SWCRB’s Flow Criteria Report

On August 3, 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopted criteria identifying how much water should “ideally” flow through the Delta to ensure a healthy ecosystem as part of the mandate from the legislature under SB 1, signed into law last fall by Governor Schwarzenegger.  SB 1 has been billed as the foundation for a sustainable 21st century water policy, is to establish the framework to achieve the “coequal goals” of providing a more reliable water supply to California, and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.  SB1 mandates that the coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place. [Water Code Sections 85020 and 85300]

The 2009 comprehensive water package required the SWRCB to develop the flow criteria for the Delta for the purpose of informing two planning processes now under way for the Delta – to help guide development of the Delta Plan and to inform the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.    As specified by the legislative water package, the flow criteria are not binding or to be considered pre-decisional in any future SWRCB action.  It is meant to determine, based solely on science, how much water needs to flow through the Delta to maintain “public trust” values, especially fish populations that are meant to be passed on to future generations.  The water agencies refer to the resulting report as “a purely theoretical exercise with no application in the real world.” Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority.

Unfortunately, the SWRCB’s newly adopted flow criteria report does little to advance the coequal goals.  The report admittedly fails to consider the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and Delta ecosystem sustainability and does not reflect a balancing of all public trust and public interest concerns. The report is a flow-centric approach to protecting and restoring the Delta ecosystem that is neither sustainable nor feasible. An appendix defining the water cost of meeting the criteria was left out of the final report following discussion by the SWRCB staff that they were not comfortable with how the figures were calculated.   The recommendations in the report call for significantly increased flows into and through the Delta, particularly during the winter and spring months, and limits on reverse flows associated with pumping by the state and federal export pumps in the South Delta. The SWRCB recommends additional measures to improve water quality and restore natural habitat, noting that protection of public trust resources “cannot be achieved solely through flows.”  Indeed, one of the key deficiencies in the report is its failure to provide the balancing and analysis required by the public trust doctrine.

The key finding in the report is that about 75 percent of all the snowmelt and rain that flows or falls into the Delta’s watershed, which covers 40 percent of California, should flow through the Delta into the Bay. Today, about 50 percent of the flow passes through the Delta on average as nearly all of California taps into its tributary rivers and the Delta itself.  Meeting all of the requirements in the report would require San Joaquin farms, Southern California and portions of the East Bay and South Bay that rely on pumps in the southern Delta to cut their Delta water use by one-third in addition to recent cutbacks required to meet endangered species rules. For other water users upstream, including utilities serving Oakland and San Francisco, the effect of meeting the reports’ requirements could be even worse — with steeper cutbacks to increase river flows for downstream water exports.

Certain environmental groups cite these figures for the proposition that Californians are taking out roughly twice as much water from the Delta as is environmentally sustainable.  This interpretation of the report, admittedly created in a utopian vacuum, is precisely the danger of such a report. The report is for information only; it does not require cutting back on water pumping nor does it impose any new rules. It does not take into consideration other factors – water rights, for example, and the need to protect human health and safety.  The results could be used in Delta planning and are expected to be used as a yardstick for plans to build water tunnels under the Delta that water agencies say would improve their supplies and comply with endangered species laws.

As the SWRCB has adopted the flow criteria per its charge from the legislature and the water bond measure has been temporarily put on hold, time will tell how this information is ultimately used.

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