I don’t know where, in the annals of California’s historic mistakes, to rank killing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but it would have to be high on the list.

And what’s so maddening is watching the killing—of fish species; of the entire estuary; of the Delta way of life—unfold in slow motion despite clear scientific evidence that the Delta needs more water. 

But the scientists aren’t running the show. Apparently, neither is the State Water Resources Control Board, though it’s supposed to oversee “the reasonable protection of fish and wildlife” in the Delta. 

No, the culprit is Governor Gavin Newsom.

The governor’s hand is evident in the Water Board’s recent Draft Staff Report for the Phase II Update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan—part two of the state’s new, two-part plan purportedly to save the Delta. 

The state released “Phase I,” covering the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, in 2018, though it has not implemented the policy. 

“Phase II” covers the Sacramento River, its tributaries, Delta eastside tributaries (the Calaveras, Cosumnes, and Mokelumne Rivers), and the rest of the Sacramento Delta watershed. 

Broadly, the new plan offers two ways to address the Delta’s decline. One, which we’ll call Plan A, is an oil-and-water mixture of science and politics. Inadequate to restore the Delta as it may be, it is actually an improvement over the status quo. 

The other, Plan B, is a travesty, special interest politics at its most environmentally destructive.

Guess which one Newsom supports.

Plan A calls for inflows from the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and Delta eastside tributaries of 55 percent unimpaired flow (unimpaired flow is the flow that would occur without water diversions), with flexibility to shift from 45 percent to 65 percent to support salmon and other native species and contribute to Delta outflows. 

Close, but no cigar, said Barbara Barrigan Parilla of Restore the Delta. “There’s plenty of science out there that shows you can’t divert more than 25 percent of an estuary’s flows and not have it chance fundamentally,” she said.

But this standard is a huge improvement over the current regulatory minimum Delta outflows, an astonishingly meager 17.5%. Let me say that again: current regulations allow for 82.5% of Delta water to be sucked out, leaving little more than a wet cocktail napkin and inevitable extinctions of fisheries.

Current Delta diversions don’t hit anywhere near this rock-bottom minimum, but “existing flows may be reduced in the future, particularly with climate change and additional water development,” the report predicts.

To its credit, the Water Board belatedly realizes the need to protect the Delta holistically. Phases I and II surveyed the Delta’s entire vast watershed finding, for instance, there are no minimum stream flows required on certain tributaries. 

“Scientific information indicates that restorations of flows and the functions that flow provides in an integrated fashion with physical habitat improvements is needed to address the declines,” the report says. “…the best available science supports a more comprehensive strategy.”

So the plan proposes mandatory stream flows into the Delta and out of it for migrating fish. It would also require reservoirs to provide cold water habitat for salmon, set levels for interior Delta flows to protect migrating and rearing fish from the giant, fish-grinding export pumps, and other measures, as well as a regime of monitoring.

That’s Plan A. It could be worse. It probably will be. 

Barrigan Parilla believes that Plan A is just for show. Which brings us to Plan B, the dreadfully inadequate “voluntary agreements,” Gov. Newsom’s pet project.

The VAs, as they are called, are negotiated agreements between bigwig Delta water-takers such as the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies. Newsom created the VA process, he said, to avoid perpetual water wars.

“The State Water Board is considering the proposed VAs as a possible path forward…” the state report says.

“I think there’s a highly likely chance that the voluntary agreements become the program,” Barrigan Parilla said. “The reason why is that is what the governor wants.”

The governor wants it not for its wholesome Kumbaya collaboration but because the alternative created by Big Ag and major urban exporters would relinquish much less water back to the ailing Delta: only 500,000 to 700,000 acre feet, less in certain circumstances.

A family of anglers calls it a day at Paradise Point Marina. (Photo by Michael Fitzgerald)

The VAs are just window dressing to maintain the destructive status quo, Barrigan Parilla said. “It’s just not enough flow, especially when you’re starting form an estuary that is behind.”

And the VAs support construction of the dreaded Delta Tunnel. The more responsible Plan A will not leave enough export water to justify the tunnel financially, Barrigan Parilla said. But, “if they can grab more of that water … then it makes the tunnel start to become financially viable.”

The VAs also would continue one of the worst aspects of Delta mismanagement: a legal loophole that allows the Governor to pull rank over any plan or regulation and unilaterally turn on the Delta tap for exporters, Delta health be damned. 

“The governor likes to manage water based on his constitutional authority rather than a plan” based on environmentally sound science, Barrigan Parilla said. 

“That’s what’s scary about this whole process. The voluntary agreements are exactly how we manage water right now, only moreso. That’s what the governor is trying to preserve.”

To do so Newsom has subordinated the State Water Board—emasculated its authority to protect the dying Delta–and staged an elaborate environmental Kabuki, all so he can once again sacrifice the politically weaker Delta region. 

Many observers believe he wants Big Ag and other powerful and moneyed allies for a centrist-left presidential run.

You want shady? Numerous details of the voluntary agreements haven’t even been made public though the public comment period is nearing. 

“The voluntary agreements, in my opinion, are more corrupt than the Delta Tunnel,” Barrigan Parilla said. “Even if you don’t like the Delta Tunnel, they’ve had to put stuff in writing for public consumption. The voluntary agreements, we can’t even get that far.”

Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. His views do not represent those of Stocktonia’s management and staff. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com

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  1. Something that never seems to get talked about is salt incursion into the delta caused by over pumping. Salt is already showing up in ground water as far inland as Lathrop. At times at low tide you can see salt rings on the shores of delta islands. It’s common to see seals as far up river as the hwy12 Sacramento River bridge. If they continue to over pump the delta they will eventually be pumping salt water south. Hence the tunnels, take the fresh water from up stream and pump it south delta be dammed.

  2. Unfortunately, neither the author nor Restore the Delta acknowledge the many reasons why salmon and smelt have been declining in number, which include invasive species that have outcompeted native species for food, habitat loss (more than 95% of the Delta’s wetlands are now farmland behind levees) and rising water temperatures (resulting from global warming). The Voluntary Agreements attempt to integrate additional flow releases with habitat improvements, because just sending more water down nutrient-deficient rip-rapped channels in the Delta won’t do anything to improve the ecosystem.

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