One Estuary Many Plans

One Estuary, Many Plans

Chris Austin

Delta Policy, Interagency Coordination, Drought
SOE2013-cover100px2“We’re seeing much more state-led activity on the Delta than we’ve seen in decades,” began Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board, as she opened the plenary session on the second day. “It really is heartwarming to see the leadership happening at the state level through two governors, and to see the legislature and the agencies engaging.”

Felicia Marcus (at the podium) manages the One Estuary, Many Plans panel. From left to right, Bonham, Cowin, Knopp, Machado. Image credit: SFEP
Felicia Marcus (at the podium) manages the One Estuary, Many Plans panel. From left to right, Bonham, Cowin, Knopp, Machado. Image: SFEP

The coming year looks to be a critical one for the Delta, with the first Delta Plan starting its implementation phase, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) in the final stages of development, and the update to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan underway, not to mention numerous other smaller programs in various stages of progress. How all of these plans and the people who implement them will mesh brought state agency leaders together with conference attendees for the panel discussion.

The impetus behind this attention to the Delta began with the landmark 2009 Delta Reform Act, which made the coequal goals of restoring the Delta’s ecosystem and providing a reliable water supply overarching state policy. The Act also specified that achieving the coequal goals must be done in a manner that respects the Delta as an evolving place. In order to facilitate coordination across the numerous state and local entities with responsibilities in the Delta, the Act established the Delta Stewardship Council, charging it with developing a long-term management plan for the Delta and its resources. The Council’s first Delta Plan went into effect in September 2013.

Chris Knopp, Executive Officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, explained that the purpose of the Council and the Delta Plan is twofold: to integrate the actions and plans of multiple agencies, and to create a new form of governance that not only facilitates this integration, but also establishes an adaptive structure for science, and creates a new form of accountability by establishing performance measures related to interagency accomplishments. A committee is being convened that will bring together the leaders of local, state and federal agencies to coordinate implementation of the Plan’s 14 regulatory policies and 73 recommendations. “Balance is going to be an absolutely essential item of coordination among these plans,” said Chris Knopp. In order to break the current deadlock on Delta management, he said, participants must place the coequal goals above their own individual interests and trust that achieving a balance will result in the outcomes everyone desires. “Stakeholders need to remember that balance is the objective,” Knopp said. “But in the end, action is the requirement.”

Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, followed by saying while the number of individual plans and proceedings underway in the Delta is astounding, it’s not as much about the quantity of effort underway but more about how to manage through the thicket of programs. “Relationships matter,” he emphasized. “At the end of the day, my relationship with Felicia or Mark or Chris or Mr. Machado and how we want to solve problems may be more important than our individual turf or actual proceedings.”

Agencies and managers are working to ensure their plans for managing the Delta intersect. Image credit: Francis Parchaso, USGS
Agencies and managers are working to ensure their plans for managing the Delta intersect. Image: Francis Parchaso, USGS

Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources, agreed with Bonham’s remarks, adding, “The big question is, how are these plans all going to fit together? At the end of the day, these plans aren’t going to fit together because of perfectly crafted legislative guidance or our sparkling personalities, but because we’re going to be motivated to make them work together for a common good.” Cowin said that one of the biggest signs of hope for changing course in the Delta is the Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program (CSAMP). CSAMP aims to stem the tide of litigation by establishing a collaborative approach towards water project operation decisions in the Delta. Carrying this collaboration forward to the BDCP is the next step and the ultimate integration of our efforts, he noted.

The BDCP is the Brown administration’s 50-year plan to secure state water supplies exported from the Delta. To get there, the plan proposes building new conveyance facilities to route water from the north Delta to the existing facilities in the south, while also restoring or protecting over 100,000 acres of habitat for native species. The core strategy of the BDCP is to recover populations of endangered species by both reducing reverse flows that under the current south Delta pumping regime harm salmon, and creating habitat for fish. At that point, the rules that control project operations could be stabilized, “providing a sustainable, foundational amount of water supply for those two-thirds of Californians that depend upon Delta water deliveries,” Cowin said. “It’s pretty simple in concept but very difficult to craft the plan.”

Cowin cautioned, however, that the BDCP won’t solve all of California’s water problems by itself. Rather, it has to be part of a strategy known as Integrated Regional Water Management, which brings together local and regional agencies and organizations to develop projects that increase regional water supplies. Over the past ten years, DWR has provided $1.4 billion in grants to seed such projects. These funds have leveraged another $3.7 billion in local investments, resulting in hundreds of local projects that have reduced demand or added an estimated 2 million acre-feet per year to available supplies through recycling, actively managing groundwater as an underground reservoir, capturing storm water, and other means. “I really do believe this evolution towards Integrated Water Management is one of the most significant advancements in California water policy over the last couple of decades,” Cowin said.

By contrast, Mike Machado, immediate past executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, was highly skeptical of the Delta Reform Act and the BDCP. The Commission is charged with protecting the Delta’s overall environment, including its agriculture, habitat, and recreational values, and has gone on the record as being opposed to the BDCP. Often lost in the pursuit of the coequal goals, Machado says, are the objectives specified in the language of the Act. The objectives include protecting and enhancing the unique cultural, recreation, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place, and restoring the ecosystem, including its fisheries and wildlife, as the heart of a healthy estuary. Furthermore, the safeguards established in the water code that were meant to protect areas of origin and the Delta have not always been met. The diversion of water through an isolated facility in the north Delta, Machado argued, is contrary to the concept of the “common pool” as described in the water code.

“[Where does all the] mistrust and opposition to the plan being set forth to fix the Delta [come from]? It is the failed promises of exporting water surplus to the needs of the Delta watershed from a common pool. It is the threats to the area of origin. It is hysteria over levee failure and the potential abandonment of Delta levees with an isolated facility. It is the loss of 100,000 acres of farmland for habitat, the loss of legacy farms and the effects on the Delta and its communities from the disruption of habitat from over ten years of construction of the tunnels,” Machado said.

Caption: Big birds like sandhill cranes may be able to adapt to climate change in the Delta by soaring to better habitat, but smaller, less mobile species may face difficulties reaching safe harbors.Image Credit: Max Eissler
Big birds like sandhill cranes may be able to adapt to climate change in the Delta by soaring to better habitat, but smaller, less mobile species may face difficulties reaching safe harbors.Image: Max Eissler

Moderator Marcus followed with an explanation of how the State Water Board fits into the process. The Delta Reform Act details specific tasks for the board, including setting flow criteria for the Delta and updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The update to the water quality control plan will hopefully be completed by 2016, although the subsequent plan of implementation is an adjudicatory process that could take years, Marcus said. The State Water Board has been actively following the development of the BDCP and engaging in reviews of the draft documents. The Delta Reform Act also mandated that construction on the BDCP cannot begin until the Board approves adding the additional point of diversion. This water rights permit process also will require an adjudicatory, evidentiary hearing, Marcus said, a task involving a “cast of thousands.” The State Water Board is also participating in the Delta Stewardship Council interagency committee charged with implementing the Delta Plan. In addition to all of this, the governor’s office is working on a statewide California Water Action Plan that will define the administration’s priorities over the next five years. All of this adds up to more coordination and collaboration on the Delta than ever before.  “What I’m fond of saying is that it’s about belts, suspenders, and flying monkeys—whatever it takes to get the job done,” she said.

During the question and answer period, panelists were asked how climate change factors into their plans. “Climate change is the big game changer,” replied Cowin. “It drives home the point that the status quo can’t be depended upon.” Knopp agreed, pointing out that significant environmental shifts are already apparent. “If we’re not looking at this in a more holistic way, I think it’s going to be very difficult to achieve a realistic balance.”

Machado pointed out that our water system is predicated on what we thought the world was like when we built the infrastructure, but that we’re going to have to adapt to a new reality. “We have a limited amount of water molecules available in this state. So what we have to do is define what molecules are available, and then determine how you live within it, not create a greater demand, and with that demand, demand more water to meet it.”

“We’re scared to death at our department” of the shifts to come with climate change, responded Fish and Wildlife’s Bonham. “What I’d ask everybody to do is take a deep breath and force yourself to rethink anything and everything you’re ever thought about the Delta. Understand that we need to stop arguing about who it matters to the most and understand it matters to all of us.”

Bay Delta Conservation Plan
Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan
Delta Plan

NEXT ARTICLE: Tracking Next Generation Pollutants