MOUNTAIN COUNTIES SYMPOSIUM: Delta Watermaster Michael George and Jason Peltier discuss moving forward in the Delta *UPDATED with comments from Restore the Delta*

An aerial view of the path of the proposed tunnels in the Delta on November 1, 2017.
Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

This post has been updated with Restore the Delta’s comments added after Michael George’s presentation.  Click to go there.

In October of 2018, the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association held a symposium that focused on the California Water Fix, the Delta, and the health of the greater watershed.  Two of the speakers were Michael George, the Delta Watermaster, and Jason Peltier, Executive Director of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.  Here is what they had to say.

(Note: You can view the entire video, power point presentations, and photos at the Mountain Counties Water Resources website by clicking here.)

DELTA WATERMASTER MICHAEL GEORGE: Sustainability in our highly altered Delta

Delta Watermaster Michael George started with the standard disclaimer that he is not speaking for the State Water Board or the Delta Stewardship Council and his comments are based on his own personal observations.  He noted that at the previous years’ conference, the focus was on improving the health of the forested watersheds, and he credited Mountain Counties for bringing the problem forward before it became a crisis and before the extent of the wildfires brought it to broader consciousness.  The issue has even caught the attention of President Trump.

It is important to focus on the fact that we have made some important progress,” said Mr. George, noting that the Governor issued Executive Order B 5218 in May which directed resources to face the headwaters forest problems and the neglect of the forests; and the legislature passed SB 901 and AB 2551 were passed that provide attention and funding for forest health.

We’re all in this together,” he said.  “We have recognized the need to address the headwaters forest issues as part of the entire problem of California water and particularly from my perspective, the importance of the headwaters forests as part of the watershed in the Delta for which I’m partially responsible.”

For this presentation, Mr. George would focus instead on the physical Delta, for which he has administrative responsibility over water rights as well as some policy responsibility for some of the decisions currently working through the process.

I really want to focus on the physical Delta for three main reasons,” he said.  “First of all, as we are all aware, it is the hub of the entire water system and it’s at grave risk.  It’s a problem that has vexed our whole generation of water managers in the state.   Secondly, the contest among various parties to find the right solution has been both exhausting and importantly, nearing some conclusions.  And the third reason for focusing on it are the decisions we reach as a state over the next few months are likely to determine the fate of the Delta for some time to come.”

He presented a sign from Restore the Delta pointing out that anyone who has been to the Delta has seen these signs.  “Frankly, I think we need to get beyond this kind of bumper sticker sloganeering because if nothing else, it’s clear to me that stopping the tunnels will not even begin to save the Delta.  That’s not necessarily an endorsement for the tunnels, it is to say that this kind of sloganeering is inimical to finding solutions to vexing problems.”

The Delta has been highly altered to meet a variety of human needs, and it’s currently in grave danger of systemic failure from a wide variety of stressors, he said.  “It has been artificially sustained at very high cost to all of us without any integrated vision or plan for how to manage it going forward, and the fact is that in its current situation, the Delta is unsustainable.  There’s a risk of failure that is so significant to our economy, to our ecology, to our very lifestyle, and the notion that California is a functioning state.”

Yet this very fragile and at-risk estuary is going to continue to evolve and it must do so, both because of natural phenomena and because of anthropogenic impacts on the Delta.  Mr. George said climate change is the wolf at the door and it means that the system in which we live and operate is going to become flashier; there will probably be less snow – roughly a similar amount of precipitation but coming at inconvenient times that challenge the existing infrastructure.  Warmer temperatures mean warmer water, and sea level rise will affect the Delta with greater pressure on salt water intrusion; add to that the state’s aging infrastructure that is beset by a series of problems that it wasn’t designed to resolve, he said.

So if we intend to really save the Delta, we need to move beyond that bumper sticker sloganeering and face the harsh reality that the Delta as we observe it today is not sustainable, said Mr. George.  “That means we have to take serious steps to change the current trajectory, and that current trajectory in my view, is unmistakably towards systemic failure, crisis, and reaction.”

He presented a slide with a quote, noting that the significance of the quote is that processes that get started may be move slowly but come to conclusions, and some conclusions are close with respect to what’s going to happen in the Delta.

In 2009, the Delta Reform Act attempted to come to a vision and a consensus for the Delta.  The Act created a number of institutions designed to implement the vision in the Act, one of them being the coequal goals of improved water supply reliability and improve ecosystem in a way that recognized, respected, and protect the Delta as an evolving place.  The legislation also created the Delta Stewardship Council and the position of Delta Watermaster.

Mr. George noted that there are important pending decisions for the Water Fix at the State Water Board which is in the midst of hearing for the petition for change in water rights and the Delta Stewardship Council which is currently in an appeal process regarding the determination of whether the Water Fix is consistent with the Delta Plan.

The State Water Board has been working on updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, the last major update being 20 years ago; they are grappling with the inherent conflicts associated with setting water quality objectives, Mr. George said.  The first phase of the update which deals with the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne, and the Merced, will be decided by the Board in December; the framework for the second phase that focuses on the Sacramento River and in the Delta itself is due shortly after that.

Another important process underway is the renegotiation of the Coordinated Operations Agreement, which is the agreement between the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project on how they coordinate activities.  Mr. George acknowledged that the agreement is skewed in favor of the state.  “Obviously from a State Water Project perspective, that skew toward the benefit of the state’s not such a bad thing,” he said.  “But you can appreciate that reopening it and reevaluating the coordinated operations agreement on how these two great projects are managed in a coordinated fashion is an important negotiation that will impact lots of other things, including how the Delta can be operated and managed to meet the state’s coequal goals going forward.”

In addition, the State Water Project contracts themselves are in the process of renegotiation as that contract has a limited life, and it’s getting to the point where it is affecting bond issues, he said.  Those negotiations that are underway will be profoundly important, not only to the State Water Project contractors, but to the entire state and the Delta.  Add to that, the US Bureau of Reclamation has initiated reconsultation on the biological opinions for the operation of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which in many ways limit how the Delta can be operated for water supply reliability.  And last but certainly not least, the Delta Stewardship Council is in the process of revising the Delta Plan.

We’ve got this failing Delta, and we’ve spent a lot of money on it to maintain it in its fragile, unsustainable condition without a long-term plan in place,” Mr. George said.  “The Delta Reform Act directed that the Delta Stewardship Council develop a Delta Plan, which it was promptly sued for, which was set aside by the courts, and therefore a set of revisions is another thing that the mills of state have been grinding on.”

Mr. George then gave his personal observations.  “How do we approach these issues to make sense of them and to come out with a sensible policy that will allow us to move forward with both humility, because we’ve made so many mistakes in the past or we have failed to identify all the interests at stake, and the confidence we need to figure out a way forward rather than to maintain the trajectory we’re on, which is toward failure.  The mills of state are grinding with profound consequences for the Delta, and it seems clear that after this generation’s struggle with these problems that unanimous consent or absolute certainty are not within our reach.”

In addition, our opportunity to manage the change that is happening in the Delta is threatened by a variety of things, not least of which the poor understanding of the natural tension between our tribal interests and our larger community interests, or the difference between the me and the us, he said.  How do we compromise so as to find a solution that works generally better than the risks we all face with the status quo?

Mr. George likened the bureaucratic permitting process to a ‘hall of a thousand doors.’  “You go to the first door, you clean up what’s in there, you close the door and move to the next, and by the time you get anywhere near the end of the hall of a thousand doors, you have to go back and re-deal with issues that have popped up,” he said.  “It just takes so long and it’s complicated, and so we’ve got these attempts to streamline the regulatory process and to make sense of how we can have confidence moving forward without having complete consensus.”

There is dysfunction and often polarization between the state and federal government in terms of what water policy in California and policy in the Delta should look like, and it seems clear that unless we are able to deal with all of these complications and arrive at some conclusions and take some steps, we’re simply waiting for the inevitable crisis, he said.  “Whether it’s flood, earthquake, political crisis, or financial crisis, there’s no doubt that the fate of the Delta may not be in our hands and that how we manage may not be sustainable for a period of time to allow things to actually get done,” Mr. George said.  “Failing our ability to move forward and manage adaptively as we learn new things and as we proceed, we’re really going to be forced to react to the crisis as it comes upon us as compared to trying to manage to a future that we could view as sustainable … No one can estimate how much time we have left to make decisions and to implement them.  It’s indefinite but it’s not infinite.

So when is the time to take positive action?  We planned for a generation, and we could continue to plan probably forever, without more hope of getting it exactly right, and in the meantime, the clock ticks and the Delta evolves.  Things change.  And not to decide but to continue to be paralyzed by analysis is a decision – it’s a societal decision to muddle through rather than take bold action, and so implementing whatever positive action we would take to save the Delta, is in my view the real challenge of our generation.”

And so let’s not blow it.  It’s time, in my view, to proactively and adaptively, manage a transition toward a Delta that can be sustained as it continues to evolve,” Mr. George said.  “We’re going to have to deal with the Black Swans as they arrive, we’re going to have to deal with the changing demands on the system, and we’re going to have to deal with ameliorating and mitigating some of the problems that we have created.  Almost all the problems that we observe in the Delta today are the result of implementing governmental directives and requirements and perspectives, such as the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act, which enticed private people to come into the Delta to drain the swamp and to build the levees.  That was a government policy that has consequences, and we are the heirs, for better or for worse, of those decisions that we made as a society.  We’re responsible for the unintended consequences and we’re responsible for working to continue to try and manage the Delta in a way that can make it sustainable as it continues to evolve.”

In addition, we’ve got to continue to manage in a way that propels us toward those two coequal goals, which are likely always to elude our grasp.  We’re never going to come to a final outcome with respect to either the reliability of our water supply as it is beset with more demands, or to recover the ecosystem that we had prior to the time we decided to make these decisions and move forward as a state.  And finally, I hope we will take action so that we can, as a generation of water managers, hand off a Delta that is sustainable, that does have an opportunity to meet the coequal goals, but that we can proudly hand over to the next generation.

The decision is upon us; let’s not blow it.”

Question:   Can you explain what the Delta Watermaster’s office has done in the past and what might be on your agenda to do in looking at the legitimacy of the claims of right to divert within the Delta?

Mr. George:  “That’s been a huge focus in my term as Watermaster and it’s one the requirements that is in my statutory role.  First of all, it is important to recognize that the Delta Watermaster and the State Water Resources Control Board has jurisdiction over a subset of the water rights that are exercised in the Delta.  The two big ones, the state and federal projects, are both licensed rights that are subject to the jurisdiction of the State Board and are subject to regulation under Decision 1641, which is likely to be substantially revised as a result of these other processes.  But for those two, the vast majority of water users in the Delta are outside the State Board’s jurisdiction because they are either riparian rights or they are pre-1915 rights.  When I came into office, we knew there were somewhere between 2000 and 3000 diversions in the Delta, and I said, I’m the Watermaster, I should know better.  The fact is because most of those diversions are beyond our administrative jurisdiction, we didn’t have a good taxonomy.  That came to be a huge problem as we got deeper and deeper into the most recent drought.  In 2015, we were beset by our lack of understanding or lack of knowledge of what the water rights were and how they operated.”

And so with emergency power from the Governor, we asked, the State Board asked all the people within the Delta watershed who were claiming these non-jurisdictional rights, either riparian or pre-1914, to simply give us the documentation supporting their water rights.  We took about two years to diligently go through the pile of information we received; there were a lot of historic documents.  In February of 2018, we published the first taxonomy, the first summary of those non-jurisdictional water rights and the basis on which they were proposed.  The second thing we did was we recognized that there was a tremendous overlap between riparian and pre-1914 claims.  We’re trying to clean that up.  … We’re making progress on getting a handle on water rights in the Delta, but I will say there is a widespread myth, part of which motivated the legislature to create my office, which is that there was a lot of water to be saved in the system if you could just stop those folks in the Delta from unlawfully diverting water, and I’m here to tell you, that’s just not true.”

Question: I submit that the biggest public policy challenge that we have today is the state’s refusal to recognize that sea level is rising.  It’s continuing to rise, it’s been rising for a long time, and that our attempt to fight that is draining the state’s resources, damaging the economy, and lowering the water supply reliability, and ultimately it’s going to fail.  So how do we address the challenge, how do we get beyond and deal effectively with the endangered species act, which is what I think is driving it, in a way that adapts to the reality and doesn’t destroy the state?

That is the wolf at the door; that’s the $64,000 question,” said Mr. George.  “How do we manage the challenge of climate change?  The good news is that the mills of state are working on it, and the Delta Stewardship Council has convened a process for vulnerability assessment and adaptation strategy.  It’s a two year program, it’s well funded, it involves pulling together 17 state and federal agencies to answer the question, what are the vulnerabilities and how are we going to face the problem thermal expansion and sea level rise as it impacts the Delta, so that’s a process that’s started.  I am on the Technical Advisory Committee for that process, and I hope it is going to be a way that we can force each other, our various agencies, to face the realities of climate change.”

For instance, how do we get out of the straight jacket of the Endangered Species Act which says with respect for instance to the Delta smelt, we are required by the federal law in its interpretation by the federal courts to save the Delta smelt, regardless of cost,” he continued.  “We have to do everywhere, all at once, anytime, regardless of the cost, and it’s a Fool’s errand because what climate change tells us is that even if we stopped further climate change right now, the Delta is destined to be too hot in most years for many months for Delta smelt to survive.  By the way, that’s not a popular thing to say within the State Water Board or within the California Environmental Protection Agency where there is, for a lot of very good reasons, the high allegiance to the protections in the Endangered Species Act.”

But I hope that this process will force us to come to grips with that contradiction.  Similarly, we want, we regulators, we bureaucrats in Sacramento, want a healthy ecosystem, so we want both more flow and cold water kept high in the system.  I hope that this process is going to force us to recognize that there are tradeoffs.  We’ve have to make decisions.  We can’t have our cake and eat it too, and expect that we’re all going to live happily ever after.  There are tough decisions to be made, and I think this process of vulnerability analysis and adaptation assessment is going to be difficult, but healthy.  For instance, if you’re farming today and maybe you’re the fifth generation who’s farming on a Delta island that is protected by a levee that is destined to fail, that’s a pretty serious issue.  You can’t plan to hand over your farm to your kids.  You can’t expect that your grandchildren will be able to carry this on.  That’s a hard thing for people to come to grips with, but come to grips with it we must, and I think this process is a way of forcing us with all the agencies together to acknowledge what the problems are and what the adaptation strategies are, which will be difficult to implement politically.”

UPDATE: Restore the Delta responds

Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta writes,

“Michael George’s statements about Restore the Delta indicate that he has never taken the time to read our work.  Yes, we are a public messaging campaign, but we have a substantive body of work that supports our public messaging.  Public messaging is certainly not the strength of his office.

Perhaps Michael George should read  our report The Fate of the Delta: Impacts of Proposed Projects and Plans on Environmental Justice Communities.

Then he should review our work The California Sustainable Water Plan:

Then perhaps he should read our testimony that was presented under oath to the State Water Resources Control Board and dozens of detailed policy comment letters directed to government agencies calling for the enforcement of the co-equal goals for the Delta at our website:

This is not the first time Michael George has attempted publicly to diminish Restore the Delta.  It feels to us more like a case of looking for relevance.  He, in his role, cannot take complex material and make it understandable for everyday Californians.  That’s what we specialize in at Restore the Delta — getting the facts out about the problems with Delta management and offering alternative water solutions to the general public — which has been kept out of the water decision making process by design by government leaders like Mr. George for far too long.”

JASON PELTIER: Opportunities for moving ahead in the Delta

Jason Peltier has worn many hats over the years in the world of California water, serving as the Executive Director of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority and the Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District; he also served for six years as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior in Washington D.C. as part of the management team responsible for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey.  Currently, he serves as the Executive Director for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.

Mr. Peltier began by noting that the broad objective of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta is to make the existing system work better for the water supply and for the ecosystem.  “We have spent a tremendous amount of money … probably well over $300 million on WaterFix,” he said.  “I was in my prior life and in my current position, self-critical that we have not spent enough time and energy focusing on how we are going to get from today to when the tunnels are in operation.  How are we going to cope with the ever-declining reliability and the inadequacy of our water supplies that are served by the CVP and the SWP?  We need to focus more on that, so that’s going to be what I talk about.”

There are many things that divide us in the Delta debate, clearly.  It’s a generational thing, no doubt about it.  But there is common interest in improving the water supply reliability and the water system infrastructure, improving the fish populations, and making a healthier ecosystem.  So let’s focus on how we can do those two things in the short-term.  I can be really optimistic about the evolving environment-climate that makes me think, maybe it’s rose colored glasses, but why not.  There’s a great line from a movie, ‘I’d rather be an optimist and wrong then a pessimist and right’.  Let’s just be optimistic and try to move this ball forward.  It is our generation’s responsibility, and our responsibility to leave to the next generation a better system.”

Mr. Peltier said that central to improving the existing system in the Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program, which arose out of the litigation over the biological opinions for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.  Eventually the order to redo the biological opinions was over-ruled on some technicalities so participation was no longer mandatory, but the collaborative science effort continues on a voluntary basis.

It’s interesting, it’s really the only big table that I’m aware of that has the regional directors, the agency heads of the water management and fishery agencies, and the public water agencies and the NGO community,” he said.  “It’s a long slow slog but we are working together to find a path that will help us better understand how the Delta functions.  The opportunity here is in a lot of ways out of a crisis.  All the listed fish populations are declining, but there are a lot of fish in the Delta that are doing just great, so it’s not like the Delta is a cauldron of waste and destruction.  So that recognition prompts us to move forward.”

The work on the tunnels was kind of a systemwide approach with focus on other stressors.  We have had generations of scientists that have said, ‘It’s the pumps, what’s the question?’ and we’re moving rapidly away from that into trying to look at the other stressors in the system – loss of habitat, toxics, overfishing, those things are things we can work on collaboratively and we are.”

In the Delta, we have some real big challenges, both physical and institutional.  Physical, we’ve got 95% of the aquatic biota is invasive.  That fact is an overwhelming reality in the system and one that we don’t have a good handle on.  We do very little monitoring of the invasives.  We can see water hyacinth everywhere, and we know they make the water clearer and that benefits the predators; we know that they deplete oxygen, they consume some water, and yet we don’t have a handle on what that means.”

And we have a new invasive: the nutria, the 15-20 lb. rodent that is an incredible threat to the integrity of the Delta.  They have found breeding populations within the southern edge of the Delta, and this is a challenge I know we’re not ready for.  But we’ve got to get ready.  If you look at the Chesapeake experience or Louisiana where they have had invasions, eradication is years long, very expensive, but in the circumstances of the Chesapeake or Louisiana, particularly the Chesapeake, you didn’t have levees that were protecting holes in the middle of the Delta.  The nutria can burrow in 100 feet, 12 feet down, they are prolific breeders.  It’s an emergency and we need to treat it like one.”

On the institutional side, the Delta is a mess in some other ways.  We have over 200 governing entities that have some piece of the action in terms of governing what goes on in the Delta.  We have over 200 monitoring programs that are going on in the Delta, so we’ve created this tangled web of programs and projects and institutions that is really difficult to understand, let alone move.”

We’re spending over $100 million a year on science in the Delta.  A lot of that is counting fish and monitoring and we’re not learning much from that.  There’s an opportunity for change.  One broad opportunity is there’s a growing recognition that the way we’re doing business isn’t working.  We’ve had this continually growing complex system of science efforts, planning efforts, regulatory efforts, that have pulled us in 100 directions, but they are all working on the same thing: improving water system reliability and supply, and improving the ecosystem.  So the way we’re doing business is not working, and I think that recognition leads us to the opportunity to have a conversation about what can we do to change things.”

We watched Governor Schwarzenegger with the ‘let’s blow up the boxes and change things and move things around.’  We all know how difficult it is to change the way government works, because there are so many bastions of authority, power, and the kings of those bastions are loathe to let anything go and admit that maybe we could collaborate in a different way.  There are ways that we can do science better; there are ways that to bring together some of the redundancy that we see in all of these regulatory planning processes.”

Given that all the fish we care about are in decline, there should be more of a sense of urgency, but do you know how many things we’ve done to help Delta smelt in 26 years or so since its been listed?  I think three.  Other than, we open the book and it says to reduce pumping on April 1.  We follow all the biological opinion things.  We’re working on habitat stuff, but where have we affirmatively gone out and tried to help the smelt?  Two years ago we started a special flow down the Yolo Bypass, we did that again this year, and we’re reoperating the Suisun Marsh gates, so three things that we’ve done that shows our ability to think out of the box.”

We have opportunity in the world of implementing the Endangered Species Act.  There is an incredible amount of discretion that the agency heads hold in terms of how the law is implemented.  The tunnels are going to be a long-term salvation for the system, there’s no doubt about that, but in the short-term, the quickest cheapest water we can get is a function of how that discretion is exercised by the agency heads and how that discretion is exercised is a function of what is the best available science and what is the best thinking.  I think with our collaborative science and our advancements in science, that there’s opportunity there.”

There’s also a new generation of scientists coming in.  Every other year there’s a Delta science conference in Sacramento.  Three days, over 1000 people.  And it’s amazing, so that’s a reflection of some of the horsepower that’s going in to trying to understand the Delta.  I couldn’t help but notice at the last conference, the demographic was incredible.  It was like 2% of the people were my age; probably 80% below 45, and so there’s a whole new set of people coming in.

“We have opportunity in that there’s kind of new ways to approach decision making that we’re pursuing.  We’re not just thinking about them, we are pursuing them, and we are investing in them.  One is structured decision making, and it’s an expansion of the collaborative science where we get all the interests around the table, and we have a facilitated conversation.  Part of it is very technical, it’s the policy-science interface, and it allows us to bring not only transparency and common ownership of the regulatory role, but it allows us to have a rational basis.  So much of what we see in the biological opinions today is just legacy thinking that it’s the pumps and what do we need to do to restrain the pumps, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.”

The last thing is adaptive management, and while we talk a lot about adaptive management, we don’t do a lot about it, and my theory is pretty simple.  It’s kind of antithetical to the civil service because adaptive management means taking some risks and being willing to fail and learning from your failure, but in the desperate straits were in, we’ve got to take more risks, we can’t wait for the clarity of ‘we know what’s wrong’ moment, that moment is never going to come.  We have to act now.

So with that, thank you.

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