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Pivot or Pirouette?

By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto and Lisa Owens Viani

Droughts and water shortages, dry creeks, heat waves, snowpack loss, sea level rise, bigger floods, species at risk, scarcer funding for public works and restoration projects, and California’s ever-growing population—as Jeff Mount put it in The New York Times recently, it’s a frightening, uncertain new world. How are Bay-Delta resource managers responding to these changes? Are we pivoting away from old institutional and decision-making structures that need to change or dancing in circles?

Change is hard, especially when things have been done a certain way since the dawn of institutional memory. We asked nine experienced, opinionated, knowledgeable Estuary experts — scientists, engineers, environmental advocates, and regulators — to share their ideas about what’s working and what isn’t, and to identify old ways of thinking that may need to be re-thought — or “old” ideas that may have become new again. We promised our experts anonymity to encourage their candid responses and a continued dialogue about the future of the Estuary. Our experts did not always agree on what the problems are or what needs to be done. Yet certain themes came up again and again, including the state’s archaic water rights system, institutional silos, inadequate communication and collaboration, and lack of leadership. To help us be better prepared for the “new normal” of extended droughts, rising seas, and extreme flood events, said our experts, we’ll need to stop spinning in circles, and perhaps even turn in a completely new direction to create some grand new plans on a Bay-Delta scale.


In California, water isn’t free for all — some people have more of a right to it than others. The first water “rights” were issued way back in the 1800s. Today, Californians hold the “rights” to 500% more water than has ever flowed through our state’s rivers and streams. And older rights holders are increasingly having to defend their liquid dues from incursions on all sides, whether it’s frackers, well-drillers, suburban encroachment on old pastures, or hundreds of illegal diversions by the burgeoning marijuana-growing industry.

These days the priority given to first rights sometimes results in “last rights” for ecosystems and species — dry creek beds, stranded or dying fish, and not enough fresh water for birds and other wildlife, and even humans in some places. Our water rights system was put in place in a different era, say our experts, and needs to change now.


Heron“The characteristics of decisions made over a century ago around water in Gold Rush days—when we thought water supply was limitless—are embedded in today’s decision making. It was first in time, first in right, with no accounting for sustainability or finite resources; the idea was to transform any arable land into a breadbasket—and we were successful.”

Hawk Photo - James“No one likes our current water rights system save for the most senior water rights holders sitting in the catbird seat. We need to change our system of administering water rights, and we need to start now—it will take decades. Agriculture, perhaps now and certainly in the future, will be deemed an unreasonable use of water.”

Heron“We’re up against [150 years] of cultural and institutional momentum around single or dual-purpose type water management. The science behind sustaining our exceptional salmon fishing industry came about 100 years after the development of our water supply systems for municipal, industrial and agricultural use.”

Hawk Photo - James“Eternal water rights are an idea whose time has gone. We need to find ways to use less water: this may mean that California may need to have dramatically less animal agriculture. Can we really afford to grow all that alfalfa to feed all those dairy cows
to be exporting water in the form of cheese? There are nine million acres under irrigation in California—that’s unsustainable.”

With less and less snow and rain falling from the skies in the right seasons, and more demand than supply, who has priority has become a miasma of old laws, new legislation, dire circumstances, and moral ambiguity. At some point, especially in a prolonged drought, human beings in need of drinking water are going to start easing out field crops or orchards now at the head of the line. Time will tell if the last little fish and the tail end of once glorious salmon runs and commercial fisheries can cut the line and claim what federal and state laws have long promised but failed to ensure they get: priority as the last of their kind.

Pivot or Pirouette?“We need to be realistic about allocations and get water to the people—and the fish— who really need it. We’re operating the ecosystem now day in and day out at less than the standard [for Delta outflows]. Standards were meant to be minimums. If the water goes down for a week to minimum flows, fine. But for 440 days, that’s a problem…

“We need to let go of old politics driving today’s decisions: science is not reflected in current policy. We need to use every drop of usable water wisely—more water transfers for farmers, but without relaxing outflow standards. For too long the water projects have operated for little risk on supply and maximum risk for fish and wildlife. Relaxing water quality protections for other beneficial uses is quickly taking us to the extinction of species, ecosystem regime change, and an unsustainable future. We need freshwater outflow to sustain the ecosystem—we’re going to lose it; we may have already lost it.

“The agency with the regulatory hammer, the State Water Resources Control Board, is getting with the program. This last decade has seen a formerly tepid enforcement effort—admittedly the Board has been strapped for funds and staff for decades—step it up. The Board is establishing instream flow objectives for public trust resources; ordering water rights holders to provide more information so it can better understand quantity and timing of diversions; requiring reporting of groundwater extractions; and fining illegal diverters through its emergency drought enforcement authority. Still, the Board’s commitment level gets mixed reviews.”

Hawk Photo - James“The state board is finally behaving the way legislators set it up to function: instead of being a timid, ineffective body as it has for years, it’s now making a difference.”


Pivot or Pirouette?

“The state board has failed to execute their duty. Now they’re in a quandary, having to curtail water rights and tell Shasta to stop delivering. That’s screwing one fish for another. There’s a complete lack of enforcement, and they are not protecting beneficial uses. They have all the authority—but they’ve been kicking the can too long and the chickens are coming home to roost.

“Until we can change the existing water rights system we must protect municipal and industrial water needs and the aquatic environment or the ecosystem will collapse before we know it.

“If you ignore cost benefit calculations and water rights law, Congressman Jared Huffman has a fix—recycling and desal. [But this fix] is so shortsighted. Desal costs $2,300 an acre-foot, but if you can get a farmer to save water, the cost is $600 an acre-foot.”

To bolster water supply, say our experts, science needs to dictate policy—rather than politics. They described the need to be more flexible with water transfers yet maintain Delta outflows. They called for a focus on replenishing groundwater. In order to do that, we may need new institutional structures, said some. Many say that while there is logic behind building new tunnels, the tunnels should be a last resort and conservation efforts ramped up first.

It’s an old refrain that’s gained new meaning as the governor calls for statewide water conservation and highway signs flash “severe drought” messages about limiting outdoor watering. The call for conservation first has also gained momentum, as public coffers for big infrastructure projects are nothing like they were in the 1950s when all the water in the West was rearranged on the public dime.

Hawk Photo - James“I can see the logic of the tunnels—in a really worse case scenario to get water through to cities and high value ag—but first I’d try to buy out some farmers with marginal farmland and de-irrigate them and shift them to dry farming. We’d need to buy out a couple million acres.”



“The reality is there is not enough water in California or the West to irrigate all the lands that could be irrigated. We need to adjust our water footprint by using best available technology and efficiency standards to meet the challenges of climate change, population increase, and our aging infrastructure.”

Pivot or Pirouette?

“For decades we were steady state irrigators. When the banks insist on a payment every year, you’ve got to farm fully every year. [These days] we need acreage-variability ag and we are starting to get there. Nature is driving it via this shortage.”

Hawk Photo - James“The only solution physically is to just use less water, especially in ag. How you do that institutionally is the challenge. We need to make it possible to move water from low-value applications in the Central Valley to high value applications. Strawberries are worth much more than alfalfa, yet very high value ag on California’s Central Coast is in danger because groundwater is running out.”

The backup, when it comes to surface water availability, has always been groundwater. The recent drilling bonanza to keep farms, orchards and other landscapes watered produced enough unease about overdraft to inspire the first ever California regulations to limit groundwater use in 2014. Indeed, talk about big engineering projects these days should not only include tunnels but more importantly, perhaps, new pipelines and infrastructure necessary for larger scale groundwater recharge programs and regional recycling systems.

Hawk Photo - James“The state needs to identify a level of water use that will restore our groundwater resilience, and develop a strategy for achieving that. We need to identify ideal recharge areas and put them into public ownership as vital utilities.

“In the Central Valley you can find groundwater almost anywhere but places where you can recharge it effectively are less common. If we start running [water] surpluses, and saving them by infiltrating surpluses into the ground, we may need new institutional arrangements. We may even need some new big projects.”


 Re-tooling should involve more coordination, our experts think, whether on restoration projects, water supply and management, or decisions about climate change. The bottom line is that coordination and integration are just plain hard. Water, though, with its way of percolating through every project, begs for an integrated approach. The answer, many say, is to do multi-objective projects that solve a lot of problems at once. To truly be collaborative, such projects require participants to read each other’s science, prioritize each other’s mandates, spend a lot of time on conference calls, set politics aside, and deal decisively with the kinks instead of leaving important decisions unresolved in vague appendices.

Some multi-objective projects have been successes while others have fallen far short of true integration on the ground. In theory, one big benefit of multi-objective, multi-partner projects is the ability to work on larger scales, with the associated cost savings and ecological benefits that don’t result from fragmented, postage stamp or single objective projects. Yet sometimes it is those large scales—which can cross many political and agency jurisdictions—that prevent projects from happening.

Hawk Photo - James

“Why should the Santa Clara Valley Water District get involved in Marin? There are institutional reasons why there is no collaboration across water district lines.”


crab-buoy“Agencies got used to getting money from bonds and created these monster institutions that developed their own independent programs. Every single entity has their own proposed guidelines about how to spend their money. Prop 1 left it to the people on the ground—the grant applicants—to make forward-thinking projects happen. If there’s a multi-objective project, it’s almost certain there are multiple sources of money—no one entity funds projects like that.”

clam-shark“The biggest problem is that each regulatory agency has its silo—BCDC has bay fill, the Water Board contaminants, the Army Corps flood control, Fish & Wildlife and NMFS the critical habitats and species to protect, [and almost everyone has a finger on wetlands.] There’s no good way at present—outside of the Bay Area’s dredging management office (the ‘DMMO’)—that is a methodical, institutionalized way of collaboratively making decisions.”


“We need to get our decision-making and institutional structures aligned with multi-benefit projects. We need a coordinated, instead of fragmented, response to sea level rise and loss of snowpack. We need to develop more groundwater storage. Raising one or two new dams does not solve our [water shortage] issue at all. In Prop 1, there’s $800-odd million available (statewide) for integrated water management. That is not sustainable based on bond funding alone, but with the seed money we can make the resources available to do the institutional coordination needed to respond to the challenges posed by climate change.”

Why are we not seeing more multi-objective, institutional coordination around the Estuary? Things can go awry when non-profits have to compete with agencies that are in turn competing with each other for funding, or when bureaucratic financial management systems cause an undue burden on smaller organizations. Participating in the state’s new Integrated Regional Water Management Program (IRWMP), for example, requires resources that small non-profits often don’t have—and even if they can participate, the contracting and reimbursement systems and wait times are often onerous enough to deter them.


“IRWMP replaced a watershed management program, which funded watershed-scale projects, an approach that some say may be more conducive to a multi-objective success. Most of those began as single-purpose flood control projects but morphed into projects that reduce flood risks and restore floodplains and riparian habitat in creeks all around the Estuary. As for larger, landscape scale projects, except for two or three stellar examples around the region, most agencies are still stuck in their flood control, reclamation, or water supply silos.


“Integrated water resources management is what Nature did before we interfered. Water was for drinking, irrigating plants, growing fish, delivering fertile soil to flatlands, cleansing pollutants, recharging aquifers, managing flood destructiveness, and sustaining millions of migratory birds, to name a few of the multiple benefits served up by the ‘unimproved’ estuary. We replaced that with our own arrangement, sequestering most of the water for irrigation and drinking. Unsurprisingly, fish and bird populations, topsoil and groundwater were severely depleted. On top of that, we made flooding worse. Now the state has asked for water suppliers to imitate Nature’s genius by retooling their single-purpose agencies into multi-benefit factories. Those agencies are better at labeling their projects as integrated and multi-benefit than they are at actually delivering the goods.”


“After the Bay Area organized itself in order to qualify [for the state’s new] integrated water management funding, a high-level person on the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board called IRWMP ‘the big staple.’ What the Bay Area basically did to qualify for these monies is to take a bunch of projects and then staple them all together. That’s our integration.

“While the North Coast IRWMP has had the right ingredients for collaboration, and has even integrated a meaningful outside scientific review, the Bay Area is closer to ‘I’ll vote for your project if you vote for mine.’”


“A better example is the North Bay Water Reuse Program, with nonprofits, legislators and lobbyists collaborating to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant funds that can be used as a match for local fundraising. The South Bay Salt Pond Project, the DMMO, and the Napa River restoration are other good models of collaborative planning.”

Hawk Photo - James

“There’s a level of understanding across agencies that’s better than it’s ever been.”



It’s not like multi-objective projects and planning are rocket science—the concept has been around for years, and is a good example of an “old” idea that seems to have become “new” again. Yet opportunities to let rivers and streams re-connect with their floodplains, providing habitat and groundwater recharge, among other benefits, have been and continue to be missed. Levees and concrete floodwalls still separate restoration initiatives in unnatural ways.


“The restoration community hasn’t been as successful as it could be in working with the wet side of the levee as the dry side.”


Pivot or Pirouette?

“The old way was to do a single purpose project and then mitigate. The new way is to design ecosystem restoration into the project to meet sustainability goals, water quality standards, groundwater management objectives, and flood design requirements, so that projects are self-mitigating.”


“Multi-objective planning and projects are not a new idea. As early as the 1940s, the flood management community came to terms with the fact that structural flood control was going to create an artificial sense of security and has its own seeds of destruction. Because levees fail, they are breached, dams get old and have structural problems, and these structural solutions increase the risk of flood damage because they encourage unsafe development. In 1962 the American Society of Civil Engineers published detailed directions on multi-objective floodplain management. Even the Tennessee Valley Authority, famous for its large dams and structural works, realized the limitations of their strategy and started in a new direction. It’s sad that we have had this knowledge for so many decades and are still struggling to break out of the single-purpose mode.

“The predominant paradigm is to take the most expedient strategy politically and economically rather than do the hard work of collaborative planning. The souls of the flood agencies in the Bay Area and California (including DWR’s Central Valley Flood Safe program) are willing, but their flesh is weak. Real, collaborative partnerships allow integration of the environment and engineering to make people safer in terms of floods and water supply. Ideally we would use environmental restoration for stormwater management, water conservation, and dealing with flooding. In the long run, that’s what’s sustainable.”



 While the state scraped through this past drought year—at least in most urban areas—the fish and other wildlife that rely on our rivers, streams, and the Estuary have had it hard. Many of our experts point out that the environment always comes last when there isn’t enough water to go around. In parched years like this one, regulators and water districts need to pull together more than ever if we are going to have enough water for the little guys, whether it’s a rural community with dry wells or tiny fish with no habitat.

Tern“We have been caught flat-footed by this drought on the environmental management side—it was clear that while urban water utilities are always doing contingency planning, and ag users and the CVP and SWP suppliers are also looking ahead, when it came to the environment, we never looked forward. We were completely taken by surprise by this drought.”

crab-buoy“I don’t think we have a permanent water problem. What we have are broken institutions with overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, authorities that are not able to collectively respond to the current multiple year drought.”


Tern“The near complete lack of planning for managing the environment in our drought emergency is the single greatest failure that occurred. There’s going to have to be a lot of difficult questions asked and answered about drought management ranging from the lack of contingency plans to inability to build resilience into at-risk populations, to failure to identify refugia, particularly for fish. The whole situation with Shasta Reservoir and winter run Chinook salmon revealed all of our weaknesses. Human error lies at the root cause of what happened last and this year. When water is so tight, you try to cut it very very fine. And when you cut it that fine, inevitably everyone suffers for a lack of more conservative planning. I will not be surprised if we see some extinctions as a result of this drought—those are culmination of many things over many many years.”

Hawk Photo - James“Trying to protect fish in a drought may be a lost cause. But the fish can come back.”



Now in our fifth hottest year on record, and with the word “prolonged” attached to most mentions of drought, it may be time to think of a very dry California as the new normal. “Droughts-r-us” say our experts. Some feel institutional cooperation has been at an all time high during the current drought; others say there is much room for improvement. Almost everyone thinks it has given us opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

 Pivot or Pirouette?“We don’t have a drought, we have a permanent water shortage.”




“If there’s a silver lining in this experience, it’s that we know what the droughts of the future will look like. Another silver lining is a significant improvement in institutional coordination needed to respond to the challenges posed by climate change. The groundbreaking groundwater management legislation of last year never would have happened without a drought.

“When I look at what’s happening in the urban sector, I come away pretty convinced that those who made major investments in their supply systems—whether new surface water, groundwater storage, interties, or recapture and re-use—showed a flexibility in diversifying their portfolios and managing demand that is helping them get through this drought. It’s working; the sky is not falling in urban areas and California’s economy is not being affected by this drought.”

Hawk Photo - James“We need to go from running a deficit to a surplus to be ready for the next one. The drought has been a wonderful opportunity to make some overdue decisions, like the new restriction on over-drafting groundwater. Also, this drought has proven that storing water underground in Southern California is not a workable solution for Northern California. We need to store water locally if we want to have access to it. There’s water in the Kern Water Bank and we can’t get it back. Water agencies are now talking about how to get the water to flow from south to north.”


At one time, we thought saving endangered salmon and smelt was hard. Today, we’re not only struggling to maintain the last few fish, but also to deal with prolonged drought, explosive wildfires, and global climate change. Add in a levee-breaching quake now and then, and impacts from rising sea levels will be harder still to get out in front of. Some of our experts bemoaned the lack of regional leadership, coordination, and preparedness for climate change impacts on shorelines and coasts. Others say that ideas that might have once been thought of as crackpot may be worth revisiting if sea level rise continues as predicted. One natural leader, say several experts, might be the Santa Clara Valley Water District. But would they want the job?



“The Santa Clara Valley Water District is developing an integrated master plan for water in their district—it includes water for ecosystem, water supply, flood control, and groundwater management. That could be a model for the Bay Area and beyond. But what motivation do they have to lead the charge for a regional Bay-Delta climate change and sea level rise adaptation management plan beyond their boundaries?”

Rail (2)“We need someone—or some agency—to step up to the plate and lead the way in developing a new, regional plan to respond to sea level rise—to recognize all the antecedent causes and deal with them meaningfully.”


Otter“Elected officials at every level are failing the Bay Area as leaders. We need clear direction and support from the highest level of state and federal government to develop a regional plan to address sea level rise. Instead, there is silence from the top. Governor Brown seems preoccupied with his twin tunnels and high-speed rail and Senator Feinstein is uncharacteristically AWOL on climate change and sea level rise. I have to wonder if they simply aren’t aware that we face a crisis that threatens to undermine not just the Bay and Delta ecosystem, but the entire economy it supports—which is to say, the entire economy of California.

“Politicians must be looking at the sea level rise forecast for 2100 (55”) and thinking that they have lots of time. But scientists warn that the danger is immediate and will come via “extreme events”—science lingo for “really big storms.” Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are well known examples, but West Coast versions—atmospheric rivers, [aka the “Pineapple Express”]—are on the way. They will hit the Bay Area particularly hard. To highlight the obvious, but inexplicably overlooked example, dozens of Silicon Valley headquarters are located in the flood zone and could be standing in Pacific Ocean salt water after the next big storm—not in 2100, but this winter. Is there a single political leader urging us to prepare? Not that I’ve seen.”


“Part of the problem with sea level rise is that it is beyond the business cycle— ‘why should I deal with that now? That’s what government is supposed to do.’ Until you get all the sectors energized over this you’re gonna struggle. [Maybe] when the drought ends this region will turn to its broader, long term concerns—sea level rise and the future of Delta—and [how decisions on those fronts] will affect flooding, water supply, wastewater treatment, and [integrated water planning] around the Bay.”

Hawk Photo - James

“There’s a high level of awareness today—the threat of sea level rise especially regarding new development along the shoreline. What’s probably going to happen in decades to come, though, is a frenzied construction of levees, which will buy us a century or so. But at some point we’re going to have to go into a managed retreat following the Dutch model. Meanwhile, building a dam or partial construction across the Carquinez Strait is still regarded as crazy. But to prevent saltwater intrusion and levee failure in the Delta, it might be worth rethinking.”

Rethinking how we can better adapt urban zones in the path of rising seas should include green infrastructure, our sources suggest. In cities, jackhammering pavement and replacing it with porous rain gardens and bioswales would help detain and filter stormwater, taking the peak off severe storm flows, greening local communities, and creating jobs and resilience. Those solutions could be part a regional adaptation plan, says one source, that could also include features to protect the Bay shoreline like horizontal levees, oyster and eelgrass beds, barrier reefs, beaches and “sausals” (willow thickets). Such a green plan would require different thinking about Bay “fill,” an idea that has long been anathema to resource managers—and with good reason. But it may be that some new types of “fill” could help us cope with sea level rise while restoring habitats and even mitigating for impacts to areas where harder solutions must be used.


Rail (2)“We need to re-think ‘bay fill.’ It’s old thinking that has to give way to the new. What interests me is whether we have the institutional mechanisms needed to change things.”


clam-shark“Maybe we’ll need to harden the Bay shoreline in some spots, soften it in others. That could mean Bay ‘fill’ to protect roadways, railroads, transportation infrastructure, or airports. If we don’t protect them, they will flood. One of the tradeoffs we’re going to have to confront is that for the last 50 years we’ve been building out a vision of a recreational waterfront characterized by a necklace of parks linked with the Bay Trail. [Our commitment to] that vision has helped us get access to this wonderful bay that gives us our name. How do we value that vision going forward? Do integrate it into new shoreline morphology based on intervention—relocate the Bay Trail inland and up? Do we create new places for waterfront parks? Allow for temporary flooding? If so, for how long? Is that a viable strategy?”


“Everyone is obsessed right now with the so-called ‘regulatory barriers’ that impede our ability to come up with creative solutions for adapting to sea level rise. BCDC is being made out to be the boogey-man because of its prohibition against placing ‘fill’ in the Bay. So the horizontal levee, an innovative response to rising tides that was developed by regional scientists to prevent shoreline flooding, rejuvenate the bay, and reduce pollution, is being viewed as impermissible. This is nonsense. BCDC could approve such projects tomorrow under a special provision of the 1965 McAteer-Petris Act that was included to allow exactly these kinds of projects. The provision declares that if a project ‘…is necessary for the health, safety and welfare of the people of the entire Bay Area…’ it should be approved. Sea level rise is precisely the kind of crisis that the legislature anticipated, and the horizontal levee is certainly the kind of breakthrough scientific solution that they hoped for.”

clam-shark“We have a dynamic estuary that’s getting larger of its own accord. We can either prevent it from coming landward or allow it. Intervention may work up to 2050 or 2060 and buy us time to figure out what to do after that. That’s the thing most of us have a hard time grasping. We’ve been accustomed to finite solutions—‘we’ll restore it and it will be tidal marsh.’ We’ll draw it on a map and it will stay there—now we know that those marshes might convert themselves to open water. Here’s the shoreline today—but in 20, 50, 70 years where is it going to be?”

Tern“If we don’t plan and execute a solution for the Bay, we will fail into one…and we won’t like it.”



Bird and mammal photos: Rick Lewis

About the author

Lisa Owens Viani is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental, science, land use, and design topics. She writes for several national magazines including Landscape Architecture Magazine, ICON and Architecture, and has written for Estuary for many years. She is the co-founder of the nonprofit Raptors Are The Solution,, which educates people about the role of birds of prey in the ecosystem and how rodenticides in the food web are affecting them.

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