When State Water Boards Clash on Lack of Science and Evidence

Aubrey Bettencourt
Executive Director, California Water Alliance

The California State Water Resources Board (SWRCB) was taken to the woodshed this week by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), when Mark Holderman, the principal engineer at DWR’s South Delta Branch offered expert testimony that the Bay-Delta water plan was written “without evidence, incomplete scientific information, ill-suited for real-time operations, and unverified assumptions.”

On January 3, 2017, the SWRCB held its fourth and final public hearing on the Bay-Delta Plan’s Draft Substitute Environmental Document (SED), in Sacramento.

As SWRCB vice-chair, Frances Spivey-Webber held the gavel, her opening remarks suggested that a greater purpose lay behind increasing the flows of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries 40 percent than their previously announced objectives of restoring the rivers and helping endangered fish populations recover.

“The plan is necessary to ensure the health of the Delta,” Spiver-Webber said, then invited comments limited to suggestions only, as though the passage of the SED was a foregone conclusion.

Holderman responded instead with an eviscerating list of defects DWR scientists found in the SED plan’s foundation. He said the SED:

  • Assigns responsibility for environmental harms without evidence
  • Contains out-of-date and incomplete scientific information
  • Uses Unimpaired Flow Standards ill-suited for real-time operations
  • Makes inappropriate use of a “Flow-Only” approach
  • Contains erroneous information on water quality within the South Delta
  • Identifies incorrectly the State Water Project pumping operations as causing degradation of water quality in the Delta that actually result from net flows, not water levels or net flux
  • Makes unverified assumptions about its effects on groundwater sustainability
  • Relies on dated groundwater data prior to 2010 and does not include impacts of data collected during the 2012-2017 drought, and
  • Passes the buck to the Groundwater Sustainability agencies for preventing damage to the state’s aquifers

The significance of these criticisms is that they come from the agency responsible for assessing, measuring and operating California’s complex water collection and delivery system of dams, aqueducts and other major infrastructure.

To summarize the situation, the Department of Water Resources has called out the State Water Resource Control Board on its findings, facts and science.

And they are not alone. The DWR criticisms echo the thousands of public comments voiced throughout four public hearings held over the last month, including those made by scientists, elected officials, local community leaders, conservationists, and food producers. These comments were made despite the SWRCB’s intentional scheduling of three of the hearing sessions adjacent to federal and state holidays.

As Californians, we have learned, especially when it comes to water, when government wants something, it takes it. But if the SWRCB won’t listen to us, will it listen to DWR?

If the SWRCB’s Bay-Delta Plan is intended to protect our environment and manage our water supplies for the best of all of California, they will listen to DWR and thousands of Californians and start again. The SWRCB should go back and develop a new plan using real-time operations and the best available, state-of-the-art timely scientific data. If the SWRCB proceeds with this un-scientific, flawed and defective plan, then every Californian will know it’s not about the health of the Delta, protection of species, or the quality of our water. It’s not about California at all. It’s about them.

Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance, a statewide water policy non-profit that advocates for the water needs of California families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. Follow @AubBettencourt and visit CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org for more information.

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