Delta Flows: February 16, 2015

“We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.” — Derrick Jensen

• Navigate or Confront
• How drought management plays out in the Delta
• Chipping away at all watershed protections

Navigate or Confront

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

This week, Tim Stroshane finished preparing Restore the Delta’s first Protest response to the State Water Resources Control Board, specifically the Board’s January 27, 2015 Notice of Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP). The TUCP is the Board’s decision to modify D-1641 for the months of February and March, weakening Delta outflow standards, water quality standards, and setting modified allowances for water exports during this period of drought. (Click here to read Restore the Delta’s Protest to the TUCP; we also suggest that readers review the comments made by Bill Jennings on behalf of the California Water Impact Network.)

The State Water Resources Control Board is in a difficult position. Sources close to Restore the Delta tell us that Tom Birmingham, General Manager for the Westlands Water District, is seeking to unleash Armageddon on the Board’s Executive Director, and board members because in their January notice they declined to allow the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation even greater intermediate export levels. We understand that Westlands Water District and other powerful agribusiness interests are organizing busloads of farmers and farmworkers to show up at the Public Workshop on the TUCP on February 28, 2015 to press the board into allowing even more water exports. In addition, there is another push at the Federal level, with a letter penned by Senator Feinstein (D-Westlands), and the usual list of Central Valley Congressional Reps who think it is completely appropriate for the Federal Government to intrude in issues that are supposed to be settled at the State level. (Click here to see the story on Senator Feinstein’s letter.) So much for no further secret negotiations in Washington D.C. – as if the ideas behind the Senator’s letter were vetted in the light of day.

Restore the Delta has genuine respect and compassion for the staff and board of the SWRCB because we know firsthand how much energy and strength is required to stand up to moneyed, well-connected political interests that believe they can simply demand what they want from the system: water on demand, regardless of the law. And for that, they deserve our support.

That does not mean, however, that the TUCP as written is a healthy compromise that we can abide by while fisheries are collapsing during a drought that was made worse through years of mismanagement by the Department of Water Resources, the Bureau of Reclamation, State and Federal Fisheries Agencies, and prior lack of enforcement by the State Water Resources Control Board.

We are on the verge of losing Delta smelt, winter-run Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon because the original standard (D-1641) was not enough to protect fisheries, and its enforcement has been regularly violated for years. And now the big agribusiness growers of King, Fresno, and Kern Counties are planning to push the board to claim every last drop of water during the fourth year of a drought so that they can harvest their unsustainable almonds at the expense of Pacific commercial fishing communities, Bay and coastal fisheries, Delta fisheries, Delta municipalities, and Delta family farming communities. Three counties are looking to dictate water policy for the other 55 counties of California – never mind the economic and environmental impact on the river watersheds, the Delta, and the Bay. Plus, the Metropolitan District, as indicated by a graphic on their website, used twice as much of its stored water from 2013 to 2014, as it did from 2012 to 2013. It has failed to conserve its resources we believe so that a “crisis” could be manufactured to turn public opinion in Southern California to support unlimited Delta exports and the eventual construction of the Delta tunnels.

That is why we are asking our supporters who have time to join us on Wednesday, February 18th, at the Public Workshop on the TUCP – to respectfully, yet thoroughly confront a dysfunctional system that must be changed before the estuary collapses and before the supporting Delta watershed is completely depleted.

Following these administrative process is hard for the average person on the street. We know; it’s hard for a small organization like ours. But, the decisions made in front of the State Water Resources Control Board over the next few years will set the fate of the Delta and water management for the State for generations.

How drought management plays out in the Delta

By: Stina Va

People were left dumbfounded at the meeting called by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) on its plan for emergency drought barriers along key Delta channels held on February 12th at the Clarksburg Community Church.

If the drought continues to be serious, DWR’s plan would install three temporary emergency rock barriers Steamboat and Sutter Sloughs near their confluences with the Sacramento River. A third barrier would be built across False River, which opens into Franks Tract, a large flooded island in the central Delta. The barriers would be constructed with large rocks, through which a culvert would pass to allow smaller flow of water and, potentially for fish passage. They would stay in place from May through November.

According to DWR, these barriers would be needed in order to have enough good quality fresh water to carry the state through the fall months, which are often dry in California. They will be paid for from funds left over from Proposition 50, originally passed in 2002. These funds were originally allocated for the Franks Tract Project (this was another plan to install gates in the Delta for fish). Marshall stated that $27 million has already been approved just to install the barriers. Further taxpayer money would also be needed to mitigate impacts later on and to remove them in the fall.

“We were scared to death,” exclaimed Paul Marshall, chief of the Bay-Delta office of DWR. His staff expects very high salinity levels in various parts of the Delta if the barriers are not installed to block tidal salt water. In the absence of winter storms, the big reservoirs owned by the state and federal governments upstream might be required to send stored water down the rivers to expel the salts to protect Delta exports, and would force the Delta export pumps to shut down to prevent public health violations of water quality.

Even more important, the state and federal reservoirs have much more water now than they did at this time last year. Shasta has nearly 750,000 acre-feet more now than at this time last year when it had just 1.7 MAF. Oroville has about 280,000 acre-feet more, and Folsom is at 102 percent of normal, with over a half-million acre-feet in storage.

The only thing that DWR seemed sure that it could mitigate was negative impacts to Delta boating and recreation. using a “universal boat trailer” – an idea that set the Delta locals roaring with laughter. The trailer would enable boats of any size to be lifted around the barriers.

“Please email the photos of this universal boat trailer,” a Delta resident asked.

“We will do that,” Marshall quickly promised. Another Delta local skeptically commented that boat trailers would not be needed, due to the growth of water hyacinth that would intensify because of the planned barriers.

Delta people in attendance were clearly well informed, asking a variety of challenging technical questions. Most of these questions were left unanswered since last year’s meeting on drought barriers. “We’ll get back to you on that,” Marshall replied repeatedly, almost robotically. Yet at the same, he reminded Delta residents that DWR is not required to submit formal responses to comments (leaving us skeptical that Marshall’s promise to circulate photos of the phenomenal universal boat trailers may never occur).

Delta residents voiced concerns over impacts on water quality and public health, impacts on traffic, public safety and economic impacts to their islands (which are just recovering economically), crop harvests, and concern about endangered Delta fish extinction (specifically Delta smelt). Still others asked whether delta levees would be undercut by these barriers, and also why DWR has not followed any other suggestions regarding placement of the barriers in other parts of the Delta.

Remarkably, to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, DWR hopes the proposed drought barriers can be approved with a mitigated negative declaration, meaning that agencies would not have to prepare or release a more detailed environmental impact report on the project.

Anna Swenson of North Delta CARES suggested that public members request a public meeting through the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are considering the permit for these drought barriers. In a concern that echoed last year’s issues with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s documents, Swenson also insisted that DWR extend the public comment deadline by three weeks, since its environmental documents on the barriers are over 200 pages long. The current deadline for public comments to DWR on the mitigated environmental declaration will be due March 6 UPDATE: Deadline has now been extended to March 18.

Several members of the public urged DWR to prepare an environmental impact report on the project, but Marshall disregarded these requests. “I don’t want to make false promises to you,” he said.

As the meeting came to a close, Marshall reemphasized, “We hope beyond hope that the drought never gets to a point where we get to these measures [installing drought barriers].”

“We are their dinner plate,” one audience member commented in frustration. The room erupted in applause. The barriers looked to him like, “in essence, a water grab under the guise of [protection from] salinity.”

To watch video of the meeting recorded by Gene Beley of the Central Valley Business Times, click here.

Chipping away at all watershed protections

By: Stina Va and Tim Stroshane

A new Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report warns that various state agencies will be tempted to put private priorities ahead of public benefits when spending taxpayer funds from the recent voter-approved Proposition 1, unless the Legislature steps in to clarify statewide water and environmental priorities.

“State funds should only support the portion of the project that provides state-level public benefits. Some departments, however, have indicated they would consider using bond funds to support certain categories of benefits that are often private,” Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor wrote in the LAO report, released on February 11, 2015.

The report, titled, “The 2015-16 Budget: Effectively Implementing the 2014 Water Bond,” calls for passage of special legislation after holding public hearings to clarify “public benefits” and actions for oversight and accountability in order to ensure that Prop 1 funds are spent cost effectively and consistent with long-term state priorities on water.

Statewide water policy goals include are supposed to include reducing reliance on the Delta for imported water supplies elsewhere in California, keeping fish populations in good condition below dams, doubling salmon population levels and ensuring that water quality in the state’s rivers and lakes is protected from any degradation. To see a list of statewide water goals, we recommend that you read the bullet points of page 2 and 3 of our Environmental Water Caucus letter to the Water Commission.

But the LAO report is incoherent and incomplete on these goals. With help from the Environmental Water Caucus later this year, Restore the Delta hopes to make sure state legislators are better informed about the water bond’s policy framework than the LAO has provided here.

State departments in charge of developing grant guidelines and choosing specific projects for Prop 1 investments are the usual group of bureaucratic actors in water policy. These include the California Water Commission, the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), and the Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Wildlife Conservation Board a separate and independent Board under the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is authorized to consider granting bond funds to buy instream flows to protect fish.

This particular program is corrupt because it will use taxpayer funds for something the public is already entitled to regulate through the state’s public trust doctrine. There are legal cases holding that local governments also have a duty to weigh actions under the public trust doctrine.

This program, as well as funding for surface storage projects that will have a negative impact on the watershed and Delta were why many grassroots environmental groups, including Restore the Delta, opposed Proposition 1 last fall.

Various conservancies, including the Delta Conservancy are designated in the water bond to implement grant programs focused on ecosystem restoration projects statewide. (See Figure 4 of the LAO report for bond allocations and implementing departments.)

The Governor’s 2015-2016 budget appropriated $533 million from the Legislature to the state departments, including $2.7 billion for water storage. These funds are to be continuously appropriated by the CWC, but this part of the water bond is the only section where a state agency must write regulations to implement the grant program.

Eligible storage projects include likely boondoggles like the expansion of Shasta Dam, and construction and operation of Sites Reservoir in the western Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat Reservoir on the San Joaquin River just above Millerton Lake east of Fresno. All of these projects have been found to cost billions while yielding only small amounts of new supply, and probably none in drought years.

Other types of eligible storage projects include groundwater storage and remediation, as well as natural projects like Sierra mountain meadow and groundwater recharge area restoration and protection, which are likely to be far more cost-effective and environmentally benign.

Mr. Taylor, the state’s legislative analyst, recommends the Legislature designate the CNRA as the central entity responsible for regularly reporting to the Legislature on bond activity and outcomes. (The agency already plays a role in overseeing almost most other departments involved, except for the State Water Resources Control Board, which is under the California Environmental Protection Agency.) The CNRA also indicated that it would ensure that conservancies’ grant selection processes are competitive and are used for primarily water-related purposes.

A public benefit is generally defined as something that does not have clear private benefits, such as recovering populations of listed fish species.

Taylor’s report highlights that public benefits should be long-term and that projects should generate “additional” benefits, meaning, “benefits above what would have been achieved in the absence of state spending and that such benefits would not [otherwise] be provided by private parties or other levels of government.”

In one example Taylor examined intentions by DWR to count water savings as a public benefit under water use efficiency project proposals for Prop 1, he asserted, “water use efficiency measures might not result in additional water being left in streams for fish species.” “Some of those water savings may be used by the grantee for other purposes or by other water users who would otherwise not receive water under their right,” he pointed out.

“Grant guidelines will play a critical role in ensuring that the most effective projects are chosen and that funded projects are adequately monitored to ensure they meet their desired outcomes,” the report read. (We wrote an article last week about (Last week, we wrote about the issues in developing Prop 1 grant guidelines at the Delta Conservancy’s most recent board meeting, click here to read about it.)

SWRCB and DWR existing grant guidelines do not give preference to the Prop 1 requirement for projects that use innovative technology, “and the departments have not indicated whether they intend to include such a preference.” Moreover, some proposals made by the Governor already conflict with guidelines that require competitive processes and primarily water related objectives, such as the construction of biking trails.

Clearly, Proposition 1 leaves a lot of room for misuse of taxpayer funds. In light of the fact that most of these agencies are the same actors that are involved with planning of the disastrous Bay Delta Conservation Plan tunnels project and other mismanagement of Delta water supply and standards, it is even more important to stay involved with the water bond implementation process.

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