California Environmental Flows Framework — comments to the Delta ISB

Picture of dry creek

On Thursday March 10, 2022, the Delta Independent Science Board had a presentation by Sarah Yarnell (UC Davis) and Julie Zimmerman (The Nature Conservancy) on the California Environmental Flows Framework, and the opportunities and challenges in  applying environmental flows in California.

These were my comments:

I really appreciate the comments by [Delta ISB members] Tanya [Heikkila] and Lisa [Wainger] and Virginia [Dale] about the social and economic aspects of the instream flows problem. I think this is key.

As far as differences , one of the stakeholders involved in a current process told me:

The path of least resistance in this scenario is usually the path that is acceptable to current water users — which means something close to the status quo. This is what steps 8-12 in the CEFF are all about — finding “consensus” with water users even if that consensus is inconsistent with scientific determinations of what flows are needed for healthy ecosystems and fisheries

This is generally an issue with collaborative processes on water in the state.

I also provided a copy of our comments on the Water Board’s Water Rights response to climate change. They document how the current crisis developed from four decades of kicking the can down the road on regulatory instream flows.

During the 1976-77 drought, Governor Brown created a Commission to Review California Water Rights Law. The Commission’s 1978 report recommended increased protection for instream flows.

In 1982, the legislature passed a law requiring the Department of Fish and Wildlife 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 fish and stream-dependent wildlife. DFW was then required to prepare proposed “streamflow requirements” for each stream not later than July 1, 1989. There was a change in administration and this work was defunded. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has a wholly inadequate budget for conservation.

There are also funding issues for the Water Rights Division of the Water Board. In the 2003-2004 state budget, the state legislature ended all general fund funding for the Board, moving it to user fees. We proposed restoring general fund funding, and one observer commented:

Can’t do it. If the Water Rights Department at the State Board gets more than a few dozen employees, there’ll be a rain of blood and frogs.

While the California Environmental Flows Framework is a good step towards resolving this problem, significant challenges remain.

This post was updated to add references.

Further reading

Anonymous, 2022. “First you have to grow the courtroom.” On the Public Record [blog]. February 2, 2022.

Anonymous. 2011. Water rights fees decision: Pity moment for the SWRCB? blog post. Bay-Delta [blog]. February 3, 2011.

California Environmental Flows Working Group. 2021. California Environmental Flows Framework Technical Report. March 31, 2021.

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network, Aqualliance, and California Water Research. 2021. Comments on Water Board’s Water Rights Response to Climate Change. March 13, 2021.

Legislative Analyst’s Office. 2003. “2003-2004 Analysis, Resources,” B-123-B126.

State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Rights. 2021 “Recommendations for an Effective Water Rights Response to Climate Change.” February 2021.


One thought on “California Environmental Flows Framework — comments to the Delta ISB

  1. The following should be required reading for anyone interested in the history, methods, money, and madness involved with the transfer of agriculture water within California.”The Dreamt Land, Chasing Water and Dust Across California” by Mark Arax. It is a true tale of modern day tragedy of the commons.

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