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Delta Flows 4/6/22: A Bittersweet Time at Restore the Delta

Restore the Delta staff and interns have begun public work again, in-person following the pandemic, with a bright and hopeful focus on problem solving and community building activities.

Meanwhile, a new, and deeply problematic, Temporary Urgency Change Petition has been conditionally approved to suspend Delta water quality standards the next 90 days. In addition, the Department of Water Resources has released a Voluntary Agreement Framework for the Sacramento River watershed that is so deeply disappointing for the future of the Delta and California rivers that we simultaneously feel like we are publicly mourning.

First, We Focus on the Positive
Our new team of Climate Water Advocates, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, the Mosaic Momentum Foundation, and Environment Now, are nearing completion of 18 hours of on-line training on Delta management and science, California water management, water history, water rights, fishery science, climate change, and flood management. This weekend they will be trained by our new Delta Science Coordinator, Spencer Fern, and State Water Resources Control Board staff, (along with some fishing advocates), on proper techniques and tracking of harmful algal blooms.  Their regular testing and reporting for government agencies and the public at large of HABs conditions will start in mid-April and ramp up as harmful algal blooms appear this year.  Their data will be made public on our website by mid-May.

We believe that harmful algal blooms are like COVID. We must track what is happening to deepen our understanding of on-the-ground conditions so that proper mitigation can occur. We are grateful to the Water Boards for their extensive technical support, and we appreciate that the State Water Resources Control Board included in the TUCP order a strong condition requiring study and reporting of HABs conditions by the Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation by the end of this year.

We are also proud of our Climate Water Advocate team, they all possess strong skills, are thoughtful and committed to learning and working with care. They inspire our senior team tremendously.

Also, on the positive side of working life, Restore the Delta, Delta tribal representatives, and local environmental justice and social justice groups conducted an extensive environmental justice tour with Metropolitan Water District’s General Manager Adel Hagekhalil and members of his senior staff. We did reach consensus on working toward solutions around local Delta projects and flood control. In addition, two MWD scientists have recently met with our senior staff to also consult on tracking and tackling the harmful algal bloom problem in the Delta. Presently, Metropolitan is conducting public outreach on their plans for the Delta islands that they own on how their restoration efforts can be responsive to local Delta communities. We encourage our supporters to participate in that process.

While we did not discuss the tunnel or voluntary agreements with Metropolitan officials, we did find that our discussions around common objectives were honest, respectful, and filled with good will. We believe it is important to talk with others with whom we do not agree always and to focus on problem solving for the future.

The Bitter with the Sweet
Here you will find Restore the Delta’s response to the Temporary Urgency Change Petition for suspended water quality standards for the Delta. While the HABs report included in the State Water Board’s order is an appreciated response to our community concerns, we are alarmed at the possibility that salinity control could be lost in the Delta this year. The TUCP was drafted before the April 1st snowpack measurements. On April 4th, we learned that the states snowpack fell another 4% in 4 days. We are alarmed that warming temperatures later this week will lead to further evaporation and groundwater absorption of what is left of the snowpack, and that this climate change impact, which we have warned officials about for six years, has not been taken seriously by DWR or the Bureau.
We noted to State Water Board Officials this week that we have seen no plan for flushing out the Delta should salinity control be lost. We also noted that there is no socio-economic analysis of what the impact will be on Delta communities or harm to wildlife should this occur.
We do note, however, that after further analysis post Board meeting, (the State Board dropped their order minutes before we sent our letter and prepared for Tuesday’s Board meeting) that the TUCP order states that Sacramento River Senior Contractors will receive 25% of their normal water allotment. However, the Board also indicates that the San Joaquin River exchange contractors (the most senior water rights holders in the Central Valley) will get their drought-usual 75 percent allotment, split between Friant Reservoir near Fresno and Shasta in the north. 

We believe the Board to a degree heard our constant refrain about shared sacrifice. However, it remains to be seen if this order will be enough to preserve the hydraulic barrier come August. DWR and the Bureau have been wrong about their assessments in recent years. It will be a difficult year that will require monitoring from all parties.

The continued mismanagement of the Delta leads us to the problems with the Voluntary Agreement Framework:

  • First, as you have read in our recent work, the exclusionary nature of the agreements is unjust to impacted Delta and tribal communities. 
  • Second, as documented by NRDC’s Doug Obegi, using the Trump Biological Opinion as the standard for measuring fishery health is simply bad science. Starting with a bad baseline will lead to a bad result. 
  • Third, why are we seeing a framework where roughly ¾ of $1billion of taxpayer money will be required to buy water the citizens of California already own for supposed environmental flows, but that will more likely end up going toward unsustainable San Joaquin Valley agriculture.  

A water right is the right to use water for beneficial use. It is not supposed to be a mechanism for the landed class to make money, especially when we consider 47 percent of California’s population is under the age of 34 and will never have access to acquiring a senior water right. 

Ask our advocates. They want a state where there is a healthy environment, water for their economic prosperity, and strong stewardship of resources for protection with a changing climate. They want recreation; a healthy natural world, sustainable agriculture that feeds their communities first, and affordable drinking water. Not nut and rice exports for the world.

Water Management Climate Reality Check
Last, we leave you with must read New York Times guest essay by UC Berkeley Lead Scientist Dr. Andrew Schwartz. Every word he wrote is accurate and at the heart of our drought challenges presently. We are not equipped to manage our changing climate.

Six years ago, in our testimony against California Water Fix, we wrote about long term drought requiring new water budget planning because the parched soils of California would absorb run off. While we are a small group of educated policy thinkers, we are not lead scientists. Reading Dr. Schwartz’s analysis articulates fully what we were getting at in our analysis at that time.

He writes, “One of the most important tools for managing water during periods of drought are the models developed by various state and federal agencies such as the National Weather Service’s Office of Hydrologic Development, the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources. Yet these models suffer from the same simplistic view of drought and water, and they are in dire need of an update.”

Without the right models to manage our water future, the Voluntary Agreement process and the Delta Conveyance project are dead on arrival. It isn’t just about opposing these projects as part of defending the Delta. Not getting the science right for water management modeling at the Department of Water Resources has huge implications for how water will be managed for the entire state.  

While we love the Delta our home, and work toward its restoration and community health, we also care deeply about the health and future of all people in California. The Newsom Administration has all its processes out of order. They must first upgrade our climate modeling infrastructure and measurements, and the Bay-Delta Plan must be completed before they move forward with any further processes for Delta Conveyance.

DWR has been so focused for so long on the tunnel that the real work to deal with climate change and water management for the new dry normal (and flood control) has been terribly neglected. We fear that the Delta will pay the price first for DWR’s mismanagement, shortly followed by everyone else in California.