“Flexible” management of ecosystem water and the Australian catastrophe

By Bill Kier and Deirdre Des Jardins

The California State Water Resources Control Board is in the middle of a comprehensive review and update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which sets water quality measures and flow requirements to protect Delta fisheries.  In a repeat of political interference with previous major Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Updates, Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed a new Water Board Chair and has directed the Secretaries of Natural Resources and the California Environmental Protection Agency to engage in negotiations with the Trump administration and water contractors on Voluntary Settlement Agreements to implement the update.

Jennifer Pierre, the general manager for the State Water Contractors, published a breathless Op Ed calling for a “fundamental reset” of the State Water Resources Control Board’s regulatory approach to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. Instead of setting regulatory flow targets, Pierre calls for future management to be based on “adaptation and collaboration.”

Dr. Jeff Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California has also advocated for “flexibility” in allocating water for the environment.  In a January 2019 seminar for the Delta Stewardship Council science program, Mount stated:

 “In our view, that means treating it like a water right that has the ability to both store and trade water… What it did in Australia where they set something like this up is suddenly the environment moves from being a constraint on the system to being a partner on the system.  Somebody sits at the table with the other water right holders and is managing that body of water for the ecosystem but also as a partner with the folks in the watershed.  So trading and storage is extremely important for management flexibility.”

Mount’s glowing reference to the Australian model makes one wonder if he has ever stepped foot in Australia, or seen the misery there.  This year has seen millions of dead fish in the Murray-Darling Basin from low flows and harmful algal blooms.


Jan 29 fish kill on the Darling River at Menindee   Source:  Sydney Morning-Herald

A panel of experts, convened by the Australian Academy of Science, found serious deficiencies in governance and management.   In a February 18, 2019 press release, the Chair of the expert panel, Professor Craig Moritz, stated:

“Our review of the fish kills found there isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.”

In Cry me a river: Mismanagement and corruption have left the Darling dry, an Op Ed published March 2018 in the Sydney Morning-Herald, Hellen Vivian opined:

there is no escaping the state of this once magnificent river. It’s like a giant neon emergency signal flashing across the four most populous states in the country. Depleted, despoiled, often poisonous and since 2001 frequently dry, the Darling River is an emblem of poor government, mismanagement, greed and anti-democratic activity.

In sum, there is nothing new or exciting about water diverters managing a block of water for the ecosystem.  The Australian corruption and mismanagement shows the catastrophic impacts that could occur in California if those who profit from water diversions are charged with managing flows to protect fisheries.

About the authors

Bill Kier is a certified fisheries scientist who during his long professional life has been a California Department of Fish and Game field scientist, program manager and environmental division chief; an assistant Secretary of the California Resources Agency; a California State Senate consultant to committees on fish, wildlife, natural resources and water resources; developer and Director of the Senate’s office for research and policy development; and, since 1986, a developer of, and Principal with Kier Associates.  His consulting trips have taken him to the coastal estuaries of eastern Australia as well as the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Gulf of Maine, and France’s Loire River.

Deirdre Des Jardins, principal at California Water Research, has a background in nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, and computational modeling.  She is a former researcher at NASA Ames Research center, the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Santa Fe Institute, and the UC Santa Cruz Bioinformatics Group.  She has done research and policy analysis on California developed water issues since 2009, including climate change, water management, and regime change in the Delta ecosystem.

2 thoughts on ““Flexible” management of ecosystem water and the Australian catastrophe

  1. “Adaptive Management” has long been a buzzword used by the tunnel proponents. Unfortunately, the same people never truly treat the environment as an equal partner. In fact, during one Delta Stewardship Council, Chair Randy Fiorini actually stated regarding the co-equal goals, that when there is a tie, they will always go with the exporters. (The fish die.)

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