California rejects federal water proposal, lays out its vision for protecting endangered species and meeting state water needs

By Wade Crowfoot and Jared Blumenfeld, Special to CalMatters

California’s water policy can be complex, and—let’s be honest—often polarizing. 

Water decisions frequently get distilled into unhelpful narratives of fish versus farms, north versus south, or urban versus rural. Climate change-driven droughts and flooding threats, as well as our divided political climate, compound these challenges. 

We must rise above these historic conflicts by finding ways to protect our environment and build water security for communities and agriculture. We need to embrace decisions that benefit our entire state. Simply put, we have to become much more innovative, collaborative and adaptive.

For this reason, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed us earlier this year to turn the page on old binaries and develop a broad, inclusive water agenda. 

Our agencies and the California Department of Food and Agriculture will take a big step in this direction in December when we release a draft Water Resilience Portfolio for public feedback. It will serve as a roadmap for the Newsom administration with a broad set of recommendations to improve water systems across our diverse state.

Much of what we are attempting has never been tried. Difficult trade-offs have to be made unless we can find creative solutions that balance all water needs. And even then, sometimes tough decisions will have to be made.

The protection of endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta requires our immediate attention. We have crucial pumping infrastructure that delivers water to two-thirds of our state’s population, but also impacts imperiled fish in the Delta.

In 2018, federal authorities embarked on an accelerated process to update the federal biological opinions, which set rules to operate the Delta pumps to protect endangered fish. 

To ensure appropriate protection surrounding that process, those of us who are responsible for water management decided we could no longer rely on the federal process. Instead we are taking a careful, science-based approach to operating the State Water Project. 

We are drawing on a decade of science to strengthen safeguards for fish and improve real-time management of the project that delivers water to 27 million Californians in the Bay Area, Central California and Southern California. It was a departure from past practice, but a necessary one.

After careful review of the federal biological opinions released late last month, our best experts concluded they are insufficient to protect endangered fish. As a result, the state needs to protect California’s interests and values. 

We remain committed to finding common solutions with the federal government and all those interested in ending the patterns of the past. 

Top of our list is working together to develop a set of voluntary agreements that can implement the State Water Board’s update to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems and Delta. 

These agreements aim to provide additional water, habitat and science to improve environmental conditions in the two river systems and the Delta while providing water for other beneficial uses such as agriculture. Importantly, successful voluntary agreements will bring these benefits online quickly while avoiding a decade or more of litigation.

Today, policy decisions are routinely portrayed as a win for one interest at the expense of another. Especially so in the environmental arena, where headlines focus on conflict while context and thoughtful nuance are often lost. 

When it comes to water in California, and all of its complexities, there are no magic fixes. What we do have is a strong commitment to move forward and not only adapt to the present, but prepare for the future.

We believe there is an urgency to address various challenges, including environmental protection and climate change. It is critical we set forth strategies and tactics that are pragmatic and feasible, and that we forge synergies and linkages between the different people, stakeholders and areas of our state so that we can rise above rhetoric, and truly work hand-in-hand toward one common goal on this issue. When it comes to water, California demands and deserves no less than our best effort.

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Wade Crowfoot is California Secretary for Natural Resources, [email protected] Jared Blumenfeld is California Secretary for Environmental Protection, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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