State, fed governments, water agencies agree to water fixes but farmer groups are skeptical
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
FRESNO – A series of historic agreements signed last week by the state and federal governments, as well as water agencies and users, may be the first step in more reliable water flows for residents and farmers in eastern Tulare County.
On Dec. 12, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced the agreements to resolve water conflicts that have vexed the State for decades and to reaffirm the collaborative partnership between the Federal and State governments to develop long-term solutions to California’s major water problems. Friant Water Authority, which oversees operations of the Friant-Kern Canal serving several cities and 15,000 farmers on the Valley’s east side, described the agreements as historic.
“Today’s announcement is a paradigm shift in how water will be managed for human and environmental needs and how decisions will be made about the use of the State’s most precious resource,” FWA wrote in a statement released jointly by seven other water agencies, irrigation districts, and exchange contractors up the state. “It is a good deal for the State and the Nation.”
Since August 2018, Reclamation and DWR, with support from public water agencies from nearly every region of the State, have engaged in accentuated discussions to address contributions from the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and the public water agencies they serve to voluntary agreements to resolve conflicts over proposed amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update and to revise water sharing formulas under the 1986 Coordinated Operations Agreement.
The product of those discussions includes a series of voluntary agreements to resolve conflicts over proposed amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update. The plan, along with the voluntary agreements, were adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board, better known as the State Water Board, on Dec. 12, ending a nine-year process during which the board studied and analyzed options, and conducted one of the most extensive public outreach efforts in its history.
“Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture, and healthy communities, not one at the undue expense of the others,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Doing that requires that the water wars yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife through voluntary action, which the plan seeks to reward. The collaborative spirit we heard today offers promise and motivation towards that goal.”
Alex Biering, public information officer for Friant Water Authority (FWA), said the agreements resulted in three main water solutions: 1) the state and federal government will coordinate their releases down tributaries to the Delta to maintain more consistent fishery flows and water deliveries; 2) provide funding for water purchase programs and research for conservation improvements that don’t involve additional water flows; 3) water agencies and irrigation districts, and many of their users, agreed to let land along the Tuolumne and Sacramento Rivers fallow in exchange for payments from water users along the San Joaquin River who can use the additional water.
To put the deals into a local perspective, Biering said FWA may have held onto an additional 200,000 acre feet of water it lost to west side farmers during the height of the drought when the Bureau of Reclamation announced a zero allocation for FWA users.
“This will significantly reduce the likelihood that water from Friant [Dam] water will be sent to non-Friant users and the likelihood that allocations will be cut in dry years,” Biering said. “I would describe this as historic.”
The State Water Board is also progressing with an effort to update flow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and the Delta and its tributaries — including the Feather, Yuba and American rivers. This update is at an earlier stage of development than the Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta plan update; a draft proposed plan and staff report analyzing alternatives will be released later this year for public review and comment.
The two Bay-Delta Plan updates are part of a delicate balancing act aimed at addressing an ecological crisis in the Delta and preventing further collapse of Bay-Delta fisheries while considering the many other vital water uses for millions of Californians. A dramatic decline in the once-thriving populations of native fish species that migrate through and inhabit the Delta has brought some species to the brink of extinction. In 1984, for example, about 70,000 fall-run Chinook salmon adults returned to the San Joaquin Basin. The number of returning adults dropped to 40,000 in 2010 and just 10,000 in 2016 and 2017.
Currently, flows remaining in the San Joaquin River and its three tributaries can run as low as 6 percent in dry or drought years, while they average 10 to 20 percent of unimpaired flow at critical times of the year and range from 21 to 40 percent on average. The final Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta update includes improved instream flows February through June, the critical months for migrating fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. These flows are measured as a percentage of “unimpaired flow,” the amount of water moving down river if there were no dams or other diversions.
A flow criteria report adopted by the State Water Board in 2010 concluded that an unimpaired flow requirement of 60 percent on the Lower San Joaquin River would be desirable to preserve the attributes of a natural variable system to which native fish species are adapted. That report did not consider impacts to other water users, however, which the Board has done in arriving at a lower flow requirement.
The plan update the Board adopted today includes a requirement for 40 percent of unimpaired flow, within a range of 30 to 50 percent. The Board’s proposal seeks to incentivize agreements that offer habitat restoration and other measures that can benefit fish and wildlife with less water, than just water alone. The update also includes a revision of the salinity standard for the southern Delta. Maintaining an adequate amount of fresh water in the southern Delta is critical to protecting agriculture in the region. The year-round salinity standard in the draft final update increases slightly from the current seasonal standards, while continuing to provide water quality needed to support a vibrant agricultural future for the Delta.
FWA stated, “These agreements will result in immediate improvements to the environment and at-risk aquatic species, such as the Delta smelt and salmon, and commit local, regional, Federal and State agencies to a long-term course for collaboration to further ecosystem enhancement and water supply improvements.”
Conservation organizations applauded the action as an important first step and called for ongoing productive and transparent discussions among all parties. Several groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited, Defenders of Wildlife, American Rivers and The Nature Conservancy, issued the following statement:
“California’s water future looks brighter tonight. The State Water Board’s approved Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan will help us all protect clean water for 25 million residents, support jobs and start the recovery of our 10,000-year-old native salmon runs. After decades of inaction, today’s historic vote helps put Californians back in the driver’s seat to protect our own precious resources.”
Farmers weren’t as keen on the agreements. Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual (CCM) called the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan a “water grab” because it would require an average of 40% of water flows to be taken from agricultural water users on the lower San Joaquin River to provide a consistent habitat for endangered fish in the Delta. CCM President Joel Nelsen voiced his opposition to the plan in a July 25 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown stating that the over-regulation of agriculture and its water use will hurt the state’s rural economy and foster “expensive and lengthy legal battles.
“It is astounding that after years implementing a flawed scientific approach that takes water away from municipal and agricultural beneficial uses with no measurable benefits to fish; the State Board is doubling down on the same failed approach,” Nelsen said.
The Tulare County Farm Bureau was among 56 farm bureaus, grower co-ops, and agriculture coalitions to opposed the plan earlier this year because it would surface water flows for agriculture by an average of 180,000 acre feet per year and up to 900,000 acre feet in dry years.
That would be in addition to the 118,000 to 370,000-acre foot reduction farmers are already bracing for due to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. SGMA (pronounced “sig-muh”) requires overdrafted watersheds, such as the Kaweah and Tule rivers in Tulare County, to offset well pumping with surface water through recharge basins or by reducing water use by fallowing ag land. The letter also stated the plan eroded long-established, and often historic, water delivery priority for senior water right holders.
“Until every opportunity has been exhausted for creative conservation and collaboration among stakeholders, a difficult and damaging regulatory path which is premised upon uncertain future fisheries successes should be avoided at all costs,” the letter concluded.