State Water Board officials discuss release of Bay Delta Plan update documents

Earlier today, the State Water Board released the draft final documents for the Bay Delta Plan update for the Lower San Joaquin River and southern Delta, as well as a framework document for Sacramento River and Delta.  As part of the update to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, both the final documents for the San Joaquin River as well as the framework document for the Sacramento River and Delta are calling for more water to be left in the rivers during key times of the year.  (For more information on the Bay Delta Plan, click here.)

What is the Bay-Delta Plan?

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In conjunction with the release of the documents, State Water Board officials held a media call this afternoon. On the call were Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board; Erik Ekdahl, Director for the Division of Water Rights; Erin Foresman, Senior Environmental Scientist, Bay-Delta section of the Division of Water Rights; and Matt Holland, Environmental Program Manager for the Bay Delta section of the Division of Water Rights.

Here’s what they had to say.  (Read what organizations and officials had to say by clicking here.)

FELICIA MARCUS, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board

This is part of a suite of updates on the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan,” Ms. Marcus began.  “The San Francisco Bay Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta, Suisun Marsh, and San Francisco Bay.  California’s two major rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, converge in the Delta and flow through it and into San Francisco Bay.  The Bay Delta estuary has remarkable significance to much of California, whether you care about agriculture or fisheries, urban or rural communities, or the environment generally – all of them rely on the water that flows through the Delta.

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board

There is a serious problem, one that is perhaps not as visible as all of the benefits.  The ecosystem that the water supports is in crisis.  Some native fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction in an ecosystem on the verge of collapse.  This is true for smaller fish close to the base of the food chain, and it’s true for iconic migratory species like chinook salmon and steelhead that provide food for us and also other iconic species like orcas.  Simply put, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is no longer a healthy place for many species and the people who rely on them.

There are many reasons for the decline, including a loss of floodplain habitat, pollution, and predation from non-native species, but the key factor related to all of these is inadequate flow remaining in the rivers after farms and communities take their sips or their gulps.  The Board’s challenging job is to balance the multiple valuable and often competing uses of water for fish and wildlife, for agriculture, for urban areas, recreation, and for other uses.  We do that through the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, or Bay Delta Plan.

The current Bay Delta Plan is over 20 years old and woefully out of date.  A big part of the problem is that we’re simply taking too much water out of the system for the natural ecosystem to survive.  It’s a big deal and trying to fix it is not for the faint of heart.  We’re taking this time to brief you because these are complicated issues, and we’re hoping to give you context on what the proposed plan update is designed to achieve, what staff intends in their final draft, and what happens next.

Today, the State Water Board staff is releasing the draft final Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update for the lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta; we’re calling it the lower San Joaquin River-Southern Delta update, and an accompanying Substitute Environmental Document which is a CEQA document.  They are also releasing an early framework document prior to releasing a formal draft plan update for the Sacramento River and its tributaries and the Delta proper that will also address outflow through the San Francisco Bay, which we’re calling the Sacramento-Delta update.  Our emphasis today is on the lower San Joaquin and the Southern Delta update.

The first draft proposal for the lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta was released for public comment and review in December of 2012.  It resulted in numerous comments and concerns from a wide range of the public on all sides.  We reissued it in draft again in 2016 and received extensive comments which have been closely reviewed.  We welcome and are inviting additional focused public review and comment on the changes made in this revised third and final staff proposal this month, and plan to hold a meeting to hear from the public and consider adoption in late August.

In addition, in an effort to give the public a full picture of both elements of updating the plan, we’ve also released a framework document about our probable staff proposal to update flow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and the Delta and its tributaries, including the Calaveras, Cosumnes, and Mokelumne Rivers.  That’s the Sacramento Delta framework.  The Sacramento Delta piece is at an earlier procedural stage than the San Joaquin piece; however, we wanted to make sure that everybody who has a stake in the Delta has a chance to see that all watersheds as well as the interior Delta will share in improving the Bay Delta ecosystem.

Back to Water Quality Control Plans.  Water quality control plans are designed to balance competing beneficial uses of water.  We say beneficial uses; the point there is they are all good and all useful to someone, but they need to be balanced.  In this case of the Bay Delta, that heavily involves flow in the rivers and through the Delta to the San Francisco Bay for the benefit of species and people all the way through the system.

The State Water Board’s duty is to balance the water use between among the many people and fish and wildlife species that are dependent on it.  We are bound to consider the needs of agriculture, the needs of fish and wildlife, the needs for recreation, energy production, you name it – our task is to try our best to maximize and balance them all.  It’s about balancing competing interests to share the rivers with each other and with nature.

We’re simply bound to rebalance the system that has had too much water removed from it for it to survive as a healthy ecosystem.  The need for this was recognized by the board over ten years ago, and it has taken us many years and much scientific review and public discourse to get here, including a few additional years delay caused by all of us having to deal with the worst drought in modern history.

The Lower San Joaquin South Delta proposed plan update, which will be taken up by our Board in August, aims to strike a better balance among these competing uses of water than we now have.  This will not be easy, but it’s necessary.  While the science tells us that we’ve taken too much out of the rivers for them to remain healthy, at the same time, communities have come to rely on that diverted water to build farms and communities.

There are real consequences for fish, wildlife, and people for continuing to divert so much of the river and there are real consequences for many current water users for putting even some of it back. On the one hand, water users can adapt by switching crops, becoming more efficient, putting more water away in wet or normal times for the inevitable dry times or other measures.  On the other hand, we’ve pushed the species to the brink of extinction.

The issue is not about choosing one over the other; it’s about sharing the rivers as thoughtfully as we can because Californians need and want and deserve healthy communities, healthy agriculture, and a healthy natural environment.  We can actually do that if we act creatively and collectively versus arguing past each other.

To make that hard choice, we need your help and thoughtful engagement on an admittedly complex set of issues.  We’re asking people for engagement in helping the river work for all concerned – agriculture, urban, fish and wildlife, and the other beneficial uses, and we have to better balance these systems to protect agriculture and local economies of all kinds, as well as safeguard the future of native fish species literally fighting for survival during peak seasons of the year.

In response to this final draft, you and we will again hear the legitimate hopes and fears of stakeholders on all sides.  You will hear that fish and wildlife need far more flow restored to keep them from utter collapse.  You will also hear that the proposal seeks to restore more flow to the river than communities can handle.  That’s been the heart of the discussion and these fears are heartfelt and sincere on all sides.  You’ll also hear that it is all about more flow for fish and wildlife, and you will also hear that it is not about flow at all, and that’s it’s all about predation or other factors.

It’s definitely about flow, but it’s not all about flow.  The proposal itself deals largely with the flows, which is within the State Water Board’s control and which on its own helps with the other things that fish need; in other words, flow influences habitat, food production, temperature, and other things that can advantage native fish to the detriment of invasive predators.  Flow alone can help the ecosystem work as an ecosystem, but actions on the ground can also do a great deal without as much water added.

So the proposal also lays out options for stakeholders to come together with agency experts to propose better ways to help fish and wildlife through efforts like habitat restoration, predation suppression, and the tactical use of flows that can do more at less water cost.  This long-standing invitation has been left out of much of the discourse, but it’s important and it’s what we want most.  It’s what can change the channel on the water wars.

That’s not something we can order people to do, but it’s something we can invite, we can consider, and we can accept, if offered.  Voluntary settlement plans can work as long as they are real, verifiable, and truly meaningful.  And we want to encourage people to come together to do this and appreciate those who are working on that as we speak, including leaders at the California Natural Resources Agency, who are helping to develop the kind of voluntary settlements we are inviting.

“As I said before, and I’ve said many times before, Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture, and healthy communities, and not one at the complete expense of the others.  It may be wishful thinking that California’s storied water wars could yield to collective effort to help fish and wildlife through voluntary actions, but the proposed plan seeks to incentivize and reward just that.  It’s what California needs most, and it’s what most Californians would, frankly, ask of us all.

So with that, I’d like to turn the call over to Erik Ekdahl who leads the Division of Water Rights …

ERIK EKDAHL, Director of the Division of Water Rights

I’ll divide my remarks into three short sections.  First, I’ll provide some background and context on the Bay Delta itself and some context for the two documents we’re releasing today.  Next, I’ll go into greater detail and describe the proposed update to the lower San Joaquin River Southern Delta plan update, and what the plan update is designed to achieve.  Finally, I’ll give a brief overview of the framework document for the Sacramento Delta plan update.

Erik Ekdahl, Director of Division of Water Rights (Notebook file photo)

First, some background and context.  As an overview, the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary, which we shorten and call the Bay Delta, includes the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, the Suisun Marsh, and San Francisco Bay.  California’s two major rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, converge in the Delta and meet with incoming tides from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.  The Delta is a critical region because water diversions from the Delta supply a portion of the drinking water to two-thirds of Californians and for millions of acres of irrigated farmland.

The proposal released today is intended to update two objectives in the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  First, minimum required flows in the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries, the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, and second, appropriate salinity limits in the southern Delta.  In addition, we also released a framework for updating flow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and the Delta and its tributaries, including the Calaveras, Cosumnes, and Mokelumne Rivers.  We’ll refer to this document going forward as the Sacramento Delta framework.

Staged releases gives stakeholders and the public a more comprehensive view of how each watershed is being asked to share responsibility for protecting fish and wildlife for the benefit of the entire Bay and Delta ecosystem.  The two Bay Delta Plan updates are aimed at addressing an ecological crisis in the Delta and preventing further collapse of Bay Delta fisheries.  There has been a dramatic decline in the populations of native fish species that migrate through and inhabit the Delta over the last two decades since our plans were last updated, driving some to the brink of extinction.

“While the draft plan recognizes that non-flow factors such as habitat loss, predation, pollution, all can affect survival rates of fish and other species, the magnitude of diversions out of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and other rivers feeding into the Bay Delta, are a major factor in the ecosystem decline.

Moving to the next portion of the overview, I’ll turn to some specifics on the proposed final lower San Joaquin River Southern Delta update.  The proposed final lower San Joaquin River Southern Delta update includes improved instream flows February through June which are the critical months for protecting migrating fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers.

Specifically, the proposed final plan update include new flow objectives on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers that are based on a percentage of unimpaired flows approach.  What unimpaired flow means is the amount of water that would come down the river if there were no dams, reservoirs, or other diversions.  Flow objectives based on unimpaired flows generally mimic the natural hydrologic variability of river flows that support native fish populations such as salmon and steelhead, and the flow conditions under which those native fish populations evolved and have adapted to.

The flow objectives require a percentage of unimpaired flows to be maintained in all three tributaries from February through June each year.  Those flows will help support spawning, rearing, and migratory habitat for native fish.  A 40% of unimpaired flow requirement within a range of 30 to 50% is proposed as an appropriate balance for this plan update because it can improve conditions for fish and wildlife considerably without more challenging impacts on other water users.

To illustrate the importance of flows, it’s worth noting the difference between the current plan requirements and what’s proposed in the draft final plan update.  The current Bay Delta Plan only includes the single flow objective for the entire lower San Joaquin River watershed at a point near Vernalis, and it does not have any existing flow requirements from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers.  The proposed final plan recognizes the importance of balancing the flow requirements amongst the three tributaries, and the need for flow on all three to restore and protect the populations of migrating fish throughout their lifecycles and to restore ecosystem function.

Because there are no existing independent flow objectives for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers, those rivers can have very low flows in them.  Currently, flows remaining in the rivers can run as low as 10 to 20% of unimpaired flows at critical times of the year and average from 21 to 40% for the three tributaries.  Another way of looking at that would mean that on average, 60 to 80% of the water that would flow down these rivers is being diverted on average each year.

The new flow objectives protect the entire migration pathway for salmon from the rim dams on these salmon-bearing tributaries by providing more flow during key critical times that more closely resemble the environment that salmon have evolved and adapted to.  That being said, the unimpaired flow requirement is not intended to be a rigid and fixed percent of flow; rather, the proposal provides for and encourages collaboration to use the flows as a block of water or a water budget that can be used to adjust or shape or shift flows at appropriate times to better achieve ecological functions, such as increased habitat or optimal temperatures or migration cues.

As Felicia mentioned, the State Water Board recognizes that water agencies and others can voluntarily improve habitat and take other non-flow actions to help reasonably protect native fish through providing food and protection from predators, improving spawning grounds, or suppressing habitat that favors predators or other measures.  The proposal is designed with the flexibility to allow or incentivize cooperative actions to make flows more functionally useful.

Stakeholders are encouraged to work together to present the State Water Board with voluntary agreements that would implement Bay Delta Plan objectives for fish and wildlife beneficial uses, either to work together to shape flows more efficiently or to add non-flow measures that can yield comparable benefits at less water costs.  Negotiations for voluntary agreements are taking place between stakeholders and the California Department of Natural Resources and we are appreciative of those efforts.

The proposed final update includes a revision to the salinity standard for the southern Delta.  Maintaining an adequate amount of freshwater in the Southern Delta is critical to protecting agriculture in the region.  The year round salinity standard in the draft final update increases slightly from the current seasonal standards based on salinity tolerance studies of sensitive crops.  Although the standard is changing, the flow requirements in the proposal along with other specific requirements remaining in the plan should actually improve salinity in the southern Delta when the plan is implemented.

Next, I’d like to turn to the final portion of my remarks and give a brief overview of the Sacramento Delta framework document that was released earlier today.  In addition to the proposed final plan for the lower San Joaquin River and southern Delta, we also released a Sacramento Delta framework for updating the flow requirements for the Delta and its contributing watershed, including the Sacramento River and its tributaries.  This effort is known as the Sacramento Delta update of the Bay Delta Plan.

The Sacramento Delta update is at an earlier stage procedurally than the lower San Joaquin River Southern Delta plan update.  A draft proposed plan amendment and staff report analyzing alternatives will be released later this year for public review and comment before it is considered by the State Water Board for adoption.

However, today’s framework provides a preview that allows the public to better understand how the two updates relate to one another and how each watershed is being asked to share responsibility for protecting fish and wildlife for the betterment of the entire Bay and Delta ecosystem.  We felt it was important to provide this comprehensive review of how the plan update will be implemented within the entire watershed.

Key provisions described in the framework include a proposed new tributary inflow objective that ranges from 45 to 65% of unimpaired flow, a new narrative cold water habitat objective, a new outflow objective for the Delta, and updated requirements governing how water circulates within the Delta itself.

Note that the proposed unimpaired flow objectives in the Sacramento Delta framework at 45 to 65% are higher than the objectives for the proposed lower San Joaquin River plan update.  The Sacramento is a different system with different hydrology and characteristics than the lower San Joaquin tributaries.  Because flows are typically higher in the Sacramento Delta tributaries to begin with and because there is less diversion relative to the flow volume of available water, the impact on water users, while potentially significant, should be less dramatic than is suggested simply by looking at the numbers on their own.

In some tributaries, current unimpaired flows are currently far higher than what the proposal seeks to hold them at.  So in that context, the proposal simply seeks to avoid dropping below where things already are.

The inflow objectives are designed to provide suitable conditions for fish and wildlife throughout the watershed that contribute to the Delta, while the outflow objectives ensure that required tributary flows are protected all the way out to the ocean, which is needed to provide functioning migratory corridors and sufficient water quality in areas where there is high-quality habitat.

Collectively, the new objectives are designed to create a more connected and functioning ecosystem linking and integrating inflow, cold water habitat, Delta outflow, and interior Delta flow measures with complementary physical habitat restoration and other nonflow measures.  And like the San Joaquin South Delta update, the framework accommodates and, in fact, encourages voluntary solutions that can provide nonflow actions like habitat restoration that can amplify the ecological benefit of new and existing flows beyond what the State Water Board can require through flow and water project operations alone.

A more detailed staff report will be released for public comment later this year.  The forthcoming staff report will include analyses of different environmental benefits and water supply costs, an analysis of economic impacts, and a more detailed alternatives analysis.  The public comments we receive will be critical in informing the final plan update for the Sacramento Delta portion of the Bay Delta watershed, and in general, public involvement in shaping this decision has been important to the State Water Board and resulted in a better document.

There are a number of documents on our website that can help describe the scope and scale of the plan updates.  In particular, please note the ten page fact sheet for the lower San Joaquin River South Delta Plan update, and the Sacramento Delta framework document itself.  It can help you with details and points we did not touch on directly during this call.

FOR MORE INFORMATION …

San Joaquin River Flows and Southern Delta Salinity Sacramento/Delta Flows and Cold Water, Delta Outflows, and Interior Delta Flows

MORE ON MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK …

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