San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed: Wide Range of Restoration Efforts Need Updated Federal Reporting and Coordination Roles

GAO-18-473 Published: Aug 16, 2018. Publicly Released: Aug 16, 2018.
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Fast Facts

The San Francisco Bay Delta watershed supplies drinking water to 25 million people and irrigation for about half the nation's fruit and vegetable production. Federal and nonfederal entities carry out activities to protect and restore the watershed, which has seen declines in water quality, flood protection, and habitat.

We found federal agencies are not all using their plan to coordinate restoration efforts. Also, Congress required annual reports on these efforts, but reporting ceased after a key state agency was abolished in 2009.

We made 7 recommendations aimed at improving coordination and gathering the required information for Congress.

Restoration Project at the South Bay Salt Ponds in San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed

These are photos of a dry salt pond in 2008 with no vegetation and a shot of the same area in 2009 with extensive growth.

These are photos of a dry salt pond in 2008 with no vegetation and a shot of the same area in 2009 with extensive growth.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Federal entities, including the Department of the Interior, and nonfederal entities, such as California state agencies and nonprofits, carry out and coordinate a wide range of restoration efforts in the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed. These efforts have multiple benefits, such as improved water quality and habitat in restored marshland (see fig. below). The entities coordinate comprehensive efforts in the San Francisco Bay area (Bay) and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) through two groups. Federal efforts across the watershed are to be led and coordinated by Interior and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) through a 2009 Interim Federal Action Plan, but not all federal entities are using the plan. Interior officials said the plan is no longer relevant because state and federal roles have changed. For example, they said a state-led committee acts as the coordinating body for federal entities; however, this committee focuses on one region of the watershed, while federal funding supports efforts in all three regions. By updating or revising the Interim Action Plan, Interior and CEQ could help clarify federal roles in supporting restoration efforts in the watershed.

Restoration Project at the South Bay Salt Ponds in the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed

Restoration Project at the South Bay Salt Ponds in the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed

Photo shows transition from former industrial salt pond (left) to tidal marsh (right) through a restoration project by multiple federal and nonfederal entities. Map shows watershed's three regions.

Information on the status of all restoration efforts across the watershed, including their accomplishments, is unknown because information is not being fully collected or reported. Also, related expenditures for fiscal years 2007 through 2016 are unknown, in part because federal reports do not include complete or reliable data for restoration efforts in the watershed. The 2004 CALFED Bay-Delta Authorization Act requires Interior and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to report annually to Congress on restoration accomplishments and federal and state expenditures in the watershed, respectively. Interior has not issued these reports since 2009, when the state agency from which Interior had obtained the state data was abolished. OMB has issued its reports with federal, but not state, data for the same reason. However, Interior and OMB have not reached out to other state entities for this information. Without obtaining and reporting available information, as required by law, Interior and OMB will not have reasonable assurance that they are providing Congress with the information needed to monitor federal and nonfederal restoration efforts and expenditures.

Why GAO Did This Study

The San Francisco Bay Delta watershed—which drains a vast area of California from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Ocean—supplies drinking water for 25 million people and provides irrigation for about half the nation's fruit and vegetable production. Decades of development and agriculture have led to large reductions in water quality and supply, natural flood protection, and habitats across the watershed's three major regions: the Bay, the Delta, and the upper watershed. Federal entities have been working with nonfederal entities for decades to protect and restore the watershed. GAO was asked to review restoration efforts in the watershed.

This report examines, among other objectives, (1) the extent to which federal and nonfederal entities coordinate watershed restoration efforts and (2) information on the status of these efforts and related expenditures for fiscal years 2007 through 2016, the most recent data available. GAO reviewed laws; regional databases, plans, and reports; and budget documents. It also surveyed the 72 members of interagency groups (48 responded) and interviewed federal and nonfederal officials.

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Recommendations

GAO made seven recommendations, including that Interior and CEQ update or revise the Interim Federal Action Plan and that Interior and OMB coordinate with the state to meet the CALFED Act's reporting requirements. Interior partially concurred with the recommendations, and CEQ and OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with them. GAO maintains its recommendations are valid.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should work with the Chair of CEQ to update or revise the Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta to outline and reflect entity roles and responsibilities in light of changes in the state of California's role and other relevant developments since 2009. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The 2020 OMB Crosscut Budget for the California Bay Delta states that the Delta Plan was developed pursuant to California's Delta Reform Act, which called for the development of a plan to identify restoration efforts and goals in the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed region. The implementation of the Delta Plan has been conducted by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC), which was created in 2013, and includes participation and leadership from federal agencies at the regional and Washington, DC headquarters levels and is primarily responsible for coordinating federal activities in the Delta. This is a change to language in the 2019 Crosscut Budget that stated that federal activities were coordinated through the Interim Federal Action Plan (established in 2010) under the leadership of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior, as well as California's Delta Stewardship Council. Although Interior and Reclamation are not aware of the source of the changed language, it meets the intent of our recommendation and we consider it closed.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should notify all participating entities to ensure they are aware of the Interim Federal Action Plan and their role in it. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
The 2023 OMB Crosscut Budget states that the implementation of the Delta Plan has been conducted by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, which was created in 2013, and includes participation and leadership from federal agencies at the regional and DC headquarters levels. It also states that the Council is primarily responsible for coordinating federal activities in the Delta. This language clarifies the role of federal agencies in relation to the Council and the Delta Plan, as we recommended. In March 2021, a Council on Environmental Quality official stated that the communication of what federal activities are occurring in the region is shown in the Crosscut Budget and that the recent budget updates are the notification to participating entities about their roles. In June 2022, federal agencies indicated that they are using the Delta Plan as the basis of their federal activities. As a result, we consider this recommendation implemented.
Council on Environmental Quality The Chair of CEQ should work with the Secretary of the Interior to update or revise the Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta to outline and reflect entity roles and responsibilities in light of changes in the state of California's role and other relevant developments since 2009. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In December 2019, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) did not have an update on this recommendation. However, the 2020 OMB Crosscut Budget for the California Bay Delta states that the Delta Plan was developed pursuant to California's Delta Reform Act, which called for the development of a plan to identify restoration efforts and goals in the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed region. The implementation of the Delta Plan has been conducted by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC), which was created in 2013, and includes participation and leadership from federal agencies at the regional and Washington, DC headquarters levels and is primarily responsible for coordinating federal activities in the Delta. This is a change to language in the 2019 Crosscut Budget that stated that federal activities were coordinated through the Interim Federal Action Plan (established in 2010) under the leadership of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior, as well as California's Delta Stewardship Council. Although CEQ did not discuss the source of the changed language, it meets the intent of our recommendation and we consider it closed.
Council on Environmental Quality The Chair of CEQ should notify all participating entities to ensure they are aware of the Interim Federal Action Plan and their role in it. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
The 2023 OMB Crosscut Budget states that the implementation of the Delta Plan has been conducted by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, which was created in 2013, and includes participation and leadership from federal agencies at the regional and DC headquarters levels. It also states that the Council is primarily responsible for coordinating federal activities in the Delta. This language clarifies the role of federal agencies in relation to the Council and the Delta Plan, as we recommended. In March 2021, a Council on Environmental Quality official stated that the communication of what federal activities are occurring is shown in the Crosscut Budget and that the recent budget updates are the notification to participating entities about their roles. In June 2022, federal agencies stated that they use the Delta Plan as the basis for their planning and activities. We therefore consider this recommendation to be implemented and closed.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should coordinate with appropriate state entities to obtain and report the information available to meet the requirements under section 105 of the Calfed Bay-Delta Authorization Act (CALFED Act). (Recommendation 5)
Closed – Implemented
As of July 2022, the California Delta Stewardship Council (a state agency) published a report on science and restoration funding and performance information for several federal and state agencies. The report was based on information gathered by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, a committee established by DSC to implement the Delta Plan. The committee is made up of national, state, and local agencies including the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation. A Council official stated that the Committee will continue to gather information and publish annual reports on funding and performance. As it continues to expand the format of the reports, the Council plans to include other federal agencies and categories of spending. This would enable the Council to track funding and accomplishments for all as called for in section 105 of the act.
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should coordinate with appropriate state entities to obtain and report the information available to meet the requirements under section 106 of the CALFED Act. (Recommendation 6)
Open – Partially Addressed
In July 2022, the California Delta Stewardship Council (a state agency) published a report, the FY 2020-2021 Delta Crosscut Budget, on science and restoration funding and performance information for several federal and state agencies. The report was based on information gathered by the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, a committee established by DSC to implement the Delta Plan. The committee is made up of national, state, and local agencies including the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation. A Council official stated that the Committee will continue to gather information and publish annual reports on funding and performance. The Council's report includes several federal agencies' information, in addition to state funding. In this way, it is providing information that can help OMB prepare its requirements under section 106 of the CALFED Act.
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should direct staff to update OMB's written guidance for federal and state agencies on submitting data for the budget crosscut reports OMB is required to submit under section 106 of the CALFED Act. (Recommendation 7)
Open
According to Interior and CEQ, recent updates to the Crosscut Budget clarify participating entities' roles in relation to the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee and the Delta Plan. However, the 2021 OMB Crosscut Budget continues to refer to activities being conducted under the prior Interim Federal Action Plan in its sections on the Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As of July 2021, OMB staff had no updates on this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken, we will provide updated information.

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