Delta Flows: Harmful Algal Blooms in the Delta are a Pandemic

by Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

In 2007, we produced our first Delta Flows newsletter and began our advocacy for increased flows to improve water quality for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.  While tunnel plans come and go (and come back again), we still have not been able to persuade the state that freshwater flows for the estuary aren’t just what is needed for restoring an idealized natural world, protecting certain types of fish, or saving Delta farms – freshwater flows are life.

In 2019, Restore the Delta, as a leader of the Stockton Environmental Justice Initiative, made clear to California officials the real threat to public health and the health of the estuary itself as a result of proliferating harmful algal blooms (HABs). This work was done in collaboration with the California Environmental Protection Agency, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District, and dozens of other state and federal agencies. We covered the topic extensively in our testimony before the State Water Resources Control Board for the WaterFix hearings between 2016 and 2018. In 2018 and 2019, we published major reports on environmental justice communities and the future of the Delta with climate change. 

We have collaborated with the California Water Boards, regional and state, sharing on-the-ground reports when needed. We have made videos, posted photos, called newspapers, written tough letters to local government about public safety notifications, and we wrote and created a program so that student scientists could be trained and certified to begin measuring the depth and breadth of the problem.  

Sadly, our HABs program has not been fully funded by state sources, and only partially funded by foundations. There is a real question if in this new Covid-19 world if Restore the Delta will be continuing much longer – our demise would be something that State and Federal Water Contractors would want to see happen as they pursue “smash and grab” water deregulation of water policies at the state and federal level. That discussion is for another blog, another day. 

Today, our fear is that this year’s harmful algal bloom crisis seems bigger than anything we have seen in previous years. The Water Boards are marshaling the limited resources that they do have and moving to collect data, but they do not have the full resources they need to track the HABs problem in the Delta. The Department of Water Resources has a much greater budget and capacity to assist with HABs monitoring in the Delta, but it doesn’t. It collects data about Delta water quality conditions and HABs and does not share the data willingly or in real time (last year’s data required a public records act request for release in December). This behind-the-scenes process leaves the public at risk – but allows for their effort to sell the public on the benefits of the voluntary agreements and the tunnel.

For instance, here are recent social media posts by the Department of Water Resources about the formation of harmful algal Blooms throughout California. The only mention of a Delta HABs problem is ironically at Clifton Court Forebay, where drinking water moves through the facility to the current existing pumps for water exports.

Meanwhile, Restore the Delta reported the following conditions to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board near Stockton on Friday, July 10, 2020. (The CVRWQCB is responding appropriately.) However, resources are limited for the water boards to do aggressive testing, follow up testing, or to post public health notices that should be part of a standard public health response. As with the Covid-19 response, each county in the Delta has its own protocols for tracking and notices, and the public health response from county to county differs dramatically.

The photos below are of the waterways surrounding downtown Stockton. This massive outbreak has come earlier this year than last year; the waterfront smells; the water recirculation system where the Delta shipping channel dead-ends is in operation; and again, as seen in this first photo, there are homeless encampments on top of and adjacent to these waterways loaded with bacteria. Moving people from this area is the responsibility of San Joaquin County. Like other counties in California, San Joaquin County is supposed to be sheltering the homeless during the pandemic. Our hearts grieve for the homeless who are living with an outbreak of Covid-19, adjacent to contaminated water, and breathing the air pollution and bacteria that is generated from HABs. The homeless are also Americans; and without protection from such public health dangers and proper housing, their individual chances for recovery and re-entry into everyday life as community members is nil. (This alone deserves another separate blog.)

We are equally concerned about residents who live nearby these waterways with such sprawling HABs. This area has been designated an AB617 area for air pollution monitoring and mitigation. In this part of the urban Delta, people live with the fourth highest rate of asthma in the United States. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District has no working knowledge of what air pollution monitoring for HABs should entail and does not fully understand the breadth of the HABs problem in Stockton.

Last summer and into Fall 2020, we at Restore the Delta had numerous conversations with representatives from DWR, the Design Construction Authority for the Delta tunnel, Secretary Wade Crowfoot, and representatives from Cal EPA about the HABs condition, and the likelihood that a benthic cyanobacterial mat exists under these waterways. In other words, the harmful algae do not disappear. The mat simply sinks when water conditions improve with colder temperature water flows from the San Joaquin River in late October, and cooler air temperatures. Freshwater flows definitely help alleviate these conditions; click here to read some of the science showing how freshwater alleviates HABs. However, with a climate that warms earlier each year, increased water pumping at the export pumps, and “controlled” flows on the horizon for upstream irrigators as part of the voluntary agreements for Delta management, HABs from the suspected benthic mats will expand and worsen.

Additionally, there seems to be a path of HABs development between Stockton and Discovery Bay, which reported its earliest HABs outbreak this year as well.  

We suspect, but have not been funded to test and track, that this water path of proliferating HABs is what has led to algae development in other sloughs and areas in the South Delta, including the migration of cyanobacteria to Clifton Court Forebay.  However, without tracking and adequate data collection, the Delta is left to hypothesize over the extent of the problem, unless of course DWR is continuing with such research and holding the results to color the Delta Conveyance narrative, as they held data last year. Just like with Covid-19 management, our government cannot contain what it does not track.

The similarities between the Newsom administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge the full scope of the HABs problem in the Delta and the Trump administration’s lack of will to create a broad testing and quarantine program for Covid-19 are striking. Without a full testing program of Delta waterways, hundreds of thousands of Delta people, local drinking water supplies, groundwater wells, irrigation water, fisheries, and wildlife are at risk from these bacteria-filled waters and related air pollution. And so is the state’s export water supply for drinking water and irrigation.

The Water Boards, like the CDC, have been left underfunded and understaffed to get the job done in the best possible way. They need public support. DWR, unfortunately, like White House officials, play its cards close to its vest to paint a false-positive picture of how conveyance and the voluntary agreements will solve the Delta’s problems. The people of the Delta, who pay attention to the waterways, are left to guess if the waterways are safe and how far that cyanobacteria and other types of algal bacteria will migrate into the waterways. Hundreds of thousands of people who have not been educated about this public health risk don’t know how to operate with caution should they come in proximity with these polluted waterways. The homeless in our region don’t stand a chance.

Yet, DWR’s taxpayer and water ratepayer propaganda machine continues with posts like these while danger spreads throughout our waterways. Magical thinking from government officials has not stopped the spread of Covid-19, and magical thinking in the form of the voluntary agreements and tunnel planning won’t stop the spread of HABs.  We the people are left to figure out how to stay healthy, and in some cases alive.

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