DELTA FLOWS 12/1/21: Ecosystem Restoration and Delta Science Update

by Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst, Restore the Delta 

Ecosystem Restoration
With comments due on the Delta Stewardship Council’s environmental impact report on the agency’s amendments to the Ecosystem Restoration chapter of the Delta Plan, let’s pause to recall why these amendments came before the public.

When then-Governor Jerry Brown separated the two-bore Delta tunnels project from the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) in April 2015, he canceled a legally automatic transfer of BDCP’s ecosystem restoration policies and programs to the Delta Plan should BDCP be approved for construction. This was called for in the Delta Reform Act of 2009. 

“The Bay Delta Conservation Plan shall be considered for inclusion in the Delta Plan,” reads the Act, provided it met several tests. The tests had to do with the Tunnels’ diversion rates and bypass flows, effects of climate change on precipitation and runoff, effects on fish, and much more. This part of the Act offered BDCP a special “parking space” for ecosystem policies shaped by a tunnels conveyance system in the Delta Plan, waiting for it to “pay toll” and pull in. 

Brown’s decision to separate the Tunnels from ecosystem restoration contributed to BDCP’s demise. The Tunnels assumed the title of the “California WaterFix” project, while the ecosystem restoration parts of BDCP were renamed “California EcoRestore.” Over the next few years, California WaterFix garnered most of the headlines while EcoRestore receded into shadows. But in December 2018, the Delta Stewardship Council accepted their staff’s finding that the WaterFix project was inconsistent with the Delta Plan and the project was suddenly stopped, much to the relief and joy of Delta residents and allies. 

By the following May, Governor Gavin Newsom’s new administration rescinded all other approvals obtained for the project, opting instead for a “single-tunnel approach.”

Whatever the reasons for severing the Tunnels from BDCP—a decision which endured years and thousands of pages of massive, withering, and incisive criticism—not long after, the Delta Stewardship Council, agency author of the Delta Plan, issued a report stating, “Because of the switch…, the Council may wish to consider updating the Delta Plan’s regulations and recommendations on restoration….”

The Council amended the Delta Plan for conveyance, storage, and operational considerations first, and is now considering Plan changes to fill the “parking space” for ecosystem restoration policies and performance measures originally meant for BDCP. Opportunity to comment on the amendments’ environmental impact report closed November 30.

While well-intended, the ecosystem amendments are off to a rocky start. Our comment letter to the Delta Stewardship Council states that we commented twice already about the Delta Plan Ecosystem Amendment—in January and July 2020. The Council provides a pair of maps in the amendments comparing the Delta in the “early 1800s” with the Delta in the “early 2000s” which erases the early 1800s presence of California Indian communities either residing in or using the Delta as part of their migratory cultural ecology—for food, materials, sacred sites, burial grounds—amid the extensive wetland ecology that existed two centuries ago. Much the way that large cities with diverse communities in five counties surround and dot the Delta today. Rather than compare apples to apples (by which I mean the relationship of human communities to Delta ecosystems), the Council’s map comparison makes modern cities visible while erasing Indigenous areas of habitation. It’s not a balanced comparison. (We have pointed this out since early 2020, but to no avail.)

The Council has managed to find a place for the state mandate in the Delta Reform Act to reduce reliance on the Delta for meeting California’s future water needs. The Council recognizes that the co-equal goals are to be achieved with this Ecosystem Amendment “in a manner that…[f]urthers the statewide policy to reduce reliance in the Delta in meeting the state’s future water supply needs through regional self-reliance.” As the Council is aware, the co-equal goals are in tension; you cannot increase water supply reliability and recover ecosystems in the Delta without reducing reliance on the Delta for water supply and letting more water flow through the system if ecosystem policies and recommendations of the Delta Plan are to be achievable. The newly restored habitats need more flow which reduced Delta reliance can provide. The Council’s placement of the reduced-Delta-reliance policy mandate occurs only in its environmental report, not in Amendment language. We continue to encourage the Council to further integrate the reduced Delta reliance policy mandate into its communications, policies, and programs under the Act because that is where the mandate belongs.

The Council hitched its Chapter 4 Ecosystems “ER P1” policy to the State Water Board’s own flow objectives for review of covered actions and continues to do so in this Ecosystems Amendment. It means that the Council accedes to a policy of delay in the face of continued deterioration of Delta ecological, hydrological, and water quality conditions—as well as the continuing fruitless “voluntary agreement” negotiations since late 2018 over Sacramento River flow and Delta operational water project objectives: 

If [the Council] truly cares about doubling the populations of all salmon runs and Central Valley steelhead, its appointed members and executive director should be lobbying Governor Newsom to abandon the voluntary agreements—which are a delaying tactic, not a real, honest thing—and direct the SWRCB to complete its Sacramento River Basin Bay-Delta Plan flow objectives and environmental review process post haste.

Still, Ecosystems Policy ER P1 was key in the Council’s decision that California WaterFix did not match up with Delta Plan policies three years ago. This policy remains unchanged in the Amendments process, a good decision by the Council.

The Delta Plan’s ER P1 is also a countermeasure that can help reduce the presence and impact of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). HABs grow into toxic clouds in water during times of warm, slack water (stagnant), impregnated with phosphorus and nitrogen from human drainage and wastewater discharges. More robust Delta flows disrupt their formation, as does shade from more bushes and trees—riparian ecosystem restoration. Unfortunately, the Council’s environmental report offers no new policies to reduce or eliminate them. We look forward to influencing their actions on HABs in the future, however.

Council staff are aware that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is closely studying the Delta as a site for the geo-engineering technology of “carbon capture storage” (CCS)—an industrial process for injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) underground permanently. RTD hosted a community discussion meeting about CCS back on October 21 during which scientists from Lawrence Livermore—and business people from the Delta discussed potential benefits and risks associated with CCS. While not strictly an ecosystem restoration strategy, it is a climate change mitigation tactic which in theory (at least) supports ecosystem sustainability in a warming world. The Livermore scientists characterized the Delta as having “world-class geology” suitable for CCS.

Unfortunately, wherever CCS technology has been poorly regulated, there have been industrial mishaps with impacts ranging from animal suffocation to acidification of local rivers and streams, including in Wyoming and Mississippi in recent years. 

CCS wells require at least 100 years of scientific monitoring and emergency response plans and capability should leakage occur. Government agencies responsible for Delta management must create a framework to protect the estuary and its communities from any negative water and air quality impacts from mechanical carbon sequestration projects. The Council mentions carbon “sequestration”—the entombment of carbon-based greenhouse gases in biomass or underground—only in relation to ecosystem restoration activities, so we state in our comment letter that the Council will need to catch up with Delta Plan policies soon concerning this technology.

Delta Independent Science Board
Speaking of long-term scientific monitoring, the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) recently came up for review by staff of the Delta Science Program, a program of the Council. Released October 26, 2021, the assessment of the “impact and value” of the DISB summarizes the “products” and impact of the Board since its inception, and the public was invited to review and comment on the assessment. 

The DISB has become indispensable to the Delta. Its scientists forced local, regional, state, and federal proponents of California WaterFix to face facts about its flimsy designs put forward. They have studied the Delta ecosystems and fisheries thoroughly, and we found their review of geologic and seismic studies in 2016 invaluable as we prepared our 2019 report on “Climate Equity and Seismic Resilience for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary.” This past summer, the DISB was defunded initially in the state budget process, but stalwart organizing and lobbying by many of our water allies and colleagues got funds restored to the Board, and we at Restore the Delta are grateful that they succeeded. 

Natural scientists (biologists, geologists, engineers, hydrologists, among others) of the DISB were astute in 2017 to urge that the Delta Science Program begin investing in social science for the Delta as an evolving place, a legislative requirement from the Delta Reform Act. It is a position Restore the Delta continues to advocate for. 

In our comment letter supporting the DISB this week we wrote that despite its robust natural science expertise, we “are concerned that the DISB lacks sufficient expertise in the areas of social, cultural, and historical disciplines. We are aware that the DSP is taking steps in this direction,” but we want DISB, the Delta Science Program, and the Council “to better integrate these areas of inquiry about the Delta more completely and in more balanced fashion.” 

Nothing in the Delta exists in narrow silos; most things that matter occur where water intersects with its diverse communities, its ecosystems and economies (including farming and subsistence fishing, for example), and its climate. Whomever said, “you can’t just do one thing,” spoke truly of the Delta.

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