How Much Water Does the Delta Need?
The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem needs freshwater to survive. How much water and where it comes from is a longstanding debate that is flaring up as the state embarks on an updated water quality plan for the Bay-Delta.
By June 2014, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) is expected to revise water quality objectives that reflect the influence of freshwater inflow and its interaction with salinity on the ecosystem, and the means by which it supports salmon, steelhead and pelagic fish such as the Delta smelt. Those objectives, last elucidated in the 2006 Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay-Delta, could lead to water rights proceedings that result in greater freshwater flow to the Delta.
The prospect of increased flows into and out of the Delta is encouraging to the environmental community, which believes the effort to accommodate all the water supply needs has come at the expense of the Delta ecosystem.
“Over the last 20 years you are starting to see an effort to restore the balance somewhat,” said Gary Bobker, program director with the Bay Institute. “We have fought over the flow needs in the Bay-Delta Estuary and have wound up with relatively minor adjustments in flows. You are talking about one of the most modified hydro systems in the entire world and we have done minor tweaks to correct the imbalance.”
Water use impacts the Delta ecosystem, from the upstream storage and diversion projects to the state and federal pumping operations in the South Delta. Some stakeholders believe exclusively focusing energy on the flows question inhibits progress toward finding a long-lasting, durable solution that ultimately reduces reliance on the Delta as a water supply source.
“We think it is a much better question to ask, ‘how do we reconnect water and land and where does that require flows and how much?’” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “My members have always stood up for that with local restoration projects where flow is always an element.”
Flows help define how well the Delta ecosystem performs, as well as the health of the many waterways that feed water to the system. It is a complicated relationship, filled with many variables, including the constant advance and retreat of saltwater from San Francisco Bay and the alterations to the natural system through human actions. Some scientists say it would be useful to alter the Delta’s highly structured flow regime to one that better facilitates the recovery and restoration of native plants and fauna.
“A key to restoring natural ecosystem functions – a central part of a reconciliation approach – is to reintroduce some of the variability in flows that better supported native aquatic habitat,” the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) said in a June 2012 report, Where the Wild Things Aren’t – Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Species. The authors recommend several new strategies to reconcile Delta habitat and flows.
A “reconciled” Delta would be managed “in a manner that might realistically achieve the … co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem protection for the Delta as an evolving place,” according to the PPIC report, which notes that flow management “will have to become much more flexible, take place on shorter time steps, and account for hydrologic conditions spanning many years.”
Changes to the Delta from human activity have suppressed the ecosystem to the point where its natural resilience “is a thing of the past,” said Bobker.
“We are where we are because there has been a failure to balance,” he said. “We have evolved to the point where … we have legal protections for the ecosystem but for decades those values and legal requirements have not really been valued and discharged.”
Flow management primarily entails the timing, magnitude and duration of pumping operations at the Central Valley Project’s (CVP) C.W. “Bill” Jones Pumping Plant and the State Water Project’s (SWP) Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant. “Because of the effects of altered flows, including entrainment, managing flows within the Delta is an important tool for reducing the impacts of water diversions on fish,” says the Delta Stewardship Council’s final staff draft Delta Plan.
Whether additional flows are needed for the Delta and where that water might come from is complicated. The CVP and SWP are currently responsible for releasing sufficient stored water from upstream reservoirs to meet Delta water quality standards; and other upstream water users could be required to share in this responsibility. Environmental groups say the responsibility could extend to those currently not obligated to furnish flows, such as the Sacramento River settlement contractors, San Joaquin River exchange contractors and non-project water rights holders such as the Modesto Irrigation District, Yuba County Water Agency, East Bay Municipal Utility District or San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
Water users upstream of the Delta are concerned the state will look toward their interests in trying to answer the flow question.
“When I step back and look at this, there is an interesting convergence – the zeal for more flows [and] the interest to make exports more reliable – that’s the classic debate going on in the Delta,” said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association (NCWA). “From a flow perspective, we know there are people that want to go upstream to look for additional water to help solve those problems and that is exactly what gets Northern California excited.”
Concern extends to hydropower producers, who depend on the right amount of water being available at the right time to generate electricity for the state’s power grid.
“This debate is broader than water supply and the environment,” said Jennifer West, director for water with the California Municipal Utilities Association. “Nearly 14 percent of California’s power is generated from hydropower and with nearly 400 plants in the Sacramento/San Joaquin basin. CMUA members encourage the State Board to thoroughly examine potential hydropower losses. Further, any proposal that calls for a dramatic increase in winter and spring flows could leave reservoirs severely depleted and unable to meet peak summer supply demands.”
In a two-phase process, beginning with the Lower San Joaquin River, the State Water Board is revising the 2006 Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay-Delta, looking at water quality objectives for Delta inflow, outflow, in-Delta channel flows and salinity. The two-phase approach differs from the past in part because of the concurrent development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the comprehensive process that aims to facilitate the issuance of federal Endangered Species Act permits for the operation of the SWP and the CVP for the next 50 years. The State Water Board will begin holding a series of workshops on these issues in September.
“Historically when the Water Board did a review of flow objectives it did them all at the same time, looking at the San Joaquin, the Sacramento and the eastside tributaries all simultaneously. But we decided to break this into a two phase approach … because of the BDCP process, which has generated a lot of information [and] so it seemed like we want to leverage all that in our review,” said Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Board.
During both phases, the State Water Board will examine many factors to determine what flows are reasonably necessary to protect public trust uses, including fish and other aquatic species, taking into account the public interest in the diversion and use of water for drinking water, hydroelectric power, agriculture and other uses.
One of many technical documents that will inform the State Water Board’s review is a 2010 report, required by the 2009 legislative water package, which presented a technical assessment of flow and operational requirements if the only consideration was fishery protection.
In the report, Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, State Water Board scientists wrote that while current flow management regulations “provide some protection for ecological functions and native species,” the current Delta flow regime “is generally harmful to many native aquatic species while encouraging nonnative aquatic species.”
The report said that net Delta outflow between January and June should be 75 percent of the 14-day average of unimpaired inflow (i.e., the inflow that would exist without dams or upstream diversions); the recommendation for the Sacramento River was 75 percent of the 14-day unimpaired flow from November through June, and 60 percent of the 14-day unimpaired flow from February through June for the San Joaquin River.
In addition, “pulse flows” for migrating fish in the fall would be needed and increased fall outflow in above normal years, the scientists concluded. The report “was based on the best available science,” State Water Board staff said. But the staff emphasized that the report did not account for all the functions the Delta serves or reflect the multi-dimensional balancing requirement of the State Water Board and its analysis of the water supply, economic, and hydropower effects of a broad range of alternatives.
Howard said the flow criteria report would not be the sole basis for possible revamped water quality standards that could lead to increased freshwater flow.
“There is a lot of information in that report and certainly we will be using that information in the review but we have tried to make it clear that this particular report did not try to balance the hydropower, cold water storage, water delivery needs and flow needs so that’s the process we intend to take a look at now – to see whether or not, on balance, there’s some need for additional flows,” he said.
Jerry Johns, a water consultant who spent a lengthy career with the State Water Board and the Department of Water Resources, said the flow criteria report “has the potential of really undoing a lot of good things that happen upstream,” such as the maintenance of cold water pools for salmon. Johns noted that “in the lingo of the water quality business, flow criteria are not enforceable standards.” The authors of the report “just needed to say what some of the fish would need, in which they did a good job explaining their rationale, but they did no evaluation of the effects on other fish species or other beneficial uses which is required before enforceable water quality objectives or standards can be adopted,” he said.
Implementing the report’s recommended flow numbers “without that balancing of interests would be devastating – you would no longer have salmon in the Central Valley” due to the loss of cold water pools in upstream reservoirs which are now vital for maintaining fish acceptable salmon spawning habitat in the streams below these reservoirs.
That said, setting flows for the estuary “is not an insurmountable task,” said Johns.
“It really depends on what the Board does, because they need to take into consideration all the other things that are going on [and] I’m not sure the Board members have thought about that yet,” he said. “And truly it is complicated.”
Many stakeholders fear the State Water Board will establish a strict nexus between water quality objectives and the burden on water rights holders to help meet them.
“One of our concerns is [the State Water Board] has said, ‘Don’t worry, we are just setting objectives, we are not pinning you down yet, we are not making any decisions on which entities will be responsible for meeting the objectives,’” said Valerie Kincaid, an attorney for the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority. “But of course, depending how those objectives work and how they are written; only a few parties can be responsible for an objective, especially if the objectives are very narrow.”
Though establishing and implementing a flow objective takes time, there is a sense of urgency by the state. The Delta Stewardship Council has called for adoption of the flow objectives by June 2014 and the State Water Board says the process “must be conducted in parallel, rather than sequentially” with the BDCP.
This issue of Western Water examines the issues associated with the State Water Board’s proposed revision of the water quality Bay-Delta Plan, most notably the question of whether additional flows are needed for the system, and how they might be provided.
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Since he took office a lot of issues have been on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plate. Water has not been at the top of the list, which has been dominated primarily by fiscal and budgetary issues. Additionally, severe droughts or floods have not struck the state as they did in the terms of other recent governors – giving Gov. Brown a bit of a breather on the contentious topic that is California water.
So when word came that the Governor and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were holding a joint press conference at the Capitol recently to discuss their support of the BDCP habitat plan and the idea of twin water diversion tunnels under the Delta, I decided I had to get in that room even though it was only open to accredited Capitol press and I’m technically not one of the media.
It was a mob scene at the Resources Building where members of the press were trying to crowd into a small conference room. I somehow talked my way into the action with the help of reporters vouching for the Foundation’s work as they rely on Western Water and on our daily news blog Aquafornia.
Once I finally got in the room, I couldn’t see over the TV cameras. I wanted to be able to ask Gov. Brown a question so I knew I had to push my way to the front of the room. I apologize again to the people I almost crawled over, including the woman in whose lap I fell! But I got up front and caught the Governor’s eye. I told him that as a young reporter I covered him in his first term when he promoted the Peripheral Canal in 1982 and asked what made this proposal different. (You can watch the entire press conference at CalChannel.) I was surprised at the forcefulness of his support of this proposal as he harked back to his youth and time spent with his dad, Gov. Pat Brown, listening to California and Western water debates. He noted he just came from a funeral and wants to get big things done (although he used a different term for “big things”!) including moving forward with this proposal. He showed he is definitely engaged in California water issues.
After the press conference, I went to the Capitol steps to cover the anti-tunnels rally where in-Delta residents and other interest groups vocally expressed their vow to vigorously oppose the proposal. Their main concerns center on the proposed size and scope of the project and the assurances that freshwater flows continue to sustain the Delta farmlands and local economy. (See our Facebook page for photos I took at the Governor’s press conference and at the Capitol rally.)
– Rita Schmidt Sudman