A review of pending Delta Plan Amendments

Delta Stewardship Council’s Dan Ray briefs the California Water Commission on pending Delta Plan amendments for conveyance, storage, and operations, and investments in Delta levees

At the March meeting of the California Water Commission, Dan Ray, Chief Deputy Executive Officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, updated the Commission members on new amendments to the Delta Plan that are currently under consideration.   These amendments will be the subject of a CEQA scoping meeting on Friday, March 24th.  (Click here for more information).

Dan Ray began with the background on the Delta Stewardship Council, which was formed as part of the Delta Reform Act that was passed in 2009.   The Delta Reform Act set the policy in statute for the coequal goals for the Delta of a more reliable water supply for the state and a protected and restored Delta ecosystem, which are supposed to be achieved in a way that protects and restores the unique values of the Delta as an area for farming, for recreation, as well as it’s unique history and culture.  “We pursue those goals by developing a Delta Plan, a comprehensive long-term plan for management of the Delta and the parts of the state that affect it and affect the furtherance of the coequal goals,” he said.  “We finished that plan in 2013.”

The Delta Plan has 14 regulatory policies with which state and local agencies that are carrying out actions wholly or partly within the Delta that significantly affects the coequal goals or the state’s flood control systems must be consistent with the Delta Plan.  The agency files a certification to demonstrate that they are consistent; that certification can be appealed to the Council if a party thinks it isn’t consistent.  “They are pretty simple policies,” said Mr. Ray.  “I always like to joke that it’s barely more than what Moses brought down from the mountain and he didn’t need definitions.  We’ve had now maybe 10 agencies for different projects that have filed certifications successfully without appeal, so it seems to be a system that’s working pretty well.”

Mr. Ray said that the Delta Plan is really implemented by the many state, local, and federal agencies who are active in managing the Delta.  “Part of the reason the Council was established and the plan was developed was to provide guidance and coordination amongst those agencies,” he said.  “There are 73 recommendations within the plan; then we have a Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee that brings together the leaders from the key state and federal agencies such as the Director of Water Resources, the Secretary of Natural Resources, the Director of Fish and Wildlife and their federal counterparts and the chair of the Delta Protection Commission to represent local interests, they are brought together semi-annually to check in on the coordination on implementing those activities.  We also have the Delta Science Program within the Delta Stewardship Council whose job it is to provide the best possible science to inform Delta decisions.”

The Delta Stewardship Council is required by law to periodically review the Delta Plan and update it in response to changing circumstances and conditions.  The Council has amended the plan twice since its adoption, once to adopt a set of refined performance measures and once to exempt single year transfers from the plan’s regulatory processes.

Mr. Ray then reviewed the pending amendments.


The Delta Reform Act requires the Delta Plan to promote options for new and improved infrastructure related to water conveyance in the Delta, storage systems, and the operation of both to achieve the coequal goals.

It’s important to point out that it doesn’t tell us to pick a winner; it says ‘promote options,’” Mr. Ray said.  “In some ways, the unique thing in this is to talk about their operation and how it all fits together, which is a lot of what the Delta Plan is about.  What’s the big picture, how does this overall water supply and ecosystem restoration program work to obtain the state’s goals in the Delta?

At the time the initial Delta Plan was drafted, the CalFed storage studies were still incomplete, and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) was being drafted as a Natural Communities Conservation Plan.  The Delta Reform Act stated that if the BDCP were approved by the Department of Fish and Wildlife as meeting NCCP standards, it would automatically be incorporated into the Delta Plan.

We relied on that and we encouraged the completion of the storage studies that were underway at the time,” he said.  “There was a further recommendation that we work with your Commission and with ACWA to do a study of opportunities for smaller storage projects, because there was the thought that maybe some small things could be done more promptly than some of these large CalFed program reservoirs, and that work was done.”

Last spring, the administration pivoted away from completing the BDCP as a NCCP, instead pursuing the infrastructure under the traditional approach to state and federal endangered species act regulations.  “We had anticipated that in the Delta Plan, and said if the BDCP isn’t completed by January of 2016, we’re going to revisit the issue of conveyance and storage, so as soon as the administration announced the pivot away from completing the BDCP as an NCCP, the Council then began working on an amendment to the Delta Plan that would address conveyance, storage, and operations.”

The Council has been working on the amendment over the last year.  “We did a series of workshops with water supply experts and stakeholders came and interacted with the Council and offered suggestions about things that we ought to be contemplating and thinking about as we develop the amendment,” said Mr. Ray.  “The Council adopted a series of principles to provide guidance to the staff about how to pursue the amendment, and now we have a draft that’s out for public review.”

Because the Delta Plan is designed to be managed adaptively, they work in close coordination with the Delta Science Program.  “Strategies that are in the Delta Plan begin by identifying what are the problems we are trying to deal with, so in terms of conveyance, storage, and operations, the amendment is focused on the challenge of our current water management system that’s having to respond to water demands in a regulatory environment that it wasn’t designed for,” he said.  “When we need our water supply, it is right at the time when the Delta is most vulnerable.  Our systems of storage and conveyance aren’t sufficient in either capacity or flexibility to meet both the water supply reliability and ecosystem objectives we have for the Delta, and this is only going to grow worse as the climate changes.”

The draft amendment focuses on promoting options for infrastructure for water conveyance that calls for dual conveyance system in the Delta.  “Some people have misinterpreted that as saying ‘you’re endorsing the Water Fix’,” said Mr. Ray.  “We’re really trying to provide options.  We’re saying there ought to be dual conveyance, as we’ve lived long enough with the current system to see that it really isn’t sustainable, it’s damaging to the ecosystem, it’s not delivering the water supplies that we need, and it’s hindering our ability to plan for the future.  So we said, there ought to be a dual conveyance system, we’re not saying how big or necessarily where.”

The draft amendment identifies other conveyance improvements that would be helpful, such as relocating the diversion works for the North Bay Aqueduct or improving the interconnection of water systems in the East Bay.   The draft amendment also indentifies criteria that ought to be paid attention to when facilities are evaluated, designed, and implemented.

In terms of storage, the draft amendment encourages the design and construction of expanded surface water storage and the implementation of new or expanded groundwater storage facilities.  The draft amendment includes criteria drawn in part from the work on water storage done for the Water Commission, as well as understanding how storage can interact with the conveyance to meet the needs of the overall water supply system.

Then a new addition is the focus on operations,” Mr. Ray said.  “It calls for the Department of Water Resources and the CVP to develop on a 5-year basis, coordinated operating plans that would then pursue the coequal goals, showing how the overall system could be operated together to do that more effectively.  It calls again on the Water Board to update the Water Quality Control Plan and do so in a way that reflects the very dry water years that are likely to become more prevalent.  And it promotes data gathering and sharing in a way that is more transparent and helps us to track outcomes.”

Mr. Ray noted that as the amendment has been drafted, these are all recommendations and that none of these are regulatory policies.  The draft is available for public review.  They recently held public workshops across the state and the staff is now working to refine the discussion draft to bring it back to the Council for an additional set of public meetings.  After that, a preferred alternative would be identified and the CEQA process would begin to better understand the environmental impacts and mitigation measures.  The CEQA process will occur through the summer and fall with the anticipation of the Council acting on it in December 2017 or early 2018.


The Delta Reform Act also had provisions that required that the Delta Plan attempt to reduce risks to people, property, and state interests in the Delta by promoting strategic investments in the Delta’s levee network, and that the Council consult with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board in recommending those priorities.  “The assignment is to reduce risk,” he said.  “We know the Delta is always going to have residual risks.  We can’t build levee networks that are going to be invulnerable to the earthquakes and floods and the other hazards that Delta levees are subject to.”

Several years ago, the Council identified the state’s interests as protecting people’s lives, their property, furthering the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration while making sure we’re taking account of the Delta’s unique values, said Mr. Ray.

Mr. Ray noted that this is an update to the policies and recommendations that are in the Delta Plan today.  When the Council approved the Delta Plan, they knew there was more work to be done, so as soon as the initial Delta Plan was adopted, the Council began the process of more tightly describing the priorities for state investment in Delta levees.

The amendment identifies both project levees and non-project levees that should be priorities for state investment.  The amendment calls for continued partnership between the state, which provides the majority of the money that supports the maintenance and improvement of the non-project levees in the Delta – those that are not part of the State Plan of Flood Control and are in the rural portions of the Delta.  It calls for that continued state and local partnership and recommends that the existing subventions program which subsidizes levee maintenance of the non-project levees throughout the Delta continue to be available throughout the Delta system.

The draft amendment also lays out comprehensive complements to levee investments, such as keeping the rural areas that are flood prone in agriculture and other natural resource uses so new development isn’t placed in harm’s way and implementation of the emergency management programs that the five Delta counties have been working together with OES to improve.

The amendment calls for better inspections and reporting about the condition of Delta levees. “One of the things we realized as we did this work, is there’s a lot of disagreement and no shared information about what’s really going on with Delta levees, so we need to get a program together to make sure the levees are inspected regularly and that information is shared, so we all have some common information about what’s going on and not only what conditions are but what maintenance needs are most important.  It calls for continuation of the subsidies for Delta levee maintenance that are provided through the state’s Delta levees maintenance subventions program.

The amendment identifies areas that are very high priorities for levee investment, a second tier of high priorities, and then a third tier of other priorities.  The amendment also makes recommendations about broadening the way levees are funded; the overwhelming source of levee funding comes out of state bond acts, an unstable and not necessarily reliable source of funding to maintain and improve essential infrastructure.   So they looked at how to broaden the base from bond funding and assessments on property owners to include other beneficiaries of the levee system, such as railroads, highways, electric utilities, gas utilities and water utilities are making appropriate contributions to the levees that protect their infrastructure.

The draft amendment also talks about the importance of renewing the federal commitment to assist with levee reconstruction after disasters.  “One thing that has happened over the last decade is the long-term partnership between the state and the federal agencies, both the Corps of Engineers and FEMA for reconstruction and repair of Delta levees after disasters, has eroded, and so most of the Delta levee system, including the project levees that are part of the State Plan of Flood Control, are no longer eligible for assistance from the Corps of Engineers if they are damaged and need repair after a disaster,” Mr. Ray said.  “The hazard mitigation agreement that the state had with FEMA to provide federal assistance where the Corps won’t help with levee reconstruction after a disaster, that’s also been terminated.  For me, I worked on the Mississippi River for a decade, and I went through three 100-year floods, so I know how important it is to have the Army Corps and FEMA there to recover from a disaster, those are huge expenses.  Right now, we don’t have any assurance that they’ll be there for us.  They’ll be there to fight the floods, but when the flood is over, we may not have the assistance we need, so trying to renew that pledges of federal assistance is important.”

The amendment addresses ways flood insurance could be made more affordable, and when public access to levee networks might be appropriate.  “The levees line the Delta’s most important recreation access to rivers and waterways, and so there’s people who think in the Pocket here in West Sacramento and in other places, why can’t we use levees for bank fishing, for example, or for walking or bicycling, so we tried to identify ways that could be better considered – not required, but better considered.  And when funding decisions are made, the amendment discusses tracking how expenditures are occurring and how they are reducing risks in the Delta.”

The work on this amendment has been underway for over two and a half years; the amendment will be before the Council for approval at their March meeting.  The amendment will be followed up with recommendations to the legislature because some of the changes the Council is recommended would require legislative action.


Mr. Ray then addressed the Water Commission’s role in levee improvements.  “Buried in the complexity of state programs that assist with maintenance and improvement of the Delta levees program is the Delta Levees Special Projects program which was begun back in the 90s,” he said.  “It’s a capital improvement program in which state funds are awarded for improvement of critical Delta levees, especially those that protect infrastructure.  Typically the state in these situations is providing 90-95% the funds for these improvements, and it’s been very important for improvement, for example, for the levees on the western islands that protect Delta water quality.”

Perhaps unbeknownst to you, you have a potential role in this, because when the law was passed back in 1990, it told the Department of Water Resources that they should present a list of projects to you for approval,” Mr. Ray continued.  “That was a way to provide broad direction, and that was done in 1990 but we’re not aware that it’s been done since.  It probably made a lot of sense back in 1990 when the Commission played an important role in coordinating California’s ask for federal funds for water projects.  There was an anticipation then that there would be a Corps authorized flood control project that would assist with improvement of some of the Delta levees at least.  In the last couple of years, the Corps has finally completed that study and concluded that there is no federal interest in improving the non-project levees in the Delta.  It was a hard decision for many people to swallow but that’s where the Army Corps of Engineers is at.

One of the things we want to talk with your staff and you about over the next couple of months is what role do you all see for yourselves as this all goes ahead,” he said.  “One of the things about these Delta levees program and one of the reasons it’s been difficult to provide priorities for investment or track outcomes is responsibility for oversight of the program is dispersed so widely among so many different state agencies, so the Delta Plan is supposed to identify priorities for investment.  The flood board approved the regulatory guidelines for grant making through the subventions program, which can fund either maintenance or major rehabilitation of the levees.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife oversees the mitigation of environmental effects and makes sure that they have attained a net enhancement of ecosystem values through their investments.  The Secretary for Natural Resources is supposed to supervise the special projects program and keep track of a recreation plan for the Delta, so everybody has their finger on it and I think in some ways that’s meant that nobody was paying enough attention to really make sure that things were being accomplished, so one of the things we want to explore is are there some ways that it makes sense to sort of streamline or reorganize those oversight responsibilities.  We need to be talking with everybody to see what are their expectations, because it’s not like the Delta levees are unimportant for example to the state and federal water projects or the larger water supply issues that we deal with in the state.”

Commission Chair Armando Quintero asked if the Council was looking at the levees in terms of keeping the Delta in stasis or the long-term evolution of the Delta and the levees … ?

Mr. Ray said the Council’s approach is innovative in that it’s really a risk based approach.  With the assistance of their consultant Arcadis and the RAND Corporation, they have gathered data about the variety of assets that the levees protect, such as water supplies, property, how many lives are at risk, where’s the prime farmland, what’s the value of islands in their current condition, where is the important habitat for wildlife, cranes, and water fowl that depend on the levee system to create the kinds of wildlife habitat they use, or how might they be valuable if levees are altered to make tidal habitats, or set back a levee to make better habitat for fish, and how does this fit into the larger plan of state flood control.

So we’ve done is go through and look at what’s the risk that the current levees fail, how fragile are they, both to floods and earthquakes and so we’re putting those two things together, assets and hazard, to then identify where are the risks to state interests: lives, property, water supply, ecosystem, the greatest,” he said.  “We have thought about and considered information about what’s likely to happen as the sea rises, though our recommendations right now are focused primarily on the current challenges.  We understand how those challenges are likely to change over the next ten or twenty years.  It seems like they are manageable for decades but you get far enough out, it’s get a little challenging.”

The role of the Commission with DWR and the operation of the SWP, with the Chapter 8 responsibilities, and recognizing that this stability of levees translate to the ability of the SWP to meet its obligations and comply with the regulatory issues, all of that speaks to an absolute need for us to be closely coordinated with you,” said Commissioner Orth.  “I dislike silos, and I think as we move forward, I think it’s essential that the Commission looks at and is very closely aligned with the Stewardship Council as we start thinking about storage investments and as we start thinking about broader visions for how that storage is going to function.  Specifically with the levees, I don’t know if reviewing a list makes sense for us, but we have to be involved in understanding how those investments and those priorities are going to affect not only our Chapter 8 decision making process but our broader role of supporting DWR, so I’m asking that we take this relationship to a new level.”

For more information …

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