An Alternative Approach to Managing the Delta


The State Water Board is updating the water quality plan for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. This plan sets flow and water quality standards for the Delta and its watershed, affecting water supply to more than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of Central Valley farmland. Parties that would be affected by this plan—water suppliers, fish and wildlife managers, environmental nonprofits—are negotiating voluntary agreements to present to the board for consideration.

Members of Governor Jerry Brown’s administration asked PPIC to assemble a small group of independent experts on the Delta to develop ideas about how to resolve the linked challenges of water quality, habitat, and water supply in the Delta and its watershed. This group—most of whose members are in the PPIC Water Policy Center research network—proposed a new approach, detailed in three commentaries posted on UC Davis’s California Waterblog. The recommendations are summarized below.

Tackle a manageable set of problems. Rather than trying to solve all of the Delta’s problems simultaneously, the board and those involved in negotiations should identify a smaller, well-defined set of issues that can be addressed over the next 15 years through this plan. Priorities include: (1) reversing declines in food resources for the Delta ecosystem, (2) maximizing a high-quality habitat that favors native plants and animals, and (3) managing nutrient pollution to reduce harmful algal blooms. Given the inadequacies of past efforts focused on single species recovery, these actions should instead focus on improving overall ecosystem function and condition.

Coordinate the management of freshwater flows, tides, and changes in the landscape. Traditional approaches to improving habitat in the Delta have tended to focus separately on freshwater flows and landscape changes. Where possible, an integrated, ecosystem-based approach—in which freshwater flows, tidal flows, and landscapes are managed together—is more likely to be successful and to result in a more efficient use of water and financial resources. Efforts should be concentrated in the north Delta and Suisun Marsh, and include strategies for reducing harmful algal blooms.

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