Sacramento River, seen in Redding, California.

State Board Sticks to Flow Regime on Sacramento River

Taylor HillmanGeneral

Flow RegimeDespite calls to consider a more comprehensive approach to water management that serves multiple, beneficial purposes, an updated science report from the State Water Resources Control Board doubles down on what it has tried before: increasing flows for fish to the Sacramento River and delta.

Representatives of Sacramento Valley water users say they continue to evaluate the new report, an earlier draft version of which was released last year. Their initial assessment, they said, is that not much has changed from the original draft, although the board does encourage voluntary agreements to help achieve its objectives, an approach farm groups and irrigation districts favor.

The state water board, which allocates surface-water rights and is responsible for protecting water quality, has been trying to update its Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan for years. The Bay-Delta Plan, as it is known, outlines how water in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be managed.

In the current report, released last week, the board identified the scientific rationale behind its proposal to increase flows in the Sacramento River basin. Although the report “acknowledges the importance of addressing non-flow stressors to protect the ecosystem,” the board said it has focused on flows, where it has “direct responsibility.”

The report will ultimately influence how board staff will develop its Substitute Environmental Document, or SED, which analyzes the possible environmental and economic impacts related to potential changes to the Bay-Delta Plan.

The plan is being updated in two phases, with the current report representing part of Phase 2, which addresses requirements for flows in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, including the Mokelumne, Cosumnes and Calaveras rivers.

Phase 1 of the plan, which deals with the San Joaquin River, remains under development. The board is expected to release a final SED for Phase 1 in late fall, spokesman Tim Moran said. A draft SED for Phase 2 is expected this winter, he added.

David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, said he is disappointed with the new report, which sticks to a “faulty premise” from 20 years ago that relies largely on boosting unimpaired flows in the river to help fish populations. If the scientific basis is wrong, he said, then the SED will be flawed.

“We’ve tried the unimpaired-flows experiment in the delta for the last two decades, and the fish are dying and water reliability is suffering,” he said. “It’s time for a new experiment, in my view.”

Guy said the state should pursue a “functional flow” approach in which “every drop of water has to have a function.” That means spreading water across the landscape to benefit fish and other species through food production and habitat. He said the board’s current approach “ignores modern science, which calls upon reconnecting the water and the land.”

As in the earlier draft, the board continues to recommend instream flows to the Sacramento River watershed ranging from 35 to 75 percent of unimpaired flow.

“That just means you evacuate reservoirs and shove water down a cold, sterile riprap channel, all the way out to the bay, which is not helping fish and not helping water supplies anywhere in the state of California,” Guy said.

A consultant’s report commissioned by NCWA in 2012 estimated a requirement for 50 percent unimpaired flow would cause 1.1 million acre-feet of water to remain in the Sacramento River and reduce reservoir carryover storage by 2.2 million acre-feet.

The updated state board report also recommends replacing the existing delta outflow requirements with an outflow objective based on the required inflows. In addition, it proposes requirements to keep migrating fish out of the interior delta and on the correct migration pathway. These requirements include additional Delta Cross Channel gate closures in October; new Old and Middle River reverse flow limits from December through June; and modified export constraints based on San Joaquin River flows that apply from April through May.

The report said flexibility should be provided for voluntary agreements, which could potentially reduce the volume of water needed, so long as those agreements fall within the 35 to 75 percent minimum criteria of unimpaired flow and can be developed expeditiously.

Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District No. 108 in Grimes, which delivers water from the Sacramento River to farmers in southern Colusa County and northern Yolo County, said even though the report has been “refined to reflect the idea that there might be voluntary agreements” and to support potential local solutions, much of it still sounds “very similar to what was released before.”

“I think they picked up on some of the function language or dialogue that was being put together, like, it’s not that we just need to add water; we need to add water if it produces something that works, that produces a function for fish,” he said.

Guy said recognition by the board that there is a voluntary-agreement process underway is encouraging. He noted that Gov. Brown’s California Water Action Plan has called for voluntary agreements, which it said could be used as an alternative approach to implementation of the board’s Bay-Delta Plan actions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins.

“At least the water board acknowledges that voluntary agreements are probably a better way to address these important issues and their process,” Guy said. “We’re hopeful that this voluntary-agreement process will be fruitful. Hopefully, the state water board will be helpful in facilitating voluntary agreements and not be an impediment.”

But if these agreements are unsuccessful, he added, “we’re going to be right back into the regulatory process.”

Comments on the report may be submitted by noon, Nov. 9, to with the subject line “Phase II Bay-Delta Plan Input.” The board has provided a list of questions for optional input. They may be found at

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.