State Water Board Adopts Historic Bay-Delta Flow Recommendations

Yesterday, the State Water Resources Control Board voted 5-0 to adopt historic flow recommendations to protect the health of the Bay-Delta estuary, its fish and wildlife, and California’s salmon fishery.  The adoption of the State Board’s Public Trust Delta Flows report, required by last year’s legislative water policy reform package, marks a significant milestone in the implementation of that package.  The Board confirmed that the best available science demonstrates that current flows are inadequate to protect the Delta’s fish and wildlife, and the report they adopted recommends significantly increased flows into and through the Delta. 

Salmon fishermen, delta farmers, and environmentalists all attended the hearing and thanked the Board and its staff for their work.  And there are many thanks to go around: to the Legislature, for directing the Board to develop the report as part of the legislative package; to all five Board Members, who established an exemplary public process (which resulted in testimony primarily from scientists, rather than lobbyists and lawyers), and who resisted political pressure to weaken or delay the report; and to the staff, who did an incredible job and have compiled an exemplary report, documented by the best available science.  The staff and Board Members deserve great thanks for their tireless work over the past nine months, and ultimately for a job well done.

But the hard work is far from over.  Now, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process and the Delta Stewardship Council need to use this report to inform those regulatory processes (as will the Board, in its ongoing process to develop new flow and water quality standards for the Bay-Delta).  Thus far, BDCP has been analyzing exporting even more water from the Delta than ever before (see slides 14 and 15 of this BDCP handout); the State Board’s report casts considerable doubt on those expectations. Although the Contra Costa Times reports that some water users have already sought to discount use of the report, I hope both processes will resist pressure to ignore the report – to ignore the best available science – and will instead continue to analyze the Report’s recommendations and to incorporate the Board’s flow recommendations into their plans.  As one Board Member noted before voting to adopt the report, it will be difficult for those other planning processes to ignore the need for significantly larger flows.  There's no question that habitat restoration, improving water quality, and other measures are necessary to restore the Delta, but the report makes clear that increasing flows and reducing diversions is also a necessary component, and that habitat restoration and increased flows are not interchangeable.

I expect that the report’s conclusions will mark another important turning point in the debate about the Delta.  After all, the report constitutes the conclusion of the State of California's top water regulator as to the best available science of what flows the Delta needs.  It demonstrates that we have hit “peak water” in the Bay-Delta – that we are diverting an unsustainable amount of water from the Delta, and we’re unlikely to be able to divert that much in the future.   Water agencies would be wise to recognized this conclusion and plan accordingly.  Fortunately, many already have, as my colleague blogged about recently. 

As I testified at the hearing, the Board, BDCP and the Delta Stewardship Council will need to analyze the Report’s recommendations more fully, including its effects on upstream water temperatures, and analyze how to optimize the system to implement the report’s recommendations while meeting the water needs of farmers, cities, and the environment.  These processes will also need to consider the respective responsibilities of the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project and upstream diverters to provide these needed flows.  Given this report, the State’s new policy of reducing reliance on the Delta and investing in alternative water supplies, like the Virtual River of water use efficiency, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture, was a prescient decision by the Legislature.   There is tremendous water supply potential in these water sources, which many water districts and the State recognize.

All too often we forget to thank the individual staff and Board members for their hard work.  So to the Board, to the staff who worked on the report, and to the scientists who testified before the Board, thank you.