Delta Flows: Working for a healed future, despite a broken past

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

RECAP: Where The Future Flows – Next Generation Visioning

On October 13th and 14th, Restore the Delta held its two-day symposium featuring next generation Delta leaders. 

Panels addressed:

Climate Change

Harmful Algal Blooms

Sustainable Agriculture 

Delta Environmental Justice Needs

Tribal and Historical Inclusion

Salinity, Water Quality, and Fisheries

Delta Recreation and Public Access

We cannot recommend strongly enough, why all our supporters should listen to these sessions in their leisure, like a podcast. Video Links – Day One and Day Two.

Not only were these panels filled with researched, professional and accurate commentary, but the participants revealed what they want to see for the future of the estuary and within their Delta communities. We need to acknowledge that the Delta’s youth represent those who will be living with Delta management decisions today, and leaders from government and NGOs truly have a responsibility to keep their interests in the forefront of their daily work.

The first panel found that current state sponsored climate programs like the Transformative Community Climate Program and the California Resource Agency’s 30×30 Program, while a good start, do not address the full climate adaptation needs of the Delta. There is not enough planning or funding for flood protection or water quality challenges tied to climate change. Upstream floodplain projects are further along on the Sacramento River side of the estuary than the San Joaquin River side – yet South Stockton is at the highest flood risk. More investment is needed for flood protection in both the north and south Delta.

The second panel found that harmful algal blooms threaten public health in the Delta and limit the ability of communities, particularly environmental justice communities, to recreate in our waterway commons. HABs are tied to air pollution and are impacting areas with the highest asthma rates in California. We do not have a state standard for cyanotoxins set by the State and Regional Water Boards; more state-funded research and tracking is needed so mitigation strategies can be developed. The separate but equally problematic red tide algae problem in the San Francisco Bay is due to a lack of enforcement for wastewater discharge. Investment is needed there as well. For the Delta, improved flows are part of the answer, as is cleaning up agricultural discharge throughout California’s surface waterways, and supporting greenhouse gas reduction policies to slow down the acceleration of climate change which is making HABs worse.

The first day concluded with a sustainable agriculture panel. They found agriculture in the Delta was historically sustainable, starting with acorn gathering and fishery management by California Tribes from time immemorial and after colonization with wheat production. Yet today, locally food insecurity is still a problem with rural and urban Delta communities struggling during Covid. The pandemic has motivated a new generation of urban farmers who want to expand and protect food security for disadvantaged communities in particular. These Next Gen leaders are working to build a new network of Next Gen farmers, both urban and rural, to enhance local food system production, to be trained for carbon sequestration farming and management in the Delta, and to see how local historic crops like non-GMO wheat, corn and beans can become part of a local food movement. There are also small farmers interested in animal husbandry. Challenges abound, including land acquisition challenges for community farming groups, and expensive urban water being the source for community gardens. There needs to be discussion to think long and hard about how water should be priced for those farming for local food sovereignty. We don’t live with “food deserts” in the region, panelist Nick Lee explained. We live with food apartheid. 

Last, Davis Harper with Edge Collaborative spoke eloquently on the major economic investments that need to be made in dozens of organizations working for climate/water solutions in the Delta region, and how heavy the work his generation is facing can feel at times. He spoke about hope that next gen leaders can build something better out of what they inherited, and the need to find joy and peace during the dark days to sustain one’s self while doing the work.

None of the participants on these panels saw the Delta tunnel as helpful to their concerns or vision for the Delta’s future. It was described at best as a distraction, and at worst as unsustainable because it will harm Delta water quality and do nothing to help with flood management.

On the second day of the symposium, the Fisheries, Salinity and Water Quality Panel found that 

Delta Water quality conditions are worsening with lack of flow, salinity intrusion, and increased pollution. The intersection between habitat and water flows is a complex topic. Infrastructure prioritizes exports and not ecosystem health. All of this is being made worse by climate change. Restoration projects are being implemented independently and not tied to restoration of flows or being assessed for long term climate risk.

This panel also found that fishery management is an environmental justice issue for tribes and Delta communities. Lack of funding for organizations makes representation with government difficult for self-advocacy. In addition, salinity impacts agriculture by stopping germination, damaging the soil, burning out plant roots.

This panel also concluded that they best way to restore fish presently is push on the State Water Resources Control Board Cal EPA to restore needed flows. They also noted that our water rights system was established with different climate conditions. Export demands cannot be met or upstream diversions with never-ending drought. Complicit government allowed small farms to become mega farms and these same white, male-led farming entities have not been good stewards of community or land and water.

The Delta Recreation and Access Group had two significant takeaways from their discussion. First, compared to most other regions in California, there is a lack of investment in public access to the Delta and connected urban waterways. Second, due to a lack of investment, recreational resources are poorly curated. Equity requires a change in both of these scenarios.

Delta environmental justice communities note that they are not adequately funded to engage in the myriad of government processes for regional planning that require their attention. In addition, in urban areas of the Delta, where temperatures are already significantly higher in environmental justice communities, tree planting to create a cooling canopy is of the highest priority. Groups working on tree planting are struggling much like urban farming groups with affordable access to water for these urban renewal projects. It is ironic that these Delta communities are struggling with water access for beneficial uses.

The Tribal and Historical Communities Panel explained how the Delta is directly tied to tribal people and lands. They rely on these lands for spiritual, cultural, and practical purposes, so an attack on water is an attack on their food and cultural resources. Every year there’s a new project that threatens flow and salmon populations. Water wars have been around since colonization; therefore climate conditions are more of a justification for tribes to hold onto water resources. Tribal people and their rivers are not always considered to be affected by projects like Delta Conveyance. It’s vital that there is more integrated tribal consultation for these projects.

In addition, the Filipinx people and other communities of color are vital to Delta history It is essential to preserve this history that has been erased by local and state educational systems.

Beating Back The Broken System: Voluntary Agreement Governance

In addition to listening to the symposium, we are currently advising our supporters to read the Governance Proposal for the Voluntary Agreements, which was sent to the State Water Resources Control Board in August.

Here is what we have observed having spent a day mulling over the document.

First, much like the Delta Conveyance EIR, this document is very convoluted. Concepts appear at the beginning of the document which are fleshed out many pages later. It has not been written for the level of transparency this agreement claims to proffer for the public at large.

Putting those challenges aside, the Governance Plan is built like a house of cards. The two main governing committees are illustrated below in this chart found within the document. Systemwide Governance includes water exporters, state and federal agencies, environmental water organizations, and California Native American Tribes. The Tributary/Delta Governance Entities are primarily upstream water districts; when one reads further into the document it becomes clear that these upstream big water/big ag districts will be making flow recommendations to the Systemwide Governance Committee.  Theoretically, these two equal, but separate committees of upstream and downstream water districts, with the assistance of government agencies who see their function as supporting water powerbrokers rather than managing California water for all parties, will be setting flow standards for the Bay-Delta estuary. What could possibly go wrong? (A standard sarcasm font would be handy about now.)

Additionally, while Restore the Delta does not speak for California Tribes, we are not presently aware of any tribes with historic ties to the Delta or Delta tributaries, that are part of the Systemwide Governance Committee. Environmental NGOs with a proven track record of protecting the Delta left the Voluntary Agreement negotiations several years ago. Note that impacted Delta water districts, municipalities, and counties are not identified as committee members, and absolutely no mention is made of environmental justice groups within the Delta, or associated with North Coast rivers. Perhaps environmental justice groups, impacted communities, and local community-based organizations are seen as part of “Other Tributary Interests”? Being relegated to one box of other interests when planning has thus far been already decided by powerful water districts upstream and downstream of the Delta is not exactly comforting, empowering, or movement toward equity in California water management.

If our supporters recall our recent petitions filed with the State Water Resources Control Board regarding the Bay-Delta Plan, impacted California Tribes, tied to the Delta watershed, were never engaged in the full government-to-government consultation process for planning. We doubt that these impacted Tribal Governments have been included in the formation of this governance plan.

The Flow Ops subcommittee will be made up of scientists from the water districts and supporting government institutions. There is no notion in the Governance Proposal of independent third-party science verification for decisions regarding flows and estuary health. Even if we assume that each and every government and water district official upstream and downstream has the best interests of the estuary in their hearts, such a small, closed self-interest group could easily fall victim to group-think, rather than thinking critically about estuary and Delta community needs.

Also problematic is the proposal’s claim that the State Water Resources Control Board will ensure that the completed voluntary agreements and flow decisions will meet standards set in the Bay-Delta Plan. The Board has failed to complete the Bay-Delta Plan, and we understand that the process has been slowed down again, to allow for the competition of the Voluntary Agreements. In other words, the completed Bay-Delta Plan is being formulated to accommodate the Voluntary Agreements.

Last, while the Governance Proposal maintains that most decision-making will be made by consensus between the Statewide and Tributary Committees, it does provide a framework for conflict resolution, and then acknowledges that the agreement does not preclude any of the involved parties from taking legal action.

For the purposes of this section, a “dispute” shall be deemed to have arisen when a disagreement between the Systemwide Governance Committee and Tributary/Delta Governance Entities or Implementing Organizations still exists related to Systemwide Measures after they have attempted to resolve the disagreement through the standard decision-making procedures. In the event of such a dispute, the following process will be employed to resolve the dispute.

The Dispute Resolution process will in no way limit any legal or equitable processes or remedies otherwise available to the parties. The Dispute Resolution process will in no way bind or limit the discretion afforded to any party by law, internal resolution, or policy.

In other words, senior water rights holders will continue to play from their narrow self-interests, while exporters negotiate for more water, and the environment and communities tied to waterways will see even less water. The VA Governance Committee will simply add another bureaucratic layer that is not a solution for Delta and river restoration, to overall state water management. 

It is a waste of time, when improvements need to be made to the entire water rights system to protect people, to comply with public trust needs as defined by the California Constitution, and to bring equity in resource management to California Tribes, Delta communities, and environmental justice communities. What is being created is a new system that bypasses proper public processes at the SWRCB, where tribes, communities, and environmental interests can fully weigh in on water management decision-making. And when the power brokers cannot get along, they can return to court to fight it out over every last damned drop of water, leaving these other vitally important parties scrambling for funds to go to court.

And don’t forget it is ultimately this elite group of older decision-makers, with economic self-interest, who will be making the decision as to how much water will be sent through the Delta tunnel. While the Newsom Administration regularly prioritizes diversity of representation throughout numerous government institutions, in its water planning, it fails on the representation front, and also in diversity in terms of thought and priorities. The VAs are the operation plan for the tunnel, and a closed caste of water leadership will operate the system for its own benefit. Damn the environment. Damn the impacts of aridification. Damn the next generation which wants so much more for the Delta as a region and for their own communities. 

The Voluntary Agreements are nothing more than part of California’s broken water management past that must be opposed, while we continue to work for California’s better water future.

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