THIS JUST IN … ACWA, California Farm Water Coalition say State Water Board’s San Joaquin River flow proposal is the wrong approach

The organizations advocate a ‘functional flows’ approach

Today was the deadline for comments to be submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board on the proposal for phase 1 of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update, which recommends a range of between 30 and 50 percent of unimpaired flow, with a starting point of 40 percent.

Earlier today, the Association of California Water Agencies issued a policy statement and a press release as well as held a media call, and separately, the California Farm Water Coalition also issued a press release.

Here’s what everyone had to say.

From the Association of California Water Agencies:

Saying California is facing a defining moment in water policy, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and local water leaders are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to embrace a more effective approach to flows and water quality objectives in the Bay-Delta watershed.

In response to the State Water Board’s staff proposal for the San Joaquin River and tributaries and widespread concern about its impacts, ACWA’s Board of Directors adopted a policy statement outlining a more collaborative, comprehensive path to achieving positive ecological objectives while maintaining water supply reliability. The statement urges the State Water Board to set aside its proposed “unimpaired flow” approach and heed Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for negotiated agreements, which have proven successful on many rivers and tributaries in the Bay-Delta watershed.

“California’s urban and agricultural water managers are united in their vision for a future that includes a healthy economy as well as healthy ecosystems and fish populations,” ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn said. “That vision is best achieved through comprehensive, collaborative approaches that include a broad suite of actions and non-flow solutions that contribute real benefits to ecosystem recovery.”

As part of its update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, the State Water Board issued a staff proposal last fall that would require water users to leave significantly more water in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries from Feb. 1 to June 30 each year in an effort to provide fish and wildlife benefits.

The deadline for public comment on the proposal is at 12 p.m. today, March 17. ACWA submitted its policy statement to the State Water Board along with a formal comment letter on the proposal.

The ACWA statement notes that the proposal could lead to widespread fallowing of agricultural land and would negatively affect water supply reliability for much of the state’s population. It also would undercut the state’s groundwater sustainability goals, cripple implementation of the Brown Administration’s California Water Action Plan, and affect access to surface water for some disadvantaged communities that do not have safe drinking water. These impacts are not in the public’s interest and are inconsistent with the Brown Administration’s water policy objectives.

“With this statement, ACWA’s agricultural and urban agencies are sending a clear message that unimpaired flow approach cannot lead us to the future we want in California,” said Quinn. “There is a better path. Negotiated agreements on many streams have succeeded because they include a more comprehensive set of tools and the support of local stakeholders, resulting in even better outcomes for ecosystems and water users. Forced regulations seldom yield those results.”

ACWA’s policy statement emphasizes that the state’s flow policy must reflect the best available science, take economic impacts into account and be consistent with the coequals goals of improving both water supply reliability and ecosystem health and the broader policy goals of the California Water Action Plan.

Earlier this morning, the Association of California Water Agencies held a media call to present their policy statement.  Executive Director Tim Quinn began by reminding that he works for a diverse 36-member Board of Directors.

My Board of Directors represent ag, urban, north, south, east, west – very diverse.  They disagree with each other a lot and the way they work through those disagreements is by working on policy documents,” he said.  “This is maybe the 13th or 14th in my 10-year tenure as Executive Director, and arguably the most important so far.  They unanimously approved the policy document that we’ve shared with you a week ago on March 10th.  The reason for this timing is that today, comments are due to the State Board for their Substitute Environmental Document or SED for phase 1 for the San Joaquin River.”

I want to make this very clear that what the ACWA Board wants to do is to solve the problem. They want to do that in cooperation with the State Board and with any NGOs that will roll up their sleeves and help solve the problem,” he said.  “It’s really important to define the problem correctly, however.  For us the problem is to identify and implement a set of actions that will improve the ecosystem and fisheries of California while providing reliable water supplies for a healthy agricultural and urban economy.”

That may sound to you an awful lot like a policy of coequal goals.  If you follow California water over the last decade in 2009, the legislature passed legislation which made coequal goals that both the ecosystem and water supply reliability are important in California, and we want to see that policy implemented and we don’t think that’s where the current proposal of the State Board is headed.

In simple layman’s terms, what the coequal goals mean is that we agreed in 2009 that we would work together to advance sets of actions that would improve both the ecosystem and water supplies at the same time,” Mr. Quinn said.  “One interest does not get to throw the other interest under the bus to solve the problem.  That’s a hard thing to accomplish, of course, but we think we need to keep our eye on that target.”

We have very grave reservations that the direction that the State Board staff SED as it stands will not solve the problem that we are trying to solve.  A singular focus on one policy tool and the tool that happens to be the most injurious to the other part of the coequal goals is inherently inefficient; it imposes very large costs without generating much in the way of environmental benefits.”

Even the State Board staff’s analysis projects very large amount of ag land going out of production,” said Mr. Quinn.  “It will undermine the reliability of urban water supplies for the vast majority of the California economy, it will impede and not help implement the Governor’s California Water Action Plan, and SGMA becomes a nightmare if you can’t get access to replenishment water.  There are a variety of reasons that we don’t think the single flow focus of the State Board staff will solve the problem.”

We think that is why Governor Brown intervened.  The day after the SED process was started by the State Board, the Governor sent a letter to the Chair of the State Board Felicia Marcus, basically the way we read the letter, it said ‘negotiate, don’t regulate’ and ‘do the whole system at once, don’t piecemeal it.’  We think that that is exactly the right track and what the ACWA board has done is worked pretty hard on a fairly detailed set of principles that we think will guide this process to success.

Mr. Quinn then gave  quick overview on what is in the document and what he thinks is essential for success.  “It is strongly supportive of a collaborative approach.  We spent way too much time in California water in adversarial approaches, and with most adversarial processes, the rules are you get to throw the other side under the bus, so we don’t think we’re going to solve this through an adversarial regulatory process or an adversarial legal process.  We think it’s got to be done at a negotiating table where everybody that wants to solve the problem is there.  We applaud the direction that the Governor is pushing things into.  It not only avoids throwing interests under the bus, it taps into the considerable knowledge that local managers have about their situation.”

We’re a little bit concerned that there are those that can’t wait for the negotiation to fail so they can go back to an adversarial regulatory process.  We think it’s really important that the State Board embrace this, the negotiation process and do everything they can to make it successful.”

Second, the solutions are going to have to be comprehensive,” continued Mr. Quinn.  “You can’t have a simple minded single tool approach that accomplishes something as complex as coequal goals.  For 25-30 years, my entire career, the water industry has figured out how can we solve our problems with less reliance on flows from the Bay Delta system, because we realize that over-reliance on that tool is adverse to the environment. We need the regulators to have the same epiphany.  They need to realize that overemphasizing that tool which is most injurious to our economic interests will also not accomplish the coequal goals.  You need to back off on those tools.”

We’re not against flows, by the way; we labeled the term functional flows.  We want to know what function is going to be provided by a flow regime and we are more than willing to integrate that into a program that is looking at the life cycle of these fisheries that we’re trying to enhance and protect.”

Let me also emphasize that to us, it’s just common sense that as you look at these flow requirements, you need to make sure that they are consistent with the broader picture of California water policy,” said Mr. Quinn.  “You need to have a straight-faced argument that it’s consistent with the policy of coequal goals, that it will help assure a healthy and growing agricultural and urban economy, not undermine one.  And that it will help you implement the Governor’s California Water Action Plan, not impose road blocks which will make sure that that plan cannot be implemented.”

It’s for all these reasons that we think that the staff proposal that went to the board and that we’re commenting on today is the wrong direction, but we think there is a right direction,” he concluded.  “The Governor is heading in that direction, and we’re doing everything we can to support it.”

During the media call, Jake Wenger, Director on Modesto Irrigation District Board of Directors spoke about the impacts the proposal would have on the agriculture and the communities he represents.

He said the SED’s recommended 40% unimpaired flow would have tremendous impacts, especially to groundwater.  “In 2014, our customers received a 40% reduction in water, and that included the water to the city of Modesto; in 2015, it was a 60% reduction in water supplies to our growers,” he said.  “If we look at what impact would have happened with this SED flow regime in place, in 2014 and 15, we would have had a zero water allotment for both the city of Modesto and our growers in our communities.  In 2015 alone, on top of the tremendous impacts economically our communities suffered due to the drought, we would have seen an additional $1.6 billion dollars in economic loss just in our communities.  That’s due to $167 million in farm gate revenue that would be lost, over 6500 lost jobs, and over $330 million in labor income lost from those jobs.  Those are impacts that are substantial in any way that you put it, and any plan coming forward out of the regulatory community that’s willing to put those impacts on a community in our opinion is unacceptable.

Mr. Wenger said that there would be impacts to groundwater, as groundwater would be used to make up for the loss of surface water under this new regime.  “You’re taking one of what is only two groundwater subbasins in the Central Valley as recognized by the California Department of Water Resources not to be listed in critical overdraft, and essentially putting them in a position of critical overdraft, which is absolutely contradictory to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that was passed.  We have a legislative body wanting to regulate groundwater and find alternative solutions to get people off of groundwater and we have a regulatory body that would put us into groundwater impacts and those groundwater impacts would affect water quality for everyone in our community, which includes 15 disadvantaged communities as recognized by the state of California.”

Mr. Wenger noted that the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts have spent $25 million on studies, and have produced peer reviewed science which is not reflected in the documents.  “We have the science to prove what it’s going to take to improve the fishery.  For instance, in 2012, we did a predation study that showed there was 96% loss of juvenile salmon on the Tuolumne River directly due to predation.  A 10% reduction in predation would get the fish survival rate that the state assumes they would achieve through a 35% unimpaired flow.”

California Farm Water Coalition also critical of State Water Board’s approach

A separate statement issued from the California Farm Water Coalition:

In 2016, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) began the process of updating the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The public comment period officially closed at noon on March 17. (Read CFWC’s comment letter here.)

During that time, loud and sustained objections to the proposed policy have been raised. ‘

“The State of California is simply on the wrong path to achieve ecosystem health on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

Flow-based approaches in the past have failed

“By focusing solely on the amount of water flowing through the river, the SWRCB staff proposal is relying on outdated science that has been proven ineffective at halting the decline of endangered fish populations.

“If adopted in its present form, the policy will have a devastating impact on drinking water, sanitation needs, food production, groundwater, the economy and jobs for people stretching from the Northern San Joaquin Valley throughout the Bay Area.

“That’s why this proposed regulation is opposed by schools, health departments, farmers, cities, economic development officials, and water agencies throughout the state including the Central Valley, Bay Area, Central Coast, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire.

Opposition to SWRCB plan is growing

Opposition to this wrong-headed policy has continued to grow and now includes statewide groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the Association of California Water Agencies, regional organizations such as the Orange County Business Council as well as hundreds of individual Californians. Not even a drought-busting water year like this one could diminish the impacts of this unequivocally bad policy.

“What we need instead is a comprehensive, outcomes-driven, science-based, collaborative approach that includes ‘functional’ flows as well as non-flow solutions that contribute real benefits to ecosystem recovery.

“As the Board goes behind closed doors to deliberate the draft proposal we urge them one more time to listen to the voices representing millions of Californians opposed to the plan and open the door to collaborating on a real solution,” he said.

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