Drought Shows Stark Contrasts

I just got back from a week-long backpacking trip in the High Sierras, and what I saw shocked me.

It’s impossible to escape news that California is in the midst of a terrible drought, but it took spending five days in the backcountry of Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park to give me perspective on just how dire the water situation in our state really is.  Creeks and rivers that should be raging are barely ankle deep.  Peak summits that should be encased in snow and ice are exposed and dry.  As soon as I got home, I downloaded photos from the trip, and started looking online for photos from previous years.

Below are two photos – I took the one on top two weeks ago looking West from the shore of Summit Lake in Humphrey’s Basin, at an elevation of roughly 11,000 feet.  The one below was taken by a fellow backpacker almost exactly 4 years earlier, on July 6th of 2010, a nearly perfect “average” snow year based on data from the Department of Water Resources.  The contrast is indeed stark.

Summit Lake, July 2014
Summit Lake, July 2014
Summit Lake, July 2010
Summit Lake, July 2010. (Photo credit – user: OLI, www.easternsierraforum.com)

So we know there’s a drought, and we can see the difference in charts and graphs that show snowpack and river flows.  But living in urban communities there’s a gap between what we know, and our behavior.  After all, the water still comes out of our faucets just as fast, and the price we pay for residential water has barely nudged, leaving both our perceptions and our pocketbooks intact.  Without additional action, there is little beyond personal responsibility to motivate people to conserve.

Earlier this week, the State Water Resources Control Board approved stiff new fines for conservation scofflaws.  Californian’s caught wasting water – hosing down sidewalks instead of using a broom, over-watering landscaping – may now be subject to a $500 per day fine.  But as we’ve seen with other environmental issues like Save The Bay’s efforts to enforce outdoor smoking bans, regulation means little without consistent enforcement.

While it remains to be seen whether the recent emergency drought declaration by Governor Brown, or the State Water Board’s approval of fines will change behavior, there are still significant gaps in how we manage water in California.  Statewide management of groundwater resources continues to lag behind other western states (although an interesting new court ruling may change that).  And the Bay Delta region continues to be one of the longest standing bureaucratic and political messes in the state.

As the adage oft attributed to Mark Twain goes, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.”


News of the Bay: March 14, 2014

Check out this edition of News of the Bay for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

National Wildlife 1/27/14

Harbor Porpoises’ Remarkable Return
On a blustery California August day, researchers are studying some of San Francisco’s least-known residents from an unlikely laboratory: the Golden Gate Bridge. Below in the bay glides a parade of boats—fishing vessels, a tall ship, a slow container barge packed with colorful boxes like giant Legos. Behind the scientists, tourists pause to snap pictures, unaware of the ongoing hunt. Through binoculars, Bill Keener suddenly spots his quarry: a harbor porpoise, its dark gray dorsal fin appearing briefly before resubmerging. Keener predicts the porpoise’s course and, just as it surfaces again, photographs the animal before it disappears. “Got it,” he declares triumphantly.
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News of the Bay

Daily Camera 3/8/14
Boulder: Disposable bag use down 68 percent in wake of 10-cent fee
Six months after Boulder instituted a 10-cent fee on disposable grocery bags, use of plastic and paper bags has fallen 68 percent, city officials said.
That figure is based on a comparison of estimated bag use before the fee was implemented in July and the number of bags paid for by shoppers in the last six months, said Jamie Harkins, business sustainability specialist for the city.
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Sacramento Bee 3/10/14
E-cigarettes face restrictions as cities update smoking ordinances
The electronic cigarettes flooding the U.S. market don’t technically emit smoke, but many cities have decided they’re not much different from ordinary cigarettes.
Last week, Rancho Cordova became the latest local government to pursue restrictions on e-cigarettes; the City Council directed staff members to treat them like regular smokes when they draft amendments to city code sections governing smoking. The Los Angeles City Council also voted last week to restrict e-cigarette use where tobacco smoking is restricted, including restaurants, parks, bars, nightclubs, beaches and workplaces. Similar measures have been approved in a number of Bay Area cities, along with New York and Chicago.
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Reuters 3/13/14
In drought-stricken California court rules smelt fish get water
A California appeals court sided with environmentalists over growers on Thursday and upheld federal guidelines that limit water diversions to protect Delta smelt, in a battle over how the state will cope with its worst drought in a century.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should not have overturned recommendations that the state reduce exports of water from north to south California. The plan leaves more water in the Sacramento Delta for the finger-sized fish and have been blamed for exacerbating the effects of drought for humans.
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Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1)

Today's Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.
Today’s Delta is a system of man-made levees and dredged waterways, surrounded by farm land and communities.

The California Delta is a system of waterways and islands at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and is connected to the Bay through the Carquinez Strait.  The land of the Delta is largely agricultural, much of it reclaimed and protected by a series of levees.  All of California depends on the Delta in one way or another.  The Delta supplies water for 25 million people and crucial habitat for land and water species unique to this ecosystem.  It supports the economy as a nursery for salmon, a deep water shipping channel, a water supply to Delta and Central Valley farms, and a tourism destination.

Governor Jerry Brown released the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) on December 9, re-igniting the long-standing debate over what to do about the Delta.  The 34,000+ page plan stems from the 2009 Delta Reform Act, which directed the Department of Water Resources to create a “multispecies conservation plan.”  The plan includes 22 conservation measures aimed at improving water operations, protecting water supplies and water quality, and restoring the Delta ecosystem within a stable regulatory framework.

The most controversial part of the plan is Conservation Measure 1, Water Facilities and Operation, a plan to divert fresh water from the Delta that currently moves through it.  The State proposes to develop and operate three new intakes from the Sacramento River and build massive tunnels underneath the Delta to divert up to 9,000 cubic feet per second of fresh water.

The Problem

Pre-1800’s, most of the Delta was a tidal wetland, nearly 60% submerged by daily tides.  In the 1800’s European settlers began farming in the Delta, diking and draining these previously flooded lands.  Today, the Delta has been altered by a system of manmade levees, reservoirs, and dredged waterways.  Natural flows have been altered by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, which deliver water to Central and Southern California.  The 1,100 miles of levees in the Delta are vulnerable to seismic activity and breaches.  Land subsidence makes flooding in Delta farms and communities more likely and more devastating, with most of the Delta at 5 to 25 feet below sea level.  A decline in fish populations, like the endangered Delta Smelt, is likely due to a combination of increased mortality at pumping facilities, a decline in habitat and water quality, and reduced food availability due to invasive species.

The “Solution”

The Delta Reform Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, established the framework to “achieve the two coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta Ecosystem.”  The Act tasks the Department of Water Resources with creating a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The Concerns

Opposition to the BDCP comes in many forms, from many perspectives. Those who rely on the Delta for water, like the City of Antioch, worry about the negative impacts to their water supply, including increased salinity, if more water is exported or if the water is diverted before flowing through the Delta.  Delta farmers are concerned about construction impacts and habitat restoration that displaces agriculture.  Environmentalists want to make sure that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan decisions are based on science and have a high likelihood of improving populations of endangered fish and other species.  Many interests are concerned about the $25 billion cost estimate for the plan.

Save The Bay is concerned that the BDCP and the science used to inform the plan do not adequately analyze its impacts on San Francisco Bay.  The Bay and Delta are an interconnected ecosystem.  A healthy San Francisco Bay depends in large part on fresh water from the Delta, which improves Bay water quality and provides healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, including the many endangered and threatened species that live in the Bay and along its shoreline.  The 2011 State of the Bay report attributed declining fish populations in the Bay to continued low annual freshwater flows as water is diverted from the Delta and its rivers.

We are working with a broad coalition to formulate a response to the BDCP – the public comment period ends on April 14, 2014.  We’ll keep you posted.

Want to learn more about Bay-Delta governance?  Read my blog entitled “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta.”

Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 2) – The Regulatory History of the Delta

Bay Delta Region Map
Bay-Delta Region

Delta water issues have been deeply contentious for over half a century.  To understand the recently released Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and its significance, here is a bit of historical context.

The Central Valley Project (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or “Bureau”) began exporting water from the Delta in 1951, and the State Water Project (Department of Water Resources or “DWR”) began larger-scale water exports to the south through the California Aqueduct in 1972.

In 1978, the State Water Resources Control Board (“Water Board”) adopted a water quality control plan that set standards for salinity control and protection of fish and wildlife.  The Water Board also made “Water Right Decision 1485,” which modified Bureau and DWR permits in order to comply with the new water quality standards.  The Bureau and DWR appealed the decision in United States v. State Water Resources Control Board (or for you water law buffs, the “Racanelli Decision”).

Save the Bay and the Environmental Defense Fund jointly submitted an amicus brief arguing that the public trust required a higher level of protection for the Bay-Delta.  One important holding in the case was that the public trust doctrine permits the Board to reconsider past water allocation decisions and to amend water rights if necessary to protect fish and wildlife.  The court also held that the Board’s water quality role is not to protect water rights, but “beneficial uses,” including domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial supply; power generation; recreation; aesthetic enjoyment; navigation; and preservation and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources or preserves.

To comply with the Racanelli decision, the Water Board worked in the late 1980’s to set stronger standards requiring greater flows to protect the estuary.  But the Water Board was directed to withdraw proposals in 1988 by Governor Deukmejian and in 1992 by Governor Wilson.

In the midst of all that was going on at the State Water Board, a statewide ballot initiative in 1982 proposed construction of a canal to convey water directly from Northern California to Central and Southern California, bypassing the Delta.  Save The Bay campaigned against the Peripheral Canal at the ballot box, and the initiative was defeated 63%-37%, with Bay Area counties voting against the canal by  more than 90% margins.

California experienced a six year drought from 1987 to 1992, intensifying the debate.  In 1992, Save The Bay and a coalition of organizations united as “Share the Water” helped draft and win enactment of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, one of the most significant water policy reforms in California history.  The federal law reallocated a portion of Central Valley Project water supplies to benefit fisheries and the ecosystem.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California signed an agreement to coordinate activities in the Delta – the Bay-Delta Accord.  The agreement set water quality standards and initiated a long-term planning process to improve the Delta and the reliability of its water supply.  Over the next ten years, this group of state and federal agencies known as “CALFED” worked together to formalize cooperation among state and federal agencies with management and regulatory responsibility in the Delta and agreed to work together on water quality standards, coordinate operations of the State Water Project and the Central valley Project, and work toward long-term solutions the Delta issues.

Fraught with complaints that CALFED was not accomplishing what it was created to do, in 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger called for an independent review of CALFED and in 2007, established a Blue Ribbon Taskforce to create a Delta Vision, a strategy for managing the delta sustainably to support environmental and economic functions.  In 2008, the strategic plan developed from the Delta Vision project articulated 12 recommendations, the first of which was that the ecosystem and a reliable water supply are the primary, co-equal goals for sustainable management of the Delta.

In 2009, the State Legislature passed SBX71, the Delta Reform Act, which provides a framework to achieve the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply to California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem, while protecting the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta.
The Delta Reform Act created the Delta Stewardship Council, charged with creating a comprehensive management plan for the Delta – the Delta Plan, and tasked the Department of Water Resources with drafting a multispecies conservation plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  The BDCP will be incorporated into the Delta Plan if it complies with the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The Delta Reform Act also required the State Water Board to develop new flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem “for the purpose of informing planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.”  The Board’s 2010 report, Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, concluded that increased freshwater flows to the Bay are essential to protect fish and wildlife.  The EPA’s comment letter on the administrative draft of the BDCP observes that the options presented for analysis “appear to increase Delta outflow, despite the fact that several key scientific evaluations by federal and State agencies indicate that more outflow is necessary to protect aquatic resources and fish populations.”

For years, the State Water Board has attempted to set water quality and salinity standards that would increase fresh water flow to the Bay.  The Board’s 2010 report clearly states that “best available science suggests that current flows are insufficient.”  Save The Bay and many partner organizations are concerned that without increased freshwater flow to the Bay, the BDCP will not be a successful multispecies recovery plan.

Learn more about the BDCP in my blog “Understanding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Part 1).”

Weekly Round-up: December 13, 2013

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

San Mateo Daily Journal 12/7/13
Sea level rise focus of conference: Federal, state, local officials to highlight potential impact on San Mateo County
San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, are hosting a conference to address how San Mateo County can begin to prepare for the effects of sea level rise.
About 300 people have registered for Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise in San Mateo County on Monday morning at the College of San Mateo. National, state and local officials and environmental experts will speak about the magnitude of the reported effects the county faces.
“San Mateo County is uniquely positioned to be impacted on two fronts by sea level rise; both along the coastal zone and along the Bayfront. So we need to be planning now for what will happen when our seas rise,” Gordon said.
Read more>>


San Jose Mercury News 12/9/13
Is Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels plan repeating the errors of high-speed rail?
Ever since he took office three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown has been trying to build two landmark public works projects to reshape California: a $68 billion high-speed rail system and a $25 billion overhaul of the state’s water system, including two massive tunnels under the Delta.
Both have been debated separately so far, with most public attention going to the bullet train plan.
But on Monday, as state officials released a 25,000-page environmental study of the water tunnels plan, critics began to make comparisons between the two, noting that the administration is steaming ahead with both projects, even though neither has anywhere near the funding in place to complete the job.
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KCET 12/9/13
Salmon come back to Marin County as lawsuit proceeds
Bay Area wildlife fans have long known that Marin County’s Lagunitas Creek is a great place to watch wild coho salmon. The creek, which runs from Tomales Bay to the slopes of Mount Tamalpais through undeveloped West Marin, has been home to one of California’s healthiest coho runs despite a century and a half of regional development in the Bay Area. The little Lagunitas Creek watershed held between 10 and 20 percent of all remaining coastal California coho.
That was until a few years back, when the Lagunitas Creek watershed’s coho numbers cratered. The fish have been steadily regaining ground since, but their protectors fear that sprawling residential development may undo the rebound. Three weeks ago, two environmental groups filed suit against Marin County to block a development plan they say threatens the county’s salmon habitat.
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SF Gate 12/11/13
Tidal extremes help put on a wildlife show
The lunar forces will take hold this weekend. The moon cycle will phase into a full moon Tuesday, and in the process, launch a series of high tides and minus low tides.
The time has arrived, Friday through Tuesday, to beachcomb, tide-pool hop on the coast, bird-watch at bay wetlands and go fishing in the bay and off the coast.
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Yubanet.com 12/10/13
In latest victory court of appeal upholds San Francisco plastic bag ban
A unanimous California Court of Appeal upheld San Francisco’s expanded plastic bag ban, marking the latest in a string of victories for local laws phasing out single-use plastic bags. The lawsuit, brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, had disputed the procedures San Francisco used to expand its plastic bag ban in 2012 and the legality of banning plastic bags in restaurants. This is the first appellate court to consider the restaurant issue. Today’s ruling sets the stage for more cities to adopt and strengthen local laws phasing out plastic bags.
“This is a great victory for our oceans,” said Nathan Weaver with Environment California. “The court’s decision makes clear once again that our communities have the right to keep plastic out of the Pacific by banning plastic bags and encouraging reusable bag use. Phasing out plastic bags is the right policy to protect our beaches, our rivers, and the amazing animals that live in the Pacific Ocean.”
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WUTC 12/13/13
How plastic in the ocean is contaminating your seafood
We’ve long known that the fish we eat are exposed to toxic chemicals in the rivers, bays and oceans they inhabit. The substance that’s gotten the most attention — because it has shown up at disturbingly high levels in some fish — is mercury.
But mercury is just one of a slew of synthetic and organic pollutants that fish can ingest and absorb into their tissue. Sometimes it’s because we’re dumping chemicals right into the ocean. But as a study published recently in Nature, Scientific Reports helps illuminate, sometimes fish get chemicals from the plastic debris they ingest.
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