Frequently Asked Questions on Amendments to Delta Plan Chapter 4: Protect, Restore, and Enhance the Delta Ecosystem
Why is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem important?
California relies on the Delta. Part of the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, the Delta is a unique biodiversity hot spot in California – one where freshwater from mountain runoff meets saltwater from the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Its thousands of miles of meandering waterways and surrounding lands create habitat for more than 750 plant and animal species. The Delta’s habitats contribute to the health of Californians in many ways, including providing food from an active fishery, recreational opportunities, and cultural and spiritual wellbeing.
How has the Delta ecosystem changed over time?
Over the past century, competing demands for the Suisun Marsh and Delta’s 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 and the Delta’s waterways were widened for transcontinental shipping which has led to numerous species invasions. Approximately 90 percent of the Delta’s original wetlands have been lost to land reclamation since the 1850s.
This highly engineered landscape has disrupted the Delta’s natural flows, eliminated most 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 Delta Stewardship Council’s role in protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem?
The 2009 Delta Reform Act directed the 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]).
Since 2013, the Council has received and reviewed certifications of consistency for numerous restoration and multi-benefit projects, developed performance measures, and prioritized and helped fund research that contributes to protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.
Why did the Council amend 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 as required by the Delta Reform Act. In addition, new science and understanding of the Delta, rapid ecological change, and restoration projects planned or completed since 2013 made it important to update Chapter 4.
What does the Amendment include?
The Amendment includes methods and performance measures to accomplish the Delta Reform Act requirement to achieve a viable ecosystem through large-scale restoration actions. The new 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. This concept is based on best available science, which shows that lack of habitat and food are the leading causes of ecosystem decline and fish mortality in the Delta. The Amendment also considers the 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 minimum standards used for mitigation, and addresses the institutional changes needed to streamline restoration – including more efficient permitting to move projects forward.
How many acres of restoration are needed to achieve a restored Delta landscape?
The Council estimates that 60,000-80,000 acres – roughly 10 percent of the Delta and Suisun Marsh – of 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 restoration goals?
The Council does not design, construct, or manage projects. Our role is to provide guidance and consistency for those who are developing restoration projects through a certification process. The Amendment refines existing and proposes new guidance 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.
Core Strategy 1: Create more natural, functional flows by:
- requiring projects to be consistent with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan flow objectives
- working with the State Water Resources Control Board to ensure best available science informs its regulatory decisions regarding stream flows and water quality
Core Strategy 2: Restore ecosystem function by:
- requiring projects to consider and disclose how they would improve ecosystem function1 and provide social benefits
- requiring consideration of expanded floodplains and creation of riparian habitat in levee projects
- recommending increased public funding and recommending good neighbor strategies to coordinate restoration with adjacent uses
- recommending that Delta levees be exempt from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ policy prohibiting vegetation on levees
Core Strategy 3: Protect land for restoration and safeguard against land loss by:
- requiring habitats to be restored at appropriate elevations for current and future conditions and protecting land with the best habitat restoration opportunities from incompatible uses
- recommending enhanced working landscapes, developing or updating management plans for public lands to halt or reverse land subsidence, and recommending funding to reverse land subsidence
Core Strategy 4: Protect native species and reduce the impact of nonnative invasive species by:
- requiring projects to avoid introducing or expanding habitat supporting nonnative invasive species
- improving fish migration within the Delta and upper watersheds, funding projects that help juvenile salmon avoid predation and being trapped by water intakes in the south Delta
- recommending actions to control nonnative invasive species, including predatory fish, managing hatcheries to reduce genetic risk and improve the resilience of native species, and coordinating remote fish tracking programs
Core Strategy 5: Improve institutional coordination to support the implementation of ecosystem protection, restoration, and enhancement by:
- recommending support for the implementation of ecosystem restoration programs/projects and by aligning State restoration plans and conservation strategies with the Delta Plan
How does the Council support new restoration 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 and lower 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 Amendment. To advance this work, the DPIIC has established a Restoration Subcommittee consistent with new recommendations in the Amendment. Federal, State, and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders, coordinated by the Council through the DPIIC, will carry out implementation of the strategies in the Amendment. The Amendment also recommends that the DPIIC continue to provide leadership, resources, staff, and funding for integrated conservation and restoration efforts.
The Council is also supporting the development of restoration strategies through involvement in several State working groups and coordination with relevant conservation plan and restoration actions. The Council further supports restoration strategies through convening symposia and helping fund science focused on restoration.
Where should restoration take place?
The 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. Restoration in these areas would be most effective due to their location, elevation, and relatively undeveloped nature. These areas are identified by Delta Plan Policy ER P3, which discourages projects that would preclude restoration in these areas. However, restoration could occur anywhere in the Delta.
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. Achieving the coequal goals will require actions on both public lands and on privately-owned sites with willing sellers.
How does the Amendment encompass other restoration efforts?
The Council works closely with State and local agencies including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Water Resources, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy that are implementing ongoing restoration efforts like EcoRestore. The Council reviewed and considered other restoration efforts such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Delta Conservation Framework and the Delta Conservancy’s Public Land Strategy during development of the Proposed Amendment.
The Council’s regulatory policies also encompass other restoration projects by describing requirements to demonstrate consistency with the Delta Plan. Projects, plans, and programs that meet the definition of a covered action are required to submit a certification of consistency. The Council will continue to work with agencies and project proponents to ensure restoration efforts are consistent with the Delta Plan’s comprehensive guidelines and policies for restoration through this process and others.
What regulations will restoration projects be subject to?
Most restoration in the Delta has been implemented to meet regulatory requirements under laws and regulations, including the Federal Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the California Fish and Game Code, the California Water Code, existing Delta Plan regulations, and others. Delta Plan Chapter 4 currently includes five regulatory policies focused on ecosystem regulation, which will remain in effect. The Council’s Amendment includes a new regulation (“ER PA”) that will require disclosure of a project’s attributes that contribute to ecosystem function and provide social benefits as part of a certification of consistency with the Delta Plan. Please see the Amendment and Appendix 3A, found on the Delta Plan Amendments web page, for more specifics.
How will future restoration projects 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 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Water Resources, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta 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.
What steps did the Council take to amend Delta Plan Chapter 4?
The Council began initial consideration of the need for the Ecosystem Amendment in 2014. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Council staff conducted listening sessions with a range of stakeholders, local agencies, Delta residents, Councilmembers, and Delta Independent Science Board (ISB) members. Based on this research, staff developed the Ecosystem Amendment to include a portfolio of actions that protect existing ecosystems, restore ecosystems, and enhance working or urban landscapes that provide habitat resources to species. Staff reviewed preliminary proposed revisions to Chapter 4 with the Council at the April 2019 and June 2019 Council meetings. Staff released a Preliminary Public Review Draft of the Ecosystem Amendment in November 2019 and solicited agency, public, and Delta ISB comments. These comments were incorporated into a May 2020 Draft of the Ecosystem Amendment. The Council authorized this draft as the proposed project for environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) at its May 2020 meeting.
The Council released the Draft Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) on September 27, 2021, and on November 18, 2021, hosted a public workshop to solicit oral comments on the Draft PEIR before the public comment period closed on November 30, 2021. The Final PEIR was prepared to respond to comments on the Draft PEIR and describe text changes made in response to comments and as an outcome of tribal consultation. At its June 23, 2022, meeting, the Council certified the PEIR. The Council also adopted the Ecosystem Amendment and authorized staff to initiate rulemaking for new and revised Delta Plan policies and mitigation measures included in the Ecosystem Amendment and PEIR.
Why did the Council develop a PEIR?
CEQA requires preparation of an Environmental Impact Report when a lead agency (in this case, the Council) determines that a proposed project may have a significant impact on the environment. The Council determined that a Program EIR is the appropriate type of EIR for this project due to unknown details for future projects that may be implemented by other lead agencies and because such projects would be related geographically within the Delta. The impacts of specific projects will be evaluated in future project-level CEQA documents by the lead agencies for those proposed projects.
Why does the PEIR include potentially significant and unavoidable impacts?
The Draft PEIR identified potentially significant and unavoidable impacts to the environment should the project be implemented. Many impacts in the Draft PEIR are identified as significant and unavoidable because the site-specific details of projects to be implemented by other entities are not known at this time and because the mitigation measures may not reduce impacts to a less than significant level. Additionally, the implementation of mitigation measures would be within the responsibility of other agencies.
What are the next steps?
Staff have initiated the rulemaking process for new and revised Delta Plan policies and mitigation measures included in the Ecosystem Amendment and PEIR. Dictated by procedures set forth in the Administrative Procedures Act, rulemaking is the process to formally codify regulations into the California Code of Regulations. The rulemaking process provides an additional opportunity for the public to provide input regarding implementation of the Ecosystem Amendment policies. There will also be a public hearing concerning the proposed rulemaking and Council approval of the final regulations as part of the rulemaking process.
The Final PEIR and the amended Chapter 4, as well as associated documents, can be viewed on the Council’s Delta Plan Amendments web page.
1Improved ecosystem function will be evaluated by priority project attributes as 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.