In the coming weeks and months, the Newsom administration, water users and conservation groups will continue to refine a framework for potential voluntary agreements intended to benefit salmon and other fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Gov. Gavin Newsom released the framework last week, which acts as the alternative to a state-mandated, flows-only approach that has brought opposition and lawsuits from water agencies and water users.
The framework for voluntary agreements outlines a 15-year program that provides for up to 900,000 acre-feet of new flows to help recover fish populations, creates 60,000 acres of new and restored habitat, and generates $5.2 billion for environmental improvements and science. It would also establish a governance program to deploy flows and habitat, implement a science program and develop strategic plans and annual reports.
Water users have urged the state to pursue voluntary agreements as an alternative to the regulatory regime adopted in 2018 by the State Water Resources Control Board, which would require water users in San Joaquin River tributaries to leave 30% to 50% of unimpaired flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. A second phase of the board's bay-delta plan affecting Sacramento River tributaries has not yet been released.
"The devil is in the details," said Michael Frantz, Turlock Irrigation District board vice president and nursery owner in Hickman, who has long supported voluntary agreements.
"I'm grateful for Gov. Newsom continuing to pursue an approach that the districts believe is a much better approach than a purely regulatory one," said Frantz, whose farm is located along the Tuolumne River. "But until we have a chance to drill down and learn more about and unpack this framework, I remain cautiously optimistic."
The resolution of questions about the framework, he said, "will determine if the farming community decides to stay on board with the governor's approach or not; we're still trying to make sure that it's the right thing for our communities."
TID, the Modesto Irrigation District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which draw water from the Tuolumne River, said they are encouraged by the new framework, adding that their Tuolumne River Voluntary Agreement to balance water supplies between communities and fisheries reflects a collaborative water management approach.
In the Sacramento River watershed, the Northern California Water Association has been working to advance voluntary agreements.
"We have tried the unimpaired flows approach for 50 years in California, and fish are declining and water supply reliability is declining so, if you're a farmer and you're farming and something doesn't work, the next year you try something different," NCWA President David Guy said. "The voluntary agreements are a starting point to try something different and see if we can't do something better for fish and wildlife."
Guy said additional water for fish would come from flows and a new account for water purchases, describing that as a yet-to-be-defined water transfer program for the state—and noting that construction of Sites Reservoir would add supplies to the mix in the future. In addition, he said, Sacramento Valley interests plan to implement a series of projects in the next year for the area's river systems.
Before voluntary agreements are completed, the state indicates more work must be done to finalize water pumping rules in the delta, in order to protect endangered species.
Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public agencies that purchase water from the State Water Project, said it will be "critically important to harmonize other permits before the agreements are finalized."
California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said it remains unknown how the question of delta pumping operations will be resolved between the state and federal governments.
"You can't have this massive voluntary-agreement template to overlay the whole system if the pumps in the delta—which are a major component of California's water operations—are so uncertain," he said.
Gov. Newsom initially threatened to sue after federal fishery agencies issued biological opinions last October that said operations of the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project do not jeopardize the continued existence of protected salmon and delta smelt.
Other loose ends before voluntary agreements can be approved include finalization of outstanding governance, policy and legal issues, and submitting a proposal to the state water board for review.
In the framework, state agencies said water users that do not sign voluntary agreements "will be subject to the state water board's regulatory requirements to achieve unimpaired flows."
Water users including the Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District on the Stanislaus River, and the Merced Irrigation District on the Merced River, were not included in a tentative compromise struck by the state water board on voluntary agreements in December 2018.
In a letter expressing concerns about the framework document, the Oakdale and South San Joaquin districts said the state's proposal "fails to include a sustainable operations plan for the Stanislaus River," and warned it might require more water from the river than the original plan adopted by the state water board.
In addition, the framework document said the state will work with willing participants to expedite early implementation as soon as possible this year, following an environmental review. That could also include dedication of new flows, advanced planning and moving habitat projects forward.
CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley called the new framework "a message from the governor to everyone, including agencies and boards in his administration, of the direction he wants to see things go with the voluntary agreements."
"It is great news that the governor is sending this signal, but it remains to be seen how staff in these agencies will implement this," Merkley said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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