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State Water Board explains flow criteria and flow objectives

October 2011

At the request of the Delta Stewardship Council, Les Grober, environmental program manager for the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board), provided a brief presentation on his agency’s process to establish Delta flow “criteria” and “objectives” as recommended in the staff draft of the Delta Plan.

The State Board is required to balance competing water needs in a state where water supply can be located hundreds of miles from its heaviest demand. Previous legislation mandated that it fix ailing sewer systems, build new wastewater treatment plants and tackle the cleanup of underground water sources.

The Board also adopts statewide water quality control plans such as the Bay-Delta Plan, which includes objectives for inflows to the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, as well as objectives for Delta outflow. All the while the Board considers a number of factors when developing and implementing flow objectives, such as competing uses for water.

The 2009 Delta Reform Act, however, requires the State Board to now “develop, implement and enforce” flow objectives for the Delta and flow criteria for high priority tributaries in the Delta watershed. Subsequently, a proposed regulation in the fifth staff draft of the Delta Plan calls on the State Board to perform these tasks by 2014 and 2018, respectively, setting a time frame for what the Board is required to do by law.

Grober explained the difference between the flow criteria and flow objectives.

“Flow criteria are just numbers; they have no regulatory basis,” he said. “They provide us with a lot of useful information. But in order to become regulatory, they must go through the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] process. Flow objectives (on the other hand) require that you analyze more than the hydrograph and fish statistics.”

However, according to Grober, developing these objectives will be no small task.

Since November 2009, the State Board has been developing flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem following direction from the aforementioned Delta Reform Act.

The 2014 date is an ambitious timeframe because it requires the State Board to analyze the science for the flow criteria, review the subsequent environmental documentation, adopt the objectives, and hold a water rights proceeding to implement the objectives.

While this can be done concurrently, the State Board would need an augmentation or a redirection of resources to hire more staff and divert its focus primarily to this effort, according to Grober.

To view the State Board’s Delta Activities Update, click here.

To view the current version of the staff draft of the Delta Plan, click here.

By law, the State Water Resources Control Board will develop and test flow “criteria,” which in conjunction with socio-economic and water needs will allow the agency to set flow “objectives” in the Delta. The main difference between these terms is that flow objectives will have regulatory power and thus will have to be more rigorously vetted.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)