In summary

The decision to suspend environmental regulations for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – and then reverse it a few weeks later – was applauded by many who believe California’s climate extremes require a more flexible approach to managing the water crisis.

Guest Commentary written by

Charley Wilson

Charley Wilson

Charley Wilson is the executive director of the Southern California Water Coalition.

Two recent watershed decisions in California exemplified how difficult it is to manage this precious resource.

Last month, many water leaders applauded Gov. Gavin Newsom for taking quick action to suspend a 1999 environmental regulation and keep more water in reservoirs on a temporary basis. This was a commonsense and prudent move to allow California to adapt in the face of changed climate conditions and severe pressure on the state’s other main source of supply, the Colorado River. 

The thinking: Let’s hold on to this water now in case drier times are ahead.

Then the weather forecast changed. A warm atmospheric river shifted course, threatening to melt record snowpack in California’s mountains and send huge quantities of water through the state’s waterways. To prevent catastrophic flooding and operate dams safely, the state acted quickly to release water, creating room in its reservoirs for new flows.

An executive order by Newsom last week suspended regulations and restrictions on permitting and use to enable water agencies and water users to divert flood stage water to boost groundwater recharge. The State Water Resources Control Board rescinded its previous order

For casual watchers of California water news, the two decisions made just over two weeks apart might seem like a head-scratching reversal. But the reality is that these are the types of forecast-informed, dynamic decisions we must make to manage our water supply.

It’s cliché, but California has to hope for the best while planning for the worst.

The governor and the state water agencies deserve credit for their quick action and willingness to take the necessary measures as weather conditions changed. 

The reality is that some laws and regulations about how much water should flow in winter months through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system were set a long time ago and are not conducive to the kind of adaptive management we now need. 

Back in 1999, these regulations were placed with the best information we had, aiming to balance the needs of the environment with those of the millions of people who depend the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Things have changed, and it’s time to reshape how we think about these releases. Decades ago, California could count on its snowpack to hold the water in storage until it melted slowly over the spring. Now, California sees more intense periods of rain and longer, drier and hotter months. This means we must find ways to support beneficial uses and time the release of water supplies for health, safety, the economy and the environment, as well as build more storage and modernize the state’s water delivery system.

There’s growing and credible evidence that reservoir management should happen in real-time, accounting for actual conditions in the river system. The Public Policy Institute of California last year recommended taking a hard look at regulations that govern protections for fish in the Delta.

As PPIC adjunct fellow Greg Gartrell put it: “Some of the rules are tied to water-year type and are fairly rigid, not adapting to the range of hydrology in a single year. We need to revisit the biological basis for the numerous, overlapping restrictions to be both more protective of the Delta environment and more efficient in pumping. And we need to be more nimble, able to adjust pumping restrictions based on real-time hydrology and biological conditions.”

Newsom and the state water board made the right call on both decisions. Temporarily suspending the requirement to release water in February was the prudent move based on weather forecasts. Reversing the decision last week in light of changing conditions was the right call, too.

The fact that these happened in such close succession exemplifies how we must adapt to our changed weather circumstances in ways that previous decisions simply did not envision. The climate has changed and so must our actions.

Newsom’s controversial decision last month ordering state water officials to suspend the Delta’s environmental rules was lauded by growers and fiercely criticized by others. Last week, state water officials reversed the order as weather conditions changed. Those who decried the action say the persistent disregard for salmon and their importance to Native American tribes amounts to a civil rights violation.

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