In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom claims progress on settling California’s decades-long conflict over water allocation but it’s a partial deal at best

The holy grail of those involved in California’s decades-long political and legal battle over how the state’s water supply should be allocated has been some sort of master agreement.

There have been countless efforts at negotiating such a peace treaty and some premature declarations of success. However, California’s water wars have continued with skirmishes in the water bureaucracy, in the Legislature, in Congress, in the courts and even in the White House.

The water war involves dozens of specific agricultural and municipal water agencies and environmental groups, each with a particular stake in the outcome — known colloquially as “water buffaloes” — and their perpetual jousting is a lucrative industry for lawyers, lobbyists and public relations operatives.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom became the latest governor to claim progress on settling the conflict, announcing a $2.6 billion agreement between the state and some municipal and agricultural factions to reduce the amount of water taken from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems so that more can flow naturally and thus improve fish habitat.

“We don’t have to choose between healthy ecosystems or a healthy economy,” Newsom said in a written statement. “We can choose a path that provides for both. This is a meaningful, hard-earned step in the right direction.”

Perhaps, but we’ve heard that claim before. The “voluntary agreement,” as it’s dubbed, omits some of the water game’s biggest players, not only some San Joaquin Valley agricultural water districts but the City and County of San Francisco, which is one of the largest diverters of water via its Hetch Hetchy Dam.

It also lacks support from environmental groups, which argue it doesn’t go far enough to protect salmon and steelhead habitat in the rivers and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said “the voluntary agreement framework process violates the legal principles of environmental justice inclusion and does not serve the public trust, or the human right to water. Governor Newsom continues to serve the interests of the top 2% of agribusiness across California at the expense of Northern California tribes, Delta communities, commercial fishing interests, and communities in need of improved drinking water conditions.”

Although it’s called a “voluntary agreement,” it is scarcely that, since it was negotiated as an alternative to plans by the state Water Resources Control Board to mandate reductions in diversions from the rivers. Those plans had been on hold for several years while negotiations continued, but environmental groups would prefer the mandatory reductions, which would be larger.

Underlying the process is a long-running conflict over whether the state water board has the legal authority to reduce diversions by agricultural and municipal water agencies with senior water rights. Those that hold the rights argue that they take precedence while environmental activists contend that the state constitution’s “public trust” doctrine on water gives the board sufficient legal power to control water flows.

Without a fuller agreement, the water board could proceed with mandatory diversion reductions and that would probably trigger a legal showdown over how much authority it truly has.

There’s another major aspect to the process as well — its effect on long-standing plans to reduce direct diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by building a tunnel beneath the Delta to carry Sacramento River water to the heads of the California Aqueduct and federal canals near Tracy. Barrigan-Parrilla and other environmental activists see the new agreement as an effort to make the tunnel project more acceptable.

Peace treaty? More like a partial and perhaps temporary ceasefire.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...