Over the past three years, the State Water Resources Control Board has conducted a public process to increase the water flowing to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta with the intent of improving declining fish populations. However, an increase in river flow means a reduction in supplies for Californians, who are dependent on them for their lives and livelihoods.
There are two approaches to this: painful, mandatory cuts to water supplies or voluntary agreements among water users to achieve specific goals in the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update. The latter approach has been encouraged by Gov. Jerry Brown, and a coalition of water users has emerged with a set of agreements that would do exactly that.
On Dec. 12, after years of negotiations, the directors of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources appeared before the SWRCB to describe voluntary agreements intended to preempt conflict over proposed amendments to the water quality plan. These agreements resulted from intense negotiations among DWF, DWR, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, public water agencies that contract for the delivery of water from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and public water agencies from every upstream region in the Delta watershed. These agreements represent a good deal for the environment and people, and are the best hope of protecting and enhancing at-risk fish species, while balancing the needs of people for consumptive uses of water.
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The voluntary agreements would increase in-stream flow in the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, American, Mokelumne, San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers by an average of 450,000 acre-feet annually in most water years. (More limited amounts of water would be provided for in-stream flow purposes in critical water years.) These in-stream flows would be managed on each stream, primarily in the spring, to enhance the unique biological functions of that stream. Moreover, these new flows will be dedicated to increasing Delta outflow. DWR and Reclamation have also agreed to dedicate an additional 300,000 acre-feet of CVP and SWP water to Delta outflow by reducing diversions at the CVP’s and SWP’s southern Delta pumping plants compared to permissible diversion rates under the existing Delta water quality control plan. In the eighth year of the agreements, an additional 300,000 acre-feet of water will be dedicated to Delta outflow if science establishes the additional water is required to achieve the established goals for species.
The agreements also provide for the implementation of nonflow measures: to reactivate floodplains, restore habitat, screen diversions, control non-native predator species, and implement a robust science and adaptive management program to test hypotheses about the needs of at-risk species. This science and adaptive management program will, for the first time, evaluate whether water used for species protection is being used reasonably and beneficially. If an environmental use of water is not providing the ecosystem benefits expected, a collaborative group of public agencies and interested nongovernmental organizations will recommend alternatives uses of that water. All water uses, including environmental uses, must be reasonable and beneficial.
Finally, the agreements provide a stable source of funds, from state bond funds and a surcharge imposed on public water agencies, to purchase water and implement other actions. In total, over the 15-year term of the agreements the state and public water agencies will contribute $900 million and $800 million, respectively.
We have known for decades that more water, by itself, is not enough to protect and enhance at-risk species — it must be integrated with other nonflow actions to achieve ecological functions that support fish and to address the many factors that limit fish abundance. However, in the water quality planning process the SWRCB asserts it lacks the statutory authority to impose nonflow measures, and instead asserts it can only adopt water quality objectives. This is why the governor and others, including the SWRCB, encouraged parties to reach voluntary agreements that include nonflow actions to address all factors that limit fish abundance.
Without voluntary agreements, the SWRCB decision will impose “unimpaired flow” standards on each river that will have draconian impacts on water supplies for every region of the state. Indeed, if the SWRCB were to adopt the proposed water quality standards proposed for the next phase of the Bay-Delta plan, average exports by the CVP and SWP would be reduced by as much as 1.4 million acre-feet. This would be in addition to earlier export reductions of more than 2 million acre-feet under both federal and state law for the purported protection of at-risk fish species. These prior regulations to increase flows and reduce Delta exports have not worked; fish abundance has continued to decline. No science supports the hypothesis that doing more of the same — just adding more water — is all that is required to protect and enhance fish abundance.
We have been asked why our agencies support a plan that dedicates more water to flow and will impose a surcharge on water delivered to farmers. The answer is simple: the alternative would eliminate irrigated agriculture in all but very small areas in the San Joaquin Valley. We have the impression this outcome is acceptable for some government officials and non-governmental organizations. But people genuinely interested in conserving fish, while providing water to farms and cities, will support the voluntary agreements. These agreements will provide immediate benefits to at-risk species and improved water supply reliability.
Thomas Birmingham is general manager of the Westlands Water District; Jason Phillips is the Friant Water Authority CEO.