CA Water Hearing Has Environmentalists Questioning Governor’s Commitment to Delta Water Quality

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Environmentalists concerned about the water quality of the Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta are accusing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s State Water Resources Control Board as “discarding long-existing regulations protecting water quality (and fisheries) in order to protect the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from their continuing violations of the Public Trust and Bay-Delta water quality standards.”

On Thursday, June 25, the California State Water Resources Control Board will hold a public hearing to determine whether to modify Order WR 2006-0006 that, in part, adopted a Cease and Desist Order (C&D) against the DWR and the Bureau. The Order basically enforces a water quality standard in the Delta. Like most of the debate surrounding the Delta, the standards go back a long way.

In order to measure and control the salinity levels in the Delta waters, the State Board adopted standards in 1978 and reaffirmed them in 1995 and 2006.  These Board standards required the DWR and the Bureau to implement the 0.7 mmhos/cm electrical conductivity (EC) water quality objective for agricultural beneficial uses applicable from April through August of each year at the interior southern Delta compliance locations (i.e., San Joaquin River at Brandt Bridge, Old River near Middle River, and Old River at Tracy Road Bridge).  These measures became known as the interior southern Delta salinity objectives (Order WR 2006-0006) and were adopted on February 16, 2006.

After its passage, the Board ordered DWR and the Bureau “to take corrective actions under a time schedule to obviate the threat of noncompliance with thier permit and license conditions.” This plan included implementing permanent barriers to control the salinity in the Delta. To comply, the DWR and Bureau submitted a plan and schedule to create permanent operable gate structures in the southern Delta through the South Delta Improvement Program (SDIP) by July 1, 2009. According to the State Board, this gate project was contingent upon environmental documentation, regulatory requirements and compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Since completion of the plan and schedule, the DWR and Bureau have failed to meet the salinity standards and install the permanent barriers. The organizations submitted various biological opinions from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service to the State Board, which stated the barriers could not be constructed for several more years—- thus, not meeting the July 1, 2009 deadline for compliance.

Environmentalists from organizations like the California Sport Fishing Alliance and Restore the Delta contend that the salinity standards were protective of the Delta agriculture and the aquatic ecosystem and must be enforced.

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of California Sport Fishing Alliance, issued the following statement regarding the effects on the Delta’s fish, wildlife and water.

However, it became obvious by early 2007 that the gate structures (barriers) faced huge problems and would be delayed and likely would never be constructed. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) expressed serious concerns about the project’s effects on fish and wildlife. In fact the recently released Biological Opinion from NMFS on Delta operations states that DWR shall not implement the South Delta Improvement Project and barriers because the project would adversely modify critical habitat and NMFS has not identified an alternative to the permanent gates that meets the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act.

However, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Campaign Director of Restore the Delta, thinks there is a bigger plan behind the water salinity standards hearing.

“The Delta’s water quality has failed to meet the standards.  So, (the DWR and the Bureau) are pushing through emergency legislation because they don’t have to enforce the law,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta, an environmental organization created to promote awareness of Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta issues.

“They don’t want to enforce the law because it weakens the standards,” said Barrigan-Parilla.  “It’s another reason for Schwarzenegger and the Department of Water Resources to promote the canal.”

Although Jennings didn’t mention the contentious perperhal canal, he agreed with the suggestion that the State Board doesn’t want to enforce the standards.

“Rather than enforce the Cease & Desist and require the DWR and Bureau to implement measures from the many available identified options that would ensure compliance with water quality salinity standards, the State Board has scheduled a hearing to consider modifying the C&D to immunize the DWR/Bureau from their repeated violations,” said Jennings.

Jennings explained that the Cease & Desist order had several options for the DWR and Bureau to stop the salinity violations. These measure included “additional releases of water from upstream Central Valley Project (CVP) facilities or south of the Delta State Water Project (SWP) & CVP facilities, modification in the timing of releases from SWP/CVP facilities, reduction in exports, recirculation of water through the San Joaquin River, purchases or exchanges of water under transfers from other entities, modified operation of temporary barriers, reductions in highly saline drainage from upstream sources or alternative supplies to Delta farmers.”

The upcoming hearing will determine if the State Water Board will make any modifications to the Order WR 2006-0006 (Part A) and any protective measures for the Delta. And it may answer the environmentalists charges concerning the Governor’s commitment to the Delta.

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