DR. JEFF MOUNT: Ecosystem Water Budgets: A Novel Approach to Managing Water for the Environment
Dr. Jeff Mount has a long history of involvement with science issues in the Delta. As a professor at UC Davis, he started the Center for Watershed Sciences, which became home to researchers working on the Delta; he was on the first iteration of the Delta Independent Science Board and eventually became its chair; and he has been a very public voice on science in the Delta and how to address its many problems. After 34 years of being a professor at UC Davis, he retired to help Ellen Hanak start the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. Today he is a senior fellow there, focusing his efforts on trying to bridge science and policy. At a Brown Bag Seminar held in the fall of 2018, he gave this presentation about managing freshwater systems with ecosystem water budgets.
Dr. Mount began by noting that about three years ago, the PPIC was awarded a contract with the EPA along with support from a number of foundations to take a look at the impact of the 2012-2016 drought and the government’s response to that drought. As part of that work, the PPIC has written a series of ten articles. In this presentation, Dr. Mount said he would be focusing on the management of freshwater ecosystems.
“The emphasis is going to be on drought, partly because that’s what our grant from EPA was for, but we as we did the work, we began to convince ourselves that drought is the single most important thing to pay attention to,” he said. “Out of this emerged something that a number of the authors on this article had been kicking around for decades, and that was the concept of an allocation of a budget of water for ecosystem management and why that is a better approach then what we currently do.”
Droughts are actually easier in terms of natural disaster management, because floods and fires are relatively short-lived and the disaster memory half life tends to be very short for them, he said. However, droughts are useful because they last for a long time so there becomes a great deal of awareness and the probability of significant change and new legislation improves because droughts last years, he said. He noted that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 is an example of that; it’s probably the most significant legislation in water for at least in a generation if not several generations.
The 2012-2016 drought is a good test case because it was a drought of the future, he said. They did a lot of modeling, projecting out to mid-century, and the 2012-2016 drought with its extremely unusually high temperatures is basically the model drought that was developed for the typical drought of 2040-2050. The mid-century is important because that’s when the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires groundwater basins into balance.
“On the biological side, I will argue that drought, because of the way we have modified this system, is the major bottleneck ecologically and why we need take a hard look at it,” he said. “As the coauthors and I argue in this report, we’ve always been a place with droughts; we’ve always been a place where we have had extended warm and dry periods, although maybe not quite so warm as we just had, and that our native fishes in particular are well adapted to drought. They have an extraordinary range of adaptations.”
Dr. Mount presented a slide showing six of the ways native fish have adapted to drought, everything from anadromy to fecundity. Some fish, such as splittail, are long-lived because they only get a few good years for spawning. Long distance movement and dispersal are also a method of adaptation to droughts, which normally produce a bottleneck and then populations recover.
“Because of the way we have changed this system, the way we manage water and the modification of the landscape, and the introduction of a large number of non-native species into this system – all of these conspire against the natural adaptations that exist to basically adapt to drought, and this is why droughts are the single most important bottleneck,” he said. “So as you are thinking about ecosystem planning for the future, step 1 has to be thinking about drought: how to mitigate drought and how to deal with drought – that is plan for, respond to, and recover from drought. I’ll make the argument that we don’t do that. We don’t do that at all, even though we just had this big drought.”
“We came up with a conclusion that few people will disagree with and that is what we’re currently doing is not working,” he said. “We have yet to arrest this steady decline in native fishes and we may have prevented some extinctions overall, but if you consider the work that Peter Moyle and others have done over the last few years, all the trends are bad. And so basically we’ve been unable to get that, and I’m arguing that drought, including warmer temperatures, is playing a major role in that.”
An argument that the report makes is that California needs a much more flexible water allocation system. “We live by what I call the set it and forget it model,” Dr. Mount said. “That is, the State Water Board, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the federal fish agencies set a series of minimum instream flow standards and we assume those will both be adhered to and are sufficient for preventing bad things from happening. Our argument is they are not and they were relaxed multiple times during the last drought.”
The series of case studies showed how limited planning for drought was in terms of the drought on the ecosystem scale because again we rely on minimum instream flow and a ‘set it and forget it kind of approach’ that’s been used so many times in past, and yet the emergency ad hoc measures only stoke controversy and produce unpredictable results, he said. “We don’t have any evidence that it really made that big of a difference,” he said. “This is something for folks at Fish and Wildlife to think about. What good did you do during all of that and how do you test that? This turns out to be pretty important.”
The other issue that arose out of the case studies is how bad the water accounting system is in California and how our ability to determine what water was available during the drought for environmental management was greatly limited.
So from those case studies, the PPIC came up with a series of recommendations; their recommendation to improve ecosystem management is to have an ecosystem water budget. “This is something that has been around for quite some time so it’s not new,” Dr. Mount said, noting that Brian Gray wrote about it in 1986, and Buzz Thompson from Stanford wrote about it in 2011.
Recommendation 1: Establish an ecosystem water budget
An ecosystem water budget is a defined quantity (or budget) of water; it has to create assurances for people. “We argue it should be done at a watershed scale as that seems to be the best unit to be able to manage it,” Dr. Mount said. “It has to be flexibly managed. It has to act like priority water right. It has to be clearly defined what its priority water right is and it has to be clearly defined what the ecosystem goals and objectives are. You’ll notice I didn’t say single species in all of that.”
The concept is spelled out in much more detail in the article. The early iterations of the article were rather prescriptive about what that would look like, but peer reviewers were very critical, not necessarily of the specific prescriptions that they had, but that they were too prescriptive. “That gave us something to think about which is that these things probably have to be negotiated on a watershed by watershed basis, that if you are too prescriptive, too top down, it is not likely to work,” he said. “They need to be adapted locally.”
Dr. Mount then gave the general aspects of what an ecosystem water budget would look like. “First it has to be integrated into the water rights system,” he said. “Our thinking behind this is that it would function like a water right and that someone could manage it like a water right. It needs to be integrated into the water rights system – specifically, the amount of water, the places it can be used, how you’re going to use it, what beneficial use you are going to get from it and it’s priority within the system, and that’s key. The minimal level has to be the highest priority and act like a senior water right, but elements of that ecosystem water budget could be farther down the food chain in priority rights.”
Then a management structure with ecosystem trustees is needed. “Everybody is in charge and nobody’s in charge of ecosystem management in this system,” he said. “When you think about it, it’s all these agencies who are either regulators, regulateds, or both in some case, and nobody is actually in charge of the ecosystem, which means there’s nobody to ‘hang’ when things go poorly – and I’m a firm believer in having people to hang. It creates a great motivation to not be hung. So our argument is that you need to vest somebody in the responsibility to manage that ecosystem and the power to do it. That’s why we talk about it as something like a water right. It doesn’t have to be called a water right but it needs to function like a water right, and that somebody needs to be in charge.”
Besides a good management structure, it’s essential that there be flexibility for allocating that water to be able to respond to good times as well as bad. “In our view, that means treating it like a water right that has the ability to both store and trade water,” Dr. Mount said. “What it did in Australia where they set something like this up is suddenly the environment moves from being a constraint on the system to being a partner on the system. Somebody sits at the table with the other water right holders and is managing that body of water for the ecosystem but also as a partner with the folks in the watershed. So trading and storage is extremely important for management flexibility.”
Finally, make it a fixed budget and let water users know what the budget is going to be. “This is creating assurances to the water user community that you’re not going to be continuously asking for more water out of that system, but that you’re going to set a budget, and that the ecosystem trustees have to manage that ecosystem to the best of their ability, whatever that ecosystem is supposed to be in a highly altered system, with a budget. It’s not open ended. This is necessary for creating assurances for the water user community and it’s kind of key.”
As a hypothetical example, a typical flow regime on the tributaries to the Delta has a series of attributes, such as the initial wet up during the fall, the winter flood pulses, the spring snowmelt recession, the slow recession, and early fall base flows. It is this flow regime with its natural variability that native species have adapted themselves to, both the variability within the year as well as the variability that happens from year to year.
“Of course, we have a very, very different hydrology in this system now superimposed on an extraordinarily altered landscape within it,” Dr. Mount said. “The idea behind an ecosystem water budget is that an ecosystem trustee would be able to strategically allocate water on top of the existing flow, or trade it, or store it until the next year, if they want to. And they would be able to restore elements of this natural variability which improve ecosystem function and condition.”
He pointed out that he hasn’t mentioned a single species so far in this talk. “The ecosystem water budget has to be managed for ecosystem function and condition rather than single life history stages of single species,” he said, noting that the PPIC plans to tackle the issue of ‘ecosystem management’ and what is meant by that in a future publication.
Dr. Mount noted that if the State Water Board approves the Phase 1 water quality control plan update (which it did), it would be 40% of unimpaired flow for a set number of months. “That is essentially the beginning of the building blocks of a budget,” he said. “But it’s not clear that it could be managed in the same way. In fact, they are very unclear on how it could be managed, what the structure for management would be, and what it would look like. Those are things that have to be worked out in the future, and so our argument is you are going to need a tremendous amount of improvement of planning and preparation to be able to manage an ecosystem water budget, particularly when it comes to managing drought.”
Recommendation 2: Better planning and preparation will be needed
Dr. Mount said that the state and federal government did not do a good job of handling the ecosystem during the last drought, which he has been publicly critical of over the years. “They were stuck with a series of unpleasant tradeoffs which they hadn’t anticipated and they hadn’t prepared for them, so it just stoked controversy and responses were ad hoc and late,” he said. “The most egregious example was the Bureau of Reclamation’s management of Shasta Reservoir during all of this. They wouldn’t have been surprised by anything that happened there had they actually been preparing for warm droughts. But instead, they were surprised, and it involved a lot of ad hoc decision making which didn’t do well for the resource they were managing and it just made things much worse.”
It’s time to start planning appropriately, no matter what, Dr. Mount emphasized. “With or without these ecosystem water budgets, we as a state have got to make the investments in planning for, the preparation for, the management during, and the recovery from drought.”
Planning needs to be done at the right scale which the PPIC asserts is the watershed scale. “It turns out, Eisenhower was right: plans are nothing and planning is everything and so the planning process itself is extremely important,” said Dr. Mount. “What we were looking for when we did a series of case studies was the planning process, which was far more important than the actual plan itself. What we suggested was to borrow something from Victoria, Australia which are called annual watering plans. I love the name, watering plans, because it gives the idea of sprinkling water on your ecosystem.”
Developing an annual water plan is ‘painfully difficult work’, he acknowledged. A new plan is developed every year within the context of an overall watershed plan which contains a series of contingencies. They set up an essentially a matrix for the things they want to accomplish this coming year depending on what type of year type it becomes.
This process of developing the annual watering plans is an intense stakeholder engagement process with the main benefit being that it reduces surprise. “By reducing surprise, everybody knows that it’s dry, these are the things we’re going to do,” he said. “This is what our plan is, this is the way we’re going to go forward, depending on hydrologic conditions. You don’t make that as an ad hoc decision based some exceedance probability that is announced in the press in March. It really reduced controversy; it didn’t get rid of controversy … the screaming and yelling has not entirely stopped but by greatly reducing surprises for the water users, it makes it easier.”
Recommendation 3: Better accounting practices will also be needed
“We are handicapped by poor water accounting systems and lack of accurate and timely information, particularly about water use and water availability,” Dr. Mount said. “We watched the State Board struggle with the temporary urgency change permits which were constantly coming in, and the State Water Project, Central Valley Project, and individual irrigation districts struggling with how to plan in the middle of this drought, and at the same time, Fish and Wildlife and the federal fish agencies were trying to find their way forward.”
“We were constantly handicapped by limited information on the availability and use of water, so better accounting systems are extremely important. Good transparent information reduces controversy and lawsuits.”
The state also doesn’t do a very good job for accounting for the type of water in this system, so in order to improve the water accounting system, the current water accounting categories need to be reformed.
“At the top of the list is the woefully mischaracterized environmental water,” he said, noting that he has discussed this DWR. “So we have suggested we need to rethink the way we classify water. What happens is we’ve tried to ascribe water into three categories: urban, ag, and environment, and that’s a mistake. We need to recognize which water achieves multiple purposes across the board and start to quantify that, especially if we’re going to have ecosystem budgets.”
If ecosystem budgets are to be used, then ecosystem water – that is, the water that is not available for economic use because it is meeting ecosystem objectives, must be clearly identified. The PPIC published a paper in the SF Estuary & Watershed Science Journal which noted that there are really four fates for inflow to the Delta: Diversion (both in-Delta and export), system water, ecosystem water, and uncaptured water.
During the drought, most of the water that left the Delta was to maintain salinity standards in the Delta, as well as the ag and M&I standards. “The same water that is released that flows out of the Delta that politicians describe as ‘wasted to the sea’ – that water meets multiple objectives. It is needed to run the system for human economic uses as well as the ecosystem. We called that system water.”
Ecosystem water is the additional outflow on top of the system water that goes out of the Delta and into San Francisco Bay and creates a broad range of ecosystem benefits both within the Delta as well as outside of the Delta in San Francisco Bay, he said. “It is achieved in multiple ways,” he said, crediting one of the collaborators, Greg Gartrell, with the approach. “D-1641 and the biological opinions create various sources of water to flow out of the Delta to meet ecosystem needs. What DWR doesn’t count is the amount of water that flows out of the Delta due to pumping restrictions, which became more stringent after the biological opinions were implemented in 2008. So we quantified all that water that actually flows out of the Delta because of ecosystem requirements and does nothing to meet the system requirements.”
Uncaptured water is neither required by statute or regulation, nor is it water that can be captured because we lack the capacity. In the record wet year of 2017, there was an immense amount of uncaptured water, but even in the height of the drought in 2014, there were at least three episodes where water flowed out of the Delta that couldn’t be captured no matter what. There wasn’t a federal requirement or state requirement that made it go out, there just wasn’t capacity, he said.
“Uncaptured water turns out to be extremely important to the system,” Dr. Mount said. “This uncaptured water freshens the Delta, and by freshening the Delta, it reduces the requirement to release flow from reservoirs to maintain Delta salinities … basically by them taking on the responsibility of maintaining salinities for M&I, ag, as well as their own projects, they have to release a tremendous amount of water.”
Dr. Mount noted that their calculations determined that the amount of water that has to be released to maintain salinities in the Delta has gone up as much 400,000 to 500,000 acre-feet over the last couple of decades. “I think this deserves a lot more inquiry about why it is that it starting in the 90s, it took a lot more water to keep the Delta fresh and really by the 2000s, it has had a big impact on that system,” he said.
“Because 2005 was a relatively wet year, the ecosystem water was really only confined to the winter, and pretty much during the summer and the fall, ecosystem water was not that much of the budget,” he said.
“During dry years, the ecosystem water in particular as a proportion of water is very small,” he said. “You can see the differences between a wettish year and a dry year and how much of that is ecosystem water. What you do see there is the constant need for system water which is that outflow in the Delta to meet salinity standards. So we’re arguing you need to start to peel apart what is the ecosystem budget if you’re going to start trying to set an ecosystem water budget. ”
Dr. Mount then presented a slide showing the amount of water for each of the categories from 1981 to present, noting that there was relatively little ecosystem water under D-1485 and how that has changed from D-1641 and then the 2008 biological opinions.
“The load of ecosystem water has become much higher,” he said. “We can argue about how much it is, but it’s on the order of around 1 to 1.5 MAF of additional outflow that is basically associated with the D1641 and the 2008 biops.”
He cautioned though that in wettish years such as 2006 where it looks like the ecosystem water, there’s a lot of water in the system and the ecosystem water objectives are met by excess flow in the system. “So you cannot say that the volume of ecosystem water is in every year a transfer of water from an economic activity to the environment, because a lot of it is simply met by flow that is coming into the Delta that cannot be captured,” he said. “When you get down to below average, dry, and critically dry years, that ecosystem water budget that we’ve calculated is an accurate reflection of what comes out of hide of the water users. Because in this case we’ve accounted for system water in all of this – and it has increased significantly.”
“Here is what the 1MAF that is allocated to these various parts of the budget are,” he said. “For D1641 and the post 2008 biological opinions, you can see how much water is basically to meet system water objectives and to maintain salinities for human uses of the Delta, and then how much is flow in water quality and how much is from export pumping limits. In critically dry years, 3.6 MAF has to go out of the Delta to keep it fresh enough to use, and about 1.1 MAF is ecological water, so that’s much less than what you hear in the press on that. But those are important numbers, because suddenly you have a budget. You have an existing budget that exist in regulations.”
Why is this a better approach than what DWR currently does? Dr. Mount said that you can get a Excel spreadsheet from DWR that describes how water is allocated and any outflow requirements, whether it’s to meet water quality or for ecosystems, is basically lumped into environmental water.
“That doesn’t go so well because politicians who need to get a tag line out of it say, ‘look at all that water wasted to the sea,’ because that’s environmental water that’s going out, and that’s just not true, particularly during a drought, since the overwhelming majority of that water is system water to basically keep the Delta fresh enough to be able to be used,” he said. “We compared our numbers with DWR’s approach and in fact, that part of their environmental water account really can be divided into system water and ecosystem water, but they fail to account for the water that is allowed to become outflow through pumping reductions. So ours is a much more accurate dividing of water.”
There are other problems with the DWR accounting practices that they have found, such as there’s 2 MAF of environmental water that’s due to Wild and Scenic Rivers; or that basically anything that spills at New Don Pedro they are calling environmental water, so it grossly inflates the amount of environmental water in that system, Dr. Mount said, noting that they have been having a series of discussions with DWR and they are perfectly willing to take a look at it.
“We need a better accounting system that more accurately reflects how water is used and it’s availability, and what we’re proposing is you need to do that if you’re going to do an ecosystem water budget,” he said.
What if there were an ecosystem trustee during the drought?
So if there was an ecosystem trustee in charge of a water budget, would he have managed differently during the drought? Dr. Mount presented a slide showing the breakdown of water for the years 2010 – 2016, noting that in 2014, there was a tiny, tiny sliver of ecosystem water. An ecosystem trustee could have moved some of that ecosystem water through by trading or he could have arranged to have it as stored water and carried it over into the next year and could have made a call on that water and might have well have been able to lessen some of the blows that came through in 2014, he said.
“Instead, we have a series of minimum instream flow and a fairly rigid set of requirements for outflow as a proportion of inflow in this system, which doesn’t allow you to respond,” he said. “In 2014 and 2015, there were temporary urgency change permits which changed the amount of water that was available for the ecosystem, so my argument here to you is that we rethink the way we do ecosystem water; if there’s an ecosystem trustee, they can start trading and they can manage this water and start preparing for and responding to and recovering from drought for these ecosystems.”
So what would it take?
The most difficult part is determining what the ecosystem water budgets would be for all the tributaries to the Delta, Dr. Mount said, noting that the State Water Board is backing into that – in a way.
“If the State Water Board sets and uses their unimpaired flow standard, that is the beginning of an ecosystem water budget in my view,” he said. “That water that has to pass through the system to meet ecosystem objectives is the beginning of a budget. We can all have a long discussion about whether that is the right way to go, whether that’s the right approach, using an unimpaired flow standard, but the fact is it can be used to identify what is a budget. … It has to change based on water year type.”
There should be a trustee for each watershed, he said. “So the Tuolumne needs a trustee, the Merced needs a trustee, the Stanislaus, the American River, the Yuba, the Bear, the Sacramento – we need a trustee for each one of those,” he said. “Remember at the beginning I said, you need someone to hang, but you have to give them the authority to be able to take actions and coordinate actions. That is our view.”
“It may well be that the way to do this is to have a trustee in each watershed and then have a Delta trustee, a single person or group of trustees that manage the inflows to the Delta,” he added.
The trustee needs to have two kinds of plans: a long range plan for the objectives they are trying to achieve in that watershed, and they need an annual plan that has been vetted with the stakeholder community extensively, he said.
“To do this requires maybe the toughest thing and that is regulatory agencies willing to take risks … It is far safer for somebody in the regulatory world to do what they have always done and set minimum instream flow standards, but I’m telling you there is no evidence it is working … We need a new approach.”
“To do this requires maybe the toughest thing and that is regulatory agencies willing to take risks,” said Dr. Mount. “It is far safer for somebody in the regulatory world to do what they have always done and set minimum instream flow standards, but I’m telling you it’s not working. There is no evidence it is working and that simply working around the edges such as increasing outflow to the Delta 500,000 acre-feet is likely to produce positive results. We need a new approach.”
“We have to do something different, and so my argument is, this is the way to do something different,” he continued. “You really need to have better accounting and you really need a robust science program to support it, and without that, I don’t think you’re going to do well, and we have some suggestions in this report on how we would do it.”
The graphic on the slide (up above) shows where water went during 2012 – 2016. “How much of that 8 MAF outflow was ‘wasted to the sea?’” he said. “It turns out that more than half of what was ‘wasted to the sea’ was just to keep it fresh enough to so you could use the Delta. It wasn’t wasted to the sea; it created ecosystem benefits no doubt about it by doing it, but it was for us to be able to use the Delta. Only about 18% of the water was solely to the environment. It’s important that the amount of uncaptured water was far greater than the water which was set aside by regulations specifically for ecosystems. So the idea behind this is to get to a set of common facts that we can use and ultimately out of that build an ecosystem water budget.”
Dr. Mount then gave his conclusions. “I think we need an ecosystem water budget that can be flexibly managed and create assurances to water users by making it an genuine budget. It absolutely has to be surrounded by a great deal of very transparent planning and clear objectives – but not single-species based objectives but ecosystem-based objectives. Without good accounting, you’re not going to be able to do it.
“We have to have a common understanding. Frankly, the Delta is the easiest place of them all to do this because of the known inflows the Delta. … It’s harder to do upstream, but we propose that we actually try to do this throughout the watershed, and to start to unpack the portions which are basically system water, water for diversions, water for ecosystem, and uncaptured flow, and begin to back out of this so we know what our existing ecosystem water budgets are on these watersheds and how we might manage it differently. I think that’s absolutely critical.”
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Question: With climate change and sea water level going up, how do you propose the continued freshening of the Delta?
Dr. Mount: “Right now, that burden falls principally on the projects. So the projects have to meet M&I standards and ag standards and standards for the export pumps in the South Delta, and they will be dealing with the consequences of increasing sea level rise, so that’s kind of a foundation. I’m arguing that on top of that, you’re going to be adding pulses of flow of freshwater through your ecosystem water budget, but you’re right. Both of those point to greater difficulty to meet the existing water supply out of the Delta in the future.”
“When we tore apart the analysis all the way back to 1980, we looked very hard at the existing data, and what we were struck by was how much more water it is taking now to meet these basic ag and M&I standards and export standards, and it is probably has cost, certainly in the last ten to fifteen years, a half a million acre feet per year. We’re killing each other over lesser amounts in this system, but yet that burden is falling on the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. This deserves further investigation and there may be lots of reasons why – I’ve heard some really good explanations, but that’s a scary number, but it’s probably not due to sea level rise. It hasn’t risen that much in that period of time to account for that.”
Question: Can you talk about how you envision storage for this water? If you don’t have space in a reservoir, it’s really hard to move it year to year and season to season.
Dr. Mount: “This is why the ecosystem water budget is an asset. It has to have a series of assets. So I could envision in a year like 2017 that there’s trading going on, and you’re going to trade some of your ecosystem water for water in the future and you’re going to ask them to store it for you. Now there are all sorts of complications in storage because if it spills, you lose it – those are the kinds of things that have to be agreed upon. There is Sites Reservoir that is supposed to provide public benefit. The place to start with Sites is to grant a portion of that storage to the ecosystem. I can easily see Shasta having a portion of its allocation assigned for ecosystem management which could be flexible, so in a cool spring when things are pretty good, they can trade some water or sell some water downstream, and in a hot summer, they hang onto the ecosystem water and release it later. That’s the way they do it in Australia for example; they allocate a portion of that storage to the environment, and environmental managers are allowed to actually manage that storage.”
“Now I can imagine if I were the Yuba County Water Agency, I wouldn’t like that idea at all. But that might be the tradeoff for a little greater surety in water budget side, so storage has to be key. I’m going to give you an example. Let’s take Yuba Water Agency; they have storage in that system. They have the large storage upstream and they have groundwater, and so what they do during the times when they have to leave water in the system, they move their farmers to groundwater. Now imagine the Tuolumne River, which is a small enough group, they could organize … they want to manage that budget, and the environment is participating in the groundwater management in that basin because they are doing either in-lieu or they are actually involved in the recharge, and some of that ecosystem water gets put in storage in the ground. That’s good for the local groundwater basin, I think it’s a clearly defined beneficial use because you’re going to draw it out and use it in the river … that might be one way to go. They flexibly do this elsewhere; there’s not reason we can’t do it here.”
Question: I am reminded in 2015 when Merced only had enough water in storage to meet their minimum instream flow requirements and provided 0 water to their customers but they adhered to their requirement for minimum instream flows at the same time other agencies around the state were petitioning for temporary change petitions. How do TUCPs fit into your modernized approach?
Dr. Mount: “I can tell you we struggled with that one. The lame answer that I can give you is done right, you don’t need them. That is, if there’s been good storage and trading and management, like a water right, you end up not needing a TUCP but I can absolutely see in years like 2014-2015 where unforeseen events occur that you’re probably going to have to have the TUCP process available to make this work. … There has to be exceptions along the way; you can’t be rigid on this. We went round and round on this very question, because one argument is if we’re setting these minimum instream flow standards, well they are minimum instream flow standards. You can’t go below them because of the biological harm that’s associated with that but still, given the uncertainties, it’s unreasonable to state that that’s a hard and fast bottom line. What I would like to see is that is the responsibility of the environment to manage that, so that the environment has the water, and the environment is the ecosystem trustee is the one that is delivering that water, and if they cannot, you hang them … basically someone is responsible for that, for managing it like a water right.”
Question: Can you better define uncaptured flows and what it would take to capture more of these flows in the Delta or up-gradient?
Dr. Mount: “We avoided using the term surplus flow because that has a specific definition in the Water Board’s world, so we call it uncaptured flow. What we meant by that is flow within the system that exceeds the physical capacity to divert it and use it for economic purposes. So for example, when the pumps are pumping full blast in the Delta, the inflow exceeds the amount of water that is set aside for the environment, that remaining water is uncaptured flow which produces multiple benefits. The argument would be that you could come back to the board and presumably apply for that water, so let’s imagine that we’re going to build a bunch of big dams upstream and they want to basically use that uncaptured flow. In my view, that would be a mistake, because that uncaptured flow creates direct benefit for the Delta that we don’t acknowledge, and that is by freshening the Delta, it creates both environmental benefits as well as water supply benefits.”
“This is one of the unfortunately not well realized issues, so when Kamyar and others get really going on this Flood Managed Aquifer Recharge issue and they are capturing all that water upstream, if it’s a large volume of water, it’s not longer uncaptured flow in the Delta, so there is a consequence when we start trying to push more water into groundwater to outflow in the Delta, and right now we don’t really have a good mechanism for dealing with that and understanding that because it doesn’t fall neatly into the water rights system.”
Question: How are we ever going to get a regulatory agency to take the risk you are talking about, and how are we going to convince senior water rights holders to go along with this since they have to get less water?
Dr. Mount: “On the regulators side, I’ll be very blunt about this. It’s leadership. And that is the people who are in those regulatory agencies, the leaders in those agencies who say, we think this is going to be a better way to go. You could do it legislatively; it probably would required state as well as federal legislation but I think on the state legislative side, we could do it. We certainly argue the State Board has the authority to say, ‘this is the way we want it to be managed,’ so they have the power to do that.” “It’s the willingness to take some risks, knowing full well you’re going to get sued because this is water, and what we’re dangling in front of the senior water rights holders is, we’re talking about a budget. We’re trying to get out of the business where we’re constantly seeking more in the future, and the uncertainty in the future that the next time the Board goes through a water quality control plan, which there’s supposed to do every three years, that it continues to be another bite at the apple. So the argument is, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to set this up and you’re going to benefit ultimately from that. And I think if you can engage with ecosystem water budgets and have them managed in a way as another water right holder in the basin, you end up starting to have a flexible partner which can be really useful, especially if there’s groundwater involved.”
“Until people see this on paper in some way, shape, or form, it remains in the abstract. The place to start might be Sites Reservoir, it might be the first place to start with a true ecosystem water budget, or it might be in the water quality control plan, which is a tougher nut to crack.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION …
- Managing California’s Freshwater Ecosystems: Lessons from the 2012-16 Drought, from the PPIC Water Center
- Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms, from the PPIC Water Center
- Accounting for Water “Wasted to the Sea”, essay at the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science Journal
- Checking assertions with data: Untangling factors that constrain water exports from the San Francisco Bay estuary, presentation from the Bay Institute at the Bay Delta Science Conference
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