The Mountain Counties Area spans over 15,700 square miles, encompassing most of the Sierra Nevada. Much of the state’s precipitation falls here in the winter as snow, slowly and steadily melting in the spring to support the forest vegetation; then flowing downhill, filling the state’s rivers and providing water for cities and farms, eventually flowing into the Delta, where some of the water will be picked up by the export pumps and continue its journey south, providing more water for cities and farms and ultimately to Southern California.
More than 60 percent of California’s developed water supply and more than 75 percent of the Delta’s unimpaired inflow is fed by these forested watersheds in the Sierra. Together, the Sierra Nevada and the Delta are California’s natural water infrastructure, critical pieces of a complex system that provides clean, reliable water for the state.
But today, many Sierra forests are overgrown and lack resilience. Over 80 million trees have died in recent years, a result of a combination of overcrowded forests, drought, and bark beetles. Catastrophic wildfires are becoming more common, causing air and water quality impacts that extend far beyond the mountain counties region. Thoughtful management and increased investment in our forests and forest health is needed if state is to continue to rely on the vast water supply and ecosystem services the upper watersheds provide.
This forum will be covered in three parts. This post will cover the presentations by Jim Branham and Dr. Jay Lund. Tomorrow’s post will cover the presentations by Doug Demko, Dr. Bruce Herbold, and Jose Setka. On Thursday, the series will wrap up with coverage of Michael George’s presentation and the panel discussion.
The event was kicked off by Eileen Sobeck, the Executive Director of the State Water Resources Control Board, who gave some opening comments. At the time of the forum, Ms. Sobeck was quite new on the job, and so she briefly discussed some of the issues before the State Board, including cannabis regulations, the human right to water, and water conservation regulations.
She also briefly discussed the update to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, noting that the Board’s strategy is to look at the entire Bay Delta ecosystem on a watershed level and consider flow and non-flow measures within an adaptive management structure, rather than focusing on individual species or individual water rights.
“Our current planning efforts are proposing to dedicate a scalable portion of inflow of Bay Delta tributary systems to the environment, or as we’ve been calling it, some percent of unimpaired flow,” she said. “This approach seeks to restore system variability to which native species have adapted, and to provide a budget of water that can be adaptively managed to meet ecosystem functions.”
“While flow is critical, we clearly recognize that flow alone will not adequately protect fish and wildlife. We’ve heard extensive testimony and received thousands of comments that indicate that non-flow stressors such as loss of habitat and predation are contributing to the decline of the Delta ecosystem. We realize that and we’re trying to take that into account. We’re encouraging and inviting the development of non-flow measures to complement our flow objectives and we know that there are ongoing efforts for some voluntary agreements. I don’t know what the likelihood of success is as that’s happening outside of the Board process at the moment, but we welcome any and all creative efforts to address these issues.”
JIM BRANHAM: The health of the Sierra Nevada watershed
Jim Branham has spent more than 30 years working on natural resource and rural community issues in California; he has been the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Executive Officer since 2005. He began by noting that the discussion of the Delta would be incomplete without talking about the watersheds that feed it.
“We kind of operate on two basic truisms,” he said. “Healthy watersheds function better than unhealthy watersheds. And if we can take the actions in the watershed that will increase water yield, that will improve and help temper the timing of flows and avoid the kind of events that cause significant damage to our water infrastructure and the system benefits from top to bottom.”
He presented a map showing the boundary of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, noting that the Sierra Nevada is California’s primary watershed; it’s where the snow falls, the rain occurs, the reservoirs fill up, and then the water is transported all over California.
It’s difficult to predict the weather from year to year, but the projections of increased temperatures on an ongoing basis do suggest that that over time, there is going to be more rain than snow in the Sierra, potentially diminishing the snowpack and resulting in longer fire seasons, he said.
Mr. Branham noted that we had a great winter last year, but what we learned is that California dries out. “We have hot summers, and as you have hotter summers, even following really good winters, the fuels dry out and it will burn,” he said. “So these extreme events we’ve seen elsewhere and here, they may be the new norm. I’ll remind folks that when the Rim Fire happened in 2013, we were at the beginning of the drought. We weren’t even fully into the drought and we had the largest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevada.”
There are a lot of stressors in the Sierra Nevada; there are historic remnants from activities or lack of care that have resulted in unhealthy forests, meadows, and streams. “We lack the resources and the infrastructure we need,” he said.
A lot of the communities in the Sierra Nevada are facing serious economic challenges as the state has moved away from many of the activities and the industries that drove the local economies over the last few decades, and we never figured out quite how to replace that, he said.
“There’s a county supervisor from Calaveras County told me once, what we did in his part of the region is we’ve replaced jobs that were a part of managing the forests with meth labs and pot gardens,” he said. “We need to figure out how to reconnect economic vitality to the environmental well-being of the lands that surround them.”
When the forest is unhealthy, bad things happen, he said. There are often large, high-severity fires and massive tree mortality. The recent tree mortality happened very quickly and the good winter seems to have slowed the spread of mortality more than many of the scientists thought it would. However, Mr. Branham noted that he’s been out to the Tahoe National Forest in the last few weeks, and there are still some pockets of mortality and even if there’s another good winter, they’re not sure what it’s going to do.
The drought played a key role in that the drought led to the strain on the trees which allowed the beetles to attack the trees and to change them from green to red. But he noted it was also the fact that it was overcrowded with too many trees competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight, so the stress happens much more quickly when there are unhealthy forests.
The state set a new record for the amount of fire on the western slope of the Sierra; it’s already far beyond any previous decade that’s been measured and there are still two fire years to go so that bar will go completely off of that chart most likely, he said. (Note: this event occurred prior to the Thomas Fire, now the largest wildfire in the history of the state.)
“We’re burning a lot, but probably not burning as much as we did pre-settlement because lightning came and forests burned, but they burned very differently,” he said. “The other key point here is that the percentage of high severity fire just keeps increasing. A decade ago, the average was in the range of 20% high severity; it could be scattered around the landscape and it didn’t have the same kind of severe consequences. Fast forward to the King Fire of 2014, it burned at about 50% severity, about 2 ½ times more severe. If you’ve seen that fire map, there’s this big red blob that goes through the Rubicon and beyond that was pretty well nuked, so a lot more fire and a lot more high severity fire.”
There are a lot of fires, but the fires in recent years have been burning an incredible amount, Mr. Branham said. The Rough Fire was 247,000 acres and it simply dwarfed a lot of the other fires; a few years ago, 75,000 acres would have been a ‘monster’ fire, but by today’s standards, it’s much less surprising.
“We have a new norm that we’re dealing with,” he said. “Obviously there are all sorts of things that happen when that occurs, from an air quality standpoint to a greenhouse gas reduction standpoint, to water, habitat, you name it. When we have large high-severity fires, there aren’t very many good things that come from that, frankly.”
High severity fires cause 5 to 10 times more runoff and erosion than low severity fires, although Mr. Branham said it’s likely much more than erosion than that. There also isn’t any shade in the fire areas for the subsequent years after a fire, so the snow is completely visible to the sun and it melts much earlier in the year, and then the impacts to the hydropower and water infrastructure that lingers long after the fire is gone, he said.
Mr. Branham said they’ve been working to get a better understanding of the erosion that ends up in the reservoirs post-fires. “It’s not the easiest thing to go out and say we’re going to dredge it and restore that capacity, so we need to better understand that,” he said. “We’ve been surprised at how little information there is about what those numbers actually are, but logic and common sense tells you the dams are there for a reason, they capture the water and they capture a lot of sediment. In many of our reservoirs, we have some nasty stuff at the bottom of the reservoirs, mercury and remnants of our history here, so it’s a complicated factor. The easiest thing is to try and keep as much of that stuff out of the reservoir as best we can.”
So how does this all connect to the Delta? The Mountain Counties brochure points out that the region provides 40% of the state’s developed water supply; the Sierra Nevada Conservancy region is a bit broader and says 60% of the state’s water, but if you add the remaining watersheds not included in the Conservancy’s region such as the upper Sacramento, the Pit and the McCloud, it’s probably closer to 90% of the freshwater going into the Delta, Mr. Branham said. “There hasn’t been a lot flowing out of the San Joaquin in recent years, and most of the Sacramento system is fed by the Sierra Nevada,” he said.
We have a good idea of how we got here, he pointed out. “We’ve had decades of aggressive fire suppression, and fire suppression absolutely is important and has a role, but we have taken fire out of what was once was and still is a fire-dependent ecosystem and that has led to a lot of growth,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to put the kind of restoration efforts on the ground that we’ve needed to … we need to figure out how to move forward, and I think there’s a significant amount of agreement that we need to do more ecologically sound management, thinning, harvesting, and really we need to figure out how to use prescribed and managed fire at a much greater scale.”
We are well behind the curve, Mr. Branham pointed out. The USFS has estimated that they need to be treating about 500,000 acres a year in this state, however on a good year, they treat about 200,000 acres, so there’s a lot of catching up to do, he said. There has also been a lot of conflict; however, most have come to understand how damaging the high severity fires are, and scientists, local governments, and environmental groups trying to figure out what to do. There are still a lot of legacy practices; and where the larger trees have been removed, the vegetation that grew in its place is more conducive to carrying the fire through the stand, he said.
“We understand pretty well how we got there and we know what to do to a large extent,” he said. “We can argue around the margins, but we know what to do.”
Failing to act carries greater risk, he pointed out. “We’ve created process after process, policy after policy, rule after rule, law after law, all designed to try to keep us from doing bad things to the landscape, and they were well intentioned, certainly,” he said. “What’s happened though is we’ve begun to learn that the threat isn’t the project … The threat is doing nothing; that the lack of action is a much greater threat to the health of our watersheds than action. We still want to do it responsibly, still want to use good science, still need to be ecologically sound, but we can’t afford the no action alternative anymore.”
The Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program was launched a few years ago with the US Forest Service, CalFire and other state agencies, local government, environmental groups, and industry. The program working towards a common set of objectives: the program seeks to restore the health and resilience of these forests, streams, and meadows, to reduce the risk and consequences of severe wildfire, to reduce spread of tree mortality, and to sustain healthy flows into the Delta.
The watershed program groups the actions that need to be taken into three groups:
Increase infrastructure to support restoration efforts: There is need for wood processing and biomass utilization infrastructure; we’ve gone backwards over the last couple of decades, this remains a significant problem, he said. “The alternatives to utilizing material that needs to be removed to make the forest healthy is to put it in big piles and burn it, or to scatter it back on the landscape, neither of which are very good management practices,” Mr. Branham said. “All of us would like to get away from that.”
It’s also a matter of human infrastructure, he noted. People who work in the forests as loggers or running chippers are getting older, and a lot of young kids aren’t interested in doing the work. “We really need to attack that problem,” he said. “We really need to work with our community colleges, with communities, and with those people that are in the business of job training to make sure that we can increase that capacity.”
Policy issues: We need to sit down at the table and have honest discussion how things aren’t or are working. NEPA and CEQA processes that federal and state agencies follow can be cumbersome and time consuming and the oftentimes they get us to that no action or limited action alternative far too often, he said. “I think we can do things a lot differently and have the desired outcome without gutting any sort of rule or law, but we need to take it on honestly. We shouldn’t think of going out and restoring the health of the forests the same as if you were going to go out on the same land and build a strip mall, but sometimes the environmental processes don’t really allow you to distinguish that.”
We also need to figure out from a policy standpoint of how to get fire back on the landscape as a restoration tool in a state that has tightly regulates air quality. “The state has done a remarkable job of improving our air quality, but the numbers we’re seeing from wildfire compared to prescribed fire, they don’t compare,” he said. “We need to put prescribed fire back in there. We’re working with a lot of the air regulators and I think we’re seeing some progress.”
Continue increasing investment: Oftentimes, folks say that the government’s too stretched and can’t afford it, but Mr. Branham pointed out that we’re spending it every year on fire suppression or the back end of the problem. “We spend it every year, and we can keep pretending like we don’t,” he said. “We have to be honest about the fact that we’re spending the money at the state and federal level.”
The Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative is a multi-agency and entity partnership whose region encompasses the North Yuba River watershed to the South Fork American and includes the Truckee and the Tahoe Basin.
“We’re not achieving the outcomes that we know we need to achieve for the land, so we need to try some things differently,” he said. “The Forest Service and the state of California need to get over this silly notion that somehow because it’s federal lands, we shouldn’t be spending state dollars to help manage it. If we don’t drink water or breathe the air or care about recreation or care about the critters, then you’re right. But these federal lands are essential to all those things, so it’s a place where we’re really trying to put that on the ground.”
He then closed with a short video about the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative:
DR. JAY LUND: Water management and the Delta
Dr. Jay Lund began by noting the previous speakers have said that the threat is doing nothing. “I think we see this across a whole range of environmental management,” he said. “A lot of our regulations and our legal thinking on this really comes from the 1970s and late 1960s when we wanted to stop bad things. But we have a lot of bad things that are happening because we’re doing nothing, and I think it’s a very difficult challenge for us as a society and our legal establishment and the legislature establishment to try to adapt to that kind of management to a more modern and realistic way of thinking of how do we say yes to good things rather than saying no to things that might be bad.”
There is a big disparity in California in terms of where and when the water is and where and when we want it; we want it in the spring and the summertime where the people are and where the agriculture is, which is where the water isn’t, Dr. Lund said.
“From a civil engineering professor’s perspective, we have this wonderful set of infrastructure to move this water all over the state in space and in time,” he said. “Our reservoirs and our aquifers move it in time seasonally and between wet years and drought years. We have a very colorful system because we have all this infrastructure which is owned by a lot of different entities who have to kind of manage it together. In some ways that decentralization is terrible, you can read about it in the newspapers, and in some ways, it’s really good because it makes sure everybody has an opportunity to be heard and lots of different interests have some assets that they bring to the table for the fish usually.”
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the central hub for moving water from north to south, east to west, as well as in between seasons. Dr. Lund reminded that it isn’t just about the water exported from the Delta; many millions of acre-feet of water taken from the Delta upstream.
“When we look at the diversions from the Delta, people often focus on the pumps in the Delta,” he said. “Twice that amount of water is removed upstream of the Delta by those in the Sacramento Valley, by people in the San Joaquin Valley, by Hetch Hetchy and East Bay MUD; they take water and send it around directly through their own infrastructure to the Bay Area. So we’re all really dependent on this Delta. It’s all important.”
Dr. Lund said that the Delta is challenged by physical, ecosystem, and economic instability. “The sea level is rising and the land level is subsiding, and the main way that you stop that equilibrium from reestablishing itself is with money,” he said. “The Dutch have this problem, too. They have their land levels subsiding and sea levels rising. The Dutch solved this problem by putting Amsterdam there. If you put the major economic engine of your society in that territory, you will find the money to do it. But if you look at the subsided areas here in the Delta, they are mostly irrigated pasture, and corn. The higher value stuff fortunately is in the less subsided areas. … In many cases when we’ve done analysis on it, for many of the most subsided ones, it’s not a good business proposition. If it were to flood today, those farmers would say, ‘alright, I’m done.’”
The water quality is also an issue, not only for the local farmers and the local water users, but also for the export users, he said. “We have a lot of organic rich materials in the Delta, so that’s not too surprising. That’s of interest to the people that want to treat that water so its fit for human consumption and public health, and well as trying to keep salts out for agriculture and human uses as well.”
The Delta itself is a changing place; there are other things happening around the Delta that are important for the management of the Delta as well. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act just took away about 1.8 MAF of water supplies that they’ve been used to down in the San Joaquin Valley, and Dr. Lund pointed out that they have no other readily available source to replace most of that water; they are going to be looking to the Delta to keep as much of that as they can. “It’s a tough thing, and the Delta is going to tend to accumulate the problems of the rest of the system in a sense,” he said.
There are three major policy decisions for the state:
Levees: They were really the first human modification in the Delta. ‘Should I stay or should I go,’ that is the question for each of these islands, he said. “In some cases, I think we will find it’s not economical and not worthwhile, and others we’ll find that it will be,” he said. “How is the state going to organize itself, organize it’s regulatory processes, organize it’s subsidy processes, and the water rights processes to manage a lot of this? Our environmental management and our water quality management is affected by these islands staying or going. Each island is rather unique is this way. How do we do this analysis, and who will decide who pays? I think we can all agree that someone else should pay. We’ve all gotten very good at that. We just have to find that person.”
Ecosystem management: “So far, we haven’t been very successful at this. What do we want to manage for? Do we want to manage for recreational species? Do we want to manage for native species? If we have a choice of several different native species, which ones do we want to invest in first? How do we want to balance? There’s a lot to balance; there’s not a lot of resources. We really haven’t given that sector much to work with in a sustainable way. We’ve had these bond measures, they have a very boom and bust funding stream, sometimes the regulators who are supposed to be protecting the environment get in the way and there are studies that are needed to do to figure out what’s best. I think of these, this is the least well organized of all these policy areas.”
Water supply: This area gets the most attention to because it affects the most people directly, he noted. “Do we get our water supply from the Delta by going over it, under it, around it, or through it? I saw a picture from a World Bank report with a bunch of Indian ladies with bowls on their heads as they were walking from a well; we haven’t seen that proposed yet, but we’ve seen just about everything else proposed for ways of conveying water over, under, around, or through the Delta. And then the question will become who loses how much in that, both money and water.”
The Delta export pumps are located in the south Delta, so one of the biggest environmental issues has been since the flow on San Joaquin River is low most of the year, except for the floods, is that most of the water that’s exported is really Sacramento River water which has had to trickle through the channels before it gets to the pumps. “That reverses flow directions and really alters the ecosystems … it’s quite a challenge,” he said. “It’s quite a modification to the native ecosystem.”
Dr. Lund said there are only four ways to get water from the Delta: Through the Delta, around or under the Delta, dual conveyance (some through, some around), or end exports entirely. “I think the question right now with Water Fix is that we’ve sort of moved from peripheral canals to tunnels to do we want two tunnels, one tunnel, none tunnel … “
“One of the things I like about studying water is that water connects us; it connects the whole society on the water supply side, the wastewater side, the water quality side, and the recreation,” he said. “It brings everything together. We all use water in different ways. We complain about other people using water. I noticed that during the drought, water that is wasted is always water used by somebody else. It’s one of those things we have universal agreement on; waste is always somebody else that’s been doing it.”
There are a lot of uses for water in California, but almost all of it comes from the headwaters up in the mountains; the tributaries are the links to the Delta and the Delta’s main water supply. Dr. Lund noted that there will be changes in that water supply as we lose snowpack and there will be greater extremes from climate change – more wet years, more dry years, fewer average years.
Clearly we’re going to see some changes in that water supply with seasonal shifts as we lose snowpack; we’re going to see some greater extremities from climate change with more wet years, more dry years, and fewer average years. “California has fewer average years per extreme year than any place else,” he said. “California is weird, hydrologically. Not only because of its Mediterranean climate, but because we already have more extremes per average year of any other part of the country. As an engineering professor, it’s a great place to study.”
In the future, there will likely be on average a little less water because the higher temperatures will mean more evaporation, he said. Water supply quality coming in to the Delta into the Sierras will probably similar; there will be some changes, but fairly similar, he said. There will probably be more extreme storms, especially with less snowpack to dampen the bigger storms, he said.
Dr. Lund pointed out there are changes coming to the tributaries regardless of water and regardless of what happens in the Delta. There are people moving into upstream communities. There will be climate change effects.
He also noted there’s a lot of talk about environmental flows. “During the last drought, it really surprised us when we looked at the water rights, that there’s almost no environmental flows on most streams in California that are formally designated,” he said. “We’ve had environmental flow programs in several state agencies for decades, and they haven’t really produced a lot. And there’s certain interest in moving forward with that and I think it’s important that we do that reasonably and expeditiously.”
There will be changes in the forests too, he noted. “Is the thinning of the forest, whether it’s done naturally by these unnatural fires or mechanically, going to reduce the evapotranspiration and cause additional water to flow downstream? If it does, how much is it going to be and is there a way you can monetize that? What’s the accounting system you would need to get money for the guy that thinned that forest miles away that might have gotten a little more water supply. There will be changes in hydropower, recreation, the economy – lots of changes up here, all very interesting and a lot of difficult changes.”
Often at meetings, there are those that suggest that mountain meadows should be restored and the people downstream should pay for it because of the water supply or flood control benefits, Dr. Lund said. “I don’t think there’s a [strong connection] there, because there’s often a big reservoir that redoes the timing, so the benefits that actually see when you get down there for the water people are really pretty small,” he said.
Forest thinning might have some potential, and several people are doing research on this, he noted. “I thought about what is the maximum amount that I could ever imagine that you could get of more water from forest thinning, and I’d say a million acre-feet per year,” he said. “I think that’s probably five times more than it really is. Let’s say you could monetize $300 acre-foot for each of that million, well that would give you $300 million a year of revenue stream. I don’t think it’s nearly what you need to address all the forest management up here in the Sierra, and then the accounting and the bill collection is going to be difficult.”
Water quality benefits are likely to be smaller and harder to assess, he said, and the flood benefits are going to be dampened by the large reservoirs. The forest thinning hydrologically is likely to worsen the process of rainfall turning into flood flows. “It might accelerate flood flows rather than slowing them down as a thicker forest might,” he said.
Mountain counties have a lot of needs for support, such as water supply, water rights, funding, forest management, land restoration, environmental flows, and a lot of legacy water quality problems from abandoned mines and other things. “I think the real lynchpin for, point of leverage for the mountain counties in the Delta is trying to make the problem bigger,” he said. “There are a lot of statewide issues, and sometimes if you make the problems bigger, you can build a bigger coalition. You guys are important and people pay attention to you. Nobody ever pays attention to you as much as you’d like and in the right ways you’d like – with money, but I think you might benefit from larger solutions and being engaged in larger conversations.”
The future of California water management is really in portfolios, Dr. Lund said. “Our successes in managing water for any kind of purpose has come from hundreds of years of agony and suffering until we finally got organized with study funding,” he said. “A large part of the success was to look at the problem analytically, see how it works scientifically, and then let’s organize a portfolio of actions to address these problems, and in urban water supply and agricultural water supply, and this is sort of what we’ve done.”
“In a system that’s very decentralized such as California, one of the most central things in your portfolio of management is what incentives do you provide because nobody manages water in California – everybody manages water in California,” he continued. “Everybody manages their own water conservation, they pay their own bills, they use their own amount of water, and that’s the same for the farmer as for the households. We’ve got millions of decision makers, we’ve got thousands of agencies, so what incentives do you give them to play well together?”
These portfolios will occur at the local level, regional level, statewide level, and they all interact; however, we don’t really have a very good portfolio on the fish management side, he said.
“I think this is one of the big professional and institutional challenges – how do we craft effective portfolios for ecosystem management that give us what we want? By the way, we have to figure out what we want as part of that. It will be a difficult conversation.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Lund sees a lot of reasons for hope. Human water use has largely peaked in California, and the cities aren’t expanding much in terms of their water use. Rates of conservation are improving about as fast as the populations are increasing, maybe faster even. Water markets are helping civilize the discussions. We all agree we have a problem. The structure of our economy has made us much less dependent on abundant amounts of water; he noted that if the recent drought had occurred back in the 1930s when 30-40% of state’s employment was agricultural, we would have really suffered.
“We suffer a big drought like we’ve had now with an economy that’s less than 4% or so agricultural, the rest of us can help them out economically because we can’t help them out in terms of water supply,” he said.
Dr. Lund then gave his conclusions. “Portfolios are the core of success for most water management,” he said. “Headwater management is important, but probably less directly important for the Delta than many folks would like in terms of being able to monetize those services. Integration is really something that’s quite broad and it’s going to need to include local environmental benefits, both up at the headwaters and elsewhere. In order to do any of these negotiations that we need, we need to have a much better statewide water accounting system that’s shared between DWR and the State Board. There is just no end of problems if we don’t have a coherent accounting system for groundwater, SGMA implementation, for environmental flows, for water rights, for water contracts, water markets, and all kinds of things. And we’re going to have changes, we’d better be prepared.”
“Resistance is futile.”
COMING TOMORROW …
Coverage from The Delta and the Tributaries forum continues tomorrow with part 2: Dr. Bruce Herbold, retired EPA and fisheries consultant; Doug Demko, President of FishBio, and Jose Setka, Manager of Fisheries & Wildlife Division for the East Bay Municipal Utilities District discuss salmon and native fish species, the effects of predation and hatcheries on salmon, and end with the success story of salmon on the Mokelumne River.