San Francisco Bay/Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta Estuary (Bay-Delta) Program

Frequently Asked Questions on the Bay Delta Process - Updated May 2017

The Bay-Delta includes the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Suisun Marsh, and San Francisco Bay. California's two largest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, converge in the Delta and meet incoming seawater from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco Bay. The Delta is a critically important natural resource for California and the nation. It is both the hub of California's water supply system and the most valuable estuary and wetlands on the west coast, serving cities, farms, fishing communities, boaters, fish, and wildlife.

The Bay-Delta is a critically important natural resource for California and the nation. It is the hub of much of California's water supply. The 45,600-square-mile Delta watershed provides all or a portion of surface water or groundwater supplies to over two thirds of Californians. The Delta and Suisun Marsh support more than 55 known fish species and more than 750 plant and wildlife species. Of these species, approximately 100 wildlife species, 140 plant species, and 13 taxonomic units of fish are considered special-status species and are afforded some form of legal or regulatory protection (CNDDB 2010, USFWS 2010, CNPS 2010).

"Bay Delta Plan" is short for the State Water Resources Control Board's (State Water Board) San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary Water Quality Control Plan. The Bay-Delta Plan identifies the beneficial uses of the Bay-Delta, water quality objectives for the reasonable protection of those beneficial uses, and a program of implementation for achieving the objectives. The Bay-Delta Plan, when implemented, can determine the amount and timing of water entering and moving through the Delta.

The Bay-Delta has long been recognized as a resource for commerce, agriculture, and fisheries, and other beneficial uses. One of the earliest lawsuits related to Delta water quality was filed in 1920 by the City of Antioch. The predecessor to the State Water Board issued its earliest Delta water rights decision in 1958 (Decision 893). The 1959 Delta Protection Act directed that the Delta's waters be of a quality to support agriculture and other uses, and in 1961, fish and wildlife enhancement was added to the official purposes of the State Water Project. This same year the predecessor to the State Water Board issued Decision 990 which included the first conditions to protect fish flows. Basic water quality requirements for the Delta were first established in 1967 with Water Rights Decision 1275. Other significant events followed.

  • In 1969, the California Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (Porter-Cologne Act) became law, and its authority extended over beneficial uses of waters of the Bay Delta.
  • In 1971, Water Rights Decision 1379 established water quality requirements to be met by Delta export projects.
  • In 1978, the first water quality control plan for the Delta was approved, and its provisions were implemented through Water Rights Decision 1485.
  • In 1995, an updated Bay-Delta Plan was adopted, which serves as the basis for the 2006 Bay-Delta Plan objectives.
  • In 2000, Water Rights Decision 1641 implemented provisions of the 1995 Bay-Delta Plan.
  • In 2006, the existing Bay-Delta Plan was adopted. It updates the 1995 Bay-Delta Plan and identifies emerging issues that are currently being considered.
  • In 2009, the State Water Board adopted a report on the periodic review of the 2006 Bay-Delta Plan which identified issues for further examination in the water quality control planning process.

The State Water Board holds dual responsibilities of allocating surface water rights and protecting water quality. The State Water Board allocates water through an administrative system that is intended to maximize the beneficial uses of water while protecting the public trust, serving the public interest, and preventing the waste and unreasonable use or method of diversion of water. State water quality law requires the adoption of water quality control plans that identify existing and potential beneficial uses of waters of the state and establish water quality objectives to protect these uses. The water quality control plans also contain implementation, surveillance and monitoring elements. While most water quality control planning is done by the Regional Water Boards, the State Water Board has authority to adopt statewide water quality control plans. The State Water Board adopts the Bay-Delta Plan because of the Delta's importance as a major source of water supply for the state. The Bay-Delta Plan protects water quality in the region and includes water quality objectives to protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses through inflows to the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and Delta outflows, in addition to objectives for salinity to protect agricultural beneficial uses.

Addressing the ecological crisis in the Delta is essential. In the last ten years, the continuing decline of the Bay-Delta ecosystem's health has reinforced the need for action. Numerous scientific documents have identified flow as a major factor affecting fisheries and other public trust uses of the waters of the Delta. In 2009, the State Water Board issued a Notice of Preparation (NOP) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to begin the process of updating the Bay-Delta Plan, including evaluating potential amendments to Delta flow and other water quality objectives. In 2009, the Legislature also enacted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act, which required the State Water Board to develop flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem necessary to protect public trust uses.

Under the Porter-Cologne Act, the State Water Board State and federal law require the periodic review of water quality control plans to ensure that they reflect current conditions. The last periodic review was completed in 2009. The current update of the Bay-Delta Plan, scheduled for completion as early as late 2017, will mark the fourth update of the plan since the Bay-Delta Plan's adoption in 1978. There are two active phases to this update:

  • Phase I (initiated in 2009; proposed adoption December 2017):
    • Flow objectives for the protection of fish and wildlife beneficial uses in the San Joaquin River (SJR) that migrate through the Delta;
    • Salinity objectives for the protection of agricultural beneficial uses in the southern Delta; and
    • Program of implementation for these objectives and monitoring and special studies requirements.
  • Phase II (initiated in 2012; proposed adoption as early as late 2017):
    • New inflow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and eastside tributaries to the Delta (the Mokelumne, Calaveras and Cosumnes rivers);
    • New and modified Delta outflow requirements;
    • New requirements for cold water habitat;
    • New and modified interior Delta flow requirements;
    • Recommendations for complementary ecosystem protection actions that others should take; and
    • Adaptive management, monitoring, evaluation, special study, and reporting provisions.

    Additional activities are planned to implement the Bay-Delta Plan updates.

  • Phase I (Update of San Joaquin River Flow and South Delta Water Quality Objectives)
    • February 13, 2009: NOP and Notice of Scoping Meeting issued under CEQA notifying agencies and the public of potential updates to the Bay-Delta Plan generally and soliciting information to inform Phase I of the Bay-Delta Plan update
    • April 1, 2011: Revised NOP and Notice of Additional Scoping Meeting issued for the preparation of a Substitute Environmental Document (SED) for the State Water Board’s review of the San Joaquin River flow and southern Delta salinity objectives
    • November 21, 2011: Peer review of the Technical Report on the Scientific Basis for Alternative San Joaquin River Flow and southern Delta Salinity Objectives made available
    • March 5, 2012: Release of draft technical appendices for early review. They include: Scientific Basis for Alternative San Joaquin River Flow and Southern Delta Salinity Objectives (Scientific Report); Agricultural Economic Effects of Lower San Joaquin River Flow Alternatives (Economics Report); and Hydropower and Electric Grid Analysis of Lower San Joaquin River Flow Alternatives (Power Report)
    • December 2012: Release of draft proposed changes to the Bay-Delta Plan and the Draft SED for public comment
    • March 2013: Public Hearing to receive comments on the adequacy of the Draft SED (March 20 and 21) and deadline for receipt of public comments on Draft SED (noon on March 29)
    • September 15, 2016: Release of revised draft proposed changes to the Bay-Delta Plan and the revised Draft SED for public comment
    • November 2016 - January 2017: Public Hearing to receive comments on the adequacy of the revised Draft SED (November 29, 2016; December 16, 19, and 20, 2016; January 3, 2017) and deadline for receipt of public comments on revised Draft SED (noon on January 7, 2017)
    • March 17, 2017: Deadline for receipt of public comments on revised Draft SED (by 12 noon)
    • October 2017: Release of Final SED and proposed changes to the Bay-Delta Plan for public review
    • December 2017: State Water Board meeting to consider adoption of changes to the Bay-Delta Plan and certification of Final SED

  • Phase II (Delta Outflows, Sacramento River and Delta Tributary Inflows, Cold Water Habitat and Interior Delta Flows)
    • January 24, 2012: Supplemental NOP issued to solicit information to inform Phase II of the Bay-Delta Plan update
    • October 19, 2016: Release of Working Draft Scientific Basis Report identifying science supporting potential changes to the Bay-Delta Plan
    • December 7, 2016: Public Workshop on Working Draft Scientific Basis Report
    • Mid 2017: Independent Peer Review of Final Draft Report (Health and Safety Code, § 11353)
    • Summer 2017: Draft SED and draft proposed changes to the Bay-Delta Plan released for public comment
    • As early as late 2017: State Water Board meeting to consider adoption of changes to the Bay-Delta Plan and certification of Final SED

The State Water Board considers a number of factors when developing and implementing flow objectives. In broad terms, this means that the State Water Board determines what flows are reasonably necessary to protect public trust uses, including fish and other aquatic species, taking into account the public interest in the diversion and use of water for drinking water, hydroelectric power, agriculture and other uses. The State Water Board’s balancing of the competing uses of water is consistent with the Water Code’s coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California, and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. Information will be gathered through scientific and public testimony, expert workshops, studies and other published materials. There is no set formula upon which the State Water Board's decision-making relies.

The Bay-Delta Plan is not self-implementing. Most of the objectives in the Bay-Delta Plan are implemented through subsequent water rights decisions and water quality certifications for hydropower facilities subject to FERC relicensing proceedings.

No. There are many entities involved in this update of the Bay-Delta Plan as well as other related efforts. The State Water Board, along with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, participate in Bay-Delta water quality control planning efforts. Many interests representing federal, state, and local agencies, water users, non-governmental organizations, the scientific community, and the public are participating in the current Bay-Delta Plan update.

Visit the Bay-Delta Resources web page

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References

  • California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB). 2010. Records search of plan area quadrangles. California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento, California.

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2010. Records search of Federal Endangered and Threatened Species in plan area quadrangles. Accessed: February 16, 2010. http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/es/spp_lists/auto_list.cfm.

  • California Native Plant Society (CNPS). 2010. Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants. Accessed: February 2010. http://cnps.web.aplus.net/cgi-bin/inv/inventory.cgi.