In summary

Jennifer Pierre, State Water Contractors: California needs to reshape how it manages the rivers of the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by providing more water for the environment, more restoration, more funding and more collaborative science. That can happen through voluntary partnerships, not Senate Bill 1, which seeks to tap into public sentiment against President Trump without solving California’s water war.

By Jennifer Pierre, Special to CalMatters

Editor’s note: This is a response to “Newsom and legislators have a choice: side with the environment or with Trump,” Sept. 12, 2019.

California needs to reshape how it manages the rivers of the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It needs to provide more water for the environment, more restoration, more funding and more collaborative science.

All this can happen through voluntary partnerships with water agencies from throughout California, environmental groups and the state and federal governments. Within the next few months, this better way of managing water, our most precious resource, is within reach.

In one of its most crucial remaining decisions of this session, the California Legislature must decide whether to pass Senate Bill 1. This legislation seeks to tap into public sentiment against President Trump by using a new state law to dictate future federal water decisions.

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Water agencies throughout the state and lawmakers from Republican and Democratic parties are opposed to SB 1. The reason is straight-forward. SB 1 threatens collaborative progress for the good of the environment and the state economy.

The State Water Resources Control Board oversees the water rights of our beautiful rivers and can regulate how these waters can be beneficially used, including the water rights held by the federal Central Valley Project. 

The board is finishing a years-long process of updating the management of the Delta and the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems. This process has inspired a voluntary approach to environmental improvements rather than a regulatory approach that undoubtedly would be contentious and tied up in the courts for years.

My organization, the State Water Contractors, represents public water agencies throughout the state that receive supplies from the State Water Project. We have been among the participants in this voluntary agreement process, which is led by members of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. 

While all the details are not finalized, water agencies are prepared to provide additional flows for the health of the rivers and the Delta, to improve habitat for important species such as salmon, and to contribute funds to make this 15-year effort happen.

The State Water Project and Central Valley Project form the backbone of the statewide water delivery system. It is crucial that people who oversee both systems participate in this proposal to make real change in how the systems operate.

SB 1 would destroy the ability to make voluntary, collaborative progress by starting a legal war between the state and federal governments. 

It is far from clear whether a state law can nullify a federal one. It is crystal clear that there would be conflict, and no progress. And the window of opportunity to voluntarily make progress together via the water board will have closed. The board will have little choice  but to try to regulate a solution, causing even more conflict.

I share much in common with colleagues in environmental groups, and I want to solve our shared problems. The right flows at the right times and at the right temperatures are all important. So is restoring habitat. 

Testing hypotheses together and using science to provide us with answers can help break down barriers so we can find common ground. This approach is so much more powerful than the idea behind SB 1. If SB 1 were to become law, stakeholders would stay in their respective silos.

These voluntary agreements with the Water Board are all about the long view, making our rivers and the Delta healthier 15 years, and at least two presidents, from now. Let’s not lose focus on what we need to do together.

Jennifer Pierre is the general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies that receive supplies from the State Water Project, She wrote this commentary for CALmatters. To read her past commentary for CalMatters, please click here. 

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