DELTA WATERMASTER UPDATE: Preparing for a dry year in the Delta; Addressing problems in the South Delta

At the February meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Watermaster Michael George updated the councilmembers on the efforts underway at the State Water Board to prepare for the increasing possibility of 2021 being critically dry.  He also gave an update on the efforts to address the deteriorating conditions in the south Delta.

Michael George is the second person to be appointed Delta Watermaster, a position created by the 2009 Delta Reform Act which is the same legislation that established the Delta Stewardship Council.   One of his roles in the statute is to make regular reports to both the Delta Stewardship Council and the Water Resources Control Board.

I report jointly to those two boards,” Mr. George said. “At the heart of my role is collaboration among the Stewardship Council and the State Water Board, which have overlapping interests and responsibilities.  So I feel like my role is to be part of the connective tissue between those two boards that I report to.”

Preparing for a critically dry year

The State Water Board held a workshop at their February 16 meeting, from which there were several takeaways:

First of all, current hydrology, as depicted in the recently released California drought monitor, shows that drought is becoming more prevalent in the Delta watershed. The dry conditions are increasingly impacting various areas of the state.  2020 was a dry year, and going into 2021, there was somewhat reduced storage in the state’s reservoirs.  Unfortunately, the long-term forecasts look pretty dry, giving some urgency to plan for drought conditions.

Second, the Division of Water Rights, the Bay-Delta unit within the Division of Water Rights, and the Division of Drinking Water have already been preparing for shortage conditions. They have been working to learn from the experiences during the 2012-16 drought to improve the tools the Board has, and in particular, to improve the ability to forecast water availability in the Delta watershed.

To put it in perspective, the watershed for the Delta is about the same size as the entire state of Wisconsin,” said Mr. George. “40% of the landmass of California is drained through the Delta.”

Because the Delta is so complex, they have been developing tools in less complex watersheds, such as the Russian River watershed where a new visualization tool is being developed to provide information to water users.  Those tools are still in development and have yet to be applied to the much more complex Delta watershed. But as those tools are developed, it will help the Board and water users to understand and visualize what water shortage means in the Delta.

Next, the State Water Board has done a lot of outreach, asking water users and water managers throughout the Delta watershed about the Board’s actions during the drought and their recommendations on what the Board could do to be more effective.

They have been focusing on reducing errors in the reporting of diversion and water use in the Delta watershed and are working to resolve those inconsistencies.  One of the significant issues is that much of the data for water demand depends on users’ self-reporting, so they are focusing on outreach to improve the consistency, accuracy, and timeliness of those reports.

They are working to improve data and build new tools.  There are inadequate facilities to measure diversion and streamflow. So the Water Board and the Department of Water Resources are working with other agencies to develop a plan to address gaging information gaps and identify priority stream gage locations and funding needs to improve the existing stream gage network.  They are also working to improve diversion measurement and develop an alternative compliance plan for the Delta by utilizing advanced technology to understand how water is used in the Delta and the Delta watershed.

We’re focusing on 2021 as a dry year and what is what’s necessary for the short term, but we’re also trying to integrate with the look over the horizon,” he said. “We’re getting better integration between the State Water Board and their Stewardship Council.  You approved a contract extension for the Stewardship Council science enterprise to support the Water Board in updating its water quality control planning process earlier today.  Right now, we’re also preparing comments from the Water Board back to the Council on the Delta’s climate change vulnerability assessment, which is out for public comment right now. So there are a lot of things that we’re working on simultaneously with lots of different agencies throughout the watershed to get a better handle on this.”

Mr. George acknowledged that many of the tools under development wouldn’t be available if this year continues to be dry. “So we’re relying primarily on consultation and cooperative work with a lot of the people in the Delta and the Delta watershed, who, after all, have done a lot of drought planning and really were quite instrumental in managing the drought in 2012-16.”

Specific drought initiatives affecting the Delta

Mr. George then turned to the specific drought initiatives he has been working on that affect the Delta.

One lesson learned from that last drought was the difficulty with overlapping riparian and pre-1914 water rights.  In late 2017, a legal memorandum was prepared that discusses the statutes in the state law that differentiate between riparian and pre-1914 water rights; in 2018, that memo was published and circulated for feedback among the water user community.

We have received a great deal of feedback,” said Mr. George. “But I’m pleased to say that the legal principles described in that memorandum have held up very well through that process.  And it has allowed us to reach a better understanding with our user community of how to differentiate riparian and pre-1914 claims.”

Last year, the Board received the final judicial determination in the long-running Tenaka water rights case in the Delta, which then gave the Board a set of principles to differentiate view riparian rights in the Delta.

We’ve been applying those principles ever since,” he said. “One of the things that we have been able to do is settle five separate complaints enforcement actions that have been ongoing for ten years, rather than continuing with an enforcement process, largely by applying the principles from the Tenaka decision.”

They have also established a consensus approach to resolve the issue of duplicative reporting in the Delta.  Mr. George explained that there are circumstances where the same water diversion is being reported twice, once in the reports from the water users on the islands, and sometimes again when the Reclamation District files their reports.

So we’ve developed a consensus approach through outreach to the community so that all the water will be reported only once, and we’ll have a better sense of what the actual demand is, and it’ll be recorded primarily under the most senior water right,” he said. “So we’ll have a much better sense in applying our priority system of who has the highest priority, and it won’t be masked by overlying reports of licensees, which of course, generally have a more junior priority. So that’s a consensus we hope will inform all the reports that are issued in 2021 as to water use in 2020.”

They are proposing legislation to clarify and improve accuracy and timeliness in water use reporting. Mr. George explained that water use reports had been established in statutes at different times for various reasons, creating the circumstance where different reports come in at different times of the year, even in some cases reporting on different periods.

So we are pursuing legislation asking for administrative support to get all reports to come in at February of the year, reporting on the water year, which is from October 1 to September 30,” he said. “So whether you’re talking about surface water diversions, or riparian, pre-1914, licensed rights, groundwater extractions, or diversions to storage, we want all of them to come in at the same time and relate to the same water year so that we can use that data on an integrated basis to better plan for shortage.”

They are pursuing fixes to some of the Board’s regulations to make them easier to understand and easier to comply with.

They are working on developing technology to generate and analyze data.  One example is the use of Open ET to measure crop evapotranspiration, which is rolling out first in the Delta to an alternative compliance plan for measuring diversions under SB-88 and Water Code Section 1840.

They are working to create drought management partnerships in the Delta to manage collaboratively.  An essential part of that is to realize that the Delta is not a monolith; there are stark regional differences within the Delta itself.

The map on the slide shows the boundaries of the various water agencies within the Delta.  The North Delta Water Agency includes large parts of Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano County – almost half of the Delta operates under a water supply contract from the Department of Water Resources and the State Water project negotiated in 1981.

It basically acts as a security blanket or a wrap around the water rights in that part of the Delta,” Mr. George said. “Under the contract, if there’s any infirmity in a local water right in the northern part of the Delta, the part indicated as the North Delta Water Agency, any shortage there is contractually made up by the State Water Project. So essentially, because of that arrangement, there are no water rights enforcement issues for the Delta Watermaster in that area. I don’t want to suggest the North Delta is not cognizant of the shortage and not taking actions to reduce impacts on the entire water system, but it’s important to understand that the North Delta has that contract.”

In addition, the Contra Costa Water Agency operates diversions from the Delta under its contract with the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Mr. George said the contract isn’t focused on senior water rights belonging to the Contra Costa Water District, although they have some; it is primarily a contractual arrangement.  The East Contra Costa Irrigation District negotiated a contract in 1981 with the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project similar to the North Delta Water Agency’s contract.

So my point is that large parts of the Delta have a portfolio that includes contractual obligations that are different from the direct diversion requirements that are prevalent in the Central Delta Water Agency and the South Delta Water Agency,” he said. “So we’re focusing on developing a variety of cooperative arrangements with agencies, entities, and water users in these distinct areas of the Delta, which recognizes the fact that they are differently situated both with respect to their water rights, the right to take water from channels in the Delta, and their ability to manage during a drought.”

They are focusing much more attention on disadvantaged communities and environmental justice, especially concerning invasive species and harmful algae blooms, issues that impact water supply reliability, and the usability and quality of water both for use in the Delta and for export. But he noted that those impacts are disproportionately impacting disadvantaged communities, particularly in the southern Delta.  They are working to gather and share information to help people decide about operations or management.

The State Water Board is partnering with the California Water Data Consortium to help ensure that the data that the State Water Board is collecting is in formats that are more usable, machine-readable, accessible, and recoverable with their metadata on a broader basis.  They are also utilizing the partnership to assist them as they develop the Delta alternative compliance plan.

Rock removal from a barge in the West False River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Contra Costa county to construct the 750-foot-wide rock barrier to help deter the tidal push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay into the central Delta. Photo taken on May 8, 2015.

Addressing deterioration in the South Delta

Last summer, harmful algal blooms were a severe problem, particularly in the south Delta, creating stinky conditions, dangerous for human contact and animal contact, and not good for the ecosystem, he said.

The State Water Board is developing a comprehensive operations plan in the southern part of the Delta to implement primarily the salinity objectives for the South Delta adopted in the Phase 1 Water Quality Control Plan in 2018.  The plan asks the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project to work on a comprehensive operations plan embedded in the notion of outreach.

I want to compliment both USBR and DWR on the comprehensive outreach efforts that they’ve done with folks like the South Delta Water Agency, the Contra Costa Water District, and other water users in the southern part of the Delta to take advantage of the opportunity to think about not just the water project’s impacts on water quality in the southern Delta, but to bring in those other users and to focus on a comprehensive operational planning process as a way of sharing ideas and solutions for a common problem,” he said.

Mr. George pointed out that the South Delta problems extend beyond the impacts of the water projects and are really beyond the ability of the projects to manage. “That’s an important difference from the way we’ve approached this kind of thing in the past.  And it’s brought on by recognizing that the updated biological opinions and the updated incidental take permit focus more, as they are required to, on endangered species mitigation and moving more toward ecosystem approaches. How do we look more broadly at all the ecosystem issues? How do we bring together the resources to deal with them as common problems?  That means using a multi-benefit prism as the way we look at the multiple stressors in the Delta that all come together and interact with each other.”

One of the worst problems in the southern Delta is the occlusion of Delta channels due to sedimentation. This problem was particularly acute in 2017 and 2019 when large flows carried loads of sediment that dropped when they entered the southern Delta.  This has caused the channels to become occluded, creating multiple problems of warmer water temperatures, harmful algal blooms, reduced dissolved oxygen, impacting navigation and water supply, both within the Delta and for export.

So the ad hoc group working on issues in the South Delta is expanding to involve other agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Bay-Delta unit of the Water Board, the state and federal export projects, and local water agencies.  The group is working with a consultant to help everyone come together to develop a plan to deal with the problems.

Finally, Mr. George noted that there were exceedances of the new water quality salinity requirements established in the 2018 update to the southern Delta salinity objectives. He acknowledged that it’s unusual to have exceedances in the wintertime when there are typically higher flows and less agricultural demand. However, it is fortunate that they aren’t impacting agriculture because it’s the off-season, so it provides an opportunity to bring everybody together to look at the problem.

Discussion highlights

Councilmember Maria Mehranian said, “More and more in my work in water and water policy, I come across this whole issue of these ecological decisions that cannot be made outside the context of the social fabric and economic fabric of what’s going on around them. In that light, when you talk about the multi-benefits prism, I would like to understand what is in there. What is it that we could say we’re doing in terms of our assistance or our work in the South Delta?

Mr. George noted that a lot of the restoration activity going on in the Delta occurs in the North Delta, from the Yolo Bypass to the Central Delta and Chipps Island, and Suisun Marsh and into the bay; these are the areas where the restoration investments can have the most significant impact on ecosystem function and endangered species survival, which makes sense, he said.

On the other hand, the most challenging area of the Delta is in the south, where it’s harder to organize investment for ecosystem function because there are so many competing demands and so many problems that are accelerating rapidly. A good example of that is this channel occlusion problem; so in 2017 and 2019, which were years with a lot of flow, when the water slows down in the southern Delta, so it’s coming down the San Joaquin River at a high rate of speed.  When it reaches the Delta, it spreads out, slows down, and drops that sediment. As a result of that, you have the sediment reducing the depth of these channels because the channels aren’t as deep, and in the summertime, when it gets warm, the sun warms that water more rapidly.

“Also, when water doesn’t move through those reaches as easily as it could, it’s a big problem for flood management because those occluded channels have a reduced carrying capacity, so even though the focus is now on drought, it is still necessary to be cognizant of flood control. And because those channels are shallower, they’re more hospitable to invasive species. One of them is Egeria densa, an invasive weed that attaches itself with a deep root system and further reduces water quality and the channel’s capacity to carry water.

“So all those problems come together, and you can’t solve them as a flood control problem, a levee management problem, or a deepening a well. It’s a common problem.

Frankly, we as regulators are part of the problem because we’ve created these very high regulatory burdens on channel maintenance and because our regulations really don’t differentiate between someone dredging a marsh or building a strip mall.  We don’t differentiate between that and dredging a channel to maintain its ecological water supply and navigation functions.

“The ‘Cutting the green tape’ initiative, led by the California Natural Resources Agency, is an effort to make better decisions during the permitting process to allow certain kinds of projects to go forward with appropriate ecological safety measures, but where the overall emphasis is on improving ecological function. That’s what I mean by looking at a multi-benefit prism to the multi stressor problem: to bring multiple parties to the table, each with their own mission and their own resources, and to do something in common to solve a problem that is more extensive, more multifaceted, a more wicked problem, and to bring all those to bear to actually make an impact.

Councilmember Don Nottoli asked about the salinity exceedances in the South Delta. “What was the nature of those and the duration.  Were they just in the southern Delta, or were they elsewhere?  Was this an anomaly to see it at this time of the year? And I’m just curious, a little more about the nature of it if you could explain.

There’s a monitoring station on the Old River, right where the Tracy Boulevard crosses the river,” said Mr. George.  “In part because of occlusion in that channel, water in that area tends to slosh back and forth on the tides. There’s not a lot of through flushing flows.  It is unusual to have salinity problems in the winter when we tend to have a lot of flows. But in that reach, where there’s an occlusion in the channel, and because we had such a dry fall and early winter, we had our first exceedance, which was reported from that monitoring station on January 25, where the 30-day average went above 1.0 EC, which is the salinity measurement in that area.”

We looked at some of the other monitoring; we had about 850 CFS of flow on the San Joaquin River; that’s relatively low for this time of year. So we talked to the Department of Water Resources, which manages that monitoring station, and we talked through it, and we said at the time, okay, we were about to have a big precipitation event, and maybe that’ll flush it out. We also recognized at that time that it was the same water was moving back and forth. And we identified a specific source of high salinity on one of the sloughs there. It’s called Sugar Cut. So at my recommendation, the water board and the executive director agreed that we wouldn’t take any action because of that exceedance; we’d wait and see what happened when we got those flows. And sure enough, we went from about 850 CFS on the San Joaquin River to almost two weeks with 2000 CFS. So there was a lot more fresh water coming into the Delta.

However, we didn’t see as much reduction in salinity at that monitoring station as I had anticipated. And sure enough, we got another indication on February 11 that the 30-day average had moved back above that 1.0. Even though we’ve had the big flows, we were still suffering from this same water sloshing back and forth, and as we looked into the data, we also recognized that we had two more spikes in salinity coming down Sugar Cut. So it’s a good opportunity to investigate this at a time when we’re not impacting Southern Delta agricultural diversions, but we know we will in a month or six weeks when the diversion season irrigation season starts.  We have a chance now to figure out what the problem is upstream on Sugar Cut.  So we’re reaching out to all the parties of interest to get to the bottom of it.

Councilmember Daniel Zingale asked if he could elaborate on how the harmful algae blooms disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities in the southern part of the Delta.  Do you have any guidance for us on how the Council can respond to that disproportionate impact? Is there anything we can do to lessen the burden on those communities?

Last summer, if you happened to be in downtown Stockton where the Delta comes into downtown past the port, the algae was thick and smelly,” said Mr. George.  “There were multiple reports of people whose pets got in contact with it and either got very sick or died.  If you were down there, you would have noticed that along those waterways were homeless encampments. And people who were using that Delta water to wash sometimes, and even though they boiled water, they were using it to cook, and they were getting sick.  The most easily seen and understood disadvantaged communities are the people who are forced to camp along these waterways.

“In late December, I was out in the Delta in a boat, going south from Sacramento, and taking pictures of the homeless encampments along the Sacramento River, including one on the river side of the Pocket levee.  They had excavated into the levee and created a basement essentially with a tent over it as a living space.  But recognize that also creates a huge risk to the community in the Pocket area of urban Sacramento. The next time we have very high flows on the Sacramento River, that water will chisel into that area and potentially compromise the safety of that levee.  So the problems of disadvantaged communities are much more understood as impacting all of us. And that’s what I meant by the differential impact of these issues on disadvantaged communities.

It is in the city of Stockton, but it is also in other areas in the southern Delta, where people live close to Delta water and are impacted by these harmful algae blooms or by these invasive species.  While I wouldn’t call it a disadvantaged community, Discovery Bay is heavily impacted by these kinds of problems.  What we’re recognizing is that yes, the impact is differential on disadvantaged communities, and our environmental justice requirements and our moral obligations are to look more carefully at them.

So what can we do? We can monitor more carefully and identify when we can get better flows into those areas and manage flows developed for other purposes to impact that positively.  One project that is ongoing right now that should have an impact in Stockton is redirecting Consumnes River flow into Mormon Slough, which empties into that turning basin in Stockton, which should have the effect, when there are flows in that area, to move some of that water out to flush some of it to reduce those impacts.

“But honestly, the biggest thing you can do to improve the southern Delta is to open up the channels and to drive more water through those channels. Those are the big impacts.”

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