Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | October 14, 2019

Climate change and instream flows

During the 2012-2016 drought, the State Water Resources Control Board temporarily suspended at least 35 minimum instream flow standards. The Department of Fish and Wildlife reported in 2015 that there had been 783 fish rescues in 52 different watersheds, comprising 51 species, and more than 264,000 fish. Six hundred wild McCloud River redband trout were captured and held in nine holding tanks in the Shasta River fish hatchery until stream conditions improved.  In the Scott River, an estimated 116,000 endangered Coho salmon were rescued and relocated. This was crisis management.

In reviewing the effects of the 2012-2016 drought, Hanak, Mount, Chappelle and Lund et. al. noted that “many of California’s aquatic ecosystems remain chronically starved for habitat and water in all years,” and that as a result, “native species enter droughts with diminished and geographically limited populations, only to encounter greater stresses during drought.”  In the Delta, critically endangered Delta smelt may have gone functionally extinct from relaxation of minimum Delta flow standards.

Unless we do a better job of keeping water in our rivers and streams, California’s native aquatic species will not survive climate change.

Scott River, Reach 14, August 2014      CDFW / NOAA Fisheries et. al.
Cooperative Report of the Scott River Coho Salmon Rescue and Relocation Effort, August 2015.

Comprehensive instream flow standards

During the 1976-77 drought, Governor Brown created a Commission to Review California Water Rights Law.  The blue-ribbon panel was charged with reviewing the Water Code in light of the drought and Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution on “Reasonable Use” of water.  The Commission’s 1978 Final Report recommended increased protection for instream flows, and providing for better management of groundwater.  The groundwater recommendations were ahead of their time and were not implemented for decades.  For instream flows, the Commission proposed:

  1. That comprehensive instream flow standards be set on a stream-by-stream basis by the State Water Resources Control Board and that the Board comply with these standards in its administrative and adjudicatory decision making; that instream flow standards be expressed in terms of certain quantities or flows of water which are required to be present at certain points along the stream at certain times of the year to protect fishery, wildlife, recreational, aesthetic, scenic and other beneficial instream uses; and
  2. That compliance programs be developed where it is determined that the limitations on administrative actions imposed by the instream flow standards are inadequate to secure the beneficial instream uses of water envisioned by the standards.

(p. 129.)

Although legislation was subsequently passed mandating the determination of instream flows, doing so has been delayed for decades.

In 1982, the legislature passed a law requiring the then-called Department of Fish and Game to “identify and list those streams and watercourses throughout the State for which minimum flow levels needed to be established in order to assure the continued viability” of stream-dependent fish and wildlife.  DFG was then required to prepare proposed “streamflow requirements” for each stream not later than July 1,1989 (Pub. Res. Code §§ 10001-2.)  The Department of Fish and Game did not even transmit the identification list to the Water Board until 2008. The transmittal identified 20 priority streams and was accompanied by obsolete and incomplete streamflow studies done over the previous 20 years.  The now-called Department of Fish and Wildife has since proposed only two actual “streamflow requirements” for the identified streams, for the Big Sur River and Butte Creek.

In 2014, Action 4 of Governor Brown’s California Water Action Plan mandated that the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife develop “defensible, cost-effective, and time-sensitive approaches to establish instream flows using sound science and a transparent public process.”   However, the action was not even begun until after the drought ended, likely due to agency resource limitations. The chosen streams include:

  • Shasta River, tributary to the Klamath River
  • South Fork Eel River, tributary to the Eel River
  • Mark West Creek, tributary to the Russian River
  • Mill Creek, tributary to the Sacramento River
  • Ventura River

The Water Board passed a resolution authorizing additional funding for instream flow studies for these five streams on October 3, 2019.

Klamath river
Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake,  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2010, pursuant to the 2009 Delta Reform Act (Water Code section 85087), the Water Board sent a report to the legislature estimating that comprehensively determining instream flows for 100 priority streams outside the Delta and its watersheds would cost $107 million.  The Water Board has been collaboratively developing analytical tools for assessing instream flow needs that may reduce the costs.

As part of recommendations for the Water Resilience Portfolio, California Water Research collaborated with the One Water Network of environmental groups to propose the following actions:

  1. Launch a major new initiative for the Water Board to set long-needed comprehensive instream flow standards statewide.
  2. Require explicit analysis of the constitutional principles of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine in state water management decisions. Make those principles the foundation of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update.
  3. Determine instream flow needs before consideration of petitions for major new diversions.
  4. Create mechanisms for public funding for alternative water supplies where needed to mitigate impacts of reduced diversions to maintain instream flows.
  5. Provide dedicated funding to support and expand the Water Board’s core water rights and water quality actions.

While the political fashion has swung towards non-regulatory actions and voluntary agreements, such actions have manifestly failed to keep enough water in our streams and rivers for aquatic and stream-dependent species.

Regulatory actions would be consistent with the 1983 California Supreme Court decision in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court that “[t]he state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.”

They would also be consistent with the 2009 Delta Reform Act. California Water Code section 85023 mandates that “[t]he longstanding constitutional principle of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine shall be the foundation of state water management policy and are particularly important and applicable to the Delta.”

California’s constitutional principle of reasonable use and the public trust are fundamental to creating more resilient aquatic ecosystems in the face of population growth and climate change.

The history of instream flows was researched and written by Deirdre Des Jardins in collaboration with Lowell Ashbaugh and the One Water Network of environmental groups on recommendations for Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio.

This blog post was updated on 10/15/19 to add a picture of the Scott River in 2014.

The Department of Water Resources’ 2018 California Water Plan Update proposes that the state invest $90.2 billion over the next 50 years in increasing resilience of water supply and flood infrastructure, and ecosystem restoration. The enormously costly proposal is ambitiously named the “State Water Investment Plan.”

The $90.2 billion in the proposed “State Water Investment Strategy” includes $59 billion to “Strengthen Resiliency and Operational Flexibility of Existing and Future Infrastructure.”  The $59 billion includes implementation of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, which was determined to need $17-21 billion over the next 30 years in the 2017 CVFPP update.  The investment plan also proposes to subsidize maintenance and rehabilitation of the State Water Project and locally owned water supply infrastructure, ending the longtime state policy of “beneficiary pays.”

State Water Investment Strategy                           Source:  Department of Water Resources

DWR is proposing that the State Water Investment Strategy investments increase steadily, reaching $20 billion per decade by 2048.   But if investments in water supply are front-loaded, needed improvements in Central Valley flood protection may not be reached by 2050. This could be catastrophic. Daniel Swain et. al. estimated in 2018 that there is a 50% chance of an Arkstorm like flood event in the next 40 years.  The investment plan also includes no consideration of the need for investments in adaptation to sea level rise, which could become a major issue for coastal cities by mid-century.


Coastal flooding   Source:  National Parks Service

DWR’s State Water Investment Strategy also suggests diversion of funding from the GHG Cap and Trade fund to water infrastructure needs.  Diverting funds from mitigation would also increase risk of catastrophic effects of climate change and should be a non-starter.

The Department of Water Resources and the Natural Resources Agency need to revisit the State Water Investment Plan with an eye to a more balanced investment plan that takes into account needs for investment both in climate mitigation and adaptation.  The plan should consider the need for state investments in adaptation to sea level rise, as well as to increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts.   The plan should also prioritize state investments for “orphan” projects that otherwise have no revenue stream.

This post was updated on 10/14/2019 to include DWR’s graph of proposed State Water Investment Strategy investments.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 30, 2019

Voluntary Agreements on Delta flows have no real backstop


Delta smelt        Source: USFWS 

A September 19, 2019 Los Angeles Times Op Ed urged that Governor Gavin Newsom sign Senate Bill 1.  One of the reasons given was that by affirming the Endangered Species Act protections in the bill, Newsom would signal that standards for the Voluntary Agreements on Delta flows would be kept high:

Newsom has put a lot of stock into the voluntary settlement talks as a keystone of his still-developing water policy. He appears to believe that he can get the various water interests — agriculture, urban suppliers, environmentalists — to reach an accord that has eluded them for decades. […]

By making clear that the state would keep its standards high, SB 1 would have provided crucial leverage to keep water agencies at the negotiating table with the understanding that they will ultimately have to take less instead of — as Trump would have it — more.

Newsom’s veto of Senate Bill 1 shows just how little backstop there is for the Voluntary Agreements on Delta flows.  This should not be surprising, given how the regulatory framework for the Water Board’s determination of Delta flow objectives has been gutted.

When the Water Board voted to approve new flow requirements for the Lower San Joaquin River and South Delta in December 2018, the resolution encouraged Voluntary Agreements within the Water Board’s regulatory framework.  The resolution states in part:

The State Water Board encourages stakeholders to continue to work together to reach voluntary agreements that incorporate a mix of flow and non-flow measures that meet or exceed the new and revised water quality objectives and protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses, and to present those voluntary agreements to the State Water Board for its review as soon as feasible.   (underlining added.)

But a Trojan Horse clause was inserted at the last minute in the Board’s resolution adopting the Lower San Joaquin flow requirements, under Governor Brown’s direction.  The clause formalized Brown’s back-room political process for a “Delta watershed-wide agreement” that would be an alternative for the Water Board’s entire Bay-Delta Plan update, including the lower San Joaquin River flows.  Clause 7 states in part:

…State Water Board staff shall incorporate the Delta watershed-wide agreement, including potential amendments to implement agreements related to the Tuolumne River, as an alternative for a future, comprehensive Bay-Delta Plan update that addresses the reasonable protection of beneficial uses across the Delta watershed…

No one at the Water Board’s hearing had any notice of Governor Brown’s proposed insertion of Clause 7 in the resolution adopting the San Joaquin flows, nor did anyone except Board members have any opportunity to comment on the clause at the hearing.

Clause 7 has now largely gutted the Water Board’s regulatory processes for the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update.  Under the Newsom administration, the “Delta watershed-wide agreement” has morphed from an alternative considered by the Water Board in the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update, determined by the Natural Resources Agency negotiations.

Given the end run around the Water Board’s independence and normal regulatory processes, it should not be surprising that the Voluntary Agreements are driven more by politics than science.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 23, 2019

The fate of the last Voluntary Agreements to restore the Bay-Delta

Voluntary Agreements to restore the Bay-Delta are a part of the Newsom administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio.  Water agencies have touted these agreements as a “new way forward.” But voluntary agreements to restore the Delta are not new – they just fail and are never discussed again.

This blog post examines the last voluntary agreements in the Delta – the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord — and how they unraveled.

SacDeltaSacramento Delta       Source: Wikicommons

In December 1994, environmental groups joined representatives of the state and federal governments and urban and agricultural water agencies in signing the “historic” Bay-Delta Accord.  The Bay-Delta Accord was described as a “consensus-based framework” to restore the Bay-Delta estuary while ensuring water supply reliability.  The 2000 CALFED framework grew out of the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord.  The major components of the CALFED framework included:

Ecosystem Restoration

Water Quality

Water Supply Reliability

Levee Integrity

Actions under the CALFED framework were negotiated with stakeholders, including environmental, fishing, and Delta groups as well as urban and agricultural water agencies.  But by 2008 the program was widely acknowledged to be a failure.

Failure of the Environmental Water Account

CALFED had an Environmental Water Account program, which provided for purchases of ecosystem water from willing sellers. Environmental groups rapidly became disillusioned with the Environmental Water Account. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council commented:

From 2001-2004, the EWA provided only 29% on average of the expected 195,000 acre-feet of operational assets …. These shortfalls have occurred while exports from the Delta have reached record high levels and the ecosystem has continued spiraling downward.  Clearly, the EWA experiment has not performed as planned.

The agencies have turned the EWA on its head and, instead of using it to supplement the resources needed and required for fish protection, have used it as an excuse to short the environment and avoid committing those mandatory resources.  Unless the agencies make very clear that limited EWA assets cannot be used as a reason not to take an action that would help protect or restore imperiled fish, it should be discontinued.

In 2006, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bay Institute filed an emergency petition to change the listing for the Delta Smelt to “endangered” from threatened.   A period of intense litigation and conflict over federal Endangered Species Act protections in the Delta followed the filings.

Failure of Governance

There were other reasons that the CALFED science-based adaptive management program failed to recover Delta fish populations.

One of the issues for the state legislature was the cost of the CALFED program.   The Ecosystem Restoration Program commitments were $150 million a year, and the Environmental Water Account cost $50 million a year.  With the state’s growing budget crisis, these costs were an issue.   Governor Schwarzenegger directed a review of the CALFED program by the Little Hoover Commission in 2005.   The report included the following recommendation:

Recommendation:  Policy-makers must adopt clear and specific goals for the CALFED program and fortify those goals with budget and legislative authority.

  • Set clear, specific goals for CALFED. The Legislature must put in place goals that communicate to the implementing agencies and the stakeholders the State’s priorities and preferred strategies for restoring the estuary and meeting water needs.
  • Ensure the implementing agencies have sufficient authority and resources to succeed. The Legislature must embed the CALFED goals in the authorizing statutes of the implementing agencies, empower those agencies to achieve their missions, and provide sufficient staff and funding to succeed.

Correspondence by the CALFED Independent Science Board in 2008 showed that there was insufficient funding to even develop performance metrics for progress in the main program areas.

As a result of the Little Hoover Commission report, the Delta Stewardship Council was created in the Delta Reform Act in 2009. The Bay-Delta Authority was dissolved and the responsibilities were transferred to the Delta Stewardship Council.  But the governance problems continued.  The Delta Stewardship Council dropped the CALFED water quality program, leaving consideration of effects of contaminants in the Delta to the chronically underfunded State Water Resources Control Board.   The goals in the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program, which included restoration of at risk native fish populations, were not included in the Delta Stewardship Council’s new Delta Plan.  The new performance measures in the Delta Plan were ruled inadequate by the Sacramento Superior Court in 2016.

Meanwhile, Delta smelt are going extinct.

Delta Smelt FMWT Abundance  1967-2018

Delta smelt abundance

Source: CDFW

Lessons Learned

The Newsom administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio is shaping up to look a lot like the 2000 CALFED program, with its emphasis on collaborative solutions, adaptive management, habitat restoration, and huge state investments. The reasons for failure of the 2000 CALFED program should be examined before any major new commitments.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 16, 2019

Principles for State Investment in Climate Adaptation

This is the first of a series of blog posts on California Water Research’s recommendations for the Water Resilience Portfolio.


Source: Tommaso.sansone91          Wikimedia Commons

Principles for State Investment in Climate Adaptation

The first priority of the state must be increasing resiliency of the existing built environment, and protecting vulnerable populations from catastrophic effects of climate change. Catastrophic climate change effects include severe droughts, river flooding, heat waves, fires, and inundation from sea level rise.

The state must also invest in increasing resiliency of ecosystems in the face of climate change.

We must recognize that demand for funding for climate adaptation measures will exceed availability.

We must ensure that the best available, independent science is used to evaluate proposed state investments in climate change adaptation, to ensure that those investments truly increase climate resiliency.

We must develop clear, objective goals and priorities for state investment in climate adaptation, as well as criteria for evaluation of proposed projects. Clear and measurable targets must be set for Water Portfolio investments.

Water Supply

State water supply investments should prioritize public benefits such as increasing ecosystem resilience, and avoid subsidizing the cost of water, which indirectly subsidizes unsustainable patterns of use. State subsidies for water supply for disadvantaged communities should be targeted at those communities.

Targeted funding should also be provided to reduce reliance on aquatic ecosystems and aquifers by investing in urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency and alternative water supplies.

The state should evaluate current patterns of land use, including agricultural use, and ensure that state policies encourage uses that are sustainable and adaptive to climate change.


For aquatic ecosystems to survive in the face of climate change and demand for new diversions, the state must ensure that there are adequately protective instream flow criteria.  Quantifiable goals and deadlines should be set.

The state must prioritize climate adaptation measures that increase sustainability in the use of surface water and reduce impacts on aquatic ecosystems.

For inundation due to sea level rise and river flooding, the state should prioritize pro-adaptive approaches which utilize natural infrastructure, where feasible.


The Water Portfolio should address mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions as well as climate adaptation.

These recommendations are endorsed and supported by the One Water Network of California environmental and environmental justice organizations.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 9, 2019

Delta tunnel – commitment to updated science on sea level rise

On August 28, 2019, the Sacramento Press Club held a panel on Droughts, Tunnels & Clean Water: A Conversation on California Water Policy .  Panelists included  Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, MWD general manager Jeff Kightlinger, and the State water Contractors general manager Jennifer Pierre.

The transcript of the panel is now up on Maven’s Notebook.  Deirdre Des Jardins’ question is recorded:

I had a question about the Delta tunnel and sea level rise.  The last analysis that the North Delta intakes would stay fresh was done in 2010, which accounted for 55 inches of sea level rise and assumed no failure of the Delta levees.  My question for Mr. Kightlinger and Ms. Pierre is, are you going to do a new analysis for 10 feet of sea level rise?

The response by Jeff Kightlinger was explored in last week’s blog.   MWD is considering the cost-benefit tradeoffs of moving the Delta tunnel intakes north.

Secretary Crowfoot’s response is equally important:

I would add that’s the benefit of the new environmental review is to bring in updated scienceI think its scary for anybody who watches how these projections about sea level rise are changing, the acceleration of ice melt in the arctic so this new CEQA analysis will build in, as I understand, with the updated science as it relates to sea level rise.”

The Newsom administration’s expressed commitment to using updated science on sea level rise for the new CEQA analysis is long needed.  In 2014, a prescient review by the Delta Independent Science Board stated:

The potential direct effects of climate change and sea-level rise on the effectiveness of actions, including operations involving new water conveyance facilities, are not adequately considered. […] Similar comments could be made about the treatments of other disrupting factors, such as floods, levee failures, earthquakes, or invasive species, any of which could profoundly alter the desired outcomes of BDCP actions.

In their response to our preliminary draft review, the Department of Water Resources noted that “the scope of an EIR/EIS is to consider the effects of the project on the environment, and not the environment on the project”. If the effects of major environmental disruptions such as climate change, sea-level rise, levee breaches, floods, and the like are not considered, however, one must assume that the actions will have the stated outcomes. We believe this is dangerously unrealistic. 

(underlining added.)

In 2018, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Draft Staff Determination on WaterFix Consistency Appeal stated:

… the Department stated its assumptions still reflect the use of best available science because they are consistent with the recommended estimates for the sea-level rise under the “likely range” reported for years 2030 and 2060 in the latest guidance from the California Ocean Protection Council for sea-level rise planning.The California Ocean Protection Council, however, recommends the “likely range” for use in low risk aversion decisions, such as a coastal unpaved trail. (Ocean Protection Council, 2018 Update, p. 25.) Whereas, it recommends use of the H++ scenario, which is extreme risk aversion, for projects with a lifespan beyond 2050. (Ibid.)

The H++ scenario, from the 4th National Climate Change Assessment, projects up to 6.6 feet of sea level rise at the Golden Gate by 2080, and up to 10.2 feet of sea level rise at the Golden Gate by 2100.  These dates would be about 40-60 years after any Delta tunnel project was finished.

While the H++ scenario is a maximum estimate, it is important to use conservative design assumptions for sea level rise in the engineering design.  The rate of mass loss in the West Antarctic ice sheet has tripled in recent years.


Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 2, 2019

Delta tunnel:  MWD weighs moving intakes 20-30 miles north for sea level rise

On Wednesday, August 28, 2019, the Sacramento Press Club hosted a panel discussion, “Droughts, tunnels & clean water.”  The panel included Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of Natural Resources, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager and CEO of Metropolitan Water District, and Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors. Stuart Leavenworth from the LA Times moderated the panel.

The Newsom administration has committed to modernizing Delta Conveyance to protect water supplies from earthquakes and sea level rise. In a July 8 update to the Metropolitan Water District’s Water Planning and Stewardship Committee, Crowfoot stated, “if you are a state agency and you are building infrastructure that you want to exist and be operating in 2100, you need to plan for between 5 and 10 feet of sea level rise.”  Crowfoot emphasized that sea level rise was one of the reasons the Newsom administration supported the Delta tunnel, stating, “when we’re talking about really protecting our water supply against sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, the underground conveyance or the tunnel becomes quite important.

The Newsom administration has relied on assertions by the Department of Water Resources that the North Delta is 15 feet above sea level.  But as explained in California Water Research’s August 12 blog post, this assertion is misleading.  In the North Delta, only the top of the Sacramento River levee is 15 feet above sea level.  Elevations at Courtland and Hood range from -1 to 8 feet above sea level, and the bottom of the Sacramento River is over 20 feet below sea level. California Water Research has recommended that new modeling be done of the performance of the North Delta intakes with high sea level rise.

During the Q&A period at the Sacramento Press Club luncheon,Deirdre Des Jardins advised the attendees of these facts. She asked Kightlinger and Pierre if they would commit to modeling the performance of the North Delta intakes with 10 feet of sea level rise and widespread levee failure. In response, Kightlinger stated that MWD is looking at moving the Delta tunnel intakes 20-30 miles north to accommodate sea level rise. Kightlinger stated that MWD is evaluating the increased costs of a longer tunnel, versus the benefits of extending the lifetime of the project.

It is unclear what intake locations Kightlinger was referring to.  But in 2010, the Department of Water Resources evaluated two sets of locations north of Freeport, which would resist salinity intrusion with 10+ feet of sea level rise.  The first set includes two locations on the west bank of the Sacramento River in South Sacramento, the second set, two locations upstream of the American River confluence.  A third set of alternative locations was downstream of the confluence with Steamboat Slough.  (see below.)  These would benefit salmon but have less resistance to salinity intrusion.
2010 intake locs

These alternative locations were considered and rejected in 2010, partly on the basis of modeling by Resource Management Associates (RMA) which was interpreted to show no impacts from salinity intrusion at any of the proposed intake locations.  But as explained in California Water Research’s August 6 blog, the 2010 RMA modeling is obsolete and has major limitations.  The 2010 RMA modeling assumed 55 inches of sea level rise, and no failure of North Delta levees.  The California Ocean Protection Council’s current estimate of maximal sea level rise by 2100 is 10 feet or 120 inches.  This is over twice the 2010 estimate.

As part of “assessment of efforts to modernize Delta Conveyance,” California Water Research has recommended that the Newsom administration document that the WaterFix intake locations need to be reassessed for performance with 10 feet of sea level rise and widespread levee failure.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | August 26, 2019

Delta Levees Investment Strategy: protecting Delta smelt?

The Delta Stewardship Council has considered and rejected an alternative for the Delta Levees Investment Strategy that prioritized reducing risks to lives and property in the Delta.  It’s listed as Alternative 3 in the Initial Statement of Reasons for the regulations adopting the strategy.

The Delta Stewardship Council explains that Alternative 3 was rejected because it would not prioritize levee investments that provide “ecosystem enhancements.”  This is from p. 23 of the Initial Statement of Reasons:

Alternative 3 – Prioritize Levee Investments in High Risk to Life or Property Areas

Alternative 3 focuses on prioritizing investments in levee improvements at islands or tracts identified as having a high risk to life or property, including urban and urbanizing areas of Sacramento, West Sacramento, and Stockton. Levee improvements that support other State interests (such as improving Delta ecosystem conditions or maintaining water supply corridors) would still occur but would be prioritized lower than investments in areas with high risk to life or property. Continued funding would be provided for maintenance of levees throughout the Delta where authorized by Water Code section 12980 et seq. and consistent with the recommendations of the CVFPB.

This alternative would not be less burdensome or equally or more effective than the proposed regulation. Alternative 3 was eliminated from consideration because although it would achieve or partially achieve many of the objectives of the proposed amendment, it would not prioritize levee investments that protect ecosystem enhancements that provide high benefits over other types of levee investments.

(underlining added)

But the rejection of Alternative 3 has more to do with the Delta Stewardship Council’s rejection of the initially proposed cost allocation method than with the need for ecosystem restoration projects in the Delta. The Separable Costs — Remaining Benefits (SCRB) cost allocation method was recommended by Arcadis and presented for the Delta Levees Investment Strategy peer review.

Under Separable Costs – Remaining Benefits, the extra costs to provide ecosystem benefits would have been assessed separately from protection of lives and property, and allocated separately.  Arcadis’ consultant, Dr. McMahon, stated:

In summary, the objectives are fairness primarily, so we’re trying to allocate only the costs incurred, so we want to allocate costs in proportions of benefits received; we don’t want any purpose to subsidize other purposes. There are four steps; the first step is the SCRB cost allocation by purpose and then that will inform the subsequent three steps listed here.”

In a previous blog post on the Delta Levees Investment Strategy, we explained that the McCormack-Williamson Tract and Dutch Slough restoration projects are part of the 8,000 acres of intertidal and subtidal habitat restoration required under the 2009 Biological Opinion.  The Tule Red restoration project on Grizzly Island is also part of the 8,000 acres of tidal habitat restoration.  Changes to levees are a relatively small part of these projects.
dutch slough EIR

The California EcoRestore web page lists several future habitat restoration projects on Sherman Island and Twitchell Island, both of which are designated as “very high priority.”  These include an $88.4 million setback levee on Twitchell Island, and restoration of 1,250 acres of wetland on the west end of the island. Funds have yet to be identified for an additional 3,900 acres of emergent wetland restoration on Sherman Island.  The EcoRestore program evolved from the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program.  The CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program (ERP) was part of the CALFED Record of Decision.  The ERP proposed extensive habitat restoration for mitigation of exports by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

As explained in a previous blog post, the Delta Levees Investment Strategy regulations will mandate that these ecosystem restoration projects take priority over protecting communities in the primary Delta from flooding. With the new prioritization, the issue of cost allocation becomes more critical.

The Davis-Dolwig Act, passed in 1961, directed that Department of Water Resources include in its water charges an amount “sufficient to repay all costs incurred for the preservation of fish and wildlife” as a result of the project.  But, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Department of Water Resources has generally not followed Davis-Dolwig in determining charges to the State Water Contractors.

This post was updated on August 27 to include future EcoRestore projects on Sherman Island and Twitchell Island.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | August 20, 2019

Vanishing funds for levee upgrades for smaller, vulnerable Delta communities

The Delta Stewardship Council will be adopting regulations to implement the Delta Levees Investment Strategy (DLIS) on August 22, 2019.  Maps of the priorities for levee investments are available here.

The proposed regulations make investments in upgrading urban levees in West Sacramento and Stockton and adjacent areas “very high priority.” These investments are long needed, particularly for Stockton.  Stockton is the 7th largest city in California, and the levees are badly in need of improvement.

Funding for improvements to urban levees has typically been tied to federal projects and funded separately from improvements to levees in the primary zone of the Delta.  Improvements to the levees in the primary zone have been funded by the Delta Levees Subvention and Special Projects Programs, separate pots of money.

The Delta Levees Investment Strategy also prioritizes investments in improving levees protecting Bethel Island in the South Delta. The US Census estimated Bethel Island’s population at 2,379 in 2017.  This is also an important investment.

But Rio Vista, population 9,009, and Discovery Bay, population 15,525, are second priority for levee improvements.   And the Delta legacy towns of Clarksburg, Courtland, Locke, and the eastern bank of Walnut Grove are the lowest priority, even though Clarksburg and Courtland have public schools.  (Walnut Grove is on both sides of the Sacramento River.)

DLIS NDDelta Levee Investment Priorities — Closeup of North Delta

SouthDelta DLIS.pngDelta Levee Investment Priorities — Closeup of South Delta

The Central Delta Water Agency has commented that, given the shortage of funds for the Delta Levees Subvention and Special Projects Programs, no or almost no funds will be available for levee improvements for islands in the second tier, and none for the lowest tier.  Thus the Delta Levees Investment Strategy codifies the somewhat chilling calculus that protecting smaller, vulnerable Delta communities from flooding is not in the state interest.

One of the main reasons there are insufficient funds to protect smaller Delta communities is that the Delta Levees Investment Strategy also assumes that public funds must be spent to protect Delta exports and pay for mitigation of impacts of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

The Delta Levees Investment Strategy designates as “very high priority” upgrades to the Delta islands marked as “critical for Delta exports” in a 2010 PPIC report, Levee Decisions and Sustainability for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  One of these islands has the town of Isleton, but the rest are more sparsely inhabited.

Levee analysis.png

According to the proposed Delta Levees Investment Strategy regulations, the levees on these islands must be fully improved before any state funds can be spent improving levees protecting Rio Vista, Discovery Bay, Clarksburg, Courtland, Locke, or the east bank of Walnut Grove.

The “Ability to Pay” analysis for the Delta Levees Investment Strategy did not take into account that revenues from the State Water Project could be used to improve the Delta islands that are “critical for water supply,” even though two of the islands are owned by the Department of Water Resources. Most of the land on Sherman and Twitchell Islands was acquired by DWR in the early 1990s. The acquisition and conversion of the lands to grazing and wildlife uses allowed the Department of Water Resources to move the salinity compliance point for their contract with North Delta Water Agency upstream. This was estimated in to provide a benefit to critical period SWP deliveries of more than 100,000 acre-feet per year.

ATP mapAbility to Pay analysis for Delta Levees Investment Strategy (Arcadis)

The Delta Levees Investment Strategy also makes public investments in tidal habitat restoration on Dutch Slough and McCormack-Williamson Tract highest priority.  These islands are being restored as part of 8,000 acres of intertidal and subtidal habitat restoration required for mitigation of the impacts of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. The Ability to Pay analysis for the Delta Levees Investment Strategy includes no revenues from the State Water Project for the habitat restoration, even though mitigation of impacts of the State Water Project is legally the responsibility of the State Water Project Contractors.

Thus the result of the analysis for the Delta Levees Investment Strategy combining pots of money for upgrades to urban Delta levees, upgrades to levees in the Delta primary zone, and habitat restoration, is that funding for protecting smaller Delta communities basically vanishes.  Combining the pots of money is contrary to the originally recommended cost allocation methodology for the DLIS, the Separable Costs — Remaining Benefits method  (SCRB.)  Under SCRB, costs and benefits of projects for water supply reliability and habitat restoration would have been analyzed both jointly and separately from protection of lives and property.

The DLIS also exposes the state to considerable liability.  Many of the levees protecting North Delta legacy communities are State Plan of Flood Control Levees.  The Central Valley Flood Control Association commented that “[d]eviating from existing definitions of levee maintenance that results in the state reducing investments in maintenance of SPFC levees will ultimately increase state liability and costs to pay for flood damage caused by levee failures.”  The Central Valley Flood Control Association comments reference the 1986 SPFC Project levee failure near Yuba City “which resulted in evacuations, deaths, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses.”   In the Paterno decision, this failure to adequately maintain the State Plan of Flood Control Levees resulted in liability by the state of $467 million.

Following the originally proposed SCRB cost allocation method would have avoided the issue with prioritizing non-project levees which protect water supply over SFPC levees which protect lives and property.  The slide below is from a presentation by Arcadis consultants for the Delta Science program peer review of the DLIS methodology.

DLIS cost allocation

Slide from presentation to Delta Stewardship Council on DLIS methodology

Because of the failure to follow the recommended cost allocation procedure, it is difficult to see how the DLIS is consistent with the legislative mandate that the Delta Plan “attempt to reduce risks to people, property, and state interests in the Delta by promoting effective emergency preparedness, appropriate land uses, and strategic levee investments.”

This post was updated on 8/21 to include links to comment letters on the Delta Levees Investment Strategy, more maps, and information on the originally proposed method of cost allocation.




Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | August 12, 2019

Delta tunnel: Sea level rise and elevation of the North Delta

On May 2, 2019, the Department of Water Resources published a fact sheet on “Modernizing Delta Conveyance Infrastructure Q&A.” The fact sheet states that the California Ocean Protection Council has recommended “that projects with a lifespan beyond 2050 be built to withstand 10 feet of sea level rise by 2100.” The Department of Water Resources is to be commended for recognizing the recommendations by the Ocean Protection Council.   Hopefully DWR will be using them in assessing climate change and “efforts to modernize Delta conveyance.” per Governor Newsom’s April 29, 2019 Executive Order.

DWR’s Q& A fact sheet goes on to state:

“A reliable underground conveyance system is needed to move high flows from the northern portion of the Delta, which is over 15 feet above sea level, to the point that it can be exported to water systems in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California.”

The statement that the northern portion of the Delta is over 15 feet above sea level is a bit misleading.  The US Geological Survey gives the elevation of Hood as 7 feet.   Maps from LIDAR data show that elevations at Hood over fifteen feet are on River Road, on top of the Sacramento River levee.  To the east of the levee, Hood is at 7-8 feet of elevation.


The difference between 15 feet and 7-8 feet is critical for the Delta tunnel engineering design. Under NOAA’s 10 foot sea level rise scenario, sea levels could rise 7-8 feet by 2080.  If the Delta tunnel was completed by 2040, that would be within 40 years of initial operation.

If North Delta levees are not adequately maintained and upgraded, there could be flooding even without sea level rise. Courtland, just south of Hood, is at -1 ft to 3 ft of elevation, and is subsiding.  The map below shows elevations from LIDAR data collected by DWR and URS corporation.

North Delta elev closeup


Channel profiles from the US Army Corps of Engineers show that the Sacramento River bottom in the vicinity of Hood is over 20 feet below sea level (Mean Lower Low Water in Suisun Bay.) If there was widespread levee failure in the Delta, it is unclear how far salinity would intrude up the Sacramento River at low flows.



DWR’s assessment of “efforts to modernize Delta Conveyance” should include a discussion of whether further modeling is needed to evaluate salinity intrusion at the North Delta intake locations with 5-10 feet of sea level rise.

This post was updated on 8/14 to include an elevation map of the North Delta.

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