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Draining The Sierra Nevada Headwaters

Recently, the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association (MCWRA) held a historic regional water symposium for its membership.

While MCWRA has hosted many regional water programs in the past five years, never has MCWRA hosted a regional water symposium that included two United States Congressmen, three California State Senators, and one California Assembly Member under the same roof at the same time. Never has there been such a significant presence of county supervisors from the mountain counties area.

It was a distinct honor and privilege that our representatives all attended to offer their views and perspectives on the regional and northern California water challenges and opportunities with the new Trump Administration.

The regional and statewide water challenges are as significant as they are many. For example, and of high significance;

WATERSHED MANAGEMENT – The increasing incidence of major wildland fires in the Sierra Nevada is a threat to water supply and downstream water quality. The sediment reduces the storage capacity of California’s reservoirs, reduces the cold-water pools for fish, accelerates water movement creating flooding downstream and puts further pressure on the levee system in the Delta. Lack of federal funding, environmental impediments, and watershed management has created this unhealthy environment for the states’ largest winter reservoir; the Sierra Nevada. The overstocked forest and the dead, dying trees is unprecedented. Building biomass plants is one tool to promote healthier forests by providing an outlet for removal of overgrowth and of dead trees.

There should also be significant state and federal investment in the state’s natural infrastructure, being the Sierra Nevada Headwaters, to sustain healthy forests and foothills, eco-systems, and high-quality water resources that Californians’ have come to depend upon.

WATER STORAGE – Much has been written and promoted about the need for more water storage. It is appalling to see millions of gallons of fresh water flowing to the sea. There should be significant infrastructure investment in new water storage. This fresh water should be stored in reservoirs, sequestered in the Sierra, and injected into the ground water basins to provide for multiple smart uses later.

WATER QUALITY – There are very real water quality issues in the Delta. Yet, environmental groups and regulators want to squeeze valuable water resources from agriculture, and rural and urban communities so there is more fresh water to dilute the

toxins in the river system. This is a waste and an unreasonable use of our finite water supply. The state should use Proposition 1 funding approved by the voters in 2014 and fix the water quality problems upstream.

UNIMPAIRED FLOW – Environmental groups and regulators want more flow for fish in the Delta, yet ignore funding and fixing the other stressors in the Delta. There is little food and cover for the endangered fish. A juvenile endangered fish has little chance at survival from predators. Striped bass limits and size limits has created an incubator for predators near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Systems and elsewhere in the Delta.

ALTERED DELTA – Decades of Delta alterations and sea level rise, demand more fresh water to fight mother nature and salt from intruding too far upstream. Adjustments must be made in the Delta. If sea rise is not properly addressed in the Delta, that additional demand for fresh water will come from northern California and the mountain counties tributaries.

WATER RIGHTS AND LOCAL CONTROL – Forthcoming is loss of local control for water managers and their communities. There is a movement to unravel historical Area-of-Origin water rights protections, the water rights priority system, and mandate either by legislative or regulatory design, implementation of permanent water conservation rationing. These longstanding state assurances are paramount to this regions quality of life and should be honored unequivocally such that no state and/or federal agency exert regulatory authority to hinder or reallocate area-of-origin and/or watershed-of-origin water supplies that lays harm to the communities and eco-systems in the Mountain Counties Area.

EMERGENCY DROUGHT – The drought is over. Yet, regulators hold rein on authority and power over regional water districts and communities only to compound their challenges. Reduced revenue from rationing forces water districts to raise water rates on communities and ratepayers that can’t afford it. Revenue that should go to replace and repair aging infrastructure goes to fund operating costs.

PUBLIC GOODS CHARGE – There is movement to impose what is being called a public goods charge on water. This will be a state mandate for water districts to impose a surcharge on your bill. That money should go to replace your water district’s aging infrastructure. My money says it goes to Sacramento never to return. This means, loss of local control and raised rates!

WATER RATIONING – Water districts are required by Proposition 218 to charge their ratepayers the cost to provide service, which is what they do. Look for the state to change that to penalize water districts if they miss those water rationing targets the state hopes to impose, again, either legislatively or regulatory. Once the indoor and outdoor household water use targets have been established, it will be easy for the regulators and legislature to get out the ratchet and raise those targets, becoming standards. This is a direct hit on water rights.

There is a grand scheme being played out and orchestrated in Sacramento that will affect this region’s long-term water reliability and the quality of life of those here now and those that desire to come to this region.

Wake Up Mountain Counties and Northern California. It is, or should be, the responsibility of everyone that lives, works, and recreates in this region and northern California to set aside personal agendas and ideologies. It is crucial we have the collective wisdom, vision, and commitment to do our part, which should be to present solutions and not complaints or problems. It is imperative that we rally around and support our local, state, and federal representatives in this effort. Only by setting aside differences and working with our representatives to implement comprehensive water management solutions will this region have any chance to achieve long-term water reliability for the foreseeable future.

State Water Resource Plans: Draining the Headwaters

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWCRB) is developing regulations that will deprive northern Californian’s of our water supplies. The SWRCB’s proposed plan guarantees that Sierra water be dedicated to flow unimpaired to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta). This flawed approach will drain Sierra Nevada headwaters and reservoirs while dedicating that water to fill a bathtub with a hole in it – the Delta.

Unimpaired flow, as interpreted by the SWRCB, “is the rate and volume of water flow that would be produced by the rain and snow accumulating in a watershed absent any diversion, storage, or use of water”. Using this regime makes no sense.

The Sierra Nevada watershed is a highly-altered system with reservoirs, canals, diversions, and power generation facilities as is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta waterway highly altered by a maze of sloughs, miles of riprap, and deep and wide channels. Rather than trying to distort reality, many organizations around the state, including the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association are strongly encouraging or demanding the SWRCB abandon their unimpaired flow concept.

Also, what is missing from the discussion is the science developed by the Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB). In August 2015, a review by the Delta ISB reported that “flow is but one factor affecting fishes and its effects are confounded by other drivers of fish production in the ecosystem”. The report went on to say “that five major drivers are considered as agents of change in any given ecosystem. These are habitat alteration and loss, resource use and exploitation, invasive species, pollution, and climate. All of these drivers have played a role in the Delta and affected fishes.”

The Delta ISB is a standing board of nationally and internationally prominent scientists with appropriate expertise to evaluate the broad range of scientific programs that support adaptive management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Created by the Delta Reform Act of 2009 and appointed by the Delta Stewardship Council, the Delta ISB provides oversight of the scientific research, monitoring, and assessment programs that support adaptive management of the Delta through periodic reviews.

The report reads “it is almost impossible to assess how flows affected fishes historically in the Delta because the ecosystem has undergone and is still experiencing dramatic alterations in habitat, species composition and interactions, channel morphology, and water quality.”

As noted in the report, much research in the Delta has been understandably focused on endangered or threatened species and some non-natives such as the Striped bass. The non-native species dominate fish biomass in much of the Delta and have disrupted historic food webs. Ecologically important species of fish are those that dominate the ecosystem and/or play key roles in the food web. As called out in the report, “Little is known about the impact of flows on many of these species and they likely have important food-web relationships to threatened or endangered species.”

The State should concentrate on and fix the other multiple “drivers” in the Delta. Only then should it consider the amount and timing of flow necessary to create a robust fishery in the Delta. Until the drivers have been fixed in the Delta to provide food and cover for the endangered fish and water quality issues fixed upstream, more flow should be deemed a waste and unreasonable use of water, particularly when the science is not there.

The “unimpaired flow” regime is a “take” from the drought-stressed northern California tributaries to help the endangered species in the Delta with little or no regard to the impacts to the Sierra region’s ecosystem, its endangered aquatic plant and animal species, including endemic and migrating species that are already stressed by forest fires and drought.

We recognize that the SWRCB members are faced with tough and complex decisions in this diverse state. The mountain counties region stands ready to work collaboratively with the SWRCB to develop a comprehensive plan that will enhance and protect natural resources in the Delta and in the Sierra while balancing other beneficial uses of water.