Construction crews work into the night on the temporary emergency drought barrier in the West False River in the Delta in Contra Costa county. Photo taken June 7, 2021 by Kelly M Grow / DWR

DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Emergency drought barrier and the Temporary Urgency Change Petition (with photo gallery)

The Department of Water Resources takes action in the Delta to conserve water in upstream reservoirs

Last month, the Governor signed two executive orders regarding the drought, one of which included authorizing the Department of Water Resources to construct a salinity barrier at the False River to address salinity intrusion into the Delta.  

At the June meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Jacob McQuirk, the South Delta Chief of O & M, and Lenny Grimaldo, the Assistant Environmental Director, both from the Department of Water Resources, gave a presentation on the Department’s construction of a drought barrier across West False River in the Delta, and the Department’s Temporary Urgency Change Petition.

Due to the severely dry conditions, Governor Newsom issues a drought emergency proclamation on April 21st that was somewhat limited and a broader drought emergency proclamation on May 10th.  Through those drought proclamations, the State Board was directed to consider modifications to conserve upstream storage, and the Department of Water Resources was directed to implement measures, which included installing an emergency drought barrier.

We just haven’t seen the precipitation this spring leading into the summer, and we’re really at what looks like the second driest year on record here,” said Mr. McQuirk.  “It’s a very bad year for hydrology.”

He also added that this year, in particular, the snowmelt soaked into the ground or evaporated, so they didn’t see the inflow to the reservoirs that was anticipated. 

Need for the barrier

The Department’s Drought Contingency Plan considers two different actions to help conserve upstream storage:

Temporary Urgency Change Petition:  The Department filed a temporary urgency change petition with the State Water Resources Control Board, which was subsequently approved on June 1st.  The petition allows the Department to move the salinity compliance point from Emmaton farther upstream to Three Mile Slough and to lower total Delta outflow from 4000 to 3000 CFS.

Emergency drought barrier: Installation of the emergency drought barrier allows the Department to conserve upstream storage by releasing less freshwater but still protect beneficial uses in the interior Delta.  The image on the slide shows Franks Tract, a flooded island.  To the left of Franks Tract is the West False River, which is a large channel approximately 800 feet wide.  On flood tide, saltier water is pushed into Franks Tract. 

West False River is a great conveyance into Franks Tract,” said Mr. McQuirk.  “What we see is the dynamics within Franks Tract does a great job of taking that salt is pushed in on the flood tide, and then further propagating it into the interior Delta.”

He explained that the barrier blocking False River prevents the saltier water from coming into Franks Tract; instead, Franks Tract is filled with fresh water from the Old River and the San Joaquin River.  This keeps the salinity out of Franks Tract, with less water having to be released from upstream reservoirs.

Mr. McQuirk noted that both the temporary urgency change petition and the emergency drought barrier are needed before any water can be conserved.   “If we were to operate the project with only 3000 CFS delta outflow without the emergency drought barrier, we would lose control of salinity in the Delta,” he said.

Temporary Urgency Change Petition

The Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) was approved by the State Water Board on June 1st and is effective through August 15th.   It reduces the outflow requirement and moves the salinity compliance point further up the Sacramento River, so there will be some increased salinity in the Sacramento River moving upstream as a result, but at the same time, it protects the interior Delta, he said.

While the TUCP is in effect, combined maximum exports at SWP Banks Pumping Plant and the CVP Jones Pumping Plant are limited to 1,500 CFS, which is just a fraction of capacity.  Combined exports may be increased above 1,500 CFS when in full compliance with D-1641 Delta outflow and salinity requirements for the Sacramento River at Emmaton, but exports other than transfers shall be limited to natural and abandoned flow.

Construction of the barrier

The Emergency Drought Barrier was constructed very quickly.  The first week in May, the Department began working on getting the necessary permits into place, which included a Clean Water Act section 404 emergency authorization from the US Army Corps of Engineers, a 401 water quality certification from the State Water Resources Control Board, and an Incidental Take Permit and a Streambed Alteration Agreement through California Department of Fish and Wildlife.   Through the Governor’s emergency proclamation, the project was exempted from CEQA and the consistency determination with the Delta Plan. 

Construction began on the evening of June 2nd.  By June 18th, there was a thin line of rock across the channel, and a week later, the barrier was functionally complete.

Mr. McQuirk noted it was quite a feat to get the barrier built so quickly, given the size of the barrier: the channel is 800 feet wide and over 30 feet deep; the barrier itself is around 120 feet at the base.  The construction contract allowed up to 30 days to construct the barrier and included a bonus of $80,000 per day, up to $800,000. Without both the barrier and the TUCP, water cannot be conserved in the upstream reservoirs, so every day does count.  The contractor, Kiewit, was able to complete the project ten days ahead of schedule, so they will receive the maximum bonus for their work.

One thing that we did a little bit differently than in 2015 is we were able to utilize multiple sources of rock in that contract, so we were able to get a good number of competitive bids, which ended up saving us quite a bit of money,” said Mr. McQuirk.

Monitoring plan

There are monitoring plans associated with the temporary urgency change petition and the emergency drought barrier. The map on the slide shows the existing water quality monitoring stations and some proposed temporary stations.   Mr. McQuirk noted there is more extensive monitoring and includes biological monitoring, such as zooplankton and fish sampling.  They are working closely with the Interagency Ecological Program on the monitoring.

They are also conducting a predatory fish monitoring study at the barrier itself, looking for any changes associated with predatory fish behavior before, during, and after constructing the barrier.

Current long-term planning

Before the drought got intense, the Department was already in the process of working towards long-term permits to install the Emergency Drought Barrier across False River beginning in 2022.  They had completed the tribal consultation and were getting ready to circulate the CEQA document when they realized they would need to take emergency action.

However, Mr. McQuirk emphasized that the Department is not dropping the planning and permitting efforts associated with a future drought barrier.  They plan to release a CEQA document this summer that will allow for public participation in the planning.

Our goal here is to be able to construct the drought barrier across False River up to two times during a ten-year period,” he said.  “Our permits would cover us from as soon as next year 2022, all the way to 2031. And under this particular process, we’re not utilizing any exemption; we will go ahead and get all of our standard individual permits. And we will be working also, with the Delta Stewardship Council on our Delta Plan Consistency Determination.”

The soonest that the Department would install the drought barrier under that permitting process would be next year. Mr. McQuirk noted that they did start construction of the barrier in June this year; they would be looking to install it as early as April in the future.

Through our TUCP and our emergency drought barrier, we cannot improve the salinity in the interior Delta; really, all we can do is protect the salinity that we have and slow down any saltwater intrusion,” he said.  “That’s why it’s important to be able to install it as early as we can. But we’re also considering resource impacts as well as fisheries concerns and trying to find that balance point where we’re able to install it as early as we can, but also minimizing our impacts to resources.”

In summary …

In these really dry times, we did have to take emergency measures, relatively drastic measures, to get this barrier constructed just as soon as possible, so that we could save water in our upstream reservoirs to protect beneficial uses later, as well as to protect beneficial uses within the interior Delta,” said Mr. McQuirk.  “I would add that these two particular actions are quite important for protecting the beneficial uses within the Delta. Specifically, there are major benefits to agricultural interests that rely on the Delta for irrigation. There are also benefits to communities that receive their drinking water from Contra Costa Water District, as well as preserving our ability to maintain that freshwater corridor and maintain some level of both Central Valley Project and State Water Project exports.”

Q&A Highlights

Invasive weeds in Franks Tract

Councilmember Don Nottoli noted how invasive weeds became a problem in Franks Tract after the last barrier placement in 2015.  How are invasive weeds being taken into consideration?

Mr. McQuirk said they were working quite closely with  State Parks’ Division of Boating and Waterways, Aquatic Invasive Species unit about what is needed for aquatic weed treatment.  “What I’ve heard is that they don’t have a need for additional treatment. The weed issue within Franks Tract is a little bit more complicated. I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert on it. But what was indicated is it’s a combination of both native and non-native weeds, and it’s not as simple as treating it.   We do see that there were some changes in the distribution of aquatic weeds associated with a barrier; I’m not sure that we’re certain that there’s a change in the density or the total quantity. So really, what we’re doing is we are working with the Division of Boating and Waterways, and if there is a need, we are willing to work with boating and waterways to help them with that need. But at this point, we don’t have any treatments planned within Franks Tract.”

There are currently aquatic weeds in Franks Tract year-round in all years, but the research that was funded by the Delta science program in 2015, did indicate that that weeds did increase with the barrier installed,” said Dr. Lenny Grimaldo.  “We’re aware of that research.  Right now, some of our environmental analysis has been focused on the propagation of those effects on the endangered species beyond the footprint of Franks Tract. So during the summer months, we don’t see a lot of native, endangered species in the area around Franks Tract, the water temperatures are a little warm, but we recognize the recreational and boating impacts of any weeds that would be increased because of the barrier.”

We recently met with the Delta science program, and they communicated some research needs that we should be aware of, and mainly it’s the submerged aquatic vegetation piece,” Dr. Grimaldo continued. “We’re committed to working with the science program to maybe come together a bit more frequently do the analyses.  We have hyperspectral flyovers to look at the effects of the barrier this year. So we’ll get a sense once again, if the weeds are increasing, and then convene with the Science Program about potential research questions that we can answer from that monitoring.”

Other locations for drought barriers?

Councilmember Don Nottoli noted that when the drought barrier was last installed in 2015, other locations for barriers were contemplated.  Are you looking to permit other locations than the location on False River?

Mr. McQuirk acknowledged that in 2015, barriers were contemplated at Sutter Slough and Steamboat Slough. Still, they do not have plans to come forward with permit documents or a CEQA document for barriers in Sutter or Steamboat Slough at this point in time.

Lessons learned from previous drought barrier

Councilmember Maria Mehranian asked if there were lessons learned from the last time the drought barrier was installed.

Mr. McQuirk said there were definitely lessons learned which were documented in a report that discussed the issues, the impacts, and what might have been done differently.  “On the physical side, we were able to learn that we didn’t need to install the steel sheet piles to protect the levees because we were able to refine our geotechnical design, and now we’re able to place rock from bank to bank. We also learned on the science side that we really needed to get out there earlier to gather the pre-data as well as trying to help us determine the different effects of drought versus drought barrier.”

We’re really doing a good job on that coordinating closely with Interagency Ecological Program,” continued Mr. McQuirk.  “We have a much more robust monitoring plan.  The monitoring plan was in a draft format and was provided to all the permitting agencies.  In some cases, such as the State Board, it was actually a requirement of our 401 certification. So they said, go ahead and implement that much more extensive and robust monitoring plan. There are a lot more lessons, and I do have a report on that I’d be more than happy to share.”  (That report is here: Efficacy Report for the 2015 Emergency Drought Barrier Project)

Dr. Lenny Grimaldo added that there is a drought synthesis team within the Interagency Ecological Program that meets regularly that they are coordinating with.  “What we’re learning is that we have a lot of monitoring in place. We’ve added monitoring stations, and we know the analyses that we need to conduct but more salient is that we develop predictions based on what we saw in 2015. So that’s how we’re approaching the analysis this year is using those predictions as the framework for how we would do that analyses.”

Working with landowners

Councilmember Virginia Madueño asked if the Department was coordinating with landowners in the area.

Mr. McQuirk said they have been coordinating with landowners.  “I was the project manager also in 2015 for the drought barrier installation. So we were able to secure long-term lease agreements and permanent rights on both Bradford and Jersey.  We do have a lease agreement with Iron House Sanitary District; I think it was a ten-year lease. So we’re still covered by that. And then on the Bradford side, we actually do have a permanent right through the through that through an agreement that we signed in in 2015.”

One thing we learned in 2015 is we did have issues associated with the Delta ferry,” Mr. McQuirk continued.  “We had an issue with some unanticipated velocities within fisherman’s cut. And that particular ferry got grounded, it got damaged; there were all sorts of problems. We had agreed in our permanent rights agreement with Bradford Island that we would have absolutely no impact on the ferry, and we impacted the ferry. So what we did to mitigate for that impact is we went ahead and we fully upgraded that. We put new tier-four clean diesel engines in there, and we did all sorts of modifications and upgrades to the tune of almost a million dollars. So the Delta ferry may look old, but it has all new workings on the inside.”

During the public comment period, Gilbert Cosio with MBK Engineers noted that before the TUCP was submitted, Delta Watermaster Michael George convened an ad hoc committee of Delta stakeholders to discuss the response to drought.  “The False River barrier came up,” he said.  “We were all in agreement that was good for the bulk of the Delta because if you get saltwater trapped in Franks Tract, everybody is hurting.  So the key is keeping it from getting in there because if it does get in there, then you need to count on a flood year the next year to get that water out, or we’ll be stuck for a while. So we didn’t have any problems with the False River barrier going in, except for some of the concerns that have already been discussed about native plants and exotic plants, that sort of thing.”

Our hope with getting this group together is to put one Delta voice together so that when we do start talking about the long-term barriers, we’ll have some communication. And we missed that in 2015. We were given the plan late. So we’re hopeful that we can actually get more involved earlier. And you can thank the Watermaster for thinking ahead and getting us together.”

RELATED NEWS: Coalition Opposes Temporary Urgency Changes for CVP and SWP, from Restore the Delta

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