Delta Flows: Flows, Flood, Conveyance, Industry, Future

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

2023 – the year that Restore the Delta has had to assertively and swiftly advocate for flood protection and flows simultaneously. Perhaps this is why we feel like we have completed an entire year’s worth of work in four months. We have not been afforded a great deal of time for reflection or for articulating where we see the realization of a healthy and restored Delta presently or in the future. Of course, the Delta Conveyance Project lingers on like the zombie that it is, poised to rise from the Delta peat soils and gobble up opportunities for future restoration of the estuary. So, let’s take a moment to catch everyone up.


Localized flooding in the San Joaquin County portion of the Delta was troublesome for communities. We did have small evacuations along various points of the San Joaquin River, and our organization, consequently, took in numerous calls from community members as to what to do about basement flooding, sandbags, storm emergency services, and FEMA assistance. While we are always happy to help, like we did with mask sewing during the pandemic, the fact that we spent days assisting community with reaching services, and being the first to translate levee boil notices, evacuations, and flood warnings into Spanish, before Sacramento and San Joaquin County Emergency Services (OES) did, reveals how woefully underprepared we are as a region for future floods that will worsen with climate change.

Artie Valencia, who leads Restore the Delta’s flood work, did participate in a legislative hearing to discuss where OES needs improvement throughout the state and has met with the local San Joaquin County OES folks to discuss the need for quicker, culturally competent, multilingual communication notices from government agencies. We learned that OES offices do not employ translators; we also learned that local government agencies have not built out their own messaging systems and social media platforms for communicating with the public in real time. Our organization has pointed out that part of flood readiness entails educating the public about flood threat during the dry times. The South Delta urban areas are the fastest growing region in California, and new residents have to be educated on what to do when faced with localized flooding or potentially a levee break, or levee overtopping. We have suggested that community groups, like ours, should be trained to help with translation and communication by OES, and funded to do the work when emergency conditions arise, as part of an overall emergency service education network. Time and time again, we have found that we, and partner community-based organizations, have the ability to reach the community quicker than actual government entities.

Flood monitoring will continue for both the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems until the fall because cool temperatures are delaying the snow melt, yet snow fell again on May 5th further elongating this year’s flood watch. Restore the Delta checks flood levels for Delta river systems each and every morning and will continue to do so likely into the fall.

Beyond the need for improvements with emergency response execution, we have been busy advocating on several fronts for flood protection for the region. First, we are assessing needs presently for all areas within the Delta. For instance, in the North Delta, the new classification of levees surrounding Delta towns is creating hardship for parties wanting to replace farm homes, small business facilities, and farmworker housing because the 14 ft flood elevation requirement is making construction costs prohibitive. There has to be better policies and incentives for meeting the best construction practices without overburdening rural communities financially or rural economies will collapse. It is an equity issue when the Federal Government changes levee classification without building in protection for small communities.

Those of you who follow our media and online communications are probably well aware of the advocacy that we have put forward regarding floodplain restoration on the San Joaquin River side of the Delta. Whereas the North Delta is offered protection during high water periods by diverting water into the Yolo Bypass, floodplain projects that can alleviate pressure on levees in the urban Delta throughout San Joaquin County have moved at a glacier’s pace for over a dozen years due to inadequate funding and prioritization at all levels of government. Worsening the situation, San Joaquin County flood protection entities only receive $1.00 in funding for every $10.00 of flood investment in Sacramento County. Plus, earlier this year, to balance the next year’s state budget, Governor Newsom had cut $40 million in planning funds for San Joaquin River floodplain restoration projects. 

Our multiple coalition sign-on letters and organizing efforts supported by numerous work partners and the San Joaquin Flood Control Authority, our legislative advocacy, and our media work, contributed to Governor Newsom restoring the $40 million for floodplain restoration planning and adding $290 million to the flood control budget. As we told CalMatters, “The Governor listened to the multitude of voices…and he did the right thing for Californians.” However, much more money for flood protection work is needed, and it will take several more budget cycles to achieve equity for the San Joaquin Valley and the Delta in order to prepare for climate change. 

This fine work that bolstered funding in the budget was led by our Community Organizer and Government Liaison Artie Valencia(and our full team) in partnership with River Partners and was supported by local organizations including Little Manila Rising, With Our Words, Faith in the Valley, Catholic Charities of the Stockton Diocese, Public Health Advocates, Nopal, the Reinvent Stockton Foundation, Edge Collaborative, Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, NAACP Stockton Chapter, San Joaquin County Historical Museum, and the Conway Homes Resident Association. We also received support from Senator Susan Eggman and her staff, and Stockton Councilmember Kimberly Warmsley.

The work, however, on this front must continue. Federal and state requirements for 20% matching funds by communities that have suffered from decades of disinvestment by state and federal agencies, as a requirement to obtain state and federal flood management funding, is a grossly unjust policy. Disinvestment in the Delta as a region, and particularly in the South Delta, has been a political strategy to keep the Delta weak – and to keep it a water donor colony. The Delta deserves public investment like other regions in California for the benefit of environmental and economic health for all its people.

As data found in the recent environmental impact report for the Delta Conveyance Project reveals, the Delta is a majority disadvantaged community region with pockets of wealth. Disadvantaged communities in America never fully recover from flood events, whether they are small rural towns or large urban areas. 

There is no restoring the Delta without adequate flood planning that reflects our new climate reality, and that is why Restore the Delta’s young managers and advocates, who will have to live with this new climate future, are prioritizing this work. 

Drought, Water Quality: 

While we are training our 2023 Climate Water Advocates to begin harmful algal bloom (HABs) monitoring starting in May, our efforts with the State Water Resources Control Board to adapt a protective standard for Delta communities for HABs as part of the Bay-Delta Plan continue. Our petitions with US EPA, a Title VI complaint for lack of inclusive response for incorporating the concerns of tribes and environmental justice groups in the timely completion of the Bay-Delta Plan, and a request for EPA to set Bay- Delta water quality standards, continue to advance throughout both bureaucracies. These petitions that we filed with our partners, the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Little Manila Rising, and Save California Salmon, have involved hundreds of hours of continued research and meetings independently and with US EPA and State Water Resources Control Board officials and staff. Part of this effort involved an on-the-ground tour with federal officials from Washington DC in early April this year.

We believe that some progress is being made to advance our concerns for the restoration of flows to the Delta to restore salmon runs and water quality for Delta communities as we oppose the secret water deals, known as the voluntary agreements, at each and every appropriate SWRCB meeting. However, other important standards, like identifying tribal beneficial uses of water and the above-mentioned HABs standard, are time-consuming processes that require patience and time that run counter to our assertion that the Bay-Delta Plan must be updated and implemented rapidly. The “hurry up and wait” dynamic of this effort is in some ways a maddening place to work from, yet our collective is sticking with the work.

From a Restore the Delta perspective, working on drought planning and the protection of flows, while dealing with flood emergencies and flood planning simultaneously, is a heavy load for our small, but competent team. The Delta is a region burdened by numerous environmental stresses, climate change, and planning processes that all seem to need attention right now.

Further complicating matters is that the California Natural Resources Agency, DWR, Governor Newsom’s office, and some (not all) officials at the State Water Resources Control Board, continue to posit the myth that floodplain restoration/wetlands restoration will save salmon. The science is unequivocal: adequate flows in our tributaries, rivers, and through the Delta to the San Francisco Bay, with cool clean water, will save and restore salmon runs. The food column for salmon exists in these open moving flows. Upstream of the Delta, floodplain restoration will protect people from flood, recharge groundwater, restore native plants, provide habitat for terrestrial and bird species, provide public recreation spaces and land back opportunities for tribes, and create cooling greenbelts to mitigate increasing temperatures for Central Valley communities. Wetlands in the Delta will help mitigate sea level rise and provide supportive shade habitat if flows are adequate for salmon migration, but wetlands without science-based flows will not save salmon. Period. 

This is why we are calling on our supporters to turn out in large numbers for the Day of Action for Water Justice on July 5, 2023 at the Capitol on the West Steps at 11:30 a.m. (Note the date change from our original announcement.) 

The theme for this event will be: Restore our Rivers for Tribes, Communities, and the Environment. Our petition partners, and dozens of other tribes, environmental organizations, and fishing groups are working together to sponsor this event which will include addressing the Water Board, the rally at the Capitol, and organized lobbying activities. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead to learn about ways to participate: from on-line petitions and letters to showing up to oppose the Delta tunnel. Yes, opposing the Delta tunnel is part of this effort because it is ludicrous that the Department of Water Resources is either issuing a final or revised EIR for the conveyance project without a completed Bay-Delta Plan. 

Delta Conveyance Project, SB687, Economic Analysis:

Supporting Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman’s SB687, an elegant bill that calls for completion of the Bay-Delta Plan by the State Water Resources Control Board before permitting for the Delta Conveyance Project, is necessary for protection of the estuary. We appreciate supporters who made the time to sit on legislative call-in lines – and whose comments were not taken – due to problems with the legislative call-in system. We see you. We encourage you all to follow our alerts so that we can mobilize to support the bill as needed, and we will move to email comments to respect your time.

As we wrote at the end of 2022, the DCP makes less sense now than at any time in the past. During a wet year, like this year, no additional water would have been exported because each region was busy refilling local storage with their own local rainfall. The project will take extra water during dry years which will violate numerous Clean Water Act standards for the Delta and Delta watersheds– if water is even available. Yet the $1 billion per year payments for the facility will have to be made each and every year. Better groundwater restoration will occur by reconnecting Central Valley floodplains to California’s rivers (also providing flood protection), and local urban water projects are simply more cost effective and will create more good paying jobs throughout California than tunnel construction in the Delta. 

The recent report authored by Max Gomberg for the California Water Impact Network regarding Metropolitan Water District’s ability to pay for the tunnel elucidates the financial threat to MWD as an institution if they move ahead with the project. We were heartened by the LA Times story which reveals that MWD is evaluating the project. We hope that the MWD Board grows to recognize that this project will not make up for water losses on the Colorado River, and we pledge to help mobilize support throughout the state if and when they choose to advocate for funding assistance from state and federal sources to support local water projects in Southern California to move toward regional self-sufficiency. We will always have to share water with Metropolitan Water District, and we can work with that necessity. Everyone in the Delta has a relative or friend who lives in Southern California. They are our neighbors. But we need MWD to become as self-sufficient as possible. We will work to the best of our ability to support their efforts to this end.

Energy Projects and the Delta:

Carbon capture sequestration projects, hydrogen energy, and new industries are being planned for the Delta and San Joaquin County, in particular, at the Port of Stockton. This work in which we are engaging, via a Department of Energy grant administered by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is complex, and our staff is in the middle of a steep learning curve. We are working with partners, including San Francisco Estuary Institute, to create a modeling report to identify best and worst case scenarios from projects so communities in the region can begin to understand how to evaluate some of these new industries from an estuary and public health perspective. We are working on securing funding to employ analysts who have the expertise to evaluate future projects in a wholistic manner (water, air, public safety) and to advocate for a clean, energy efficient Port. Our goal is to ensure that protective standards are set for Delta communities and that government regulation and environmental impact reports for proposed projects are transparent and easy to access so that communities can weigh in and advocate for their own safety, health, and wealth. In the months ahead, we will have more to share about our findings. 

What’s Next:

The future is coming at us at an accelerated pace in the Delta. Whether it’s bad ideas from the past (Delta Conveyance and political water flow agreements), climate change leading to drought and flood extremes, or new technologies that we will all have to learn about quickly for the creation of protective standards, we will always work to protect the Delta’s people in an inclusive manner and the beauty and bounty of this region first. We owe it to ourselves – and to the next generation which will live with the decisions we make today. The Delta is the place where the future flows.

Related Posts