Water

A $2.6 billion drought deal makes waves in California

It is the primary source of California’s water supply and an important habitat for fish, migratory birds and other species.

But the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta watershed is also a fragile ecosystem in decline, with human demands for water wreaking havoc on the environment.

As a severe drought for the third year in a row strains water and puts endangered salmon and other fish on the brink of extinction, California officials have announced a controversial $2.6 billion deal with the federal government and major water suppliers that they say will strengthen ecosystem.

The new agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, reflects the recognition that climate change “is collapsing faster than existing laws and regulations can manage or heal the system,” said Jared Deb, California’s secretary of environmental protection. Rumenfeld said.

The proposed agreement sets out a plan for the next eight years in which agencies supplying water to cities and farms will forgo water or obtain additional supplies to help threatened species, while state, federal and local agencies will fund projects to improve habitats in the watershed.

State officials called the agreement an important milestone in their efforts to balance the ecological needs of the delta with the water needs of Californians, and a key step toward a larger “voluntary agreement” that would help ensure healthy estuaries with large flows.

Governor Gavin Newsom declared the plan a historic rejection of “old binaries” in favor of a new solution, while Blumenfeld said it would “keep us away from the ‘water wars’ of the past.”

However, these claims have drawn strong criticism.

Immediately after the plan was announced on Tuesday, environmental advocates and salmon conservationists denounced it as a series of behind-the-scenes deals negotiated out of the public eye that could not provide nearly enough water for threatened fish or the overall health of the watershed.

“Nothing has come to fruition through behind-the-scenes negotiations with the waters,” said Jon Rosenfeld, a senior scientist at the Baykeeper Group in San Francisco. “Based on extensive research, the state’s latest plan promises only a fraction of the relief our river, fishing and delta communities need – and all the tough questions are left unanswered.”

The San Francisco Bay Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast. Formed by the confluence of California’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is at the center of the state’s water system.

Two large government-operated pumping plants draw water from the southern edge of the delta and deliver it through canals from the State Water Works and the Central Valley Works, supplying vast farmland and cities in the south.

The delta’s ecosystems have been in a state of deterioration for decades, and the export of large volumes of freshwater is a major reason. Climate change has exacerbated droughts and increased stress on ecosystems.

Fish suffer. The delta goldfish is now endangered. Endangered winter-running Chinook salmon have struggled to reproduce in the Sacramento River when the water flowing from Shasta Dam has become so warm that many eggs fail to hatch.

State officials said the agreement aims to meet the delta’s water quality goals through projects that increase environmental flows, restore and improve thousands of acres of aquatic habitat, and fund the purchase of water and the implementation of habitat projects. These projects will include creating more spawning habitat for salmon and salmon, restoring floodplains and side channels, and removing barriers that hold back fish, they said.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crawford said steps toward a voluntary agreement among water agencies “have the potential to improve environmental conditions faster and more comprehensively than regulatory requirements.”

But the plan still needs to be approved by the state Water Control Board, which needs to update its delta water quality plan. The harsh criticism of the announcement also suggests that Newsom and his administration will face opposition as they continue to push for voluntary water deals.

Signatories to the agreement include more than a dozen water utilities, including the Southern California Metropolitan Water District and Westland Water District, some of the largest water suppliers in the United States. Water agencies have agreed to provide different flows depending on whether conditions are wet, above average, below average, dry or extremely dry.

Signatories may contribute between 150,000 acre-feet and 825,000 acre-feet annually. The largest amount of water, if distributed throughout the city of Los Angeles, would cover an area more than 2 feet deep.

A dam looms over a river.

Keswick Dam prevents salmon from swimming in the upper Sacramento River near Redding.

(Alan J. Cockroach/Los Angeles Times)

Baykeeper’s Rosenfield noted that would be well below the average acreage of about 1.5 million to 1.6 million acre-feet envisioned by the state water agency in a 2018 document, and well below what the council said would be needed to protect endangered fish in the delta watershed and commercial and recreational fisheries in the state.

Rosenfeld and other critics have pointed out that the agreement uses a water baseline established by the Trump administration in 2019, so the massive additional water provided under the proposal would only restore flows that were required by federal biology opinions a decade ago.

Rosenfeld also criticized provisions in the agreement involving the purchase of water for environmental purposes, primarily the obligation to use taxpayer money to “subsidize” water districts.

“We don’t need to pay water districts for water that belongs to the people of California,” Rosenfeld said.

State officials, however, stressed that the agreement would allow a large amount of water to flow through the delta that would otherwise be unhealthy for the ecosystem. A collaborative approach developed through years of meetings and negotiations could avoid protracted struggles, they said.

“When you try to collaborate, you can get more done on a larger scale, because when people don’t want to volunteer to talk about keeping water in the river,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We’re now not fighting over what to do, but committing to one of the largest habitat restoration efforts imaginable,” Bonham said.

Large-scale habitat restoration efforts within the watershed can have a major impact on restoring at-risk fish and other species, he said.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the California Institute for Public Policy, said the state’s traditional approach is to pass regulations and then deal with lawsuits, and the proposed agreement is designed to circumvent that practice to reduce uncertainty.

“For the water user community, it addresses a major need for them, which is regulatory certainty,” Mount said. “That way there won’t be an annual tough regulatory battle.”

Mount said he supports the approach in general and has called for it for years as a more effective strategy.

“But if they can actually bring in the environmental community and make them part of those negotiations, that’s even better,” Mount said.

The final outcome of the plan is uncertain, he said, because some agencies have not signed off on the terms and the deal is subject to lengthy scrutiny.

The program set out in the agreement calls for environmental monitoring, and if key metrics are not met through the voluntary agreement by the sixth year, the state can change course and pursue those goals through regulatory efforts, Bloomenfield said. State regulators can determine whether the voluntary agreement should be continued, modified, or terminated.

“So there’s a support,” Blumenfeld said. “There’s a lot of risk in making it work. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to implement a more traditional regulatory approach.”

Water districts that do not agree to the voluntary approach will be required to comply with requirements established by the state water authority. Agencies that have yet to sign up include those that draw water from the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Merced Irrigation District, the Modesto Irrigation District, the Frian Water Authority and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

State officials have told managers of these agencies that their proposals fall short, and their participation is open if they agree to provide enough additional water and support for habitat projects.

Mount said the state may be pursuing a “divide and conquer strategy,” but it certainly won’t end the conflict.

“The water battle will continue because we’re talking about tradeoffs that are used in a zero-sum game,” Mount said.

Water agencies that have joined the agreement have committed to restoring or creating 20,000 acres of floodplain habitat and nearly 3,300 additional acres for fish to spawn.

A breakdown of implementation costs under the agreement lists $858 million for habitat restoration and construction in the watershed, as well as additional costs for scientific monitoring, water purchases and paying some growers to dry and fallow fields.

The water district manager who signed the agreement this week has pledged to bring the terms to the board for approval.

Metropolitan Water District general manager Adel Hagekhalil said the agreement was a landmark first step in a joint effort to develop a watershed-wide approach to meet the challenges of the delta.

“We need to work with all of our state, federal, environmental and water agency partners to ensure we have a comprehensive action plan to improve water reliability and deliver real results for the environment,” Hagh Khalil said said in a statement.

The Newsom administration is pushing for a voluntary deal while also pursuing a controversial plan to reroute the state’s water system by building a giant water tunnel under the delta.

Environmental advocates say they fear $2.6 billion will be spent on implementation, with funding coming from water providers as well as state and federal governments. They also said there was no enforcement mechanism if the anticipated funding was not in place, and that the document outlining the deal counted water supplies that had not yet been secured.

“Certainly, we support floodplain recovery,” said Regina Chichizola, executive director of Save California Salmon. But she said research showed that the health of delta ecosystems required far more water than the agreement could provide.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it’s dealing with drought or climate change, or the actual need to deal with climate change. [the] Delta Islands so I’m disappointed,” Chichizola said.

It’s also worrying, she said, that instead of having an open, democratic process guided by science, “it’s just the most elite water users” negotiating in a room.

No one from the salmon fishing industry has been invited to the talks, said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association.

“I think a lot of people in California are going to wonder why taxpayers have to pay for basic environmental protections for our fish and wildlife,” McManus said. “Didn’t we already have regulations in place to protect fish and wildlife?”

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