.  “It is asparagus season. If you’ve had asparagus, it’s likely that it came out of the Delta this year. There are 1100 miles of levees within the Delta. They serve as roads, as highways, that connect the Bay Area to Sacramento and other inland areas. And these same levees protect gas storage areas, aqueducts carrying water to the Bay Area, and the 4 million residents within the five Delta counties.”

You all know that the Delta is in crisis. Several species of fish, including the iconic salmon, that support the Bay Area’s commercial and recreational salmon industry are in drastic decline.  As a result, there are several state and federal efforts, and pending decisions in these extraordinary efforts will determine the future of the Delta. Too often, the connection between the Bay Area ecosystem and the economy and the impact on the health of the economy of the Bay Area are overlooked, or sometimes completely ignored.”

Today we’re going to focus on that,” she said.  “First we will hear about the proposed Delta tunnels project, also called the Water Fix. That proposal will place [three] new massive intakes on the Sacramento River and will build two, not one, but two enormous 40 foot in diameter tunnels that will be 35 miles long in order to divert the fresh water above the Delta from the Sacramento River and divert it from the bay estuary. This $16 billion project will be partially paid for by Bay Area communities, including customers of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. We will hear from Resources Secretary, John Laird, about the pending environmental review and the petition from the resources agency to the state water board to change the point of diversion for the tunnels that are upstream of the Delta.”

The State Water Board is also updating the Bay Delta Plan which has not been updated since 1995,” she said.  “The document will establish the important rules on how fresh water must flow into the Delta. We will hear from impacts in the second panel, about the impacts of these very significant decisions on this region.”

JOHN LAIRD, Secretary of Natural Resources

Secretary Laird began by saying as the only speaker present representing the administration’s perspective, he would frame the issues from the perspective of the Delta ecosystem on the San Francisco Bay, and also talk about the not fully understood fact that most water consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area depend on water from the Delta or from tributaries to the Delta for their water and the water that fuels the economy of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Everyone in the Bay Area has a stake in the health of the Delta,” he said.  “The Bay Area water suppliers cannot feasibly replace the water they take from the Delta or its tributaries. Population growth and climate change heighten the need to maintain existing water supplies. In 2009, the legislature mandated that we strive for both Delta ecosystem health as well as water supply reliability in state policy. The water infrastructure constructed almost 50 years ago requires an upgrade, and a recent science study on the health of the Delta indicated that doing nothing is the worst of all possible alternatives.”

Secretary John LairdNo state administration since the construction of the water project has made any progress on the subject of ecosystem health in the Delta,” said Secretary Laird.  “This administration has six restoration projects on the drawing boards looking like they will move in the next year to start the long process of adding back wetlands to the Delta that are vital for the health of species in that region that have been in decline. Of those six … I don’t have an acreage number for one of them but of the five that do, they total 6700 acres of habitat restoration in the Delta. And that will move in the next year.

The story of water development in the Bay Area is no different than that of California’s other major urban centers, such as Los Angeles and San Diego,” he said.  “By the turn of the last century, growing cities and suburbs outstripped the ability of local creeks, rivers, and aquifers to satisfy the demand. So the Bay Area reached hundreds of miles away to find new water supplies, and eventually hooked into state and federal water projects that rely on the major water hub of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.  Without these systems, it could not support the 8 million people or the major employers or the economy of the Bay Area.”

In the 1920s, San Francisco tapped the Tuolumne River and diverted some of the flow of the San Joaquin River into pipes. Oakland, which later became East Bay MUD, did the same on the Mokelumne River, building dams and converting flows from that river before it flows into the north Delta. And in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project were being finished, other Bay Area cities signed contracts to get some water from the Delta centered systems. Some Bay Area districts also signed contracts to get water from the State Water Project’s North Bay aqueduct, which takes water directly from Barker’s Slough in the western Delta. Others agreed to pay for delivery of water from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project pumping plants in the south Delta.”

While some Northern Californians believe that water from the Delta goes only to the Central Valley and Southern California, that’s not the case,” he said.  “The list of Bay Area cities heavily dependent on federal or state water projects includes San Jose, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Freemont, Newark, Union City, Livermore, Dublin, Pleasanton, Benicia, Vallejo, Fairfield, Vacaville, and Napa, while some, such as those in the Silicon Valley and the Livermore Valley, depend on either the federal or state water projects, as well as the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s Hetch Hetchy system.

Secretary Laird pointed out that the extent of the dependence on Delta water varies among the different water districts.  “Santa Clara County relies on imported water to meet, on average, 55 percent of its water needs, with 40 percent conveyed through the Delta by the State and Central Projects and 15 percent diverted upstream of the Delta by the Hetch Hetchy project,” he said.  “A recent article by Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News detailed an outage of the pipe between the Santa Clara Valley and the San Luis reservoir, and indicated that with low water supplies due to the drought, the interruption of such imported water, if it lasted any longer, could have resulted in emergency water shortages for homes and businesses in the Santa Clara Valley.

He noted that Alameda County Water District, which serves 344,000 people in southern Alameda County, gets 40 percent of its supply from the Delta pumps and 20 percent from Hetch Hetchy, and Zone 7 water agency, which serves 245,000 people in the Livermore and Amador Valleys, imports 83 percent of its water supply from the Delta.  “These districts, at our request, are investing in conservation recycling and groundwater recharge to reduce their dependence on the Delta, and we have supported this through the governor’s water action plan and through Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that the voters overwhelming approved in November before last.”

But recent analysis by the districts themselves show that they cannot feasibly replace their Delta deliveries, and maintaining reliability of Delta deliveries is the most economic and practical way to serve their districts,” Secretary Laird said.  “In one report on long term water supply completed last month, Zone 7 agency staff weighed desalt and recycling and concluded that its reliance on the State Water Project could only be reduced from 88 percent to 73 percent. In a presentation to the board last month, staff at the Santa Clara Valley Water District analyzed whether additional conservation recycling, purchase of transferred water, or the California Water Fix would best meet its water supply reliability targets, protect its groundwater reserves, and meet other criteria, and they concluded that the California Water Fix best satisfies the district’s needs.

He pointed out that some of the alternative supplies still depend on water from the Delta.  “Zone 7, for example, purchases some of its supply through a transfer of water from the Yuba County water agency. Those supplies and any such transfer from a water district in the Sacramento Valley must still be delivered to the federal or state pumping plants. Zone 7, the Alameda County Water District, and the Santa Clara Valley water district all pay to store excess water in Kern County in the Semitropic groundwater bank. But as these districts found out in the severe dry year of 2014, deliveries from the water projects in the Delta must be possible in order for them to recapture what they’ve stored through the exchanges that they’ve done.”

Water recycling, which we support, helps stretch supplies and we need more of it,” he said.  “But recycling requires an initial supply. The Santa Clara Valley water district is working to expand its use of non-potable recycled water from about 15,000 acre-feet of water a year to about 29,000 acre-feet a year by the year 2035. As a point of comparison, the district gets on average 170,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Delta. In Zone 7, the staff concluded that their maximum reuse of water cannot exceed 7700 acre-feet because all of the options for reuse rely on the same sources of waste water. For comparison, Zone 7 has a contract for 80,000 acre-feet of water per year from the State Water Project, almost 10 times what they realize from water reuse.”

Bay Area water districts need to keep investing if they expect to meet the additional demand for water in the coming years.  ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments, projects that the population of Santa Clara County is expected to increase from 1.8 million in 2010 to 2.4 million in 2035. The Santa Clara water district expects demand for water over the same period to increase by 22 percent to a total of 94.000 acre-feet. In the East Bay service territory of Zone 7, the population is expected to increase from 245,000 in 2015 to 291,000 in 2040.  Zone 7 anticipates meeting future demands through conservation and new recycled water programs.”

Secretary Laird pointed out that climate change puts the existing supplies at risk. “Like nearly all water districts across California, Bay Area water districts are in a squeeze, and at the same time that they work to meet growing demand, climate change renders the future supplies uncertain,” he said.  “The Sierra Nevada snow pack feeds both the Hetch Hetchy system and the federal and state water systems, as well as the East Bay MUD system. By 2050, scientists predict the loss of at least 25 percent of the April 1st Sierra snowpack. That’s what we’ve been experiencing the last four years in substantial measure. That’s less than just 35 years from now that that could happen.”

We don’t know if the severe drought of the last four years is directly connected to climate change but we do know that this drought pushed some Bay Area districts nearly to panic and the extreme weather may be a sign of things to come,” he said.  “In early January 2014, Zone 7 leaders learned that all State Water Project pumping from the Delta could be stopped due to the persistent record drought conditions.  In an update the next month of their water supply analysis, they described the situation as under Delta pumping outage, that the Livermore Amador Valley would have no water supply coming from the South Bay aqueduct and would be limited to previously stored surface water in the local groundwater basis or water available in Lake Del Valle. In January 2014, about 60 percent of operational storage was available in the groundwater basin and Lake Del Valle was not full. For the first time in history, Zone 7 was facing a potential water supply crisis. The thing that saved them was their customers, in a large part, who collectively achieved 28 percent water reduction in 2014 and an amazing 39 percent reduction in 2015, something that is hard to sustain over time. And my mother is a resident of that district, and I saw what people were doing there to accomplish that. And I just say this to understand how reliant the Bay Area economy is on Delta water.”

It’s been a long time since the Bay Area last faced water shortages,” Secretary Laird said.  “That’s because water managers looked ahead, analyzed the risk, and invested for liability. One example is that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission supplies water not just to San Francisco, but to the counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, and San Mateo. And the SFPUC is well into a $4.8 billion multi-year capital program to upgrade its regional and local water systems. In all, 83 different projects are involved. They are spread over seven counties from the Sierra foothills to San Francisco, and this is one of the larger infrastructure programs in the state.”

One of the projects involved a new five mile long tunnel under San Francisco Bay. It connects customers on the peninsula with Sierra snow melt from the Hetch Hethcy system, and the new pipeline replaces aging infrastructure built in the 1920s and 1930s that traversed the bay on wooden trestles. The SFPUC wanted to build this tunnel to ensure water deliveries in the event of a major earthquake. The project took four years to complete, and it was substantially completed by May 2015 at a cost of $288 million.”

Those who operate the State Water Project and Central Valley Project are looking to make similar investments in reliability,” he said.  “The proposed $15 billion California Water Fix also would help safeguard water deliveries to the Bay Area in the event of an earthquake, flood, or any force of nature capable of knocking down multiple levees in the low-lying Delta. The cost would be shared by the 25 million Californians and the owners of 3 million owners of irrigated farmland who get some or all of their water supplies from the federal or state projects.

But this project is about more than safeguarding critical infrastructure, it also offers ecological benefits and flexibility that would in turn help stabilize the deliveries from the Delta,” Secretary Laird said.  “As the Chair said in her opening statement, the Delta is the spout on a funnel that drains nearly half of California’s land mass. It was once a vast mosaic of tidal and fresh water wetlands and riparian forests, where salty tides from the San Francisco Bay tangled with the outflow of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.  Now the Delta consists of roughly 67 islands, most of them farmed, and many of them 15 to 20 feet below sea level.”

Waterways once webbed the Delta like veins on a leaf,” he said.  “The land was drained and diked, and now there are far fewer channels. Those channels are lined with levees and riprap, but they still give passage to salmon moving between Pacific Ocean and Central Valley rivers. When the state and federal government built major water projects starting in the 1940s, big pumping plants were installed a couple of miles apart in the south Delta near Tracy. Those pumping plants sit on dead end channels that cannot be properly screened, and require the operators to repeatedly, and sometimes several times a day, lift fish out of the channels with buckets, put them in trucks, and haul them to a safer release spot in the Delta. It’s an endless operation that includes and involves fish mortality.”

More importantly, the influence of the pumps can extend to that key ecological zone where fresh and salt water meet,” he said.  “When operating, the pumps change the hydrodynamics and salinity gradient in the Delta, which might scramble migratory clues for fish. The pumps create cross Delta flows, which interfere with the more naturally tideline mixed upstream/downstream gradient.

Secretary Laird pointed out that the federal and state water projects are not the only stress upon Delta wildlife.  “Long before the projects were built, the Delta was drastically altered, with most of its wetlands destroyed and its waterways invaded by non-native species,” he said.  “But reverse flows from water projects are one potential source of harm to the Delta’s smelt and Chinook salmon listed today under state and federal endangered species acts. In the winter and spring, storms and snow melt fill rivers. They are the best time for the water projects to store water from the Delta. But for salmon and smelt, those are bad times to create reverse flows in the south Delta.”

What is proposed is to build three well-screened intakes on the east bank of the Sacramento River along a five mile stretch north and south of Hood,” he said.  “There would then be installed two 30-mile long tunnels under the Delta to carry water from the intake south to the existing pumping plants that sit at the head of the major aqueducts. The tunnels would be 150 feet deep, allowing life to go on as normal on the surface, and they’d carry water by gravity. It would be energy efficient. These new intakes and tunnels would allow the stop of depending solely on our 50-year-old south Delta pumping plants for diversion.”

If there was a new conveyance system in the Delta, we could pump some of the high flows from winter storms on the Sacramento River without interfering with south Delta flow patterns drawing fish toward the pumps,” he said.  “This would be reliability for the water deliveries. In this winter between January 1st and the first week of March, it’s estimated that if we’d had the new tunnels and intakes in place, we could have captured and stored an estimated 486,000 acre-feet of water without violating the biological opinions in place to protect salmon and smelt. That’s enough water to supply 3.5 million people for a year.”

There’s been a major concern that somehow the proposed Delta project would take more water than the present time, but in normal or dry years, no more water would be taken under existing conditions and biological opinions,” he said.  “But if there is a winter of heavy rainfall, once requirements are met for the environment and water supply, excess water could be stored for dry years. To the extent more water is taken, it would really be only under those conditions.”

I can’t overstate the importance of these missed opportunities,” Secretary Laird said.  “It’s an astonishing fact, but our state of 39 million people with its $2 trillion economy subsist largely on the bounty of five or six major storms each year. We can build drought resiliency by taking big gulps in big storms, and with new infrastructure, we can take advantage of high runoff in the rivers without harming fish or degrading water quality. We would reduce pumping at other, dryer times when it poses more risk to wildlife and water quality. But in all, we gain reliability, slight improvement in water supply, and are moving in tandem on ecosystem health.”

I think that Bay Area water district leaders understand that in the face of growing demand, climate change, and the costs and limits of alternatives, there’s great value in doing what it takes to maintain keystone supplies from the Delta,” he said.  “In its 2012 water supply master plan, the Santa Clara Valley water district concluded that its water supplies are insufficient to meet future water needs, primarily during droughts.  Reserves would be depleted during extended droughts and short term water use reductions of up to 30 percent would needed to avoid land subsidence.  To provide a reliable supply of water through 2035, the district concluded that it could do three things: secure baseline supplies and infrastructure, optimize the use of existing supplies and infrastructure, and increase recycling and water conservation to meet the future increases in water demand.”

The governor’s project, the Water Fix is about the first two of those pillars and the governor’s Water Action Plan has an all of the above strategy,” he said.  “In the history of California, water development has always revolved around one big thing. At one point it was the Central Valley Project, at one point it was the State Project, at one point for L.A. it was the Owens Valley. For Southern California once, it was the Colorado River. They’re all one big project and what we have done with the water action plan is say we can’t get to sustainability in California unless we have an all of the above strategy; sustainably managing groundwater, utilizing water recycling, doing storm water recapture, making conservation a way of life, increasing storage, including underground storage wherever it’s feasible, developing and restoring wetlands in the Delta and the Sierra that are not just good for sequestering carbon and climate change, not just good for water quality, but for forest health up there.  We are pursuing all those things and the water bond was tied to that in a new way.  The water bond really said we’re not doing a series of earmarks or series of projects, we’re setting goals in each of those places. And based on merit independently, we will make the grants for the projects. And we are getting the money out the door on that basis.

We need a broad range of policy solutions to deal with demand in the San Francisco Bay Area, and given the fact that the water for most of the 8 million people in the Bay Area comes from the Delta or from tributaries to the Delta, it really requires an opportunity to make that sustainable going forward,” Secretary Laird concluded.

DIANE RIDDLE, State Water Resources Control Board

Diane Riddle, Environmental Program Manager of the Bay Delta section at the State Water Board, was next to speak.  She said she would speak mostly on two topics:  First more broadly about the State Board’s planning efforts in the entire watershed, and then more narrowly on the California Water Fix.  She noted that she is limited in what she can say about California Water Fix as the board is currently in a hearing process for that project, and therefore ‘ex parte’ or off-the-record communications  are prohibited.  “It’s mostly with respect to our board members but in an abundance of caution, we extend that to our hearing team members, so I’ll report on things that the hearing officers and the board has already acted on.”

Ms. Riddle noted that the State Water Resources Control Board holds dual responsibilities over allocating surface water rights, and together with the nine regional water quality control boards, for protecting water quality throughout the state.  “The State Water Board allocates water rights through an administrative system that is intended to maximize the beneficial uses of water while protecting the public interest, the public trust, and preventing the waste and unreasonable use and method of diversion of water,” she said.

Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update

In order to protect water quality, state water quality law and federal water quality law requires the adoption of certain requirements that are included in water quality control plans that either the state water quality or the regional water quality control boards adopt,” she said.  “Those water quality control plans include existing and potential beneficial uses of water of the state, water quality objectives, to protect those beneficial uses, and a program of implementation to achieve the objective – including actions by other agencies and entities, as well as the surveillance, monitoring, and monitoring program.”

Diane RiddleThe State Water Board adopts the Bay Delta Plan because of its importance of a source of water for much of the state,” Ms. Riddle continued.  “The Bay Delta Plan protects water quality in the region and includes water quality objectives to protect municipal and industrial beneficial uses, agricultural beneficial uses, and fish and wildlife beneficial uses. Historically the plan has largely been developed to ensure that there is adequate fresh water flow and other flow related measure to prevent seawater intrusion and other measures needed to protect beneficial uses of water in the watershed from the impacts due to water development. Historically the plan has also been largely implemented by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project through a series of agreements.”

With respect to the Bay Delta Plan, the Bay Delta Plan is required by federal law and state law to be updated periodically,” she said.  “The last time the board updated the plan was actually in 2006, however, that was a minor update.  It was not a substantial update. The last time the board reviewed the plan to determine what issues it should continue to develop objectives for was in 2009, and that’s the review that now drives our current efforts.”

With respect to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Planning implementation efforts, the State Water Board is updating the plan in a staged process.  “While historically the Bay Delta Plan and its implementation through various agreements has focused largely on the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, the current update on the Bay Delta Plan focuses broadly throughout the watershed,” she said.  “We’ll be looking at priority tributaries and flow contributions from natal streams for salmonids through to the Delta and Bay.”

Ms. Riddle then reviewed the four phases of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan Review.  “The first phase the board is working on and the one that the board has started with and has almost completed, is the update of the San Joaquin River flow objectives for the protection of fish and wildlife beneficial uses and the southern Delta salinity objectives for the protection of agricultural beneficial uses,” she said.  “The second phase is a more comprehensive update to the Bay Delta Plan to address all of the other flow related and operational related measures in the Bay Delta plan, including Delta outflows, Sacramento River inflow, Suisun March and bay salinity objectives, Delta cross channel gate closure requirements, export limits of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, and potentially reverse flow objectives.”

Phase three is the water right implementation for phases one and two,” she continued.  “The Bay Delta Plan is that, it is a plan; it is not self-implementing. However, whatever the board indicates that they plan to do in that plan through their program’s implementation, they need to do. They’re required by law to follow through with and actually perform those measures. So the phase three process will actually be the process where the board modifies water rights and other requirements to implement the Bay Delta Plan from phases one and two. Phase four involves developing and implementing flow objectives for priority Delta tributaries outside of the Bay Delta Plan update process. However, there will be coordination, primarily with the phase two effort, to ensure that it’s comprehensive and not duplicative and that the two planning processes work together.

Ms. Riddle noted that with the drought and other efforts going on, additional resources were needed and so the governor’s budget included additional personnel and contract resources this year that will help to ensure that all of these planning efforts are completed.

At the end of 2012, the State Board issued a draft environmental document for phase 1 referred to as a Substitute Environmental Document, which is similar to a CEQA  environmental impact report.  The board received hundreds of significant comments on that document and has been working on addressing those comments in the San Joaquin River objective and the supporting environmental document.

The board plans to release a revised environmental document that responds to and addresses many of the comments that we’ve received later this year, likely during this spring,” she said.  “Following the release, the board will hold a series of workshops to receive additional input on the revised draft environmental document and the potential changes to the San Joaquin River flow and Delta salinity objectives.  We’ll respond to all of those comments and we’ll bring a final draft environmental document and the proposed changes to the San Joaquin River flow and Delta salinity objectives to the board for their consideration for adoption at the end of 2016 or early 2017. We’re really shooting for 2016.

For the phase 2 process, the board has been working on a scientific basis report which identifies the science underlying the potential changes to the Bay Delta Plan.  That document will be released for both public review as well as an independent peer review as required by the Public Health and Safety Code.  “We plan to do that in coordination with the plan one environmental documents to ensure that there isn’t an overlap and that the parties have adequate opportunity to look at both documents and comment on them,” she said.  “Following the release of the scientific basis report, the board will make additional changes to that document and will continue on the process that it’s been engaged with in developing another substitute environmental document for the phase two effort.  We plan to release that document for public comment during the summer of 2017 and bring the final environmental document and proposed changes to the Bay Delta Plan phase two, Delta outflow Sacramento River inflow and those issues by the spring of 2018.”

Phase three, the implementation of the plan, begins after completion of phases one and two, and may be further subdivided into additional parts as appropriate based on timing issues and other issues.  “In addition, various groups are working on settlement agreements in an attempt to implement the Bay Delta Plan that may also inform how the staging of the implementation process is conducted,” Ms. Riddle said, reminding that the Bay Delta Plan is not self-implementing. “It won’t be until that phase three process is complete that the update to the Bay Delta Plan and its implementation will be complete.”

However, Ms. Riddle indicated the process won’t be complete anytime soon.  “Looking forward to the water right implementation process, particularly if there are not satisfactory agreements, and even if there are, it’s likely to be a time consuming process because water right issues are often very contentious and those implementation processes will also require a hearing before the board which, in all likelihood, will likely be a fairly lengthy process.”

With respect to phase four, developing and implementing flow objectives for priority Delta tributaries outside of the Bay Delta Plan updates, the State Water Board staff is working on a methodology or more simply, standard operating procedures to develop regional flow criteria. “The strategy document will outline the overall goals and objectives of the phase four effort, as well as the processes that the State Water Board anticipates will be used to implement flow objectives in priority Delta tributaries,” she said.  “The flow criteria methodology will be used to supplement flow criteria information provided by the California Fish and Wildlife Service or other entities as necessary, and to develop a flow criteria in tributaries with limited flow related information. It’s anticipated that the flow criteria methodology and the list of phase four priority tributaries will be presented to the board for their consideration in early 2017. The goal is to develop the flow criteria and implement those flow criteria for three tributaries by the end of 2019.”

Cal Water Fix comments

Turning to the California Water Fix project, Ms. Riddle noted that her remarks would be comprised of information found in notices and letters that hearing officers have issued.  In order to construct and operate the Water Fix, DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation must first receive the approval from the State Water Board, including conditional approval of changes to their water rights to add the new points of diversion.

To approve the water right changes, the board must first determine that the changes as conditioned would not result in injury to other legal users of water, and the board must consider the effects of the project on fish and wildlife and the public interest,” she said.  “DWR must also receive a certification from the board that the project as conditioned will be consistent with water quality requirements pursuant to the Clean Water Act section 401.”

The Delta Reform Act also includes additional unique requirements for the Water Fix Project that requires any approval of the Water Fix to include appropriate Delta flow criteria for that project,” she said.  “Those flow criteria are required to be informed by a report that the State Water Board prepared in 2010 to look at what flows would be provided if fish and wildlife beneficial uses were the only purpose for which you are providing flows and without consideration of cold water storage needs in upstream reservoirs. These other issues, including the consideration of other beneficial uses of water, economics, and cold water pool considerations will be considered when the board updates the Bay Delta Plan.”

The board will also look broadly at flow needs throughout the watershed that may be met by water users throughout the watershed during phase three,” she said.  “The appropriate Delta flow criteria for the Water Fix petition will focus narrowly on the responsibilities of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. These flow criteria will then be revisited once the board has made changes to the Bay Delta Plan as the result of the phase two process and once that plan has been implemented.”

The Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation submitted a joint petition to change their water rights for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project for the Water Fix on August 26th. They submitted their application for water quality certification on September 24th. Then on October 30th, the State Water Board issued a combined notice for the petition and an evidentiary hearing on the petition in a separate public notice for their 401 application, the water quality certification application. The notice informs interested parties how they may participate in the hearing and in the decision making processes for the water quality certification. So in order to participate in that hearing on an evidentiary basis, parties were to have submitted their notices of intent to appear in that hearing by January 15th . The deadline to address a number of additional issues was extended to March 16th for specific amendments to notices of intent to appear.

We’ve gotten a lot of comments through the hearing process to date as to why the board is proceeding with the consideration of the Water Fix before the Bay Delta Plan is complete,” she said.  “Generally the State Water Board doesn’t delay consideration of water right petitions or water quality certifications pending completion of the water quality control plan.  With respect specifically to the Water Fix, the hearing officers to the Water Fix indicated that it would move forward with consideration of the Water Fix because it is important for the state to understand whether and how the Water Fix will proceed or not, since it is currently a central component of the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to address water supply and ecosystem concerns in the Bay Delta. As such, the hearing officers for the Water Fix determined that it was in the best interest of the state to move forward with the project to determine whether it’s moving forward and how it would be moving forward.”

She concluded her remarks by noting that there is much more information about both the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan and the California Water Fix proceedings at the State Water Board website.


Senator Wolk directed her first question at Secretary Laird.  “You said in your comments that no more water would be diverted than under current conditions. All of the science, including the State Water Board’s 2010 flow criteria which pronounce them insufficient, show that we’re going to need more fresh water, not less, in the Delta. So why not wait until a new baseline for fresh water flows is established and implemented before moving ahead with the tunnel project?

Secretary Laird clarified that his comment was that there would be no more water withdrawn then under normal or dry years. “It’s really in the wet years that might lead to any more water because of the ability to capture when it’s incredibly wet,” he said.  “We’re working really hard to do the analysis to make sure that it is available at the time to move.  There are always reasons to wait. The real thing is to attempt to do all the analysis and be read to actually act, and that’s the governor’s position right now.”

Senator Wolk and John LairdSenator Wolk noted that the Delta Independent Science Board said that their opinion in September of 2015 was that it lacked completeness and clarity in applying science to far-reaching policy decisions. “In addition, they spoke about possible extirpation – which is a new word for me that means extinction – of winter and spring run salmon, and Delta smelt. Given that caution, again, wouldn’t it be better to wait until we have some science supporting instead of casting doubt on the effectiveness and the tunnels before we move ahead?

We totally respect that contribution and the one thing that hasn’t come up yet, that might be one of your next questions and I’ll presuppose it, is what the next steps are in the process,” Secretary Laird said.  “There’s a goal to complete the environmental documents by this fall. But there were over 10,000 comments, including the one that you just mentioned, and there’s going to be a serious attempt to address every comment and the outcome.  There’s a key part that isn’t there yet, and that is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Services are completing biological opinions based on the operating rules for a proposed project, should it move forward, in order to get into the protection of threatened and endangered species. And so, with those criteria and that review of the two fish agencies on the board in conjunction with us responding to the comments, it’s our hope that we will address these issues really clearly and that people will see what the issues are to the extent that they haven’t been vetted yet.”

Senator Wolk then asked if the project were to move forward, who would have their hand on the pump and who would control the operation of this project?

The original proposal which was to do a 50 year habitat protection plan, would have required permitting but it would have vested a lot of the operations in the control of appointed groups or operational groups,” Secretary Laird responded.  “The shift to the Water Fix and Eco Restore to meet the dual goals really meant that it puts the permitting agencies in the driver’s seat; that it is really the conditions under which the fish agencies and the water agencies, to the extent anybody has a permitting role, approve the permits. And then they’re the ones that are in the driver’s seat going forward.”

This is particularly important to your constituents,” Secretary Laird continued.  “What I mean by that is that I’ve personally had ongoing talks with the five Delta counties and under the former proposal, the Delta counties were very concerned that they’d be at every single table that might exist for any operation decision would be made about any proposed project.  Without betraying what went on in private negotiations, I think we were prepared to offer that to them all the way through. When it shifted, it no longer had the need for or the process didn’t require independent things.  Frankly the Delta counties concerns was water contractors would be at the operational table and they wanted to be wherever the water contractors were. Now there’s not a place that the water contractors are in the same way because now, under the permit, it vests the rights to the permitting agencies.  We are still working and have asked the counties what is the appropriate, what do you want?  Given the existing process and if there is construction, for example, some way counties need to be at the table since it’s happening in their region, even though the idea of tunnels as opposed to a canal was to remove a significant amount of the operating impacts from the counties. But there has to be a way that they’re at the table and involved as things are going on in their very region. But the short answer, again, is that it vests with the permitting agencies.”

Senator Wolk then asked about the recent news of Metropolitan Water District purchasing land in the Delta.  “On a bare majority vote with the objection of Los Angeles and San Diego, [the Board of the Metropolitan Water District] voted to purchase Webb, Bacon Island, Bouldin Island, and most of Holland Track, a little bit of Chipps; and Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano, including land within the footprints of the tunnels. What is the implication of this purchase, the intent behind the purchase, and where does that fit into the California Water Fix?

We’re still analyzing the outcome of the purchase,” said Secretary Laird.  “Just in some ways we’re still surprised as anybody else because we aren’t involved in it and we had no control over it. It was a decision made independently by them, and as you said, under their weighted vote system by 54 percent of the vote as I read it. We’re trying to analyze what it is, because they bought it in the footprint of a piece of the proposed project. The reason I’m saying analyze it is because it’s where would there be proposed constructions sites or where would there be proposed things that might interact with where these islands were. … Obviously on the face of it, if it’s partially in the path of the proposed project, it will have some impact.”

I recognize the efforts that this administration has made in confronting the issue of climate change and responding with respect to water issues,” said Senator Wolk.  “This summer there were outbreaks of the toxic blue green algae, which hadn’t been as prevalent as they were this summer. Has the Resources Agency thought about how the Water Fix, how these tunnels, given the basic new normal that we should be living under will affect the frequency and duration of these destructive algae, not only in the Delta per se, but further out toward the Bay Area and the San Francisco Bay?

Yes, on at least a cursory basis,” said Secretary Laird.  “The fundamental question is, because the drought was a real precipitating event, is the drought a more new normal? And if that is a more new normal, these kinds of things have to be looked at in a different way rather than a passing thing because the drought is a passing thing.  I also chair the Ocean Protection Council and we just had the science presented to us on the harmful algal blooms in the ocean, which has caused a disaster off the coast roughly of Mendocino, in that region, where there is such a starvation of oxygen in the water that abalone are just washing ashore on the shore and that mussels are dying in place; they’re just disintegrating from the lack of oxygen.  The overall question that responds to yours, is this an El Nino thing of four or five degrees increase in the temperature of ocean combined with the added acidification of the ocean or are we, in fact, moving into a different era where this is a little more of the new normal and we have to figure out what we’re going to do and what is doable?  We just had a science report on runoff and DNA connections to land based things in the ocean runoff, and we will have a major acidification study that’s released in a few weeks.  All this fits together and we’re looking at it and we’re trying to assess if it’s a short term or long term.”

Senator Wolk then turned to the financing of the tunnels.  “The governor has been clear and you have been clear that those who receive the water will be paying for it,” she said.  “That, of course, would include Santa Clara County water district and others that you’ve referred to; they’ll be liable for a portion of the cost. Again, I didn’t plant the story, but I believe it’s worth raising about Westlands, which is a major partner and advocate for this effort, that they were fined for using, as the general manager said, Enron-style accounting to mislead investors in order to issue bonds.  That’s pretty disturbing.  And I’m sure it is to you too because they are to be a major partner in this effort. So my question to you is why should the state move forward with a project of this magnitude when you have one of the major partners raising serious financial questions that go to the heart of their own integrity?  That would be a very risky proposition for the state. Because who then, if there’s something similar that takes place over the many years that these bonds would be issued, who then becomes liable for all this?

Secretary acknowledged that the news was very disturbing to them as well.  “We found out about it just as you did, from the press reports of the FCC decision.  Overall, this is, as you say, a beneficiary pays project where the beneficiaries themselves have to decide to do it.  If that’s 25 million residents and rate payers and 3 million acres of irrigated land with water related districts that serve agriculture, it really depends totally on their ability and their willingness to pay for the project.  I think it is totally clear that the urban users have the financial wherewithal to do it. I think the question is how it does pencil out in the agricultural regions?  But the governor has been really clear; it’s beneficiary pays, so that’s what it takes to go ahead.  I think it’s just a law of economics that it won’t move ahead unless it pencils out for people when they sign up and they pay.”

Senator Wolk noted that we can assume the costs will be more than currently estimated because that is the history of large projects probably everywhere in the country.  “Who then is responsible if you see it as rate payers only involved in this, who then is responsible for the damage that would occur for the mitigations that would be necessary and for damages that would incur as these tunnels are built?

It’s under the permitting process and the bond issue in process,” Secretary Laird said.  “The people that issue the bonds and set up the schedule to pay the bonds are the ones that are on the hook. When the permits are issued, they are issued to agencies and the agencies are on the hook for the permits if they are the applicants and the permit conditions are put on them.”

You offered a comment about the cost,” he continued.  “Since this project was first proposed, it has constantly been changed and in many ways scaled. Well, the cost might have changed, but the footprint of the project has been scaled back from 35 mile long tunnels to 30, from a capacity of 1,500 cubic feet to second to 9,000, from five intakes to three intakes, from impacts around the intakes to scale back the size and configuration of the intakes.  One of the things will be that when the comments are responded to and it’s finalized, yes the cost could change based on if any further changes are made to the project because the costs have come down from the previous changes. And there always is a certain percent built in for if the project increases in cost.

Senator Wolk and Diane RiddleSenator Wolk then turned to Diane Riddle, and asked her about the 2010 Delta flow criteria report.  “The Delta flow criteria were deemed to be by your board insufficient to protect the public trust resources. Same question to you; why should the state board move ahead without a definitive determination and implementation of fresh water flows?

As I indicated to some extent in my comments, the 2010 report should be contextualized in that it wasn’t a water quality control plan update, it was a non-regulatory review of what the science indicates if other beneficial uses of water were not considered; municipal, industrial, agricultural uses, and you didn’t look economic effects and cool water pool issues, those kind of things,” replied Ms. Riddle.  “From that perspective, to give a little context for the report, that’s not to say that that bears on the Water Fix in any way necessarily. It’s just to give some context for the report for both the water quality control plan update, in which we will go forward and look at those issues, and in which they’ll be a part of the board’s decision making process in implementation and other things.”

With respect to the issue of why the board should move forward with the Water Fix before the water quality control plan is complete, again, what the hearing officers have responded to on this issue, it’s kind of a two part issue,” Ms. Riddle continued.  “Generally projects always come in while the board is under some other process to establish a policy or something like that, and as a general rule we don’t hold up those efforts pending completion of those processes. The other issue is that the water quality control planning process, while that will be complete by mid-2018, it will be another several years before the implementation is actually complete.  From the hearing officers’ ruling on this issue, what they remarked is that it’s important for the state to understand whether or not the Water Fix is part of the solution to the issues in the Delta with water supply and ecosystem issues.  So they decided to go ahead and move forward with the project. That was their response on that issue.”

Senator Wolk then asked, “Once the process is finished and if the water board deems that there will be increased flows necessary, fresh water flows into the Delta, and that the projects would not be allowed to export more, then who, or if more flows are requested and granted, who then provides those additional flows?

As part of the Water Fix, we’ll be looking at the appropriate Delta flow criteria for the Water Fix as required by the Delta Reform Act,” Ms. Riddle replied.  “Initially, we have our hearing process in which we will receive evidence from various parties, including the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation and all the other parties. I believe we’ve received over 100 notice of intent to appear at our hearing, so we’ll get the perspective of all those interested related to this issue as to what the appropriate Delta flow criteria should be. Those flow criteria would then be revisited in phase two when we look at what the flow needs are for the Delta ecosystem. We’re focused on what’s needed to protect the beneficial uses; we’re not focused on necessarily who will be implementing those protections.”

That then comes in the waterway implementation phase,” Ms. Riddle continued.  “The appropriate Delta flow criteria would be included in any approval of the Water Fix change petition would then be revisited in our waterway implementation process of the Bay Delta Plan.  There is no guarantee that the appropriate Delta flow criteria will be anything – that they will be the Department or the Bureau’s proposed project.  The board will take all of the evidence under consideration and we’ll make a determination as to what the appropriate Delta flow criteria will be. In addition, there’s no guarantee that those flow criteria would not change as a result of the implementation and efforts though the water rights to implement the Bay Delta Plan.  Those are all things that would be made clear to those, funding this project and determining whether they want to move forward with it or not. They would have an understanding both of what the initial requirements are and that these requirements could change in the future as the result of the update and implementation of the Bay Delta Plan. And then they’ll have to make a decision regarding whether that makes sense or not.”

Thank you. We all know that the amount of water rights exceeds dramatically, by a factor of eight, the amount of water that actually exists. So the entire problem with the system is a major one that the State Water Board needs to take into account,” responded Senator Wolk.

Supervisor Scott Weiner from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors attended the hearing and was given a few minutes to speak.  He noted the health of the San Francisco Bay and efforts to fund restoration by Bay-Area wide parcel tax, noting that the measure was crafted by a broad coalition of labor, business, and environmental stakeholders, and it will restore thousands of acres of wetlands and take other steps to ensure the long term viability of the bay.

In San Francisco we are deeply committed to improving water quality locally and to restricting our outdated approach to water; to really make our water system more sustainable in this punishing drought,” Supervisor Weiner continued.  “San Francisco has been a leader for many years in water efficiency measures, including requiring water efficient fixtures, the near completion of a new water recycling plant in western San Francisco, and other steps that have placed our city at the very low end of water usage statewide.”

Last year I authored legislation to require water recycling in new residential and commercial in San Francisco, making us the first city in the country to have that requirement,” he said.  “That same legislation also requires our city departments to prepare a plan to use recycled water for irrigation and other non-potable uses in our parks and public spaces within the next five years. We’re also working on legislation to require water sub-metering, so that all residents know their water usage and can reduce it. To address our structural water shortage and the crisis facing the health of the bay, we need to take bold action at all levels of government. We also need to make sure that we take bold steps that undermine the health of the bay and that don’t lead us to a sustainable water future.

Supervisor Weiner said he has heard from many of his constituents here in San Francisco who have significant concerns and questions about the Delta tunnels and the impact that it may have on the health of the bay.  “I too have concerns, and one of those concerns is that we have not had nearly enough local discussion here in San Francisco to make sure that the public is aware of the project, aware of the arguments on both sides, and aware that this is happening and what the impacts may be.  So I’m very appreciative for Senator Wolk bringing this hearing to San Francisco to help us raise public awareness in San Francisco. All of the stakeholders in this decision, everyone affected by it, needs to be at the table. That means that the proponents and the opponents need to be speaking with each other and engaging in dialogue to try to move our water system forward.

Coming tomorrow …

  • Hearing coverage continues with a panel of local stakeholders, including Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Dr. Tina Swanson, and others.

For more information …

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