Delta Plan Chapter 4: “Protect, Restore, and Enhance the Delta Ecosystem” Preliminary Draft Amendment - Frequently Asked Questions

How has the Delta ecosystem changed over time?

Over the past century, competing demands for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s (Delta) resources have impaired its ecosystem. Once a sprawling tidal marsh, settlers in the 1800s drained the Delta for agriculture, dredged and straightened its waterways to improve flood flow to the ocean, and built earthen levees to protect surrounding cities and communities. Later, upstream dams were built for water supply and hydropower, opening the Delta’s waterways for transcontinental shipping and invasive species. In total, approximately 90 percent of the Delta’s wetlands have been lost to land reclamation since the 1850s.

This highly engineered landscape has interrupted the Delta’s natural flows, eliminated many natural land and water connections, and resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of native vegetation, habitat, and food for fish and wildlife. These changes have caused a severe loss of ecosystem function, imperiling many native species and decreasing their resilience to other stressors such as nonnative invasive species, predation, and climate change.

What is the Council’s role in protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem?

The 2009 Delta Reform Act directed the Delta Stewardship Council (Council) to develop and implement a long-term management plan for the Delta that furthers the state’s coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem, while protecting and enhancing the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place (California Water Code §85054).

The Council adopted the Delta Plan in May 2013. Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan outlines legally enforceable policies and accompanying recommendations and strategies to protect, restore, and enhance the Delta ecosystem. The Delta Reform Act defines a healthy Delta ecosystem as one that has diverse and biologically appropriate habitats and ecosystem processes, functional corridors for migratory species, and viable populations of native species (Water Code section 85302[c]).

Why is the Council amending the Delta Plan’s ecosystem chapter?

The Delta Plan was adopted in 2013 while the state’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) planning process was underway. The BDCP sought to simultaneously address water conveyance and the recovery needs of native species in the Delta. In 2015 however, federal and state agencies shifted their approach from broad-based ecosystem protection and restoration to a more focused set of mitigation projects. After this shift, the Council made a commitment to revisit the Delta Plan to assess the need for an amendment to Chapter 4 to accomplish a protected, restored, and enhanced Delta ecosystem.

What does the preliminary draft amendment propose?

At its core, the preliminary draft amendment proposes both a method and a performance measure to accomplish the Delta Reform Act requirement to achieve a viable ecosystem through large-scale restoration actions. The proposed approach emphasizes restoring ecosystem function through increasing land and water connections to create more habitat and food for fish and wildlife while balancing current land use needs in the Delta. The Council developed this focus based on best available science, which shows that lack of habitat and food are the leading causes of ecosystem decline and fish survival in the Delta. The preliminary draft amendment also considers the current and future effects of climate change and sea level rise, incorporates lessons learned about adaptive management of the Delta ecosystem, identifies best practices for restoration projects beyond the baselines used for mitigation, and addresses the institutional changes needed to integrate and streamline restoration – including more efficient permitting to move projects forward.

How many acres of restoration are needed to achieve a restored Delta landscape? How did the Council arrive at this number?

The Council estimates that 65,000-85,000 acres – roughly 10 percent of the Delta and Suisun Marsh – of net new functional, diverse, and interconnected habitat are needed to achieve the fully restored Delta landscape envisioned in the Delta Reform Act. This estimate is based on best available science and a review of current planning and management efforts, including recovery plans, conservation strategies, and species-specific resiliency plans intended to benefit conditions for native species found in the Delta.

How will the Council accomplish these restoration goals?

The Council does not design, construct, or manage restoration projects. Our role is to provide guidance and consistency for those who are developing restoration projects through a certification process. The preliminary draft amendment refines existing and proposes new guidance (as listed below in parentheses) for project proponents, and local, state, and federal agencies engaged in restoration activities as a funder, permitting agency, or stakeholder through five core strategies to protect, restore, and enhance the Delta ecosystem:

  1. Create more natural, functional flows (revised in part)

    …by requiring projects to be consistent with the State Water Resource Control Board’s Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan flow objectives (no change)

    …by working with the State Water Resources Control Board to ensure best available science informs its regulatory decisions regarding stream flows and water quality (revised)

  2. Restore ecosystem function (revised)

    …by requiring projects to consider and disclose how they would improve ecosystem function1 and provide social benefits and requiring expanded floodplains and creation of riparian habitat in levee projects and (revised)

    …by recommending increased public funding, a “good neighbor” checklist to coordinate restoration with adjacent uses, and by exempting Delta levees from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ policy prohibiting vegetation on levees (new)

  3. Protect land for restoration and safeguard against land loss (new)

    …by requiring habitats to be restored at appropriate elevations for current and future conditions and requiring protection for land with the best opportunities for habitat from incompatible uses (revised)

    …by recommending enhanced working landscapes through Resource Conservation Districts, developing or updating management plans for public lands to halt or reverse land subsidence, and recommending funding targeted land subsidence reversal (new)

  4. Protect native species and reduce the impact of nonnative species (revised)

    …by requiring projects to avoid introducing and, for habitat restoration projects, avoid supporting nonnative invasive species (no change)

    …by recommending prioritizing and implementing actions to control nonnative invasive species including predatory fish, improving fish migration within the Delta and upper watersheds, recommending funding projects to help juvenile salmon avoid predation and being trapped by water intakes in the South Delta, managing hatcheries to reduce genetic risk and improve the resilience of native species, and by coordinating remote fish tracking programs (new and revised)

  5. Improve institutional coordination to support implementation (new)

    …by recommending support for the implementation of ecosystem restoration programs/projects and by aligning state restoration plans and conservation strategies with the Delta Plan (new)

How does the Council propose to support these new strategies?

Interagency groups like the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC) – a group of the highest-ranking members of 18 federal and state agencies working in the Delta – are working to identify barriers to public-private land partnerships, permitting, and other challenges, and crafting solutions to move forward restoration projects that align with the priority attributes in the preliminary draft amendment. Federal, state, and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and stakeholders, coordinated by the Council through the DPIIC, would carry out implementation of the new strategies in the preliminary draft amendment. The preliminary draft amendment also recommends that the DPIIC continue to provide leadership, resources, staff, and funding for integrated conservation and restoration efforts.

Where will the proposed restoration take place?

The draft proposed amendment identifies six priority habitat restoration areas: the Yolo Bypass, from the Fremont Weir south toward the Delta, the Cache Slough Complex southwest of the Yolo Bypass, the Cosumnes River-Mokelumne River confluence, the lower San Joaquin River floodplain between Stockton and Manteca, and the Western Delta/eastern Contra Costa County. Chapter 5 of the Delta Plan, “Protect, and Enhance the Unique Cultural, Recreational, Natural Resource, and Agricultural Values of the California Delta as an Evolving Place,” includes a requirement that restoration efforts must first consider sites on existing public lands when feasible and consistent with a project’s purpose before privately owned sites are purchased. Public land alone, however, is insufficient to achieve the vision of a restored Delta ecosystem. Fully achieving the coequal goals will require actions on both public lands and willing sellers on privately owned sites.

How does the Delta Plan’s proposed amendment encompass other restoration efforts?

The Council works closely with state and local agencies including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the Department of Water Resources (DWR), and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (Conservancy) that are a part of ongoing restoration efforts like EcoRestore. The Council will continue to work with these agencies to ensure projects are consistent with the Delta Plan’s comprehensive guidelines and policies for restoration.

What regulations will restoration projects be subject to?

Most restoration in the Delta has traditionally been implemented to meet regulatory requirements under a variety of laws and regulations, including the Federal Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the California Fish and Game Code, the California Water Code, and others. In addition to these existing regulations, the Council’s draft proposed amendment includes one proposed Delta Plan regulation that, if approved after the Council conducts environmental review and rulemaking processes, restoration projects must certify consistency with before moving forward. To date, nine restoration projects have filed for consistency with the Delta Plan.

How will this new work be funded?

Delta restoration is currently funded through multiple sources including the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (Proposition 1) and the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection and Outdoor Access for All Act of 2018 (Proposition 68) through agencies including CDFW, DWR, and the Conservancy. Future restoration, however, will require state agencies to develop a comprehensive fiscal strategy that updates cost estimates for restoration, identifies new funding sources, and removes institutional barriers to financing landscape-scale restoration projects within the Delta.

How can I get involved?

We encourage the public to get involved with the amendment process! The preliminary draft amendment will be available for a 45-day public review and comment starting November 22, 2019. Through this public process, the Council will continue to work with partner agencies, stakeholders, and the public to further refine the preliminary draft policies and recommendations, narrative and performance measures for Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan. Once the Council considers a revised draft including these refinements, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process will begin. The environmental impact review process is expected to last through 2020, with ongoing opportunities for public involvement.

Footnotes:

1Improved ecosystem function will be evaluated by priority project attributes to be listed in an amended Appendix 3 of the Delta Plan and include: reestablishment of ecological and hydrological processes, scale, land and water connectivity, vegetation cover, and contribution to the recovery of at-risk native species