New currents of cooperation on California’s wicked water problems

By Maurice Hall and Steve Rothert, Special to CALmatters

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the rivers that feed it make up California’s primary water supply and one of the state’s most wicked water challenges.

Difficult negotiations on how to efficiently and fairly share water among farmers, cities including San Francisco, and fish and wildlife have been underway since 2012 with little resolution in sight—until the Newsom administration came on board.

With the administration’s leadership, representatives of farmers, cities and conservation groups are having productive negotiations on a complex package of actions that would increase river flows and improve fish habitats, collectively called a “voluntary agreement.”  

A possible final agreement is months away, but we are making progress.

This momentum for a Central Valley water agreement is an encouraging sign that California water management may finally be on the verge of entering a new era of greater collaboration and science-based, adaptive decision-making. These improvements cannot come soon enough for the salmon and other native fish on the brink of extinction.

One promising feature of the proposed agreement is its potential to help reduce the longstanding conflict between the water needs of nature and people.

The State Water Board has called for more water to flow down our rivers and through the Delta to help bring back our once abundant salmon populations and native fish species. Some urban and agricultural water agencies have legitimate concerns about what this means for their customers’ water supplies.

Unfortunately, current science cannot tell us the most effective combinations of water, habitat restoration and other measures that will produce the best outcomes for the Delta and rivers that feed it.

However, a voluntary agreement that adds robust monitoring and a science program to guide habitat restoration and improved river flow measures should move us closer to resolving this debate.

Equally important, a voluntary agreement also should bring notable improvements to Delta ecosystems much sooner than possible through the standard fallback option of California water debates: litigation. Resolving similar water conflicts through the courts in other river basins in the West has taken 30 years or more.

Water agencies and farmers have offered important concessions. They have agreed to forgo water they have legally used in the past and in some cases fallow land to increase river flows for fish and wildlife.

They also would pitch in funds to help restore habitats and provide the state with greater flexibility to steer a more adaptive management of the rivers.

We are encouraged by the willingness of the water agencies to step forward with bold measures and funding, but we still have work to do.

Most importantly, the combination of water flow increases and habitat restoration in the latest proposal is simply not enough to reverse declining fish populations. The proposed voluntary agreement still needs to go further.

In his first state of the state address, Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “It’s time to cross the finish line on real agreements to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.”

We couldn’t agree more. We remain hopeful that the parties involved can cross the finish line on a real agreement for the Delta and its tributaries. If we get it right, the outcome of this collaboration and perseverance will be worth the struggle: healthier river ecosystems and a more reliable water supply for California.  

Maurice Hall is associate vice president for water at Environmental Defense Fund, [email protected] Steve Rothert is California director of American Rivers, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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