Tim Stroshane: State Water Board learns Delta fish populations continue to decline

Solano County's Administrative Center, Fairfield, California.

Source: Michael O'Callahan.

The State Water Resources Control Board held a special "organizational issues" meeting on December 8, 2009, at the 6th floor conference room of the Solano County Administrative Center in Fairfield's ultra-modern Solano County Administrative Center.

The most alarming thing I learned at the meeting was that the decline of the Delta's open water fish populations continues. Pelagic ("open water") Organism Decline (POD) species abundance indices for the first two months of the Fall midwater trawl (FMWT) are complete and found that abundance indices for Delta smelt, American shad, and striped bass are the lowest in history. The index for longfin smelt is the third lowest in history.

Stay tuned on that one. Another year of dry weather and another year of dismal Delta ecosystem news?

I was as surprised as anyone to be the only member of the public attending, so I joined board members Art Baggett, Charlie Hoppin, Tam Doduc, Walt Petit, and Frances Spivy-Weber and senior staff for four hours around one end of a large conference table. Got some other water updates, and Executive Director Dorothy Rice provided handouts for the meeting, which you may view here (about 9.5 MB).

Other Highlights:

Budget - Tom Howard, deputy executive director, informed the Board that the Department of Finance told state agencies to plan for 10 to 20 percent reductions for the Fiscal Year 2010 budget.

Because of needed additional cuts, the Board prioritized additional "off the table" programs for "unprotection" in the next budget round (marked with "U" on the budget sheet in the "handouts" above). They would propose "unprotecting" their agricultural drainage waivers, forest activities, and timber harvest plan reviews.

Board members also discussed the challenge of having to juggle the state's practice of borrowing SWB staff for other state agencies' work tasks with ongoing work assignments of the Board.

Delta Water Rights Investigation and Enforcement: SWB staff are engaged in ongoing enforcement activities on Union and Roberts Islands (both part of South Delta Water Agency jurisdiction). Board discussion of this item, initiated by Spivy-Weber, who said, "they haven't found much", clarified that there are about 200 owners, said Tom Howard, and about 55 are under investigation for illegal water diversions because they failed to support their claims to prior water rights (a rate of about 25 percent of landowners there). Questioned further by board members, staff reported that on some streams outside of the Delta, the rate of possibly illegal diversions by owners is closer to 60-70 percent. Howard indicated that the rate of illegal diversions in the Delta is not believed to be much higher than in the state as a whole, as measured by the number of landowners involved.

The Board continues to study salt tolerant crops for south Delta agriculture. Final report due from consultant, Glenn Hoffman, in December 2009. The draft report from July 2009 is still online. The Board seems to hope that if salt-tolerant crops can be grown in the Delta, then south Delta salinity standards can be relaxed when the Board next reviews its Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

Vernalis Adaptive Management Program review is planned among VAMP staff, CalFED scientists, San Joaquin River Group team and SWB staff planned for early 2010. The Vernalis Adaptive Management Program was the lynchpin of the State Water Board's Decision 1641 issued in 2000 that implemented the Bay-Delta Accord. It is an "experiment" with increasing San Joaquin River flows at key times of year, especially mid-April to mid-May to enable juvenile salmon to escape to the sea where they mature and grow into adults.

The Board discussed some key tasks assigned them by the Legislature in the recently passed Delta water legislation:

New Delta flow criteria: Baggett quickly pointed out to everyone regarding the development of new flow criteria in "a public process" has as its primary purpose the development of information for planning purposes, not for water rights proceedings (that is, the upcoming review of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan in 2012 and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process). Board discussion with staff revealed that the flow criteria to be considered in the upcoming planning process would include existing salinity standards, biological opinion factors, outflow, Old & Middle River flow criteria, X2 (at the western Delta). The Export/Inflow ratios for the San Joaquin River and south Delta are expected to be up for deletion in anticipation of a peripheral canal/tunnel project. The notice for the proceeding issued in mid-December schedules the informational hearings to start March 22, 2010.

Water Rights diversion and reporting data: Howard noted that diversion data and public reporting web site is up and running, waiting for people to report their diversions online in compliance with the new law.

Delta Watermaster: The SWB expects to develop a list of candidates to become the new Delta Watermaster, preferring not to wait for the new Delta Stewardship Council to develop its candidates. It is unknown by the Board and staff yet whether staffing for the Watermaster is to come from the 25 enforcement personnel allocated by the Delta legislation (SBX7 8) or whether the Division of Water Rights would have to provide staff to the new water master. Howard believed SBX7 1 included the Board as a target for transferring staff to the Delta Watermaster. Board members also noted that this is the first time a watermaster has been created for a watershed or basin that has NOT been adjudicated.