DELTA PROTECTION COMMISSION: Delta Watermaster Michael George gives quarterly update

Update covers consumptive use study, implementation of the WIIN Act, and more …

At the November meeting of the Delta Protection Commission, Delta Watermaster Michael George gave his quarterly update to the Commission on the activities of his office and the State Water Resources Control Board.  In his presentation, he discussed the consumptive use study, an update on the activities of the State Water Board and the Delta Stewardship Council, implementation of the WIIN Act, and an update on a report to consolidate lessons learned from the recent drought.


The consumptive use study is a study of different methods for estimating consumptive use as it applies in the unique setting of the Delta.  Mr. George said that understanding and being able to measure water use in the Delta is important, because on the regulatory side, in-Delta consumptive use is part of the regulatory structure under D-1641 that governs the activities of the export projects.

The two-year study is winding down.   In October, a workshop bringing together all seven of the research teams was held in UC Davis to finalize the study results; the report and the appendices have been sent for peer review; a 50-page report will be published in a peer review journal, possibly even as soon as January.

The study looked at consumptive use of crops in the Delta, getting into much more detail and real-time data rather than just what the water use is on an annual basis.  Next, there is a need to better understand the consumptive use of water on fallowed land, because land in the Delta has a significant consumptive use, even if there is no crop on it.  In 2018, there is a study organized for 2 to 4,000 acres on land volunteered by Delta farmers to set up a comparison of water use between a well-managed fallow parcel next to a similarly well-managed agricultural crop so that they can look at different elevations and different areas in the Delta, and understand the consumptive use of fallowed land.

It’s also clear from the study that significant amounts of water in the Delta is consumed through evaporation from open water, from riparian vegetation, and from invasive weeds and species.  Mr. George noted that it appears that the consumptive use of hyacinth is 4 to 6 times the amount of evaporation from open water, so understanding the changes in freshwater demand as a result of changes in land use are the next things that the study will be looking at.  They are also working on a project called Open ET that will make evapotranspiration data available on cellphones so farmers can know what the ET is on a daily or even more short-time basis.  “We think that will be extremely helpful in terms of management of Delta water use and system water use as we go forward,” he said.

Mr. George said that a better understanding of evapotranspiration may help leap-frog the need to measure every diversion.  “We’ve become very aware of the fact that measuring diversions in the Delta as required by SB-88, turns out to be more complicated than we understood,” he said.  “It’s more expensive and it may not give us the kind of real-time data that measuring ET would give us, so hopefully this study that we’re just concluding will help us figure out a way to leap frog that diversion measurement.”


Mr. George then turned to the activities of the State Water Board.  He noted that Phase 2 of the Water Fix proceedings which will consider environmental impacts will start in January with hearing dates stretching out through July.

Perhaps more importantly is Phase 2 of the Water Quality Control Plan update which focuses on the Sacramento River, the eastside tributaries, and water use in the Delta.    Preliminary documents were released in October; with the comment period now closed, staff is now reviewing comments.

We anticipate that in light of those comments, staff will update some of the documents that have been released and use that input to develop a Substitute Environmental Document which will be a staff recommendation with engineering and scientific support primarily for managing flows, but also influencing other environmental stressors in the Delta,” he said.  “We think that SED is going to be out early in 2018.”

Mr. George noted that how the updated standards would be implemented is not included in the report, although he acknowledged at this point, it’s a bit premature because what those standards we don’t know yet what the standards are going to be.

The documents that we see today talk about what the water quality objectives are and how the State Board anticipates framing its balancing of various water uses throughout the Delta watershed, but it doesn’t tell the story of how those objectives are going to be implemented and I would say that’s an important thing to pay attention to as we go forward,” he said.

He also noted there have been significant personnel changes at the State Water Board.  Executive Director Tom Howard has retired and has been replaced by Eileen Sobeck.   Erik Ekdahl is the new Deputy Director of Water Rights, replacing the retiring Les Grober; his deputy in the enforcement division is Judy Lazatto.

Those are very important positions at the State Board, and they are emblematic of the fact that there are a lot of retirements going on,” he said.  “We’re going to see some significant changes among staff at the senior levels.  So I think there are some opportunities and a need to rethink some of the things that have been done and some of the strategies for going forward.”


The Delta Stewardship Council has proposed some amendments to the Delta Plan, first adopted in 2013, including amendments for the Delta Levee Investment Strategy and for the Conveyance, Storage, and Operation of both.  Those amendments are now undergoing public review of the CEQA documents.

In addition, the Delta Stewardship Council’s science program has revised the Science Action Agenda.  Dr. Cliff Dahm has retired as lead scientist, and Dr. John Calloway has replaced him.

Dr. Calloway comes from the University of San Francisco with frankly a lot more knowledge and understanding of the lower estuary – which we used to call the SF Bay Area; what they used to call the Delta, they are now calling the upper estuary,” he said.  “It’s really part of this notion of recognizing that there’s an entire ecosystem that goes from the headwaters to the interface with the Pacific Ocean and that understanding it and recognizing it as a whole ecosystem, rather than a series of regulatory opportunities under Endangered Species Act.”

The Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee is a group representing about 17 different agencies that meets every six months to discuss implementation of the Delta Plan.  “One of the things that happens there is that agency heads hold each other responsible,” Mr. George said.  “They say, ’we need this to go forward’ and they look to each other, ‘is your agency in or out’, and so there’s some pressure.  I can tell you as staff to our chair Felicia Marcus, preparation for that DPIIC meeting is an important aspect, because she wants to go there and say what we’ve accomplished that we said we’d do six months ago.  Everybody within the organization now is very well aware that there’s a report card due every 6 months and that is an important part of making sure that we don’t all just stay in our silos.  There is a commitment to actually getting stuff done under this plan.”


Since the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act or WIIN Act was passed last year, the federal agencies have been working to figure out how to actually implement the law.  Mr. George said the biggest challenge is the requirement in the WIIN Act to capture as much winter storm flows as possible.  This requires real-time implementation of whereas in the past, they had months to do the analysis and decision making.

So they are trying to figure out how long ahead of the storm estimate so they can reliably predict it so they can then enter into a process of very quickly doing a whole bunch of analysis and decision making that they now have to do in the period of time in between when they have a reliable storm estimate and when the storm actually comes in,” Mr. George said.  “So they are proposing a series of very rapid steps and trying to set up protocols so they can be done quickly, so that within a five or six day prediction window, they can make decisions about the extent of the storm, the likely hydrology, where the smelt are, what’s going on with the life cycles for the salmonids, and figure out how much of the crest of the flows they can capture.  It’s an incredibly detailed process under a statute that has a lot of ambiguity in it.  This is going to be a real-time drama to figure out how it’s actually going to work.”

Mr. George acknowledged that there have been changes in personnel throughout the federal agencies, and said that his sense is that the changes are mostly positive in the sense of getting more attention for California’s issues.  “One of the aspects of that is this structured decision making process where the Bureau of Reclamation has basically said, ‘we have to make a series of decisions about how we’re going to use scarce resources to effect our activities and actions in the Delta, and instead of doing it the way we used to do it, we’re going to use this structured decision making process where we bring other people in to help inform us and we’re going to do it on a more objective and more transparent basis.’  I think that has some real promise, because it gives people with points of view about how the project operates to actually weigh in and have their point of view, their needs, worries, and concerns taken into account.  However, the Bureau still retains the right to make the ultimate decision.”


Mr. George said that the State Water Board is working to consolidate the lessons learned during the drought into a retrospective that will cover the actions they took during the 2012 – 2016 drought and what was right/wrong with their response; how they reached the conclusions they did; and the models they used and what can be done to improve them.  The overall sense is that during the last drought, the State Board was information and insight data poor, he said.

In 2015, an information order required diverters in the Delta with pre-1914 and riparian rights to report on the basis for those rights; the State Board has done an analysis and a review of all of the information sent in response to that information order.  “In the short-term, we used your predictions on what was going to be used on a monthly basis to help inform our management in the Delta, but the longer term impact is going to be what are the water rights, what’s the evidence for them, and what’s the hierarchy so we can inform people better and be more transparent about what we will do in the next drought so you can plan better,” he said.  “It’s very clear to everybody that we got through the last drought primarily because of good planning and well designed responses by water managers.  It wasn’t because of regulatory direction, so one of the things we think we need to do is give better information and insight on which people can make their plans and have some understanding of how the Board will respond.”

The State Board plans to publish their preliminary conclusions in early December.  “The idea here is to get it out, say this is what you told us, this is our analysis of it, tell us what we got wrong, tell us what we’re missing, if there’s more information that has come to light or more analysis that you’ve done since 2015, when you had to put all this together in a very short time frame, now is the time to come forward with it, and we’re going to try and get that crowd correction and augmentation,” he said.

Mr. George said there are still some challenges, one being how to untangle riparian and pre-1914 water rights.  “They are separate water rights, but very often in the Delta, they are intertwined and tangled and in fact, there was kind of a boilerplate response by lawyers who said, ‘we think that our riparian and pre-14 water rights overlap and intertwine such that they can’t be separated,’” he said.  “So one of the things we’ve been working on is trying to figure out to what extent we can get a better handle on how to evaluate those different water rights.  We’ll be publishing some materials on that, asking for input from the water bar and from water users in the Delta.”

Mr. George concluded by noting that the overall objective is to be more transparent and predictable, and to learn from water users in the Delta.  “We know we’re going to have more severe droughts, we know we’re having to deal with changes wrought by climate change, and we’re trying to see if we can take the experience that we had in 2012 through 2016, and learn from it and apply it in ways that make us better able to manage when those droughts occur in the future.”

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