It is a significant source of water for California and an essential habitat for fish, migratory birds, and other species.
However, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta watershed is a delicate ecosystem in decline, with human water demands wreaking havoc on the ecology.
With the third year of severe drought putting a strain on water supplies and threatening the extinction of rare salmon and other fish, California officials unveiled a contentious $2.6 billion deal with the federal government and key water providers to rebuild the ecosystem.
The new agreement, dubbed a memorandum of understanding, reflects a recognition that, due to climate change, “the system is collapsing faster than the laws and regulations in place can manage or heal the system,” according to Jared Blumenfeld, California’s secretary of environmental protection.
The proposed deal outlines plans for the next eight years in which agencies that serve cities and farms would give up water or obtain new supplies to assist vulnerable species, while state, federal, and municipal governments would fund habitat improvement projects throughout the watershed.
State officials described the agreement as a significant step toward balancing the Delta’s ecological demands with Californians’ water needs. The first step toward broader “voluntary agreements” can help assure sufficient flows for the estuary’s health.
Governor Gavin Newsom hailed the idea as a historic rejection of “old binaries” in favor of new approaches. At the same time, Blumenfeld stated that it would “take us away from the ‘water wars’ of the past.”
However, their assertions garnered widespread condemnation.
Environmental organizations and salmon conservationists immediately blasted the proposal following its introduction on Tuesday. A series of backdoor deals struck out of public view that would not offer enough water for imperiled fish or the watershed’s overall health.
“Nothing has been accomplished through backdoor deals with water districts,” said Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist with the San Francisco Baykeeper organization.
“According to many studies, the state’s current strategy provides just a sliver of the relief our rivers, fisheries, and delta towns require — and it leaves all the hard questions unsolved.”
The San Francisco Bay-Delta is the West Coast’s biggest estuary. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, formed by the confluence of California’s two major rivers, is at the core of the state’s water system.
Two massive government-run pumping stations extract water from the Delta’s southern boundary and channel it via the State Water Project’s and Central Valley Project’s canal systems, providing large farmlands and towns to the south.
For decades, the Delta’s ecology has been suffering, largely owing to the export of massive volumes of fresh water. Climate change has exacerbated droughts, further stressing the ecology.
Fish have been harmed. The delta smelt is rapidly approaching extinction. Additionally, endangered winter-run Chinook salmon have struggled to breed in the Sacramento River. The water coming from Shasta Dam has warmed that many eggs do not hatch.
State authorities stated that the deal attempts to achieve the Delta’s water-quality objectives through increased environmental flows, initiatives that restore and improve thousands of acres of aquatic habitat, and funds for water purchases and habitat restoration.
They stated that these improvements would entail expanding salmon and smelt spawning habitat, rehabilitating floodplains and side waterways, and reducing impediments to fish migration.
According to Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources, voluntary agreements among water agencies “can enhance environmental conditions more rapidly and comprehensively than regulatory restrictions.”
However, the proposal must still be approved by the State Water Resources Control Board, which is required to revise its delta water-quality plan.
The announcement’s widespread criticism also indicates that Newsom and his administration will face opposition if they continue to seek voluntary water arrangements.
Over a dozen water agencies signed the deal, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Westlands Water District, two of the nation’s major water providers. Water agencies have offered different flows in response to rainy, above-average, below-average, dry, or dangerously dry circumstances.
Annual contributions of water by signatories might vary between 150,000 and 825,000 acre-feet. The greatest quantity of water, if scattered evenly throughout Los Angeles, would cover an area more than two feet deep.
Rosenfield of Baykeeper noted that this would be significantly less than the average of approximately 1.5 million to 1.6 million acre-feet contemplated by the state water board in a 2018 document and significantly less than the board indicated would be required to protect imperiled fish in the delta watershed as well as the state’s commercial and recreational fisheries.
Rosenfield and other critics pointed out that because the deal is based on a water baseline established by the Trump administration in 2019, much of the additional water made available under the proposal would restore flows required under federal biological opinions issued a decade ago.
Rosenfield also attacked the deal’s clauses requiring water districts to purchase water for environmental objectives, thereby utilizing public money to “subsidize” their duties.
“There is no reason for us to pay water districts for water that belongs to the people of California,” Rosenfield stated.
State authorities, however, emphasized that the arrangement would transport a considerable volume of water through the Delta that would not be beneficial to the ecology otherwise.
Additionally, they asserted that the collaborative method could avert chronic conflicts, honed through years of meetings and talks.
“You can do a lot more on a larger scale when you work constructively because you save decades of litigation when people are unwilling to discuss leaving water in rivers,” said Chuck Bonham, head of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Rather than wrangling over what to do, we now commit to one of the greatest habitat restoration undertakings imaginable,” Bonham said.
He stated that large-scale habitat restoration activities within the watershed could significantly contribute to the recovery of fish and other threatened species.
According to Jeffrey Mount, a senior scholar at the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s usual strategy is to establish regulations and then deal with challenges; the proposed agreement seeks to avoid this method to eliminate ambiguity.
“It satisfies one of the greatest requirements of the water user community, which is regulatory certainty,” Mount explained. “This is to avoid an annual, arduous regulatory struggle.”
Mount stated that he generally endorses the idea and has advocated for something similar for years as a more successful technique.
“However, it would have been preferable if they could have included the environmental community in these conversations,” Mount remarked.
He added that what will eventually result from the proposal is unknown because certain agencies have yet to sign on to the provisions, and the agreement would require further scrutiny.
The agreement’s strategy includes environmental monitoring. Blumenfeld said that if key indicators are not attained by the sixth year, the state may shift direction and strive toward those goals through legislation. State authorities might decide whether to extend, modify, or terminate voluntary agreements.
“Therefore, there is a backup,” Blumenfeld explained. “There is a great deal at risk in making it work. However, we can proceed with the more conventional regulatory method if it does not.”
Water districts that opt out of the voluntary method will be compelled to comply with state water board standards. Among the agencies that have not signed on are those that take water from the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Merced Irrigation District, the Modesto Irrigation District, and the Friant Water Authority, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
State officials have informed these agencies’ management that their bids fall short of what is required. They are welcome to join, provided they agree to provide sufficient extra water and assistance for habitat initiatives.
Mount asserted that while the state may be pursuing a “divide and conquer” approach, it will almost definitely fail to resolve the problems.
“The water wars will continue as long as we discuss trade-offs in a zero-sum game,” Mount explained.
The participating water agencies have committed to repairing or constructing 20,000 acres of floodplain habitat and almost 3,300 acres of new salmon spawning habitat.
The agreement’s implementation expenses include:
- $ 858 million for habitat restoration and building in the watershed.
- Additional funds for scientific monitoring.
- Water purchases.
- Subsidies to some producers to keep farmlands dry and fallow.
Water district managers who signed the agreement this week have pledged to bring the provisions to their boards of directors for approval.
According to Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, the agreement is a significant first step in a collaborative effort to build a watershed-wide approach to addressing the Delta’s difficulties.
“We must collaborate with our states, federal, environmental, and water agency partners to develop a comprehensive action plan that enhances water dependability while also delivering tangible environmental benefits,” Hagekhalil said.
The Newsom administration promotes voluntary agreements while still pursuing a contentious proposal to reroute the state’s water supply by constructing a massive water tunnel beneath the Delta.
Environmentalists expressed alarm about the anticipated $2.6 billion costs of implementation, funded by water companies and state and federal governments.
Additionally, they stated that there is no enforcement mechanism if the anticipated financing does not materialize. The paperwork defining the arrangement does not account for yet-to-be-secured water sources.
“Of course, we support floodplain restoration,” Regina Chichizola, executive director of the Save California Salmon advocacy group, said. However, she stated that research has demonstrated that the delta ecosystem’s health requires far more water than this deal will supply.
“This does not address drought, climate change, or the delta’s true needs.” As a result, I am dissatisfied,” Chichizola stated.
She also expressed worry that, rather than an open, democratic process informed by science, “only the most elite water consumers” were there to negotiate.
According to John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, no representatives from the salmon fishing sector were invited to the negotiations.
“I believe that many residents of California will question why taxpayers must pay for fundamental environmental safeguards for our fish and animals,” McManus said. “Don’t we already have restrictions to safeguard our fish and wildlife?”