CA WATER COMMISSION: Implementation of the State Water Project’s Incidental Take Permit

At the December meeting of the California Water Commission, the commissioners heard a briefing on the implementation of the Incidental Take Permit (ITP) for the State Water Project.  Dr. Lenny Grimaldo, Assistant Environmental Director for the State Water Project, discussed what the Incidental Take Permit is, why the Department obtained the permit, and how the permit will affect State Water project initiatives now and in the future.

The Incidental Take Permit is required under the California Endangered Species Act for an authorized taking of state-listed species. The Incidental Take Permit is administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the regulatory agency that oversees state-listed protected species.

Operation of the State Water Project can result in the direct take of four state-listed species: Delta smelt, longfin smelt, winter-run chinook salmon, and spring-run chinook salmon; therefore, an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) is required. In March of 2020, the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued the permit to the Department of Water Resources, and since then, the Department has been working to implement the permit.

In short, what the ITP does is it provides the regulatory framework that allows the State Water Project to be operated to minimize take of the four state-listed species and also provides mitigation requirements for the taking of these species,” said Dr. Grimaldo.  “This is a new direction for the State Water Project. In the past, we were joined at the hip with the Bureau of reclamation through a consistency determination for these protections under the federal biological opinions.  It was determined in 2019 with the Resources Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Department of Water Resources that we would move forward with our own incidental take permit for these species because we wanted some explicit rules for their protection, as would be protected under the State Water Project operations.”

In reviewing the key issues listed in the Commission’s annual report, Dr. Grimaldo noted that there are several items that are related, directly or indirectly, to the Incidental Take Permit.  So rather than provide a detailed description of all of the elements of the Incidental Take Permit, Dr. Grimaldo instead provided an overview of how the Incidental Take Permit (or ITP) will affect State Water Project initiatives and other issues that the Commission might want to consider as they work on their recommendations.

We already have a great team of scientists who have produced a lot of science over the years, now we get to connect the dots for how we’re going to best achieve our protections in a way that’s robust, makes sense, and actually has an impact on how we operate the State Water Project,” he said.  “I think that we could show to a broader group of stakeholders and federal partners that we’re providing a lot of answers that help reduce management uncertainty for operations of the State Water Project. And for understanding how our mitigation efforts such as restoration may improve things may improve habitats and situations for the different species that are listed under the permit.”

Dr. Grimaldo said that one of the things he likes about the Incidental Take Permit is the working through and organizing the science as the ITP calls for, noting that it provides an opportunity for DWR to demonstrate its leadership on how best to resolve key environmental issues affecting water supply and water delivery of the State Water Project.  The permit is a ten-year permit, so Dr. Grimaldo said that while they are committed to keeping focused on what they have to implement today, they are also thinking about how this permit will lead into o future permits and maybe even the Delta Conveyance Project.

It’s my goal to have a robust science plan that helps reduces management uncertainty so then when we move into the next permits, we have a greater understanding of items are factors that affect the different species and how we can better operate our State Water Project in the future,” he said.

The Incidental Take Permit calls for investments in tidal marsh restoration, upstream habitat restoration, and floodplain access.  He noted that there are public values and benefits to these restoration and floodplain projects recognized by the public, and they enjoy these projects from a recreational standpoint. However, from a fishery standpoint, they are working to connect the habitats from the sea to the river, putting together the different puzzle pieces of restoration that will benefit species as they move along.  He pointed out that once these projects are constructed, they will have to be managed in perpetuity, and so there are land management plans as well.

One of the key items in the Incidental Take Permit is to improve population estimates for the four listed species.  They are working through this rigorously and collaboratively with state and our federal partners as well as key stakeholders.

We recognize that all four species have a declining trend and abundance, and because of that, we have to be a little more creative and think of new tools and the ways that we can manage these species and measure their abundance,” he said.  “So our different plans within the ITP will help achieve a better handle on how these species are doing over the life of the permit, which will help us understand what to do in future permits.”

The Incidental Take Permit calls for an adaptive management program that allows for testing to determine the best ways to implement the ITP that benefits species and allows flexibility in water operations.

DWR is committed to this adaptive management plan because these investments that we make are only going to help reduce management uncertainty as we move forward in the future,” said Dr. Grimaldo.

DWR has been very active in leading in science for these four species over the last four years, which has provided a lot of information on how the species respond to climate change.   “Now, the ITP doesn’t have a specific objective to deal with climate change, but through the implementation of ITP, we’re hoping to reduce that management uncertainty on how these species respond to climate change, which will help us better develop plans or permits in the future to protect these species.”

In December, the Department finalized two management plans, one for longfin smelt and one for juvenile spring-run salmon, which set the path for how they will do adaptive management, address key uncertainties, and see how they respond to restoration projects or other things that affect State Water Project operations.

We’re committed to these plans,” said Dr. Grimaldo.  “We’ve had great success in working with our state and federal partners and stakeholders to develop these plans, and the longfin smelt science plan was approved by CDFW last week.  We’re waiting for approval on the spring run management plan so we can get moving on implementation of both these plants.”

When the Incidental Take Permit expires in 2030, the Department will likely renew the permit for another 10 years, said Dr. Grimaldo.  “The Delta conveyance initiative will include an updated science and monitoring objectives from the current ITP into the adaptive management program for the new permits. At the end of this permit, we’ll have a much better understanding of how restoration affects endangered species. And this may guide how we do restoration in future permits. And then, most importantly, is that through implementation like ITP, we’re going to have better tools for managing endangered species at the State Water Project. And this can only help reduce management and uncertainty related to our operations and water supply reliability.”


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