Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. (Via Getty Images.)

In summary

Deal-making on water is hard. But facing the impending State Water Board regulations, parties in the San Joaquin River basin might be motivated to reach a voluntary accord. Gov. Jerry Brown ad Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom are pushing for it.

Jeffrey Mount and Ellen Hanak

Jeffrey Mount,, is senior fellow and Ellen Hanak,, is the director at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

It is imperative to improve the health of the greater Delta watershed, a major source of water for cities and farms across the state. And various stakeholders have a chance to achieve that goal in the coming weeks while protecting important economic interests.

Amid all the election news, Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom asked the State Water Board to delay its vote on setting new water quality standards for the San Joaquin River to give time to develop voluntary agreements regarding the amount of water to be allocated to protect fish.

The delay offers the governor, the governor-elect and various interests a chance to forge a more comprehensive and effective approach to tackling one of California’s biggest environmental water challenges.

The water board’s proposal for the San Joaquin River system is the first step in its overhaul of water standards for the greater Delta watershed. Soon, the board will focus on the Sacramento River and its tributaries, and the Delta itself.

The pressure of impending regulation appears to have brought parties to the negotiating table in earnest. That’s a good thing. The opportunity should not be wasted.

Voluntary agreements to tackle tough water problems have many potential benefits. They tend to get more buy-in than government-imposed regulations, and they can avert protracted and costly litigation.

They also can result in more creative approaches.

One example is the Lower Yuba River Accord, in which parties avoided regulation by developing a better way to protect flows for endangered salmon at less cost to farmers.

The agreement involved integrated management of the water stored in reservoirs and in the local groundwater basin. As a result, the Yuba was less affected than other watersheds by the 2012-2016 drought.

That accord showed that while the State Water Board can mandate water quality and flow standards, voluntary agreements can take a more comprehensive approach.

A successful settlement in the greater Delta watershed should meet five important criteria:

  • Good governance, guided by robust plans for how water and other assets will be managed to improve ecosystem health.
  • A water budget for ecosystems that can be flexibly managed. Parties should avoid getting hung up on the specific amount of water initially set aside for ecosystems. What matters more is putting in place a system for adjusting this allocation over time as scientific understanding about what works improves.
  • Habitat investments that are linked to changes in water management, to maximize the efficiency of water used for the environment.
  • A transparent, collaborative science program that tracks and guides ecosystem investments and water use.
  • Funding for the entire package. A reliable, ongoing source of funding is essential to support the science and governance of this effort.

A fee on water diversions across the watershed may be the best option. Proposition 68, approved by voters in June, sets aside $200 million to begin needed habitat and flow investments. That will be insufficient by itself.

The governor-elect should commit to obtaining additional habitat funds that will be needed down the road.

Meaningful voluntary agreements generally don’t come together unless parties have a compelling reason to make a deal. A regulatory threat can be that reason. But there also must be ongoing commitments by all parties.

To ensure that commitments on voluntary agreements are honored, the board might take a page from the playbook of California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.

This law relies on local government to develop and implement groundwater sustainability plans. The State Water Board can step in if local efforts fall short.

For the Delta watershed, the board might adopt its current plan as a backstop to settlements. And if the settlements are not honored, the board’s original order would go into effect.

Deal-making on water is hard. All parties have to give something up to get what matters most. But voluntary accords offer the best hope for turning things around in the Delta’s troubled freshwater ecosystems—while continuing to allow these waters to support a healthy California economy.

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