One step closer to a California water deal

In summary

California water authorities are seeking “voluntary agreements” to improve water flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have achieved a new breakthrough.

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For at least a decade, state water managers and local water agencies have intermittently pursued the holy grail of a framework agreement to improve the environmental health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. by increasing its water flow.

At all times, California’s water supply is a zero-sum game. Therefore, increasing flows through the delta to improve habitat for salmon and other species would force local water agencies, especially those serving farmers, to draw less from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. and their tributaries.

It’s not only a hard sell, but it could also interfere with water rights, some of which date back to the 19th century. State officials hoped the so-called “voluntary agreements” would prevent any direct action that could trigger a legal donnybrook over those rights.

However, many environmental groups have pushed for direct and mandatory restrictions on water diversions, saying they do not trust agreements that do not have the force of law and believe that water rights must be reconfigured to match 21st century conditions, including the likelihood of perpetual semi-drought.

Pressure for agreements intensified in 2018 when the State Water Resources Control Board released its proposed new regulations to protect the delta, indicating that about 40% of natural river flows should flow into the delta, and most in the bay of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean.

Reaching this figure would require large reductions in water diversions from rivers for farms and municipal users.

A few months later, new Governor Gavin Newsom underscored the urgency of the situation in his first State of the State address, saying, “Our first task is to cross the finish line on real agreements. to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. . We must achieve this – for the resilience of our mighty rivers, the stability of our agricultural sector and the millions of people who depend on this water every day.

Later that year, he vetoed a bill that would have enacted basically all the environmental laws that existed in the federal government before Donald Trump was elected president because the Trump administration s was loose on water diversions. Had the bill become law, Newsom warned, it would have short-circuited the will for voluntary water agreements.

In 2020, the Newsom Resources Agency released a framework for such agreements and earlier this year announced initial agreements with some major water interests that would prevent legal conflict.

However, there were holdouts, especially agencies that draw water from the Tuolumne River, including the City and County of San Francisco, which owns the Hetch Hetchy Dam on the Tuolumne and transports its water to the city. through pipelines. Tuolumne water diverters filed a lawsuit challenging the water board’s right to impose diversion restrictions and their offers of voluntary reductions were dismissed as insufficient.

Last week there was a breakthrough. San Francisco and two agricultural water agencies, the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, have reached an agreement with the state to increase flows in Tuolumne and improve habitat.

“This collaborative approach delivers on the promise of doing this (work) faster and holistically, while improving water reliability for communities, farms and businesses,” said the Secretary of State for Resources, Wade Crowfoot, in a statement.

Does this mean that the Delta water war is over? Not necessarily.

Environmentalists still don’t like the voluntary agreement approach and there’s yet another unresolved delta issue: a Newsom-backed tunnel under the delta to carry water from the Sacramento River to the head. of the California Aqueduct near Tracy.

Opponents of the tunnel believe the flow improvement agreements are being sought simply to make the project, which would divert water from the delta, more environmentally acceptable.

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