THE DELTA AND THE TRIBUTARIES, part 3: Moving the Delta and the tributaries towards a sustainable future

The Sierra Nevada plays a critical role in California’s water supply:  Snowpack in the mountain provides a natural form of water storage, and the forests and meadows play a role in ensuring water quality and reliability.  More than 60 percent of California’s developed water supply and more than 75% of the fresh water that flows into the Delta comes from the Sierra Nevada watershed.

The Delta is the hub of the State of California’s water system, providing water to more than 25 million Californians and three million acres of agricultural land.  It is also the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, providing critical habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species, some of them considered recreationally and commercially important, as well as other public trust values. However, the Delta watershed is facing a number of significant challenges, including population growth, increasing water demand, loss of habitat, and impaired water quality.

In the last installment of coverage from the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association’s forum, The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its Sierra Nevada Tributaries: The Stressors and the Fix, Delta Watermaster Michael George discusses the Delta, casting it as a shared problem for the entire state, highlighting areas of agreement and disagreement, and giving his thoughts on how to move past the current paralysis towards a more sustainable future.

Then to conclude the day, all the panelists were invited back to the stage for a lively panel discussion moderated by Dr. Jeff Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

DELTA WATERMASTER MICHAEL GEORGE: Areas of agreement, disagreement, and moving forward towards a sustainable future

Delta Watermaster Michael George gave the luncheon keynote address, sharing his insights as Delta Watermaster, but noted that he doesn’t speak for either the Delta Stewardship Council and the State Water Resources Control Board, and therefore wouldn’t be giving any state perspectives.

He began by giving an overview of his role as Delta Watermaster, noting that it was a position created by the 2009 Delta Reform Act that came at the end of the Schwarzenegger administration.  He is an appointed official, and his role is as an independent officer of the state.  He is about 2 and half years into a four year term.  The Watermaster reports to both the State Water Resources Control Board and the Delta Stewardship Council.  The statutory responsibilities of the Watermaster are to administer the water rights in the statutory Delta.

I’m responsible for helping to accomplish the dual mandate of greater reliability of water supply and improvement and recovery of the ecosystem with the recognition that the Delta is a place where people live and work,” he said.  “We need a lot of coordination of all of those things, because there are instances in which there are tradeoffs.  You can’t have it all.”

The Delta: Our shared ‘wicked’ problem

The Delta is the hub of our complex and highly integrated water system; it is the result of a host of unintended consequences of well meaning but limited scope problem solutions, he said.  He acknowledged that most if not all of these programs were government programs designed to accomplish a societal objective, and the unintended consequences are what we’re living with and what we need to deal with today.

The Delta as it exists today was ‘reclaimed’, the result of when the federal government transferred the Delta to the state on the condition that the state would induce private landowners to reclaim the ‘swamp and overflowed lands’ by building dikes, drying out the land, and farming them.  Similarly, the governmental program of maximizing the beneficial use of water led to a great deal of development of water uses on the tributaries throughout the watershed, including up to the Mountain Counties, he said. We’ve done a lot of flood control to make sure that when the water does rise, it keeps moving and it doesn’t move out and flood that land as it used to when those were swamp and overflowed lands.  And finally, Mr. George noted that there are the exports of Delta water to Central and Southern California through the state and federal projects, but there are also the other exports of Delta water that occur upstream, such as the Mokelumne Aqueduct by East Bay MUD, San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy, and other upstream developments that take water for distant use that would otherwise come through the Delta.

As a result of all of that, the Delta is so irretrievably altered that I think we all recognize that it is just not possible to restore it,” he said.  “So what are we going to do?

The Delta faces numerous stresses, he said.    “The Delta is failing; it is not sustainable as it exists today,” he said.  “Whether it’s going to be sea level rise, or floods, or earthquakes, or some manmade disaster, we are in an unsustainable circumstance in the Delta.  Our challenge and our opportunity is to figure out a way to manage to something that will be sustainable, otherwise the opportunity to manage will be taken away from us.  The Black Swan will land and we’ll have something, we’ll call it a disaster, but the disasters are waiting to happen because of the fragility and instability that we have in the Delta, and because it is the hub of the water system, it is a problem that we all share.”

Areas of Disagreement

The first step in problem solving is deciding whose problem it is, and as long as it’s someone else’s problem, then we don’t have to deal with it, so we’ve got this whole list of positional arguments about whose is at fault and who did this to us, Mr. George said.  “There are promises all over the place – promises to south of Delta users, promises to area of origin, promises to in-Delta farmers and some of those promises cannot be kept.  Many of those promises have already been breached, we’re loath to admit that, but it’s the fact, and it creates a lot of the disagreement that we have, because we all have the promises that were made to us that we hold dearest, and they are embedded in legislation, which means that they are fertile ground for the lawyers if they are breached.”

When the Delta Reform Act was passed, there was a $14 billion water bond in the package that was put off for a few years and then downsized, so it does less than what was intended, Mr. George said.  “We also hid behind the fig leaf that users and beneficiaries will pay, without ever having the courage or conviction or the capability of saying how do we identify what the benefits are and how do we account for the value of those benefits, and how do we collect on them,” he said.  “So we disagree about that.”

We have a lot of regulatory structures, he said, likening the permitting process to ‘the hall of a thousand doors’.  “We have to somehow figure out how to reduce that regulatory overlay which over and over again tries to do something good or prevent something bad, but it never gets harmonized with the next solution, so we’re left with the last issue, the last disagreement that we always have, what am I going to do if I don’t get what I want?  And that’s where the lawyers come in.”

Areas of broad of agreement

Despite all the bad news, there is good news, Mr. George said.  There are broad areas of agreement and the growing sense that we are all in this together.  “We used to talk about the Delta and the San Francisco Bay and the tributaries and the Mountain Counties and I think we’re now coming to a more mature understanding that it is a system and it only works well for any of us if it works, and so the whole watershed is involved,” he said.  “Notwithstanding what our lawyers say in their briefs, we all understand that nobody has secure water rights unless we can bend the curve, unless we can start to make the environment work better for all of us.”

We also are dealing with the effects of climate change, Mr. George said.  “We might disagree what to do about it in the sense of stopping it or slowing it down, we might disagree about the origins of it and where we are along the curve, but you can’t live in California without understanding that this is a shared problem that’s going to affect all of us in ways that will be profound compared to the way we have come to understand and live in California.  And notwithstanding the proposal for the state of Jefferson and the signs that I see as I’m driving up here, we are one state.  We work better as one state if we can work together, so I think those are broad areas of agreement.  We are in this together.

Secondly, we can agree that our infrastructure is old and vulnerable and that that’s a risk to all of us, he said, noting that it is inherently cheaper to maintain and renew what we’ve got then to replace it when it fails.

Starving our infrastructure for routine maintenance simply defers the bill,” he said.  “Yet we know that the financing of either the maintenance or the renewal and replacement of our infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult, and it’s extraordinarily difficult among other reasons, not just because we’re cheap or we wouldn’t pay for it we could, but because our mechanisms for paying for it are seriously constrained.”

Another area of broad agreement is that the headwaters demand attention, which is demonstrated in the consistency among MCWRA’s Policy Principles (2014), ACWA’s Resiliency Framework (2015) and the Governor’s Water Action Plan (2016).  “The whole ecosystem and our water supply is all at risk if we don’t pay attention to this problem,” Mr. George said.  “Certainly the catastrophic wildfires have underscored it, and unfortunately, those catastrophic wildfires have now invaded urban space.  As tragic as that is, it underscores the fact that we’re all in this together, and we dare not ignore the problems of the headwaters any longer.

There is also consensus on ‘no regret’ actions, which includes new approaches to fire suppression, the need for biomass thinning, managing erosion, and restoring meadows.

The current paralysis

We may not know everything that we need to do, we may not have a way to pay for it all, but we know that there are certain things that we can do to make it better at the margin,” Mr. George said.  “These are things we know how to do, so with these areas of broad agreement, how come we’re still paralyzed?  Here’s the hint. … Democracies respond to crises, they are not very good at organizing prevention or solutions.  But the current paralysis is not just because these problems are really complex and the financial and political constraints are really serious; they are also paralyzing because we often have allowed our tribalism, the people we know and hang with and who think like we think, that trumps that sense of community, that sense that we’re all in this together.

Secondly, he said that we tend to negotiate out of habit from our historic positions rather than from a focus on what our interests are.  “We’re engaged in these massive negotiations that we think are fundamentally unfair or rigged or designed to benefit somebody else, and so we hold back on the expression of our true interests, and focus instead and send our warriors out to focus on positions – what we’ve always known, what we’ve always thought, and what happened the last time we were dragged into litigation.”

We also know that our system for allocating water resources is arcane and outdated, overlain by a lot of contradictory legislation and common law, he said.  It’s a mess and we all agree it is a mess, but what we can’t agree on is what would be better, he said.  “I say let’s avoid that and let’s deal with as far as we can the system we’ve got, let’s honor the commitments to the extent that it is possible, and let’s honestly and openly negotiate those circumstances where interests can be served but not in the old way.”

We also have to recognize there has been an enormous amount of detrimental reliance; people have made decisions, they staked their fortunes, their livelihoods, and their families’ futures on government policies. “They have a right to have relied on those policies, and we can’t just say well that was then, this is now, because that threatens the very equity on which any agreement depends,” he said.  “If we know that the last agreement was breached when it became convenient, we have no faith, no confidence in the agreement that we’re making today.   That equity imbalance is underscored by some really serious asymmetry in that a lot of the costs of fixing the system under our current way of managing resources is focused on a very small group of people, but the benefits are broadly spread and hard to account for, and hard to recover in dollars.  We’ve also blown our credibility because so often we have provided situational responses that are inconsistent with our promises and with the expectations that we’ve created.”

Moving toward a sustainable future

So what can we do to bend the curve toward a sustainable watershed?   Mr. George said that it would be valuable to have long-term consistent governmental policy.  “I find in the Delta that when I talk to people about whether it’s the water quality control plan or the Water Fix or the measurement regulations, it’s a fight.  But as soon as you ask the question, what would you like the Delta to look like when you hand it over to your grandchildren, if you can look over the horizon, you get a lot of agreement.  People want the environment to be better.  They want the economy of the state to wisely use the precious resource that water is in an efficient way, but they want the water allocated so that we continue to be a thriving state.  So I say let’s build on some of the agreements that we came to in 2009, and let’s step back from these nitty gritty pieces, all of which are important and need to be conscientiously developed along the way, but let’s look at how to go beyond single species, let’s look at our ecosystem.”

I do think we need to do some work on tempering our own warriors so that they don’t get in the way of making progress in fear of giving up some long held position, even if it advances your interests,” he said.  “Science has to be integrated.  We talk about One Delta, One Science.  Get rid of the combat science.  And that means embracing adaptive management wherever it’s feasible.  Try some stuff. Take some risks.  See what works. Measure it carefully.  Monitor it rigorously, and learn from your mistakes, because they are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them.

And finally, I’ll leave you with this, which is to take to heart, the wisdom of the Rolling Stones.”

Thank you.”

PANEL DISCUSSION: The value of the headwaters to urban areas, predation, one tunnel or two? and more …

The last item on the agenda for the day was a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Jeff Mount.

The value of the services provided by the headwaters to the urban areas

Moderator Dr. Jeff Mount directed his first question to Jim Branham.  He noted that area of origin issues and the responsibilities of the Mountain Counties has been a long-standing issue, but our views are changing, and the drought a really good job of bringing some of that forward.  “There are an array of benefits that come from the headwater areas, and water from this area goes for example, all the way down to San Diego, and makes it to San Diego and its mixed with water they get from Wyoming, for example, and their toilet.  So why should they care?”

JIM BRANHAM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy

I’ll go back to the idea that California water policy and the water system we have is not only complex, but no one in their right mind would have ever devised something like this, so we all are connected.  I’ll start with the fundamental notion that if the Sierra Nevada mountain range is able to provide both a stable supply but actually put more water into the system and less water used above the dams by trees and such, putting more water into the system in and of itself takes pressure of the system.   So wherever you are in California, there’s some benefit to having more water in the system.”

San Diego as you say gets water from lots of different places, but all of those places are under stress wherever you look.  Healthy watersheds produce a more reliable source and put more water in the system.  We may never be able to quantify the exact relationship between forest stand and forest conditions and water yield, but we know enough to know that there is a relationship. … More water in the system and more stable infrastructure in the system is going to benefit everyone.

The other thing I would say to the people of San Diego is that it starts with water, but it’s much bigger than that.  It is a lot of other things that the Sierra Nevada watersheds provide benefit: it’s climate, carbon, and GHG emissions.  I would argue that one of the things we’re learning is maybe we need to flip that on its head.  It’s actually the role the forests play in absorbing carbon when they are healthy and storing it there for a long time.”

To consider it a different way, I think it’s key to California meeting its climate goals.  The good thing about forests is that we’re not going to manage them just for water supply.  We’ve learned not to manage them for just one outcome; we’re going to manage them for a suite of benefits.  The really good news, we call it the Goldilocks theory, is there’s a ‘just right’ way.  If you get it just right, you get benefits for habitat, for water, for carbon, for air, for recreation and so on, and so there’s a range of benefits that will come.  Some of them you can’t see or smell, but the people in the Bay Area found out some of them, when you don’t do it right, you can taste and smell and see …

Funding headwaters restoration

Moderator Jeff Mount asked about monetizing or funding headwaters restoration. “You’ve made a case for that kind of benefit, but we know that something like Prop 218 would defeat any efforts to try and get that.  Do we have existing mechanisms that would allow you to collect money from Californians in a way that might accomplish this?”

JIM BRANHAM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy

We do; we have a couple of ways that California can go about that.  The first is something we are using today and we have been using for a number of years and that is going through a process where the state of California sells bonds and generates funds.  All Californians get the privilege of paying back the costs of those bonds and then we invest it; we have a range of activities that occur, and so that’s the model we’ve generally been using.  By and large it’s from a watershed perspective, but watersheds haven’t fared very well in terms of getting a very big slice of that pie.  It’s not a very sustainable model; it has peaks and valleys and it leads you to take a shorter view.  As an agency that gets money, you think about what can we do in 6 years.  You do a bunch of random acts of restoration and public a report, because you can’t lay out a 50 year plan.  So that’s the way we’ve been doing it.”

There are other opportunities in the future that don’t exist under existing law that I think are a better fix, but the other way we could do a lot more of that is to turn again the model on its head.  If we could spend half of what CalFire is spending each year on fire suppression, and that doesn’t mean initial attack fire suppression, that means after initial attack, we could make a real dent in restoration.  The money is in the system, the mechanisms are there, we just can’t quite seem to flip it in such a way …

“So why not general fund?,” asked Moderator Jeff Mount. “If that’s the case, if you’re reducing the costs of fire suppression and improving air quality, why not general fund money?  How come we never talk about general fund money?”

JIM BRANHAM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy

“There are certain activities in state government that over time have been moved out of general fund, normally because there were other competing interests that were viewed as  having a higher priority.  I would argue that once you’re out of there, even when times are better, it’s really difficult.  Secretary Laird worked with the Governor’s office this year to put an idea forward in the state budget which was to take a fairly small amount of general fund money and as he described it, make it available to spend like bond dollars.  But we’re beginning to move away from these periodic bonds and have a more stable source.  It was a very small amount, it made it to the second house, and then fell out because the legislature couldn’t see even taking a small amount from general fund.”

The other thing I would say from a watershed perspective which is the reality we face in California, there are a lot of competing interests for general fund and there are lots of voices in the legislature for those urban needs that quite frankly drown out the idea that the state could invest general fund in a way that could actually save money over time.  Politics.”

“We’ve explored bonds, general funds, and statewide fees,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “But what about here?  The changes in regulations and policies in the state such that Mountain Counties could do for themselves, those are the things that allow them to do most of the work themselves.  I’m leading towards the notion of making it easier to restore forest health without a lot of money coming in from the state and federal government.”

JIM BRANHAM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy

I’m going to answer that question in two ways.  I don’t think it would be appropriate for that to occur, given the benefit.  If we could go back to that arcane water rights system and said we’re going to start over again, we’re going to charge you for acre-foot that we send down the river, and we’ll take that money and reinvest that in watershed health, then of course we would.  But the Sierra Nevada has a long history of value being extracted out and we get left with what’s left.  That’s kind of where we are, so the ability to self finance, the ability to do it ourselves, is very limited.  The problem is too big.”

Having said that, we’ve got a situation here in this particular watershed with Placer County Water Agency and we have a partnership with El Dorado Irrigation District in the South Fork American; they are investing, they are putting their money where their mouth is in projects, and I think that could be a part of the solution …

“Why are they doing it and not others?” asked Moderator Jeff Mount.

JIM BRANHAM, Sierra Nevada Conservancy

“There are probably people in this room that could answer that question … the State Sierra Club recently launched a campaign which they are calling their anti-biomass campaign, so it’s basically any effort to utilize biomass is a bad thing.  They’ve taken a step back from that because the local chapters of the Sierra Club raised hell with them, because many of them have been a part of the collaboration we’ve been working on, they saw what had to happen, and the answer to that is they live in the community and they see it.  It’s a different issue for them.  So I think for these water agencies, they’ve been more engaged.”

The issue of predation

Moderator Jeff Mount then turned to fish and the Delta.  Directing the first question to Doug Demko, he asked, “You spent a lot of your talk focusing on predator control.  And you well know this is a very controversial issue in which many of your scientific colleagues don’t think this is a good idea.  We start at the outset, striped bass have been fully integrated into this system for more than 100 years.  My question for you is, are you tackling a symptom or are you tackling a cause?


I hear about this co-evolution thing, something which I’ve never heard about, the idea of native and non-native species co-evolving together … Maybe we’re at the tipping point where we’ve got so many stressors in the system, and obviously it goes back to water, it goes back to habitat, and it goes back to all of the other non-native species; you get to the point where in the system, the salmonids can just no longer handle that one additional stressor.  I’m sure striped bass were a problem 100 years ago, but when you look at the number of fish that were present, the number of salmon that were moving down the system, it was much more than we have today, so I’m sure a hundred years ago, they were eating the salmon as well, and I say this in jest, but maybe it just took them a hundred years to get to the last few.  They couldn’t eat them all at once.  It’s a matter of the incremental change over time.”

We certainly don’t believe it’s only the striped bass, but I certainly believe they are a significant issue.  If you have a known predator that is loosely identified as a problem, to just ignore it because they co-evolved together or because they are a sportfish – I just don’t see how that is an appropriate management strategy.”

“I’m going to represent Peter Moyle here,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “What you’re describing is utterly unsustainable.  As soon as you stop that predator control, you know what happens – they come back.  So the issue is you’re not addressing the fundamental stressors that are driving this.  One of the major problems with predator control is that everywhere you do it, with the possible exception of lakes where you can clean them all out … this is why I push back on this.  You’re going to have to tackle all these stressors at the same time.”


I think that’s the case.  I don’t think there’s any one stressor we can identify at this point in time that’s going to actually fix the problem.  I do think that some of our management actions are just going to have to happen in perpetuity.  You look at the Columbia system and they are over ten years into their predator control program for the native species; it’s proven to be effective and financially cost-effective, so if you have a control method or a solution that is cost effective, financially effective, why would you stop that?  I would see that some form of predator control and it may just be changing angling regulations to suppress predators, not exclude them or get rid of them entirely, but knock their populations down because things are so out of balance that you would probably continue that into the future.”

BRUCE HERBOLD, Fisheries Consultant

There’s always an apex predator so if we get rid of striped bass, then we go after the largemouth bass, then we go after the pike minnows as they did on the Columbia, and at some point, it becomes absurd.  The problem that came out when the Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission looked into predation problems, and the focus there was on how we amplify predation impacts.  Not that predation itself or that the predators are the problem, but that we construct things where predation is really easy and Woodbridge Dam is a really nice example …  That’s not really the problem; the problem is what we have done to make it into a problem, so I’m very skeptical.  And I don’t see it being successful.”

Identifying those things like really sharp curves in rivers and streams that produce really down-driving currents that make lovely predation holes – those shouldn’t be there, and those are entirely man-constructed issues, so I would look at that.  When I was a student at UC Davis, we went up to Red Bluff Diversion Dam to look at predation rates there.  We caught striped bass, and half of them were stuffed full of salmon fry, and the other half was empty.  So it’s the location and the numbers of them that’s important.”

When we were doing Delta cross channel work, we had fyke nets out and we’d catch maybe 1 in a day.  And then we released our tagged fish, and in the fyke net nearby, we suddenly had 47 big striped bass show up in it.  So if you release a whole lot of fish, it attracts predators.  If you build odd structures that produce odd currents, it attracts predators.  Killing the predators is unlikely to succeed.”


I agree with part of what you said, but science is all about skepticism.  I’m skeptical, too, but that doesn’t mean you ignore and you don’t research the problem.  Where we are in California right now is that we’ve identified predation as a problem, and we’re not even researching it because it’s a state policy decision, and I just don’t see where being skeptical on something is an appropriate pathway forward.  It seems like we know the mortality of our juvenile outmigrants in some of the tributaries, it’s 100%, and it’s probably the number one problem.  Is it caused by habitat?  Is it caused by lack of water?  Is it caused by predation?  There’s good evidence that it’s caused by predation and just to not research it, to not move forward.  We’re scientists.  Isn’t this what we do rather than ignore .. ?”

“I think Doug, you get my point and we agree that if you don’t research on it, you cannot answer the problem,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “I will tell you a large number of your colleagues out there think we’re dealing with a symptom, not the cause.”


Dr. Gary Grossman made this point, we were testifying in Congress a couple of years ago and he made the point that we shouldn’t research, we don’t want to remove predators and we don’t want to do something, because we don’t want to upset the balance.  My God, the non-native fish biomass in the Delta is what 98% non-native.  Do you really think you’re going to break the Delta?  What could we possibly do research-wise to make it worse?  But I think it’s worth a try.”

Why restore the Mokelumne (as opposed to other areas)?

Moderator Jeff Mount directed his next question to Jose Setka.  “One of the things is that we’re making such an immense investment there on the Mokelumne River, and the amount of money EBMUD is spending, you could spend that same amount of money somewhere else in the watershed – I’m thinking to the north, and get far greater return on your investment.  We wrote about this years ago when we talked about the concept of specialization – that looking at the economic efficiency and the environmental efficiency of expenditures, we might actually be able to raise a lot of fish including spring run for example as well as fall run, by making your investment somewhere else and letting the Mokelumne be a warm water non-native fishery.  Why didn’t you guys do that?”


Why the Mokelumne River hatchery is there is that it’s a mitigation hatchery …  we have a responsibility as the law and regs are written right now to do that.  So we spend – between the hatchery and the river program – probably about $3 million a year on that program for 6000 fish, or about 12,000 fish … we’re going a lot better now.  9000 average, we’re doing a lot better now.  I think what’s gone on with the hatchery and the genetic issues is because up until very recently, we were operating off an old-school mentality; everything was done by convenience.

We had a steelhead program there.  That steelhead program, up until the early 2000s was run entirely from bringing eggs and fish in from other facilities.  Why? Because staff didn’t run the ladder any longer than they had to, so they stopped in January, and brought everything in.  Since the early 2000s … we have some steelhead returning, and last year actually we had a record return over 700, so those changes have yet to filter through all the facilities but what we do now is a lot different than what we did in the late 90s and early 2000s but still, it’s a domestic animal, by and large.”

Issues with hatcheries

“We have one of those trade-offs we don’t’ tend to be real honest about in this system,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “One of the tradeoffs is that we want to have wild fish and all the genetic splendor of wild fish.  At the same time, we want to mitigate the effects of our commercial fisheries and recreational fisheries … so we had this emphasis on fall-run salmon which is principally for recreational and commercial fisheries.  Is it possible we cannot do both in this system?  That the truly do wild fish, again I’m channeling Peter Moyle, we have to get rid of the hatcheries.  We have to undo the hatcheries to do wild fish in this system?”


To be honest, I don’t think you can do both.  Not within the habitats that we have to use right now.  You can’t have a commercial and recreational fishery and have the natural production using some of the genetic management techniques that would have significant amount of fish producing in these rivers.  You’re dealing with about 10 to 15% of the historic habitat, and it’s not the best 10 or 15% of the habitat that was there.

“Thank you Jose for being incredibly honest,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “I realize you don’t really work for the government, you work for the utilities, so you can say that.  It’s so hard to get people to say this.  If we really want to have this system run for wild fish, we need to get rid of the hatcheries.  Actually his proposal is to move the hatcheries down to the edge of the Delta, down to the edge of the Delta, and just have a hatchery system at the western end of the Delta which is intended to support commercial and recreational fisheries, which is what they do in Alaska, and simply turn everything over to wild fish.”

BRUCE HERBOLD, Fisheries Consultant

One of my soapboxes right now is to get away from our management of everything the same way – all the hatcheries are managed the same way, all the rivers for wild fish are managed the same way – we’re looking at restoring the San Joaquin in a way that will support both fall run and spring run, and the joy and delight of our salmon populations is that they were all quite distinct and different.  The four runs, populations within spring run, and the spring run out of the San Joaquin were known as going left out the Golden Gate and getting caught south as everyone else went north, so even in the ocean, they behaved differently.  Restoring that gives so much strength against the year to year fluctuations in the ocean conditions, year to year fluctuations in how much snow falls where.”

I read an article on plans to restore the Stanislaus with wild fish, and it didn’t say what made the Stanislaus unique. … If you want to support spring run and steelhead or fall run and steelhead in there, then you would operate that differently, and you would be looking for more contiguous reaches of habitat, which would select for different kinds of fall run salmon, and even though you were doing for steelhead, that would make it a whole different environment as it was before, even with the dam there.  …  That kind of discussion, where how can we make each tributary different and still achieve the goals – and maybe it’s the only way to achieve to some of the goals.  That’s my soapbox.  Thank you for inviting me to step on to it.”

Moderator Jeff Mount notes that we’ve seen the collapse of fish populations and the Delta, and some scientists have predicted that some fish, particularly the Delta smelt, will not be here in the future.  “Efforts to save species come at great cost and with great conflict, so what do we say to people when we have such high uncertainty over something like that?”

BRUCE HERBOLD, Fisheries Consultant

My concern is about the exports out of the south Delta, which I think are a good hunk of the Delta smelt problem, because when the low salinity zone is within range of them, the Delta is not a good habitat.  It’s especially not good if the water is going south rather than down with the tide when the tide falls.  So what’s the future of the south Delta exports?  With zebra mussel, climate change, floods, I don’t think we should be expecting to use south Delta exports as the intake for the water supply of Southern California for twenty years.  Because I think if you solve California’s water problems, the fish problems become trivial.  I think you can do lots for fish if you’re not always fighting against the water supply.  What water supply needs is a reliable water supply, and they are not going to get it by continuing to use south Delta.  So that’s the conversation I want to have.

Yes, climate change will have impacts and maybe some things will get lost … it’s a possibility.  But it’s a given if we don’t do something.  My concern is we’re going to end up doing something that will benefit fish, and I want the fish to still be here when we do that.  I don’t want to say, ‘if only we had done this five years ago.’  That’s the nightmare I will take to my grave.

One tunnel or two?

Moderator Jeff Mount directs the next question to Jay Lund, noting that the Delta tunnels project could potentially be downsized to just one tunnel.  “Jay, you looked at this at this notion of doing one instead of two tunnels.  Give us your Reader’s Digest summary of the tradeoffs associated with that idea.”

JAY LUND, Professor of Engineering, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

There is a lot of angst about two tunnels.  And before there was two tunnels, there were ideas of one tunnel, even back to 2007, and at that time, it was a 2500 cfs tunnel, mostly done by the urban water agencies.  I referred to it as a peripheral garden hose because it would mostly be serving the urban guys.  The two Delta tunnels project is having troubles financially, particularly in getting the Bureau of Reclamation contractors to sign on to the project.  So if it essentially becomes a State Water Project piece, and if you don’t have the agricultural folks buying into it, than you’re sort of left financially with one tunnel.  No matter what you think about its other merits or demerits.”

If you’re going to have any kind of tunnel, you probably want to get that decided in the next few months under this current Governor’s administration, otherwise you really have nothing.  And if you like two tunnels, maybe the two tunnels are built sequentially maybe rather than in parallel.  The thought is, what do you want to do?  If we’re going to make a strategic change on the way the water supply system is run for the Delta, for environmental benefits or not, we have a very short time to make a strategic decision about that.”

If you like the status quo so well, then we can say ok, keep it up.  That’s always the easiest thing to do which is to decide to do what we’re already doing.  That’s always easy.”

There are some drawbacks however, to having one tunnel.  It provides a very good water quality supply for the urban areas, because they will be the ones who invested in it and built it, but for agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, it really throws it under the bus.  It leaves them with the dual conveyance with the different spelling of duel where it really sets up a conflict directly between the environment and agriculture and the urban guys are now able to say, ‘not my problem anymore.’  Flush twice, it’s a long way to LA.  They are out of the Delta.

So if you go with one tunnel, the state and everybody else who has a problem in the Delta – and there’s a few people that do – have to think okay, how do we do this without basically letting one of the interest groups that has the most resources and a lot of in some ways the best organized technical capability to step away from the problem.  Because why would you step into the problem if you didn’t have to?  So that’s my concern on both sides of it.  But I don’t really say one way or the other, because I’m a professor and I’m on the Delta Independent Science Board.”

Groundwater overdraft and the Delta

“There also is about an equal probability that this all falls apart, whether through litigation or simply through inertia,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  “What are the consequences?  Two things we talked about today:  This room really seems to like Sites Reservoir, and then of course there is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  How does the Delta fit into those two issues in ways that might really affect them?”

JAY LUND, Professor of Engineering, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

During the drought in 2014, we noticed that almost 70% of the way that agriculture was getting through the drought was pumping additional groundwater.  And we also noticed that one-third of all the irrigated agriculture was now on permanent crops, and if you short those permanent crops, it’s really structurally damaging and very expensive.  So, a lot of the farm interests said, well maybe it’s okay if you force us to have groundwater management, and so the SGMA gets passed, and now we’re looking at the long-term, eliminating groundwater overdraft.  The biggest hole for groundwater overdraft is the San Joaquin Valley; it’s about 1.8 MAF a year.  That’s about a third of all the water we get out of the Delta on a good year.  What are those guys going to do down there with their trees and stuff?  What are they going to do?  Some of them will fallow because they have land that’s accumulating salts anyway and they are about ready to fallow it anyway.  Some of it will be easy, but 1.8 MAF, that’s a lot.  You’re looking at 600,000 acres of irrigated land at 3 AF per acre.  That’s only going to increase pressure on agriculture to get as much water as they can out of the Delta, or more.  So I think the Delta is going to be at the center of these problems for a long time.

It’s very hard to solve the Delta’s problems. It’s always easier to bet that people will continue to do what they are doing now which is nothing, in which case the solution to the Delta’s problems becomes we will fail into a solution, we will not plan into a solution.  And so if that’s really the case, then in addition to our plans for success, maybe we should also be planning for how we’re going to fail, so as the Delta fails, how do we respond to failures, and maybe that’s the most effective planning we would do.

Sites Reservoir is a very interesting project.  It’s pretty big, it’s quite expensive, but it does have some pretty direct potential to have environmental benefits in that if you were to fill say 200,000 AF a year into it, late in the season.  The problem there with cold water is you don’t want to deplete all the cold water in Shasta early on in the season, and so you don’t want to release it for the initial wet up.  So if you had water in Sites downstream that you could release for those agricultural uses, that would be great, and you would refill it every year in the fall.  So it just switches it around, so I can see some potential for environmental benefits for the winter run salmon on that and also perhaps for the flooding in the Yolo Bypass.”

The floor was then opened up for audience questions.

Unimpaired flows

QUESTION:  “I’m not a scientist, but based on what I’ve seen, there are some premises about mimicking the natural flow regime and also perhaps measuring success on what we see the fish do after we release more flow into the system.  Based on what we’ve heard about the complexities of the system and the alterations to the system, what do you think about the unimpaired flow approach as an effective and efficient use of our limited water supply?”

MICHAEL GEORGE, Delta Watermaster

I want to repeat my first slide, I don’t speak for the State Water Resources Control Board, but look, I’m concerned.  The phase 1 proposed project basically increases flows measured at Vernalis which is the beginning of my domain.  I have authority in the Delta.  So on the one hand, I know that if you deliver fish and water at that point, you’re introducing them to the killing fields and the difficulty of getting them to Chipps Island and getting them out of the system is daunting; there is an argument that doing all that won’t make a significant enough difference unless you deal with all the other problems.  So this goes back to my point that you have to look at it as a system.”

I also think you have to stop managing for single species or accounting for how we do by how many fish come back, or how many fish get out, or however you’re going to do that.  I think what we have to do is a better job of improving the ecosystem.  I’m a lawyer and not a scientist, and I’ve learned from some of the scientists that the salmon is a really resilient resourceful animal and if we do a good job with ecosystem, we’ll probably get more of them, and more of a lot of other things to that would generally bend the curve toward a more sustainable future.  It’s not going to be the way it was.  But frankly I think we have to get away from this notion of trying to do the math based on this much water for this many fish.  That just doesn’t work.


We’ve been working on this for the last few months, and one of the things is you have the notion of unimpaired flows is it’s about mimicking natural hydrographs.  Our approach is more suggesting we do that through more functional flows or a block of water, but using that strategy to improve outcomes within a river.  By and large, you’re mimicking a natural hydrograph, you’re just doing it in a different way, because I think if you just look at a straight unimpaired flow criteria, you’re running that water down a river that has no longer a natural system.  It’s a very altered system, so you may not get the benefit you’re looking for simply by going for a straight unimpaired flow standard.

Whereas we’ve shown, at least on the Mokelumne, and again, it is single species or most single species and the result of litigation, but we’ve shown that by adaptively managing and using more of that functional flow block of water type of strategy, that we can get the outcomes we are looking for.

BRUCE HERBOLD, Fisheries consultant

The whole idea of restoration is not really on the table, but we do have valuable fish and we do have a variable climate, so I like the basic idea of linking it to some measure of how much precipitation did we get, and that way, reflecting that, okay we’ll have a large pulse then and maybe some fry will go down this year and next year, maybe we won’t and they will hang around and go out later as smolts and thereby we will have some diversity in our salmon populations.”

I think in the kind of altered physical ecosystem, we have to alter the water, but having some instream flow that’s for fish and being able to modify that because we’re going to modify that no matter what we do, but in a way that supports getting different genetic strains of salmon happy and supports getting other fish out there.  In some years, it may not be enough water to actually think you’re going to get anything done, so maybe in those years, you either have it all come down one river, or you say the predation is just too bad, and maybe this year we go out and kill predators before we release the fish …  the system is so damn manipulated already, that it’s ripe for exploration of does this work.”

That’s what I think adaptive management really is – it’s let’s try this and see what the result is, not let’s do this and we’ll tweak it a little bit next year.  No, get some clear signals to noise message that we can actually effect predation rates when the water is too clear, too warm, and too little of it, we can’t get our fish through, or maybe if it’s too long, the predation’s just an inevitable consequence of fish dying and they get eaten .. that kind of study I would be entirely supportive of and that kind of water use I’d be supportive of.”

JAY LUND, Professor of Engineering, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

I always have a little bit of skepticism behind the so-called natural flow doctrine for such an impaired, altered system.  It’s sort of represents to me sort of a scientific laziness of related to the fish gotta swim theory of environmental flows, like the more water you give them, the more of them there are going to be to swim.  However, I see merit to the approach that the Board is trying to take as I understand it.  The big problem I think the environment interests have in the operation of the system is they have no resources.  They have no leverage, they have no cash register, they have no votes – directly anyway, so what this would do, the way I understand the Board would want to use it, is that it would give them an asset to negotiate away or negotiate with, and I think in that sense, it’s probably a pretty good, pretty simple way to establish that asset.”

MICHAEL GEORGE, Delta Watermaster

I agree with what Jay said, but this is a great example of the asymmetry of the problem.  Because to create that benefit for the environment for all of us, for making the environment better, that asset is being taken away from a very narrow group who bought and paid for those reservoirs, because to take unimpaired flows and turn them into a block of managed water, you’ve got to use somebody else’s reservoir.  We got real used to that in the regulatory environment when we were dealing with the state and federal projects which have junior water rights which are subject to our administration and subject to permit terms and conditions, and where we were dealing with a really pretty large rate base.  But now you go to the Merced River, and you’d look at the rate base behind that reservoir that is the key to taking Bruce’s unimpaired flows and turning it into managed flows, and you’re talking about essentially reusing that reservoir that doesn’t have a large rate base, that is going to bear all the expense of creating the benefit that all of us share, so that asymmetry is what we have to deal with.


I think it goes back to the goal.  Is the goal more water, or is the goal more fish?    I go back to an example on the Stanislaus, again it’s a personal one because I’ve worked there since 1991.  A couple years ago, we were in negotiations, and we had come up with a plan.  This was before the WIIN Act was approved.  We called it the zone of responsibility and water rights holders had offered up a plan to come up with a number like we want to double smolt production out of the river, we want to make it 20, 25% any given year, and they took the responsibility for doing all the habitat restoration, for doing all the life history, life cycle monitoring on the river, for doing the experiments, and the restoration to increase fish production for doing the experiments to show that we were meeting that target, whatever the goal was of say 20% or doubling smolt production out of the river.  The response was, and I quote, ‘non-flow issues don’t count’.  So here we have somebody, a group of people willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to achieve the goal that we’re talking about of making more fish, and it was off the table because it didn’t involve flow.

When we came in with the fish enhancement plan in the WIIN Act, flow is now on the table.  If flow works to increase survival, and that’s one of the things we want to evaluate, is if we can disrupt predator life cycles and spawning success using flows, increasing or decreasing temperatures, or dewatering their nests, but that leads me to be a little bit skeptical at times when you’re told to your face that non-flow measures don’t count.

Mercury in the environment

QUESTION:  “There’s this other thing happening in the background, it’s the new Total Maximum Daily Load regulations on reservoirs coming out by the new SWRCB’s rules around reservoir maintenance for discharging mercury, which is also a giant issue for fish and the entire food web … does this have anything to do with the ecosystem?  Obviously it does, but we haven’t had much discussion about it today.”


We’ve been participating in those workshops; we’re primarily focused on the fisheries aspect, not really the chemistry side of things, and at looking at how some of the proposals in terms of managing reservoirs to control for mercury or bioaccumulation and the methylation of mercury.  Certainly from our perspective there are some concerns and when you start talking about adding nutrients and managing reservoir levels, certainly that would have an impact on cold water pool, so to me that’s one of the examples of all these different processes that are going on at various levels; this one just happens to do with the SWRCB.  It’s trying to collectively look at what all the impacts might be with these types of measures and see what the outcomes might be, because they are contradictory.”

On one hand, we’re supposed to manage for fish downstream.  In our systems, one of the things we have to do manage for cold water, yet some of the suggestions coming out of the mercury workshops is that you alter reservoir levels.  You can’t do both, and also provide water for customers and downstream needs, etc, so for us that’s one that a concern and we’re working on.  On the flip side, things like HOS or aeration systems.  We do have them in our reservoirs for various reasons and they are not tremendously expensive for bigger companies, it might be for smaller water utilities, but something like that, it might work.  But again, it’s making sure there’s a common sense approach to any of these types of measures in that there’s some level of coordination with all these other regulatory processes that are ongoing.”

BRUCE HERBOLD, Fisheries Consultant

The impacts of mercury on fish and on the ecosystem except on some birds is trivial; the impacts on humans that eat those fish because of bioaccumulation is the source of the concern.  So if you’re worrying about mercury, I’d worry about salmon picking it up and the salmon getting eaten or striped bass getting eaten or whatever, but it is the getting eaten, not the ecosystem impacts …

“Mercury as you know was a tremendous hot button issue during the early Cal Fed days, and there was a lot of work on that, including floodplain methylation, so all those restoration sites that are going forward,” said Moderator Jeff Mount.  When I was head of the ISB, I was guilty of having a fit one day at what I called the mercury mafia in the research community where they would basically say no to everything because there might be a molecule of mercury there.  I think we’ve actually leveled it out now.  I think we are actually in a much better place than we were when the mercury mafia was holding us all hostage a few years back.  I think we’re actually being rational and I appreciate Bruce’s comments.” 


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