TSF comments on draft State Water Plan

NEVADA CITY, 11 June 2009 – On Friday June 5, 2009 The Sierra Fund submitted specific comments on the proposed State Water Plan (SWP) now being circulated by the Statewide Integrated Water Management program of the California Department of Water Resources.

The Sierra Fund (TSF) has a Sierra Nevada-wide mission to improve both the living and natural environment in the Sierra Nevada range, including the 5 hydrologic areas within the proposed SWP.

TSF’s comments focused on areas of special concern to our program, including:

  1. Toxic Issues Related to Historic Mining
  2. Global Warming and Sierra Nevada Local Water Supplies
  3. IRWMPs
  4. Land Use Planning and Water in the Sierra Nevada

Toxic Issues Related to Historic Mining: While the SWP draft analyses are not always explicit when dealing with the origination (airborne, mining, ambient) of toxics chemicals in the various watersheds, it is clear that mining toxins are a problem throughout the Department of Water Resources State Water Project facilities from Oroville to the Yolo Bypass. 

TSF’s comments raised concerns about how mercury, a legacy mining toxin contaminating much of the western Sierra Nevada, is addressed in the SWP.  A recent report by the State Water Resources Control Board (Contaminants in Fish from California Lakes and Reservoirs: Technical Report on Year One of a Two-Year Screening Study, May 2009) documents that mercury contamination is the most commonly found contaminant in the state’s fish.  The report notes that “Mercury contamination is largely a legacy of California mining, and can also reach lakes through the air. It is a persistent problem throughout much of the state. Twenty-six percent of the lakes surveyed had at least one fish species with an average mercury level that exceeds the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) threshold for considering a consumption limit.”  This report comes on top of an avalanche of evidence that historic mining toxins are a serious problem.

The SWP does note a number of mining issues by region, including legacy mining issues from mining in the Coast range as problems, and specifically cites problems with the mercury-laden sediments of Clear Lake and the transport of that sediment into Cache Creek. It calls out that in the San Joaquin and Tulare hydrologic regions
historic mercury mining has resulted in substantial mercury loads discharged to the Central Valley waterways.  The SWP analysis found elevated levels of arsenic and fluoride are found to exist in the more metropolitan areas of the South Lahontan Region, particularly in the Antelope and Mojave areas.  In Mojave, the analysis notes that groundwater contaminant issues involving arsenic, iron, manganese, and other minerals, need to be addressed.  In North Lahontan, acid mine drainage is specifically mentioned as being a problem.

TSF comments noted that in none of the hydrologic regions discussed is there a stated commitment to cleaning up or preventing further pollution of the affected water bodies.  Further, there is no discussion about how to manage DWR water assets such as the reservoirs, flood plains and wetlands to minimize mercury methylation. “This is a serious omission from the overall plan that needs to be immediately addressed before final adoption of the plan,” notes Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund, in her formal comments. 

“Equally serious, is a lack of commitment to direct available State Water Quality Control Board bond allocation funds to deal with these serious chemical pollutants, which enter the food chain cycle, and have grave impacts on humans and wildlife,” continued Martin.  “Certain communities are dependent on the fish in that food chain for some significant portion of their dietary intake.  Failure to address the remediation of these pollutants present not only the health concerns just mentioned, but is damaging to the sport fishing and tourist enterprises in Sierra Nevada communities, that depend on tourism and sport fishing to sustain their local economies.”

Global Warming and Sierra Nevada Local Water Supplies:  A potentially major issue cutting across the various Sierra Nevada watershed regions, particularly in their mountain regions, is the fact that with global warming we are seeing an earlier (faster) snow melt.  This translates into a lack of groundwater recharge in the fractured granite rock “aquifers” in the upper and middle Sierra Nevada.  This in turn means that these counties, which rely heavily on well water in all but their most densely populated areas, face substantial risk of having these wells run dry, or having to drill deeper wells, more costly to dig and operate at best, etc. 

TSF noted that this has the potential to become a very serious problem in the not-too-distant future. It may in fact become necessary to allocate from the water resources originating in the Sierra Nevada, some minimum flows for groundwater recharge in the Sierra Nevada, much as allocations are currently made to sustain “fish flows” in certain rivers and streams.  “SWP should explicitly develop a program and provide direction on how best to deal with “fractured rock” aquifers in the Sierra Nevada,” concluded Martin.

IRWMPs:  Overall, the Sierra Nevada region currently lacks Integrated Resource Water Management Plans in many areas.  Sierra communities are largely without the financial resources to develop these plans, and often cannot afford the technical planning expertise to put these together in an effective way. In many cases they do not have the staff to do the inter-jurisdictional planning required by the IRWMP process.  “We strongly recommend that the SWP provide funding recommendations to prepare IRWMPs where they do not already exists, or where they are for practical purposes defunct,” commented Marin.

“We believe that most counties could be persuaded to apply sustainable community planning concepts if the state provided funds and expertise for this, as well as any required improvements to protect water quality that supplies urban areas,” concluded Martin.

Land Use Planning and Water in the Sierra Nevada:  Most of the Sierra Nevada counties do not have Councils of Governments and therefore the “sustainable community” planning requirements of recently enacted SB 375 d not apply to them.  However, the type of “sustainable communities” planning efforts envisioned by that bill are clearly going to be in the Sierra Nevada, particularly in those areas that may see rapid development pressures come around again, when the overall economy gets back on track. 

Planning bills previously adopted that for the first time directly required large residential, commercial and industrial projects to demonstrate an adequate water supply before being approved by the applicable local city or county, contain minimum development size thresholds to trigger their application.  These minimum thresholds are far too large (500) for them to prevent the overwhelming of water resources that are under these urban area thresholds.  “We suggest the SWP specifically needs to address this concern,” noted Martin.

“The concerns the Sierra Fund has expressed on these water issues are heightened by the fact that the Sierra Nevada is the source of so much of the State’s overall water supply.  That supply depends on there being adequate water coming out of the Sierra Nevada.  We believe that our suggestions for changes in the draft SWP further this effort,” Martin concluded.

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