Construction of a temporary salinity barrier on the False River is underway after an emergency request by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
The barrier, necessitated by worsening drought conditions, is intended to help preserve water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by reducing saltwater intrusion. The declaration of a drought emergency made by Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 10 suspended the requirement that a project of this nature complete a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) assessment.
An SWRCB report completed in response to DWR’s request states, “During drought conditions, the release of water stored in upstream reservoirs may be insufficient to repel salinity moving upstream from San Francisco Bay. According to DWR’s analyses, without the protection of the drought salinity barrier, saltwater intrusions could render Delta water unusable for agricultural needs, reduce habitat value for aquatic species and affect roughly 25 million Californians who rely on the export of this water for personal use. Installation of the temporary rock barrier at West False River would limit salinity intrusion into the Central and South Delta and would potentially conserve water for a variety of uses system wide.”
Michael Brodsky, attorney for the Discovery Bay-based Save the California Delta Alliance, doesn’t take issue with the need for the salinity barrier, but noted that DWR has been down this path before.
“It’s really not an emergency in the sense that nobody’s surprised that there’s another dry year, and that this has to be done,” Brodsky said. “They should really have a long-term plan and do an environmental impact report and look at some alternatives so it’s a fully informed decision. Why is this coming as a surprise? Why can’t (DWR) plan this as a long-term project?”
Construction of the barrier is expected to be complete by the end of the month. When it’s done, the barrier will be located approximately 0.4 mile east of the confluence of the San Joaquin and West False rivers between Jersey and Bradford islands. The barrier will be about 800-feet long with a 200-foot-wide base. It’s top will be 12-feet wide. Boat navigation on the False River will be completely blocked by the barrier.
With the start of the rainy season expected in the fall, the barrier will be removed by DWR no later than Nov. 30. DWR expects the construction project to cost $10 million, said Jacob McQuirk, principal engineer with DWR’s Division of Operations and Maintenance.
DWR built a barrier in the same location most recently in 2015 in response to the 2012 - 2016 drought. The presence of the barrier in 2015 created problems for residents of the islands in the South Delta including Bethel and Bradford islands. Bradford Island – located about five miles north of the city of Oakley and only accessible by ferry from Jersey Island – is bordered on its eastern side by Fishermans Cut. One Bradford Island resident and rancher, who requested that her name not be used, reported significantly increased currents through Fishermans Cut while the barrier was in place.
“We lost just about complete use of our property,” she said. “We couldn’t swim for the two months that the barrier was in. We couldn’t fish, no water skiing. We could barely get into our dock. (We) bashed up the front of our boat trying to get into the dock and tore off pieces of the rubber guards that surround the boat slip. The water rushed down Fishermans Cut so fast that nothing was safe”
Issues didn’t stop with the removal of the barrier in 2015. Jamie Bolt, harbormaster at Bethel Harbor located on the north shore of Bethel Island, reported that increased tidal flooding made it difficult for boaters to maneuver in and out of their berths even after the barrier was dismantled. Sediment also built up in the berths and created sandbars in Taylor and Piper sloughs, she added.
“We are extremely concerned about the installation of another emergency drought barrier in False River,” Bolt said.
Coincident with DWR’s request for the salinity barrier, they also filed a Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) with the SWRCB, who approved the request Tuesday, June 1. Motivated by the same conditions that created the need for the salinity barrier, the TUCP relaxes water quality standards with regard to salinity levels in the Delta.
Without enough water coming down from the reservoirs in the north, salinity levels will begin to exceed established standards. To reduce the salinity levels the state would have to release more water. Due to the drought, there isn’t enough water in the reservoirs to take that action without potentially draining them dry. Instead, the TUCP allows salinity levels to temporarily exceed those established standards.
“(The TUCP) acknowledges that saltwater is going to intrude into the Delta from the bay,” Brodsky said. “Since DWR is not releasing enough water from the dams, they have to do something else to keep the saltwater from reaching the export pumps in Tracy. That’s why DWR is proposing the rock barrier at False River. That’s how they’re related.”
SWRCB approved modified salinity standards for the Delta during the months of June and July.
“We just didn’t get the precipitation we needed,” McQuirk said. “The project along with the Temporary Urgency Change Petition will allow DWR and (the U.S Bureau of) Reclamation to maintain control of Delta salinity with the release of fresh water from upstream reservoirs, including Oroville and Shasta. By preserving the hydraulic salinity barrier, the Central Valley Project and State Water Project export facilities will remain operational. The barrier will also allow in-Delta water uses including municipal and agricultural supplies to continue as well as preserve storage for uses including fish and wildlife later in the year.”