Flow Criteria, Public Trust, Sacramento River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009, San Joaquin River, SWRCB

State Water Resources Control Board adopts Delta flow criteria

Yesterday the State Water Resources Control Board unanimously adopted criteria describing the flows deemed necessary to protect public trust resources in the Delta, as detailed in the draft report released last month.  This approval of the report meets the statutory deadline and is even slightly ahead of schedule.  Within nine months, the SWRCB collected extensive testimony, held three days of informal hearings in the spring, and assimilated a vast amount of scientific literature on the Delta — all to prepare this report, which documents the flows needed to maintain a healthier Delta according to the best available science.  Board and staff alike should be commended for their successful and timely completion of this challenging task set by the Legislature in the Delta Reform Act of 2009.

The State Board generally adopted the flow criteria report as is, and you can click here to view the original draft version of the report (PDF).  However, the Board’s vote approving the report incorporated a couple changes to the draft that are worth mentioning:

  • The draft version includes an Appendix B (pp. 178-81).  Staff had second thoughts about the accuracy and utility of Appendix B and recommended that it be omitted.  The Board agreed, voting to strike Appendix B and any references to Appendix B in the body of the report, per the staff recommendation.
  • Pages 4-7 of the report lists the report’s nine overall conclusions.  To that list Boardmember Arthur Baggett added a tenth item that recognizes more explicitly the need for better land use management.  Baggett also asked that language be inserted into the executive summary stating that current flows are insufficient to support public trust resources.  A small concession, perhaps, to those who felt the executive summary was too apologetic.

It is true that a fair amount of the content of the executive summary basically amounts to an apology for the report’s limited scope — in particular, that the report focuses on public trust resources in the Delta, to the exclusion of water supply, public trust resources outside of the Delta, and other competing beneficial uses.  I see no real problem with clearly stating the limitations of the flow criteria, as it’s better to establish the base assumptions than to generate new misunderstanding by taking statements out of context.

There is such a thing as taking it too far.  Context notwithstanding, the flow criteria are not the feeble creation that Westlands GM Tom Birmingham would have us believe, as he urged the Board to simply bump the report forward without formally adopting it and endorsing its methodology — the type of remark that only serves to distance Westlands even further from rational state water policy.  For even if the executive summary’s “apologetic” remarks were added to appease water users, the report does not mince words on the ultimate conclusion:

Restoring environmental variability in the Delta is fundamentally inconsistent with continuing to move large volumes of water through the Delta for export. The drinking and agricultural water quality requirements of through-Delta exports, and perhaps even some current in-Delta uses, are at odds with the water quality and variability needs of desirable Delta species. (Draft Report, page 6)

The report’s recommendations include increased flows expressed as a percentage of unimpaired flow:

  • Delta Outflow: 75% of unimpaired Delta outflow from January through June;
  • Sacramento River Inflow: 75% of unimpaired Sacramento River inflow from November through June; Wilkins Slough fall/winter pulse flows; positive flows downstream of Georgiana Slough.
  • San Joaquin River Inflow: 60% of unimpaired San Joaquin River inflow from February through June; October pulse flow at Vernalis.
  • Hydrodynamics: restrictions on negative Old and Middle River (OMR) to protect native fish species, e.g. to accommodate salmonid migration; October flow-export ratio > 0.33 at Vernalis (coincides with pulse flow).

Actually implementing these increased flows recommended in the report (in conjunction with Decision 1641 and other objectives) requires a corresponding reduction in water deliveries.  Appendix B strove to estimate those reductions and reported the following conclusions: 67% reduction of federal and state project deliveries north of Delta; and 21-25% reduction of federal and state project deliveries south of Delta.  Appendix B also reported that San Joaquin flows at Vernalis would increase by 53-61% with the criteria in place.

The State Board agreed with staff that Appendix B should be revoked because its conclusions are the result of inaccurate modeling incapable of immediate correction.  This was the best course of action, and not necessarily because delivery impacts are the sensitive point.  (Any substantial supply reduction would generate some opposition, no matter the magnitude, particularly if/when the coequal goal of water supply reliability is framed around current unrealistic contracts.)

The content of Appendix B is in tension with the Legislature’s charge to the State Board.  The Board was required to develop criteria, including “volume, quality, and timing of water necessary for the Delta ecosystem.”  For once, the fish have their day.  The magnitude of loss borne by state and federal contractors is an important consideration, but it is premature and falls outside of the Legislature’s narrow directive for the flow criteria exercise.  We already have a well-developed understanding of human needs for water; thus, for the time being, ecosystem needs can and should be assessed independently of human impacts.  Think of it as a prologue to co-equality.  Relax: there will be opportunity in the future to pit consumptive and instream uses against each other.



  1. Pingback: SWRCB issues draft decision approving Davis-Woodland water right | Bay Delta Blog - 17 February 2011

  2. Pingback: SWRCB grandstanding on the BDCP? « Bay Delta Blog - 13 January 2012

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