MET BAY-DELTA COMMITTEE: Update on the voluntary agreements, Delta Conveyance Project

At the February meeting of Metropolitan’s Bay-Delta Committee, committee members were updated on the voluntary agreement process for the Bay-Delta and the Delta Conveyance Project.

Update on the voluntary agreements

Steve Arakawa, Bay-Delta Initiatives Manager, reviewed the voluntary agreements with the Committee members.  In his presentation, he discussed what the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan is, the State Water Board’s decision process, the status of the review of the Bay-Delta Plan, and the voluntary agreement approach, and how it compares to the State Water board’s staff recommendations.

The Delta watershed is quite expansive.  It extends north up the Sacramento River to Shasta Dam and includes the Feather, Yuba, and American Rivers tributaries; the watershed extends south to include the San Joaquin River basin.  The Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River meet in the Delta, where they flow out to the San Francisco Bay.

This whole watershed meets the needs of the majority of people in the state of California,” said Mr. Arakawa.  “It’s key because addressing the Delta needs really means addressing the system needs. and what I’m going to talk about today is how all of the different pieces fit together.”

The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan

The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan (or Bay-Delta Plan) is the regulatory tool implemented by the State Water Board, which regulates Delta’s water quality, inflows and outflows, and export restrictions.

The Bay-Delta Plan sets the water quality requirements for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use and fish and wildlife; the Plan also limits how much water can be exported from the Delta.  The triangles on the map show the various monitoring stations.

In terms of regulating flows and exports, there are requirements for spring outflow, export/inflow ratio, and the Delta Cross Channel gates, a gated structure built as part of the Central Valley Project to move freshwater into the Central Delta.  He noted that the Delta Cross Channel Gates are operated to affect both water quality and fish migration.

The State Water Board is responsible for developing and updating the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan per the federal Clean Water Act requirements and the state’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.  The State Water Board sets the standards to protect the different beneficial uses, such as municipal and industrial use, agricultural uses, fish and wildlife, and others using a combination of water quality and flow-related requirements.

In identifying and establishing these beneficial uses, the State Water board’s responsibility is to set protections to support those beneficial uses in a way that balances between them,” said Mr. Arakawa. “So the State Water Board’s responsibility is to look at what’s needed for each of those beneficial uses.  Then determine how best to protect all of those uses in a balanced way, taking into account trade-offs of water costs and the value of the beneficial uses.”

Updating the Bay-Delta Plan

The State Water Board is required by statutes to review the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan periodically and to update it if necessary. There have been several plans over the years; the Plan was most recently updated in 2006.  The Water Board began their most recent update effort in 2009.

There are two phases to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan effort: Phase One is the standards and requirements for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, as well as southern Delta salinity standards; Phase Two are the requirements for the Sacramento River, Delta outflows, Cross Channel Gate operations, and other operational and salinity requirements in the Delta not included in Phase One.

Over the years, the Board has held series of workshops and meetings and developed several reports.  In December of 2018, the Board completed an environmental document and adopted an action for the Phase One update.  For Phase Two, the Board released a scientific basis report but has not taken any further action.

Unimpaired flows

When the State Water Board embarked on the multi-year process to review the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, they considered what flows were required to meet the needs for the beneficial uses in the Delta, focusing on an unimpaired flow approach.

Mr. Arakawa said that unimpaired flow is a way to use models to determine how much flow would be in the system if there were no dams and reservoirs, but everything else in place, or in other words, the same modified channelized system that reaches from the upper watershed down to the Delta and out to the San Francisco Bay.  Unimpaired flow is an accounting of all of the water in the watershed, including precipitation and snowmelt.

The key issue is how much of that water should be retained for Delta outflow, and how much of it can be diverted for other beneficial uses, such as water diversions in the Delta, water diversion for export, and other uses,” said Mr. Arakawa.

To protect fisheries, we need to consider the species’ needs during its different life stages, such as spawning, rearing, migration, and adulthood.  What are the factors that are important to the life history of that fish? It’s much broader than just flows, Mr. Arakawa said. It’s access to habitat, the timing of flows, the availability of food, and other factors.

We’re calling it the water landscape interface because the amount of water and the connection to the land and the habitat are really key to determining how to protect the lifecycle of the species,” he said.

Taking an integrated approach

Mr. Arakawa pointed out that there are other key factors besides flow:

  • High water temperatures: Higher ambient air temperatures will affect the ecosystem.
  • Lack of Fish food: The system doesn’t resemble what it was historically, and the channelized system of the Delta does not produce much food for the fish.
  • Lack of habitat: Levees built for flood control protect cities and farms move the water through, but block access to the floodplain habitat for fish
  • Predation: There are many introduced species in the system; many of them are predators of native fish.

A voluntary approach would help integrate different management actions beyond just the flow, such as habitat restoration or actions to produce more food for fish.   But at the same time, there’s a need to consider the right flow amounts, the timing and magnitude of the flow, and how that water makes its way through the Delta and out to the San Francisco Bay.

For example, upstream reservoir releases can help manage water temperatures to some extent; Mr. Arakawa acknowledged that those benefits would not likely reach the Delta, but it would protect the spawning and rearing habitats downstream of the reservoirs.  However, reservoir releases to provide cold water for fisheries must be balanced against the need to hold water back to provide water for human uses and the environment later in the season.

The extensive floodplains that were part of the Delta pre-development have been isolated from the system by levees, although some floodplains are still connected in some ways.  With the modern Delta being a highly managed system with levees for flood control, there is more of a separation between the floodplains and the river system, and that does affect the food web. There are also municipal, industrial, and agricultural discharges which likely affect the food web as well.

Habitat has been dramatically altered, with much of the habitat drained and reclaimed for agricultural and other human uses, reducing habitat by 90-95%.  There are fewer channels in the Delta than there were before development; those that remain are straighter and more connected, which is significantly different than a natural estuarine system.

Species such as striped bass, largemouth bass, and other types of fish have been brought in from other places and introduced into the system.  Striped bass and largemouth bass are highly sought after by fishing interests, so fishermen are interested in fishing those species, but at the same time, those species also predators of native fish.

It’s not likely that you could ever rewind the clock and eliminate those introduced species,” said Mr. Arakawa. “But the key to a comprehensive approach is, how do you manage the system to try to reduce the area where these predators might congregate and therefore have more chance of reducing the population of the native species? What kind of structural and other types of modifications could occur to manage the predation issue?   Some examples might be modifying structures in the water or lights from bridges and docks at night.  Those are things to look at as far as how can we manage the effect of predation in the system.”

Mr. Arakawa pointed out that Metropolitan staff have been highly focused on the science, the cause and effect relationships, and the significance of all the various factors over the last several years.  Metropolitan has been collaborating with other State Water Contractors and the broader scientific community that includes the fishery agencies, the NGOs, and the environmental interests.  Metropolitan staff has worked on numerous reports that contribute to the state of the science needed in this comprehensive watershed approach to meeting the needs in the Delta.

Benefits of the voluntary agreements

The watershed-wide approach is key because historically, the requirements in the Delta have mainly been met by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project,” Mr. Arakawa said. “The State Water Board has an obligation to set objectives that would be met by the watershed parties that are in the system, both in the Delta and upstream. And when doing so, you have many parties that are part of the solution and part of the regulatory framework. This type of approach could provide a more stable regulatory framework because it’s more comprehensive and extensive, and it’s also looking at non-flow actions in addition to flows.”

The idea behind the voluntary agreement concept is that implementation of management actions can occur sooner by avoiding an extensive water right proceeding to adjust the water rights permits or going through a lengthy litigation process if the State Water Board decision is challenged, he said.

The voluntary agreement concept would have a significant science and habitat component and a decision-making process driven by the science to determine the most effective actions to take, whether it’s habitat, water quality, or flow.  There could be early actions that could be taken to help accelerate the benefits of the voluntary agreements.

With the watershed approach, there would be a governance approach to manage the science, the funding, the integrated decision making, and the projects. There would be an agreement for how that governance would work that would include funding for science and monitoring and a decision-making process that looks at outcomes and determines if projects and actions are successful or if adjustments are needed.

Timeline and moving forward

In 2020, the state presented the framework of a voluntary agreement to the State Water Board, but since then, not much has happened, Mr. Arakawa. “I think there’s an interest by many parties to move forward on how that voluntary agreement approach could come to fruition because, in the end, the State Water Board is responsible for setting requirements. And many interests feel that going this road might be more successful than just the alternatives that the State Water Board staff is presently considering.”

Mr. Arakawa concluded by noting that Metropolitan staff will continue to keep the Committee and Board members updated as any progress occurs.


Director Russell Lefevre (Torrance) notes that last fall, General Manager Jeff Kightlinger had said the voluntary agreements were at 95%. In October, ACWA issued ‘A roadmap to achieving the voluntary agreements,’ which had as one of its recommendations to resolve the litigation between the state, federal government, public water agencies, and NGOs regarding the incidental take permit and the biological opinions.  “The way I understand that, we are one of the litigators, so we can’t even actually negotiate with the feds. And we haven’t even identified who the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation is going to be. So when that happens, the priorities of the secretary may not be that high. The Bureau may have a high priority to resolve these litigations, but we don’t know. So my question is, who are we negotiating with? And what are we trying? Are we trying to get the 98%? The litigation, I would think, implies that there’s no agreement among all the people, so where are we actually?

We have not frankly moved much since we got very close to what we thought was a complete package and proposal amongst all the members of the watershed,” said General Manager Jeff Kightlinger. “You’re correct in identifying that the major hurdle and that halted the process for moving forward is the litigation that resulted from having a differing biological opinion and incidental take permit. All that is still true. The hope and thinking is that perhaps there will be discussions between the Biden administration when they get settled in and the Newsom administration that will allow us to continue to move forward and paved the way for doing that.

Conversations are still continuing amongst the contractors and the state in terms of meeting their goals of what the state laid out in terms of goals of what a voluntary agreement should look like,” Mr. Kightlinger continued. “The contractors and the water agencies are still looking at how to get to that complete package that would meet all the state goals, so getting to that 98/99% level. And then, when there is the ability to meet and work with the Biden administration, our thinking is that we want to be as prepared as possible and be ready, should that opportunity arise. It may not, but that we want to be prepared in case.”

Director Gail Goldberg (San Diego) noted that the title of the agenda item indicated we would hear about the activity around the voluntary agreement, but it appears there’s not a lot. Who is at the table for the negotiations? Are there any NGOs at the table at this point?

I don’t even know that I would call them necessarily negotiations at this point in time,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “We have heard from the state with what they’re looking for in voluntary agreements and what they think is desirable in terms of flows.  The water contractors, which includes the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, north of Delta, and south of Delta – so a broad group of people on all the tributaries, they have been looking at the state goals and discussing amongst themselves what they think is achievable to try and put together a broad, comprehensive package and deliver that to the state. And so it’s really been a water agency discussion to try and meet the state’s goals.  I wouldn’t say characterize it as a formal negotiation with the state at this point. We have had some conversations where we kept the state updated as to our progress. But our hope is that we will be in a position in the relatively near future to start bringing forward a comprehensive proposal from the water users in that make up the watershed.”

Will that be the point in which NGOs are engaged in the discussion? asked Director Goldberg.

Probably, although we have had a number of conversations with NGOs just the back and forth as to what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re doing,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “We have been discussing with them all along, and it may very well work out that there will be a joint proposal that is put forward by a number of entities as a voluntary agreement, or it may just be what the water contractors present to the State Board as to what we think makes sense and what they should be analyzing as part of the water quality control plan update.

How important are the NGOs to this discussion? asked Director Goldberg.

There will likely be litigation on any outcome, but it is also a political process,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “And so we would like to have a lot of broad-based support from the NGO community, from the water community, from the state, and possibly the federal administration.  We would like to see as broad support as possible for the voluntary agreement once that eventually gets finalized.”

Do you have any best guess as to when we might have real progress? asked Chair Linda Ackerman (Orange County).

We’re reaching a point where we’re going to have to start to make some progress on this,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “We think one of the selling points of a voluntary agreement is early implementation. That would be the water contractors around the state actually starting to implement what the voluntary agreement proposal is.  If we felt the state and federal administrations’ liked the proposal, we could start implementing it this year, collecting money for science, money for habitat acquisition, releasing water – all these things could happen immediately. Absent that, you go into a state board process that will take two years, and then there’s going to be litigation after that. It’s going to take a long time before you see anything on the ground.”

If we don’t get moving by the April-May timeframe, we’ve pretty much lost 2021. And so now we’re looking at 2022. Our thinking is that if we’re going to actually try and move something forward, it has to be in the next couple of months. Otherwise, we lose another year and won’t make any progress. So that’s why we’re really hopeful that the Biden Administration and the Newsom administrations can start pushing something in the next couple of months.”

Director Jerry Butkiewicz (San Diego) asks about the lawsuits.

Steve Arakawa talked about the Phase One process and how the State Water Board issued a ruling on that,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “There are about 20 lawsuits, I believe, that have been filed against the State Water Board. Then there were biological opinions issued by the federal government regarding State Water Project and Central Valley Project operations that were challenged by California and a number of NGO groups. Eventually, there was an incidental take permit issued by the state, which was challenged by State Water Contractors and NGOs. So there’s quite a bit of litigation. The progress has been very slow due to the courts being very slow responding to litigation right now during COVID.”

Director Butkiewicz says it sounds like Mr. Kightlinger is hopeful at the administration might be able to negotiate with the state and resolve some of these issues.

I think so,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “Last spring, the state and federal administrations basically stopped trying realistically to work on this issue pending the outcome of the election. And now that we have a new administration in place and things have settled down, I am hopeful that they can get back to the table and we can make some progress. So yes.  Primarily, the conversations have been amongst the State Water Project and Central Valley Project contractors as well as the various water agencies and contractors on the tributaries. With the state of California, it’s been at the secretary level, Secretary of Natural Resources, Secretary of Cal EPA, and then, and then the head of Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

Update on the Delta Conveyance Project

Next, Bay-Delta Initiative Policy Manager Nina Hawk provided an update on the Delta Conveyance Project.  In her update, she discussed the new governance structure at the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, an update on the Bethany Alternative, and an update on the Stakeholder Engagement Committee.

One of the most notable changes that occurred as part of voting to move forward with the project was an amendment to the Joint Powers Authority of the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (or DCA).  The new governing structure now has a seven-member board, which accounts for better representation of all the project’s participating agencies.

The new board members met for the first time on February 3 for orientation.  DCA staff went over several aspects of the authority, including the powers, requirements, and administration.  DCA staff provided an overview of the Joint Powers Agreement, which is the formation agreement; they also went over the Joint Exercise of Power Agreement, which defines the contractual relationship between DWR and the DCA, and essentially allows the DCA to do the design and construction on behalf of DWR for the purposes of constructing the Delta Conveyance Project.

The key functions of the DCA are to provide engineering services for the planning phase, host a stakeholder engagement process to inform design work and perform administrative functions to support the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority.

Along with the governance structure, the voting structure has also changed.  Previously, it was one director, one vote with motions passing by a majority.  With the new board structure, there are reconsideration provisions for certain items related to financial matters and contract sizes.  A board member can call for a reconsideration, which will then go to a weighted vote based on an adjusted proportionate share based on the participation in the funding agreement.

Potential tunnel alignments

DCA staff also went over the three tunnel alignments under consideration: the Central Alignment, the Eastern Alignment, and the Bethany Alternative.

There are two intakes in the northern part of the Delta that divert water from the Sacramento River into the conveyance facility and system. These are intakes three and five, which were part of the California WaterFix project and are still being contemplated as part of this project.   From there, the tunnel would go to the Twin Cities launch site, which is the point at which point the tunnel alignment would take either the central or the eastern alignment.

On both the Central and the East alignments, there are three different launch shaft sites that are important for the construction.  Various sites are utilized for maintenance purposes, construction and operation. From there, the two tunnel alignments converge in the southern complex, which is composed of both a launch shaft location and the southern forebay.  Water would be moved to this location, brought into the south Delta pumping facilities, and put into the California Aqueduct.

The Bethany Alternative has the tunnel connecting into the Bethany Reservoir rather than the southern Delta.  This would require putting pumps into the Bethany Reservoir to put the water into the California Aqueduct.  The Bethany Alternative would eliminate the need for the southern forebay, potentially reducing the project’s cost and reducing or avoiding potential significant impacts associated with the project.  Ms. Hawk also noted that the Bethany alternative could continue to function in the event that the Banks Pumping Plant cannot, so it allows for operational flexibility as well.  Staff will continue to keep the Committee updated on the project.

Stakeholder Engagement Committee

The Stakeholder Engagement Committee has 22 members; twenty official committee members, two ex officio members, and one alternate committee member. The Committee was created mainly to provide technical and engineering feedback from the in-Delta interests on the project’s features.  The committee members represent different geographic areas of the Delta, as well as environmental justice representatives, North Delta and South Delta businesses, tribal governments, and in-Delta history and heritage.

The Stakeholder Engagement Committee provides feedback on the project footprint to see if there are opportunities to adjust designs and planning efforts to mitigate any impacts associated with the project. There are technical presentations and the opportunity for committee members to submit questions and ask for specific topics or information to be provided as it relates to the project. The Committee usually meets once a month for about 2.5 – 3 hours.

The forum really allows for more of a free-flowing, facilitated conversation about the project with very important in-Delta interests that can provide first feet on the ground account and how they see the project,” said Ms. Hawk. “And there may be creative ways we can look at many of the different impacts that may be associated with the project.”

The stakeholder engagement committee has provided feedback in key areas, such as siting alternative traffic routes, logistical plans, tunnel material and management, and other special topics requested.  The Committee has thoroughly reviewed the alignments and provided feedback as it’s being considered as part of the environmental impact report and planning process.

Bay-Delta Manager’s Report

Delta Operations

The weather and the hydrology continue to be pretty dry, which is looking to be the trend for the season.  Inflows to the Delta seem to be decreasing.

This time of year, we’re usually looking at the effects of storms and how that creates turbidity and whether that has any effects on operations of the water projects and the exports,” said Mr. Arakawa. “But we haven’t had that situation that has stirred up that kind of turbidity that would result in Old and Middle River restrictions or anything like that. The state board’s X2 requirement for fishery habitat is controlling.  There are no real issues that have arisen in the recent weeks.”

Board report regarding public comment on the Delta Conveyance Project

Metropolitan staff has compiled a Summary of Public Comments received at the December 8, 2020 Board Meeting regarding Item 7-4 on the Delta Conveyance Project.  The report is about nine pages long and is intended to be responsive to the Board’s request to provide summarized comments and responses from that public session in December.


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