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An Alternative Approach to Managing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

A group of independent experts has proposed a plan to resolve some of the biggest challenges facing water and ecosystem management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, often a lightning rod of controversy.

Written by Jeffrey Mount Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A view of Bruno’s Island Yacht Harbor, located in the Seven Mile Slough in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California.Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

The State Water Board is updating the water quality plan for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. This plan sets flow and water quality standards for the Delta and its watershed, affecting water supply to more than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of Central Valley farmland. Parties that would be affected by this plan – water suppliers, fish and wildlife managers, environmental nonprofits – are negotiating voluntary agreements to present to the board for consideration.

Members of Governor Jerry Brown’s administration asked the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) to assemble a small group of independent experts on the Delta to develop ideas about how to resolve the linked challenges of water quality, habitat and water supply in the Delta and its watershed. This group – most of whose members are in the PPIC Water Policy Center research network – proposed a new approach, detailed in three commentaries posted on the University of California, Davis’ California Waterblog. The recommendations are summarized below.

Tackle a manageable set of problems. Rather than trying to solve all of the Delta’s problems simultaneously, the board and those involved in negotiations should identify a smaller, well-defined set of issues that can be addressed over the next 15 years through this plan. Priorities include: (1) reversing declines in food resources for the Delta ecosystem, (2) maximizing a high-quality habitat that favors native plants and animals, and (3) managing nutrient pollution to reduce harmful algal blooms. Given the inadequacies of past efforts focused on single species recovery, these actions should instead focus on improving overall ecosystem function and condition.

Coordinate the management of freshwater flows, tides and changes in the landscape. Traditional approaches to improving habitat in the Delta have tended to focus separately on freshwater flows and landscape changes. Where possible, an integrated, ecosystem-based approach – in which freshwater flows, tidal flows and landscapes are managed together – is more likely to be successful and to result in a more efficient use of water and financial resources. Efforts should be concentrated in the north Delta and Suisun Marsh, and include strategies for reducing harmful algal blooms.

Bolster current science programs to guide implementation of the plan. Although there is a strong scientific basis for undertaking the approach outlined here, there are still many uncertainties about which specific strategies will bring success. This is why a robust science effort is needed to guide actions and evaluate progress. Scientific research on the Delta and its watershed is not well organized to do this. A new program – housed within the state’s existing Delta Science Program – should develop the science necessary to implement the Water Quality Control Plan. To make this program successful, a Delta Science Joint Powers Authority (JPA) – made up of the various agencies engaged in Delta management – should be established. The JPA would pool resources to fund the Delta Science Program and broader efforts in Delta science. The JPA would also be a forum for agencies, water users and other stakeholders to develop consensus on science-based management. This will increase the efficiency of scientific efforts and reduce conflict over findings.

Is this ecosystem-based approach legal? In a word, yes. Management of the Delta needs to shift away from efforts to recover a few species of endangered fish and toward improving ecosystem conditions to meet a broader range of objectives. If the regulatory agencies can document the benefits of this approach, there are no barriers under current law.

These recommendations challenge some historical approaches to management of the Delta. But ecosystem-based approaches that use an array of tools have the prospect of being a more efficient use of resources – including the critical resource of water for the environment – with broad benefits for fish and wildlife as well as the people who rely on Delta water.

This story was first published on the blog of the Public Policy Institute of California.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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