Geese swim through the habitat surrounding the future location of the Lookout Slough Tidal Restoration Project, located in the Cache Slough complex within the southern part of the Yolo Bypass. Photo courtesy of DWR.
WATER ASSN OF KERN COUNTY: DWR Director Karla Nemeth gives an update on the Delta Conveyance Project
The Delta Conveyance Project has a long history, with its roots in efforts that began during the Schwarzenegger administration in the mid-2000s. Even so, the idea of conveying water around the Delta is not new; it was initially conceived as part of the master plan for the State Water Project but wasn’t included in the initial construction due to cost considerations. In the 1980s, plans were begun to construct such a canal, but it was put to a statewide vote and soundly defeated. Over the years, building some sort of bypass around the Delta has continued to be discussed intermittently despite setbacks and strong opposition. The project still remains controversial today.
Kern County, the second-largest participant in the State Water Project with a contract for 982,730 acre-feet of water per year, recently voted to participate in the project. In January of 2021, the Water Association of Kern County hosted a webinar with Karla Nemeth, the Director of the Department of Water Resources. She gave an update on the Delta Conveyance Project, as well as touched on other efforts of interest to Kern County.
Building a water resilient California
She began by noting that about 27 million Californians rely on the State Water Project for some portion of their water supply.
“That certainly goes hand in hand with lots of investments that local water districts make at the local level concerning groundwater management, water recycling, and conserving water,” she said. “In the governor’s water resilience portfolio, what he describes is that we need to integrate a reliable State Water Project, and the Delta conveyance project is needed to do that, with all these other investments that need to be made within a state, local and federal partnership. That policy goal is articulated in the governor’s water resilience portfolio.”
The Department has spent decades sorting out what to do with this fragile part of the water delivery system for the State Water project because about two-thirds of the project’s water supply originates in the Sierra Nevada, and half of that water supply actually flows through the Delta, explained Ms. Nemeth.
There are 29 State Water Project contractors that contract with the Department of Water Resources for water. That water provides about 27 million people with at least a portion of their water, irrigates about 750,000 acres of agriculture, and supports California’s $5 trillion economy.
Many folks like to think about water in California as a big north to south battle, and we’ve always had that tension here, she said. “What’s important to remember is that while most of the state’s precipitation and snowfall is in that northern corner of the state, but it’s really throughout California where the water is transported great distances. The State Water Project serves Californians in the North Bay and the South Bay of the Bay Area, in the Central Valley, and it provides almost half the water supply for folks on the Central Coast. It’s about 30% for those in the Inland Empire, Southern California, and some of our desert communities. The graphic (upper right) shows exactly how geographically dispersed the water deliveries are, and that’s yet another reason why securing the reliability of the State Water project is so very important.”
In the context of the governor’s water resilience portfolio, she noted that the State Water project integrates in an essential way with local projects such as local storage, recycled water projects, conservation efforts, and groundwater recharge. Water quality management is also critical; it’s a very clean water source often blended with other local supplies to meet drinking water standards.
“So it’s not just about supply; it’s also about quality,” said Ms. Nemeth.
Governor Schwarzenegger in the mid-2000s resurfaced the need to construct improved conveyance in the Delta; that was done as part of a much broader conservation plan for both aquatic and terrestrial species. That planning effort was initially focused on a canal of 15,000 cubic feet per second, which is the size of the pumping facilities down in the south Delta, she said, noting that during that process, the Department of Water Resources started looking at a tunnel rather than a canal.
During Governor Brown’s tenure, the focus was on two tunnels at 9000 cubic feet per second. There were three intakes in the north Delta with a tunnel alignment that went pretty much in a straight line south to the existing pumping plants.
“When governor Newsom was elected, he wanted to make sure that we were looking at a project that was affordable and the right size for the water users who would pay for it,” she said. “He signaled his interest in a single tunnel project at 6000 cubic feet per second.”
“In the course of preparing those environmental documents, we started to take a look at improved engineering that could help us address some issues upfront around constructability,” she continued. “That investigation has led us to carry forward another alignment alternative for the tunnel, the one you see on the slide swinging to the east. That’s important because we think it offers significant promise to reduce construction costs; constructing the tunnel through the central part of the Delta would require significant road rebuilding on some fairly fragile levees in conditions that were not well known. So, one of the important things about our latest round of work on this is getting that engineering done so that we can be prepared to make a very knowledgeable decision on the proposed project its alignment and have the benefit of that engineering information.”
The Delta Conveyance Project planning process
Ms. Nemeth reminded that 50% of the water supply moves through the Delta, which is a very delicate part of the system.
“The Delta is an estuary that over the decades has been dyked and drained,” she said. “The water is moved through a levee system, some of which are more than 100 years old. In the Delta itself, there is an earthquake risk; several faults around the Delta are expected to have seismic activity in the next 20 years. Climate change is also putting significant pressure on the Delta … the Delta is one of those places where we anticipate a significant amount of seawater intrusion as sea levels rise over time. Finally, knowing that we are heading into a hydrologic pattern that is more extreme, meaning we have deeper, longer droughts that are punctuated with big rain events coming through, the fragility of the Delta, as it exists is, is increasing over time.”
Ms. Nemeth noted that the state has been working on a Delta conveyance project for California in one way or another for about 40 years. When the State Water Project was first constructed, it was envisioned that there would be a canal around the Delta, but it was never built.
“Over time, some of the challenges that were anticipated have come to bear, so some of the conflicts that we have between operating the pumps in the south Delta and the presence of important native fish species,” she said. “We understood that 40 years ago, and sure enough, it has come to pass.”
“Another challenge there is when we do have these large storm events, there are periods when we’re not able to deliver that water because of attracting fish into the pumps. So we very much need to adjust that physical dynamic, and the Delta Conveyance Project is one way to do that.”
The purpose of the Delta conveyance project is to make the State Water Project more reliable by enabling it to operate in a more fish-friendly way with the added point of diversion, but also over the long-term, to protect the State Water Project against earthquakes, sea level rise, and the extreme storm events that are anticipated with climate change.
There are three facets to the current planning efforts:
Regulatory processes: These processes include the preparation of environmental documents per the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA); there is also compliance and permitting under the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act; and water rights proceeding for the added point of diversion at the State Water Board.
“The Delta Conveyance Project also needs to be compliant with the Delta plan, which was part of the Delta Reform Act passed in 2009 that articulated the coequal goals in the Delta, meaning water supply liability and ecosystem restoration needed to be operating in parity as we make decisions in the Delta,” Ms. Nemeth said. “Those two things need to happen in the context of really acknowledging the Delta as a place; it’s the home to many legacy communities in California, and it’s part of an important recreational industry in the Delta.”
Community benefits: “The Department is working with folks in the Delta to identify ways in which we could construct the project that would actually enhance the Delta and provide community benefits,” she said.
Stakeholder engagement: “We are working on stakeholder engagement through a stakeholder engagement committee, and as well as tribal consultation. We’re also working very intensely on environmental justice analysis and ensuring that the project protects those communities.”
The Department has a four-tier planning process underway. They have completed initial outreach and scoping meetings. Currently, they are defining the project and working towards a draft environmental impact statement. They are defining different alternatives and developing various technical reports to articulate what a constructible project could look like based on the scoping information. Draft environmental documents are anticipated in the next year and a half, with completed documents following after that.
The Department is currently screening project alternatives. There is a no project alternative, as well as a no project alternative that also considers the local water supply projects that are currently being planned in the service area in the next 15 years to get a better understanding of what happens if they do not build the project, where would the investment go, Ms. Nemeth said.
They are also looking at various sizes of facilities from 3000 cubic feet per second up to about 7000 cubic feet per second. When the draft EIR is circulated for public review, it will include a full analysis of all the individual alternatives.
Ms. Nemeth then turned to project timelines. A draft environmental impact report is expected in 2022, with the completion of a final environmental document in late 2023. She noted that several permits interact with the environmental documents shown in the green bars at the bottom of the graphic. Those permits whose bars extend beyond the NEPA and CEQA documents require a completed document to move forward; this includes certifying consistency with the Delta Plan and the water rights proceeding from the State Water Board.
Constructing and paying for the project
The public water agencies have established the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, a JPA, in anticipation of the facility’s design and construction. Ms. Nemeth said the JPA is an important project delivery mechanism to get the public water agencies involved in managing the project timeline and budget. The public water agencies continue to work with their individual boards around funding and participation.
“So as we complete the environmental review process, and we have more detailed information, the public water agencies boards will move forward to make commitments around their ratepayer dollars for design and construction,” she said. “Right now, we are simply in a planning phase. And I’m really enthused to report that we are almost 90% subscribed in the planning phase, meaning we have public water agencies that have expressed an interest in about 90% of the project. This is important because this is not a vote we had taken with the previous projects. And of course, Governor Newsom does want this project to be affordable for the local water agencies who would be paying for it.”
The 2020-21 water year so far …
Ms.Nemeth then turned to the current water year. So far, the 2021 water year has not been great. She recalled that there was a little bit of early rain in the last water year, a dry January, followed by a historically dry February – the driest on record. Then in March, it was moderate in Northern California and rather wet in Southern California.
“I say this because these new hydrologic patterns really challenge how we make sure that we’re preparing for the future and leaving water in Oroville in the event of another dry year,” said Ms. Nemeth. “As you know, when we get into dry or even drought conditions is when we have successive dry years, and we really start to go through our storage. So it’s always important that we’re doing things as efficiently as possible. The ag sector in California is one of the most efficient in the country. And we’re very proud of that. But as you can see, it is a very dry year so far. We have an initial allocation of 10%.”
She noted there were indications of a pattern change around the end of January. “All of that means the better that we can get at long term forecasting, the easier it will be for all of us, not just the DWR, but local water agencies to plan for California’s variable hydrology.”
Kern County grants
She concluded by noting that the Department of Water Resources does a lot of work supporting local water agencies on some of their needs through grant programs. There have been many successful grant applications from Kern County; the projects listed on the slide are only a smattering of the grants given in the recent past.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Question: With the change in the federal administration, do you see any changes as far as DWR’s relationship and progress with the Delta conveyance plan?
“We have been talking to the incoming federal administration about their role in the Delta Conveyance Project,” said Ms. Nemeth. “Right now, one of our challenges has been that the lead on the federal documents has been the Army Corps of Engineers, and we’re very grateful for them for stepping up and performing that role. Still, it’s unclear what the Bureau of Reclamation’s role is. Of course, we need federal permits from National Marine Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service. So I’m looking forward to working with the incoming administration to ensure that each of those [permit processes goes smoothly].
Question: The GSPs have been submitted to the Department of Water Resources. And your staff has been reviewing them for adequacy. Are there any central issues rising to the surface based on those reviews?
“Yes, and I don’t think any of them are going to come as a big surprise,” said Ms. Nemeth. “I think part of our challenge will be the quality of the data, how to make decisions based on data, and the adequacy of what I’ll just describe as Plan B. So if certain projects and programs don’t work out as planned, how thoughtful or laid out are the other decisions that the GSAs will need to make to make sure that their plans are brought into balance.”
“I do think that the interconnection between plans has been challenging, and that’s not a huge surprise. Local control is paramount; I don’t think SGMA would have passed the legislature if it didn’t invest enormous responsibility with folks at the local levels to make decisions for how best to deal with their groundwater basin. That said, there are a lot of interconnected areas and interconnected basins … DWR is starting to identify ways in which additional planning and hydrologic modeling can help us understand the interconnection of some of these groundwater basins.”
“For instance, there’s a lot of interest in groundwater recharge using floodwaters, which is great. But as we learn a little bit more about the soil types and so forth, it doesn’t work everywhere. And so what does that mean for how we organize ourselves. So while the GSAs have done tremendous work at the local level to get their local plan together, it’s my view that during implementation, these plans are going to get a little bit more connected regionally. We need to start thinking in those terms as well because a lot of the solution sets are going to require more regional collaboration amongst the plans themselves.”
Question: Has the Department of Water Resources done any studies on the impacts of SGMA?
“We have not done economic studies on SGMA. We’re certainly reading the ones that the PPIC and Dr. David Sunding have put out. As we’re looking at the plans and reviewing the plans, the ones that are a little bit more forward-thinking on demand management, we are starting to engage with some of those GSAs about economic impacts. We’re working more broadly across state government. For example, in the Water Resilience Portfolio, Governor Newsom established a statewide Task Force on SGMA implementation that can deal with the impacts of SGMA implementation. It’s much broader than simply DWR or the Water Resources Control Board as it really reaches into some of our business development and other arms, where we can provide economic assistance. So we are starting to get organized based on the plans. But no, DWR itself has not done its own economic analysis of SGMA implementation writ large.”
Question: You focused today on the Delta Conveyance Project for a good reason. Could you also tell us about other activities DWR is leading that are exciting to you? And how directly or indirectly they impact Kern County?
“There’s a lot of cool things underway at the Department; some of it is in the forecasting world,” said Ms. Nemeth. “DWR is very engaged with Scripps Institute in San Diego to do atmospheric river forecasting so that we can understand relative strength and landfall so that we can be better prepared for it. All of that work is done with investments in satellite technology, and it’s going to improve our ability to forecast and create storage space when we know a big, big storm event is coming through. As we continue to develop that technology, it’s going to have broad benefit throughout California and in Kern County as well.”
“We are also working intently on a variety of granting programs. As you saw, we had a lot of Prop one grants. We also have a lot of SGMA related grants. The governor’s budget included $60 million in technical assistance and implementation grants that I think will be very useful for Kern County and folks who are engaged in that groundwater management.”
“We are looking at State Water project reliability in more ways than just the Delta. One of those ways is working through an asset management plan. That plan includes dealing with subsidence along the California Aqueduct. The aqueduct has subsided; some was considered natural when the original aqueduct was designed and constructed, but it has subsided even further. And the challenge with that right now is when we have these big water years, like 2017, we’re increasingly unable to move water during those peak flows. So that definitely gets our attention as a problem that very much needs to be fixed. Because we know that we’re going to have these big storm events coming through California, and we very much want to be able to move water when we can.”
“The other thing that I’m super excited about is the water transfer program we have. DWR with the public water agencies has completed what we call the water management tools contract amendment. Basically, it allows State Water contractors to enter into long term water transfers with their counterparts, which is a great tool for managing urban and agricultural needs. It’s a great tool for water agencies to generate revenue to help fund local projects. It’s really the next generation for California in terms of flexibility in how we move water. And we have provisions so that the work gets done in a very transparent way.”
“Whenever we want more flexibility in how we govern and manage, the key to making that successful in the public’s eye is making sure that we’re transparent about the decisions we’re making. So this means that, for example, in this year, which is shaping up to be very dry, we’ll have significant work on the water transfer market to get water from places north of the Delta to south of the Delta. The water transfer tools would also allow for a longer-term transfer to happen amongst water districts south of the Delta, say from an urban agency to a Kern County Water Agency in ways that we could not do before. So I’m really excited about that flexibility. And we are continuing to improve the water transfer program that the Department administers.”
“And finally, the State Water project has hired a chief financial manager, which was not a position that we have had in the past. What’s important about this is that it acknowledges that the State Water project is a very extensive piece of aging infrastructure, and we need to reinvest in that. It’s important to me that the State Water Project contractors have full confidence in the Department that we are solid on our financial management of all aspects of the State Water project. So that’s a new position. And we’re doing a lot of work with the State Water contractors to articulate the most efficient, cost-effective ways to ensure that we are protecting public safety, and we are providing for reliable, affordable water supplies.”
“We’re looking at multiple alternatives. So here’s a way of thinking about it. There’s the traditional no project alternative, which is what happens if we do nothing. Then we have a sub alternative that looks at the projects that water districts are building that rely on the Delta; if the Delta fix did not happen, if we did not do the tunnel, over time, you will see an erosion of available supplies that’s primarily due to hydrology. … So not only would folks need to continue to invest in their local supplies to deal with things like SGMA and other things, but they would also need to make up for a hole in their State Water Project deliveries that would be the result of relying on the pumps in the south Delta and the changing hydrology in California that would reduce State Water project deliveries. So that’s one part of the alternatives.”
“And then there are alternatives that are a little bit more traditional, which is single tunnel alternatives. So we’re looking at 3000 CFS, I think we’re looking at 4500, we’re looking at 6000 CFS, and we’re looking at 7000 CFS. We’re looking at operational combinations with alternatives that are exclusively State Water Project and some that have a combination of Bureau of Reclamation participation. Reclamation has not indicated its willingness to participate in this project, and we do expect to reinvigorate those discussions with the incoming administration. But we certainly want to make sure that the State Water project has a project moving forward, that if the federal water contractors for one reason or another decided they did not want to invest, that we would still have a viable project to move forward. So that’s the reason for carrying forward alternatives with multiple scenarios.”
“We also have two different tunnel routes that we’re taking a closer look at. One is the tunnel route through the central part of the Delta, which was the preferred project that was two tunnels under Governor Brown. Now, of course, we’re looking at one tunnel. But we’ve also identified this route to the east that given its proximity to I-5, even if it’s a little bit longer, it may turn out to be ultimately more constructible and therefore more affordable.”
Question: Considering the amount of water that is currently flowing through the Delta and the State Water Board’s lack of implementation and development of the two phases of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, how is the state dealing with the reality that it’s highly uncertain how much water will be available for the tunnel?
“For what it’s worth, I do think that State Water Board needs to start moving a little bit more quickly on phase two,” said Ms. Nemeth. “We continue to work on what are called these voluntary watershed agreements with the Secretary of EPA and the Secretary for Natural Resources. We are putting together new approaches to flows for the environment, combined with physical restoration in the various tributaries that flow to the Delta. And what we want to be able to do is take this comprehensive agreement and bring it to the water board and have them examine it in the context of both phase one and phase two together.”
“The ultimate goal is to have something acceptable to the Water Board that we can start to implement right away and that does more than simply provide flows for the environment. Because what we have realized over time that the degradation of the habitat in these watersheds and particularly when we have warming ambient conditions, that habitat becomes increasingly more important to keep water temperatures cooler and create appropriate spawning habitat; that very much needs to get done. And that will enable us to understand even more fully how the Delta Conveyance Project would be operated. We’re working to make sure that those things happen in the right sequence and time so that we can answer the question based on the science as we understand it today. What does the Delta estuary need relative to the volume and timing of water? What does it need relative to physical restoration at the landscape scale for salmon and other species, and how that relates to water infrastructure projects, such as delta conveyance.”
Question: What are the implications of the virtual extinction of the Delta smelt to the operational restrictions in the Delta?
” … As a general matter, I would say that I don’t see the extinction of delta smelt in the wild as having a significant effect on the regulatory environment that we need to operate in. And here’s why. There are many threatened and endangered species in the Delta; we have longfin smelt, we have our salmon species. And we also have other requirements under the Clean Water Act and under the public trust doctrine to protect all beneficial uses of water. So it isn’t simply that we lose one species, and we can suddenly move x increment of more water because we do manage the system holistically. In a sense, all of our permits are multiple species permits under state and federal endangered species laws. And then we certainly have the Clean Water Act, which is administered by the water board, which was part of the previous question, which is the water quality control plan, and that sets out regulations that are broader than Delta smelt.”