ACWA PANEL DISCUSSION: The building blocks of success in the Delta

DeDe D’Adamo, Karla Nemeth, and Susan Tatayon give their thoughts about going forward in the Delta in a panel discussion moderated by Ellen Hanak

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the complex and fragile hub of California’s water supply system, providing at least a portion of water to two-thirds of the state’s population and thousands of acres of farmland.  The Delta is also the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, and its delicate ecosystem is home to fish and wildlife, many of them considered threatened and endangered.  Despite efforts over decades, the Delta’s delicate ecosystem and species continue to decline.  Climate change, a growing population, and aging infrastructure continue to challenge our ability to identify long-term solutions that balance water supply quality and reliability with ecosystem goals.

At the 2019 ACWA Fall Conference, Vice Chair of the State Water Board DeDe D’Adamo, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth, and Delta Stewardship Council Susan Tatayon gave their thoughts on moving forward in the Delta in this panel discussion moderated by the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Director Ellen Hanak.

(Interesting to note, there was NO discussion of Delta conveyance, except for the one time when Karla Nemeth said, “Setting aside Delta conveyance … “)


DeDe D’Adamo, Vice Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, began with an update on the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  The federal Clean Water Act requires the plan be updated every three years.  The plan was last reviewed in 2006, and at the time, the Board said it was important to do a very significant review and a plan update in the next round to address the collapse of the species in the Delta.

The Board had already directed staff to begin quite some time ago, but it’s a significant project, and so it was placed into two phases:  Phase 1 on the San Joaquin and Phase 2 on the Sacramento watershed and its tributaries.  In 2018, the State Water Board adopted Phase 1 of the water quality control plan which dealt with the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.

When we acted in 2018, it was not without a significant amount of conflict,” Ms. D’Adamo acknowledged.  “I came to the board in large part because I thought I could contribute to the development of the plan and was really excited about the Board’s role to balance all beneficial uses.  Our attorneys have been telling us that the lever that we have to address these issues is a flow lever.  There was quite a bit of discussion before we adopted our plan to have a different approach, an approach that would be more comprehensive and take into account not just flow but habitat, additional science, and governance, looking at the watershed as a whole.”

There was one group on the Tuolumne River which included the city and county of San Francisco, and the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts who presented a voluntary approach that included flow and non-flow measures.  Then a large number of water districts on the Sacramento River decided that even though they weren’t before the Board at the time, they reached out to the Resources Agency to do a jump-start on a conceptual package on voluntary agreements.

When we adopted the plan, even though it was not without controversy, it was a moment for a vision and hope to begin the process for this more comprehensive voluntary agreement package with a commitment to undertake serious discussions in the following year,” said Ms. Adamo.  “We have our staff very much involved in the state team, working and providing technical assistance as they are developing these agreements.

The voluntary agreement approach has the advantage of being able to implemented very quickly.  With the traditional approach to the adoption of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, the plan would have to go through an additional phase of implementation, most likely a water rights proceeding and possibly a regulation; both of those avenues would take quite some time to accomplish and would be fraught with litigation, Ms. A’Adamo said.

So for us to undergo a traditional approach, it might be as much as a decade or more before we would actually see some of the benefits from the Water Quality Control Plan adopted under a traditional approach,” she said.  “With the voluntary agreements, it could be as soon as maybe a year, and the species are declining have been declining, so time is an added value in a voluntary more comprehensive approach.”

Karla Nemeth added that she predates the Brown Administration on Delta issues, having started in the Schwarzenegger era with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  Setting aside Delta conveyance, from an ecosystem perspective, we were dealing with exact same things then as we are trying to grapple through now – but with some important improvements.

One of those improvements is really focusing on landscape scale approaches to ecosystem restoration which is essential, in my view, to achieving the success that we need to have at an ecosystem level that can enable water users in the state to have more reliable water supplies,” Ms. Nemeth said.

The drought was a game changer in many ways.  It brought to the fore the intensity of drought and the challenges that species face during drought and dry periods; the reality is that when that drought is followed by a big boom, a big wet water year, the system itself isn’t behaving or responding as we once thought it would, she said.

Those are challenges that have emerged significantly in the last two to three years, and are front and center in terms of how we grapple with the changes we need to make in the context of managing the Delta and it’s watershed as whole,” Ms. Nemeth said.  “The voluntary agreements are an important vehicle for doing so.”

The voluntary agreements involve ten tributaries to the Delta that are working on a set of actions that could be implemented over the next 15 years, including new environmental flows and physical restoration from the upper watershed down to the Delta to improve conditions in the Delta and its tributaries for species.  Ms. Nemeth noted it’s different from the way the state has tried things in the past; it’s much broader than the current regulatory regime which includes the federal and state endangered species acts that are focused on avoiding harm and mitigating.

This is really about balancing across all beneficial uses in the Delta, but actually improving conditions and that gives us a lot more room to try things that we have not had the collective political will to try in California,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “We’ve got a lot of good ideas but have far fewer answers, and so what will really make the voluntary agreements go is the governance, science, and adaptive management structure that comes with it.  The water users and the environmental groups who are participating are working with state and federal agencies to plan the physical restoration that needs to happen in the watersheds and down in the Delta, and testing with water from the environment, how we can activate that restoration and generate important features for fish, be it food supply or rearing habitat or other things that we know fish need to become more resilient.  We are also very focused on trying to sort out the importance of improvements in these drier water year types.”

During the drought, by and large, most of the state’s economy and communities fared very well as many communities had made a lot of important local investments that protected them during the drought.   However, rural communities and the environment very much suffered in the drought, so Ms. Nemeth said that one of the objectives of the voluntary agreements is to be able to demonstrate an ability to improve the resilience of the environment to survive the drier years and drought periods in the future.

There are a number of general principles for the Voluntary Agreements which include thinking at the landscape scale, working through both flows and physical habitat, science, adaptive management, and a known governance structure, but importantly, everybody’s in for something, said Ms. Nemeth.

We’ve all struggled with the classic tragedy in the commons in the Delta, and to me what’s most exciting about the effort underway is the number of participants around the table that are putting resources on the table and are working with other water agency partners and environmental partners to establish a program that we think is going to be acceptable when we bring it to the Water Board,” she said.

There have been a number of important process improvements, one of which is the increased integration between the Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Reclamation who are working with the Water Board staff to help understand what’s in the voluntary agreements and what benefits can be expected.  Ms. Nemeth said that this is no small feat as ten different tributaries, all with their different models and different experiences.

There’s a lot of information to pull together and synthesize,” she said.  “This has never been done before.  I’m getting a sense of why that hasn’t been before, but the reality is that necessity is the mother of all invention.  I think most people understand that to do nothing or to revert back to our old ways of doing business which is by the very definition is piecemeal and not ultimately going to do what we need it to do to face the challenges of the future.  There is more work to do heading into the beginning part of next year and I look forward to that.”


Moderator Ellen Hanak noted that one key thing the Delta Stewardship Council does is to promote an integrated approach to science. She asked Susan Tatayon to talk about the role of science in finding solutions to the Delta, the progress to date, and what needs to still happen.

Susan Tatayon began by noting that the Delta Stewardship Council is the agency tasked with developing and implementing a long-term management plan for the Delta.  She also noted that the Delta Plan is unusual in that it has policies that are regulatory through the covered actions process where project proponents self-certify whether or not they are consistent with the Delta Plan.

I am really excited about where we are in trying to manage water through the Delta,” she said.  “The Delta is keystone to water deliveries to areas in Southern California, the Bay Area, and the San Joaquin Valley, and with the advent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the concepts of Managed Aquifer Recharge and voluntary agreements and the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, I think that we are gaining momentum and flexibility and integration.  There are some things we need like improved infrastructure and different approaches to governance.”

The role of science in a more adaptive approach to managing ecosystems and water is fundamental and necessary.  The Delta Stewardship Council has the Delta Science Program and the Delta Independent Science Board who help the Council achieve what is mandated by law, which is that the best available science be used in managing and making important decisions about the Delta.

For example, the governance of science on the tributaries to the major rivers that flow into the Delta for the voluntary agreements is a huge undertaking.  There hasn’t been much synthesis of the scientific data because there are some barriers, including funding and governance structures.

The Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (or DPIIC) is mandated by the Delta Reform Act of 2009.  It is comprised of leaders from 18 federal and state agencies such as the Water Board, the Department of Water Resources, US EPA, the federal and state fish agencies, Army Corps, and the USGS.  The committee meets twice a year to update each other and coordinate their activities for the long-term management of the Delta.

Last year, DPIIC approved a science funding and governance workgroup that has developed recommendations for improving synthesis and scientific research.  DPIIC’s Funding and Governance Workgroup will be going forward on three priority actions: The first is to take a look at federal, state, and local funds spent on science and what kind of science is being done.  About 80% of the funding right now is for science devoted to meeting legal requirements and not much money is going to forward-looking science and research that could better inform management decisions in the Delta, Ms. Tatayon said.

The second priority action that DPIIC approved is to prioritize the management actions that we want our scientific endeavors to answer.  “For example, the question of how much flow and how much habitat in the voluntary agreements is a huge question and a lot of synthesis and forward-looking research needs to happen,” said Ms. Tatayon.  “I’m imagining that as we go deeper into what science do we want to inform things like voluntary agreements and Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, we will discover that we will need more science.  So reliable funding of the science is crucial.”

The third priority action is to look beyond the status and trends science and consider that given climate change, how our scientific endeavors can be accelerated so that we’re better prepared.  So the Stewardship Council, the Delta Independent Science Board, and others are convening a workshop in April of 2020 to define the questions about what kind of forward looking science will we need to better integrate and better manage in an adaptive manner.

I can’t emphasize enough that whether you’re talking about the biological opinions or the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan or voluntary agreements or the water resilience portfolio that the Governor called for, I think where we’re all wanting to go is towards a much more nimble, flexible, and adaptive dynamic management of these water systems, and the Delta will be the grand challenge of flexibility and integration and science governance,” said Ms. Tatayon.

DeDe D’Adamo said that we all crave more science, and one of the great things about the voluntary agreements is the adaptive management and governance structure that will be able to incorporate science into changes in flow and habitat.  The team that’s working on the voluntary agreements is putting together a way for the board members to evaluate those agreements; there are multiple models that are being used to better evaluate any increase in habitat, the ability to provide for less flow, and what that might result in, she said.

One of the key components of these voluntary agreements is the establishment of biological environmental targets, and the idea would be that this package would get us in a direction that would be able to meet those targets,” Ms. D’Adamo said.  “Whatever we receive as a board though, our staff would be evaluating it, it would go into a CEQA document, and it would be an alternative that we as a board could consider, and it would need to have underpinnings in science. So it’s not only what we need to go forward for the future decision making, but also the decision itself.”

I think we have better information on the tributaries about what we can anticipate in terms of a response,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “We have demonstrably less certain information in the Delta and part of the challenge is that we’ve been really slow on doing things that we need to do in the Delta, particularly when it comes to physical habitat.  We have really accelerated in the past two to three years and we have some great new habitat projects that are underway in the Delta, but the reality is we know we need to do it, but we don’t have the information that if you build x amount of habitat, you’re going to see y amount of improvement.”

I can’t emphasize enough the idea of getting ourselves in the space where we are willing to experiment and what I mean by that is we’re willing to try things that may not work, and we’re willing to be open about what worked and what did not,” she continued.  “That’s going to require a lot more trust and orders of magnitude more transparency in terms of how the projects operate and how the systems operate when it comes to flow, but also working with our partners on the physical restoration and really understanding and monitoring and designing future habitat projects to do even better.  We are at a moment where we can either submit to paralysis or we can take that leap of faith.  It’s a leap of faith, but it’s also a leap with dollars so that’s not something that anyone takes lightly.”

Ms. Nemeth said the last cost estimate for the voluntary agreements was about $1.9 billion for that 15 year period with half of the funding contributed by the water agencies and the other half from the state and federal governments.

That’s real money and real assets on the table to help us improve our system,” said Ms. Nemeth.


The state administration has signaled its intent to sue the federal administration on the biological opinions.  Moderator Ellen Hanak asked Karla Nemeth to talk about the lawsuit against the federal government and if that’s going to help or hurt the voluntary agreement process.

Ms. Nemeth began by giving the background behind the decision.  The Department of Water Resources is pursuing a separate permit for the State Water Project under the California Endangered Species Act.  The federal biological opinion is the federal permit for operation of the State Water Process, and the Department has been participating as they always would in a permitting process for their own project.  But there are also differences in California Endangered Species Act and certain requirements of the law from the federal law, and one of the things that has been under discussion between the Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is to pursue a separate permitting process for the State Water Project under state law, she said.

Historically, the way that it’s worked is that we would work through the federal process, and then Department of Water Resources would take our federal permit and give it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and ask, can you declare this consistent with state law?” Ms. Nemeth said.  “That certainly has some real advantages, especially around efficiency and making sure we have good alignment between the projects and how they operate.  But one of the things that has been under discussion between the two departments for the last decade is the ability to adaptively manage under CESA and an ability to be more flexible about how we manage in the context of CESA if we pursue separate, independent permits.”

Working through a federal process and then a subsequent state process is duplicative, so the Department of Water Resources is completing a permit application to the Department of Fish and Wildlife that would allow for more flexibility and adaptive management.

The Department is very much focused on bringing new science into the process and is very much focused on real-time operations in ways that are very similar in terms of how they appear in the federal opinion,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “We operate the State Water Project dependent on fish presence and other things, so that we avoid harming threatened and endangered fish.  That is the wave of the future in my view in terms of greater level of sophistication and technology; we’re really going to need that, given how our hydrology is changing in California.  To me, no question that’s part of it.

The Department also understands that freshwater is part of the habitat mix in the Delta and how that fits in the context of determinations that need to be made under California ESA is something they are working through, she said.

Litigation notwithstanding, what this demonstrates to me is the limitations of the federal Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Act in doing the things we need to do in the Delta,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “There is no chance that when those laws were passed they contemplated the complexity or the overwhelming challenge of climate and other pressures on the system.  And so I think we need to face that reality and that’s why for the Department of Water Resources, we just fundamentally think the best way to get at these coequal goals in the Delta is really through this Voluntary Agreement kind of process and content.”


Moderator Ellen Hanak then turned to the ongoing implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  She noted that the San Joaquin Valley basins are getting ready to turn in the first Groundwater Sustainability Plans.  The estimated groundwater deficit or the excess pumping averages close to 2 MAF a year, so the demand for water from the Delta is only going to be higher and any additional cuts are going to make it much tougher, she said.

Susan Tatayon acknowledged the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will be a driver in a number of areas.  When the first plans under SGMA are submitted in January of 2020, she said we’re going to learn a lot about groundwater use and hydrology as well as the entire system.

The difficulty for me is the management actions in the groundwater sustainability management plans – until I see them, I don’t know the full effect,” she said.  “We don’t have right now a common accounting system for water budgets.  We have urban water management plans, we have ag water management plans and now we have sustainable groundwater management plans.  There’s a policy in the Delta Plan that calls for reduced reliance and regional self-reliance, meaning agencies are to reduce reliance on exports from the Delta.  If you have SGMA calling for a reduction in pumping and you have a reduced reliance policy calling for decreases in Delta exports, the pie is definitely getting smaller – unless we continue to make the improvements that we have been making in water, conservation, reuse, and recycling. I haven’t seen the numbers but I’m imagining that water conservation and reuse and recycling are not going to make up the difference, given SGMA and reduced reliance requirements.”

DeDe D’Adamo noted the groundwater – surface water connection.  “As these plans are going forward to be implemented over a 20 year horizon and as we develop our Water Quality Control Plan and manage our surface water supplies, we need to understand that things are going to change anyway, whether it’s through the water quality control plan, biological opinions, climate change – things are changing anyway, so as we look at management of surface water, we need to be considering groundwater.”

One of the advantages of the voluntary approach is the ability to use the functional flows approach whereas under a traditional approach, the option was an unimpaired flow approach that had impacts, some of which would be transferred to groundwater.  In the staff report for Phase 1 of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan which was just for the San Joaquin Valley, it would have redirected impacts to groundwater anywhere from 100,000 to 480,000 acre-feet, which is a significant amount of water, Ms. D’Adamo pointed out.  That would be added demand on top of what the groundwater sustainability plans already have to deal with and because the systems are operated conjunctively with excess water being recharged into the aquifer, it would impact groundwater recharge from between 100,000 and 180,000 acre-feet.

I do think that the beauty of the voluntary agreements is that we can incorporate a flow regime that’s more strategic based on these functional flows so that we can provide for the reasonable protection of all beneficial uses,” she said.


The Department of Water Resources is the primary flood manager for the Central Valley; they develop the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan which is updated every five years.  Two years after that, the California Water Plan is also updated every five years.

What we need to do as a Department is start to sync up those efforts and really start to integrate what we’re trying to do with flood protection and management of floodwaters with the California Water Plan,” said Ms. Nemeth.

The Department is doing pilot studies on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers looking at the broader climate models and working with local agency partners to start getting into finer grained information and understanding from the top of the watershed essentially down to the Delta, with the goal of understanding the ways in which we can manage those watersheds for multiple benefits across multiple risks.  It also brings opportunities for flood management, groundwater recharge, physical restoration, and floodplain habitat restoration in those watersheds, she said.

What we’re starting to learn is that even right now, without investing in any infrastructure, just management changes, there’s some real opportunity to capture water when it’s wet and put it to use so we have it for when it’s dry and that can relieve pressure all throughout the system,” Ms. Nemeth said.

Another area of increasing traction around the flood management-water supply interface is Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations, another lesson learned from the drought where there were real issues at Lake Mendocino with the old ways of doing things with the Corps of Engineers.

We worked with the Corps and they made some different decisions about how to manage that system,” Ms. Nemeth said.  “Those ideas have really caught fire in other places in ways that I think are really important and are part of our future.  There is no question that is going to involve a very intensive partnership with the federal government because of the role of the Corps of Engineers in helping us manage our flood curves in these watersheds, and that is another really exciting development on the Sacramento side of the system.

There is a lot of work happening around understanding atmospheric rivers better and improving predictive capabilities in terms of intensity and geography and how to bring technology to bear to use existing infrastructure more efficiently to help put flood flows in the ground as well as better protect life and property.

It starts with a plan to lay out the possibility,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “Coming in as DWR Director, one of the things that surprised me the most was we have these two very significant water management functions in the Central Valley and the they don’t talk to each other at the Department, so they’re now going to start talking to each other.  I think that will be helpful in identifying some near term solutions as well as help us prioritize the investment in physical infrastructure that will be required to make that happen.”

Ms. Nemeth said she was a firm believer that infrastructure has to play a more proactive role in helping to support the environment.  “Everybody knows we have an intensely altered system here in California and the way we manage things now, which is every infrastructure project needs to sort out its mitigation and resolve its impact on species is to me it’s an old way of thinking about the world.  It’s not going to serve us into the future, and so we need to think about infrastructure as an environmental asset, and I think that’s going to be part of the mix moving forward.”


Moderator Ellen Hanak noted that the theme of this conference is partnerships, and although no one believes in silver bullets, she asked what is the one thing your agency brings to the table and what is one thing that you most want to see from somebody else out there in terms of getting us to a better place on the Delta.

DeDe Adamo acknowledged the efforts of the Delta Watermaster Michael George, noting that he has spent a lot of time with boots on the ground developing partnerships.  There were a lot of challenges during the drought with curtailment in particular but one of the bright spots was some of the work that Michael did and others in the Delta to develop and encourage the development of a voluntary agreement in the Delta for a cutback of roughly 25% of their consumptive use.  She expressed hope that should there be another drought, that agreement could be renewed and built upon.  She also acknowledged the Delta Watermaster’s efforts to implement the measuring and reporting requirements of SB-88 and utilizing science and satellite technology to improve how diversions are measured in the Delta.

Ms. Nemeth said that partnerships are important in two places.  One is the Delta where local governments, reclamation districts, and the counties are partners in getting physical restoration done in the Delta.

There’s been some traditional relationships established over the years and a pretty typical tension between local government and state government but for those local governments that are in the Delta, it’s critical that the Department of Water Resources understands what we need to put in place to enable physical habitat in the Delta to be successful and be respectful of local land use in the Delta,” she said.

There are partnerships that integrate flood management and habitat in the Delta such as Lookout Slough which combines funding for flood management projects with State Water Project dollars for creation of physical habitat.  Those projects will live or die on partnerships and our ability to identify our solution set as a solution set that also provides for others which is essential in the Delta, Ms. Nemeth said.

Other partnerships that will ultimately make the Delta and the watersheds more sustainable in the future are happening in the upper watershed with forest management.

That kind of partnership between the local agencies and the state to invest in forest management in ways that improve water quality and water supply is something that we also can’t ignore,” Ms. Nemeth said.  “When you start to look at something that’s a little more expansive in terms of watershed management, to me it just really lays out the fact that we have to start thinking across resource areas and across state, local, and federal government to get the kind of outcomes that we want for water supply reliability, flood management, and the environment.”

Ms. Tatayon said that the most effective ecosystem projects involve local folks, reclamation districts, the Bureau of Land Management, federal agencies, state agencies, and the public-private, non-profit NGO partnerships such as in the Yolo Bypass or on the Cosumnes River.  She noted that they take a lot of time, effort, and outreach, but things that are worthwhile do take time and we absolutely have to have those partnerships.  However, funding remains a challenge, so the more we do multi-benefit projects, we’re going to have to get creative about funding and maybe create a different kind of funding pot that is more program or project based, because more and more programs and projects are no longer just flood or just ecosystem or just groundwater, she said.


I think partnership is exactly the right word to emphasize at this conference and at this panel because there’s no way we’re going to do the things we need to do unless we really embrace that ethos, so I look forward to it and the Department of Water Resources is ready,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “You can see the challenges are many and everything does really touch something else, so we need to do these things in a coordinated way and there’s no way we’re going to be successful if we’re not working together to get them done.”

I know it’s been very challenging,” said Ms. D’Adamo.  “We have a lot of board members that make decisions in the spirit of compromise, then have to go back home and sell it, so I recognize that it’s challenging all the way around, but through collaboration and compromise, we’ll get there.

I want to hearken back to what Kathy Tiegs said during lunch,” said Ms. Tatayon.  “When people ask me, what are you doing working in the Delta?  I really like what Kathy said today.  I want it all.  I want ecosystem restoration, I want ag viability, I want functional flows, I want science governance that works for all the processes, and I hope that you will continue to work with the Council and our sister agencies in getting us as close to having it all as we can get.”

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