REACTIONS: Water agencies and organizations react to voluntary settlements and the State Water Board vote to adopt new flow standards for San Joaquin River tributaries

In a meeting yesterday that began at 9:30am and went into the evening, the State Water Board voted 4-1 to adopt the controversial flow standards for San Joaquin River tributaries and salinity standards for the South Delta, while leaving room open for a voluntary settlement agreement.

Here’s what water agencies and stakeholders had to say:

From the State Water Resources Control Board:

The State Water Resources Control Board today adopted a plan designed to restore water flows through the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

The plan sets a starting point for increased flows but also makes allowances for reduced river flows on tributaries where stakeholders have reached voluntary agreements to pursue a combination of flow and “non-flow” measures that improve conditions for fish and wildlife, such as habitat restoration and reducing predation.

“Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture, and healthy communities, not one at the undue expense of the others,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Doing that requires that the water wars yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife through voluntary action, which the plan seeks to reward. The collaborative spirit we heard today offers promise and motivation towards that goal.”

The Board’s action followed testimony by leaders of the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife that significant progress has been made among stakeholders to reach voluntary agreements on the Tuolumne River and tributaries of the Sacramento River. The Board postponed a decision last month to allow time for discussions to yield results.

The Board directed staff to work with the parties to evaluate the proposals involving the Tuolumne River and Sacramento River watershed and consider them as part of a comprehensive analysis of the Delta watershed during 2019.

The future actions by the Board would follow a public process and would need to find that the agreements reasonably protect uses of the Delta watershed’s waters.

The Board has repeatedly emphasized that voluntary agreements can provide a faster, more durable solution to reasonably protect beneficial uses in the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, while also recognizing the necessity of taking timely action.

Approval of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta, and an accompanying Substitute Environmental Document, follows a nine-year process during which the Board studied and analyzed options, and conducted one of the most extensive public outreach efforts in its history.

The State Water Board is also progressing with its effort to update flow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and the Delta and its tributaries — including the Feather, Yuba and American rivers. This update is at an earlier stage of development than the Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta plan update; a draft proposed plan and staff report analyzing alternatives will be released later this year for public review and comment.

The two Bay-Delta Plan updates are part of a delicate balancing act aimed at addressing an ecological crisis in the Delta and preventing further collapse of Bay-Delta fisheries while considering the many other vital water uses for millions of Californians.

A dramatic decline in the once-thriving populations of native fish species that migrate through and inhabit the Delta has brought some species to the brink of extinction. In 1984, for example, about 70,000 fall-run Chinook salmon adults returned to the San Joaquin Basin. The number of returning adults dropped to 40,000 in 2010 and just 10,000 in 2016 and 2017.

While multiple factors contributed to the decline, the magnitude of diversions out of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and other rivers feeding into the Bay-Delta is a major reason for the ecosystem decline. Currently, flows remaining in the San Joaquin River and its three tributaries can run as low as 6 percent in dry or drought years, while they average 10 to 20 percent of unimpaired flow at critical times of the year and range from 21 to 40 percent on average.

The final Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta update includes improved instream flows February through June, the critical months for migrating fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. These flows are measured as a percentage of “unimpaired flow,” the amount of water moving down river if there were no dams or other diversions.

A flow criteria report adopted by the State Water Board in 2010 concluded that an unimpaired flow requirement of 60 percent on the Lower San Joaquin River would be desirable to preserve the attributes of a natural variable system to which native fish species are adapted. That report did not consider impacts to other water users, however, which the Board has done in arriving at a lower flow requirement.

The plan update the Board adopted today includes a requirement for 40 percent of unimpaired flow, within a range of 30 to 50 percent. The Board’s proposal seeks to incentivize agreements that offer habitat restoration and other measures that can benefit fish and wildlife with less water, than just water alone.

The update also includes a revision of the salinity standard for the southern Delta. Maintaining an adequate amount of fresh water in the southern Delta is critical to protecting agriculture in the region. The year-round salinity standard in the draft final update increases slightly from the current seasonal standards, while continuing to provide water quality needed to support a vibrant agricultural future for the Delta.

For more information please visit the Bay Delta Plan update page found here.

Joint press release from San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, Westlands Water District, Central California Irrigation District, Friant Water Authority, Reclamation District 108, Glenn Colusa Irrigation District, SJR Exchange Contractors, Tehama Colusa Canal Authority:

“Today the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources announced a series of agreements to resolve water conflicts that have vexed the State for decades and to reaffirm the collaborative partnership between the Federal and State governments to develop long-term solutions to California’s major water problems.

Since August 2018, Reclamation and DWR, with support from public water agencies from nearly every region of the State, have engaged in accentuated discussions to address contributions from the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and the public water agencies they serve to voluntary agreements to resolve conflicts over proposed amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update and to revise sharing formulas under the 1986 Coordinated Operations Agreement.

The product of those discussions includes a series of voluntary agreements to resolve conflicts over proposed amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update that, if accepted by the State Water Resources Control Board, will provide:

  • Improved water supply reliability to the Sacramento Valley, the Sacramento region, the San Joaquin Valley, the San Francisco Bay area, the central coast, and southern California.
  • Significant quantities of water, on a voluntary basis, for instream flow in nearly every major stream tributary to the Sacramento – San Joaquin Rivers Delta and Delta outflow, while balancing the impacts that may result from land fallowing and other actions to generate these flows.
  • Habitat improvements and other non-flow measures to enhance fish and wildlife resources in the Delta and streams tributary to the Delta.
  • A secure and ongoing source of funding to implement water purchase programs, habitat restoration, and robust science programs to ensure that both water and money dedicated to environmental enhancement and restoration are being used wisely.

These agreements will result in immediate improvements to the environment and at-risk aquatic species and commit local, regional, Federal and State agencies to a long-term course for collaboration to further ecosystem enhancement and water supply improvements.

Today’s announcement is a paradigm shift in how water will be managed for human and environmental needs and how decisions will be made about the use of the State’s most precious resource. It is a good deal for the State and the Nation.
(This is a joint press release from San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, Westlands Water District, Central California Irrigation District, Friant Water Authority, Reclamation District 108, Glenn Colusa Irrigation District, SJR Exchange Contractors, and Tehama Colusa Canal Authority.)

From the California Farm Water Coalition:

“Water users and the State of California have brought to the table almost 1 million acre-feet of water and almost $2 billion in funding to implement an unprecedented set of ecosystem restoration goals. It is a comprehensive, system-wide plan that will start showing progress in 2019 with restored habitat, functional water flows, improved temperature for fish, and floodplain improvements that are proven to grow stronger, healthier salmon on their journey to the ocean. We hope the Water Board will choose this more collaborative approach to its water quality control plan rather than a set of forced rules that will harm communities and the economy and that haven’t worked in similar efforts to help fish populations in the past.

From the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife:

California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham issued the following statement regarding voluntary agreements outlined today in conjunction with the State Water Resources Control Board’s hearing on the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update.

“A vast majority of water users and government agencies are committed to voluntary agreements because they provide a quicker, more durable solution that will improve flows and restore habitat while avoiding lengthy litigation. We appreciate that the State Water Resources Control Board’s action today creates space for work to continue on agreements that can deliver real benefits for the environment while protecting all beneficial uses of water.”

More information regarding the plan and voluntary settlement agreements along with the meeting materials can be found here.

From the Golden Gate Salmon Association:

Statement from John McManus, president Golden Gate Salmon Association:

“The State Water Resources Control Board took a small step in the right direction today to restore salmon in the Central Valley, by modestly increasing flows on the San Joaquin River. Hanging heavy over today’s activity was the invisible hand of the Trump administration, which is working to pump more water from the Delta to their allies in the western San Joaquin Valley.  The best outcome for salmon, that we can hope for now, is for the Brown administration to ride off into the sunset and for the Newsom administration to step up, restore our salmon runs, and let the Trump administration know that it’s required to follow California law.”

From the Metropolitan Water District:

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issues the following statement regarding proposed voluntary settlement agreements to enhance flows and habitat restoration in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds as detailed by the Brown Administration today before the State Water Resources Control Board:
“Metropolitan strongly supports this voluntary approach to comprehensively improving the ecological health of Northern California’s great rivers. This package of enhanced flows, habitat restoration and funding presents a historic opportunity for the Board to successfully update its Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The water agencies representing communities that rely on these rivers have stepped forward with a voluntary approach to settle this update process.
Metropolitan has long supported collaborative efforts in the Sierra watersheds to better balance the water supply needs of both the  environment and the economy. These voluntary settlements are a far superior way for the Water Board to advance its mission than a contentious years-long regulatory approach.
Metropolitan is grateful to the Brown Administration for its tireless efforts to reach these proposed settlements and for the collaborative spirit of water agencies throughout California to find lasting solutions to our shared water challenges.”

From the Northern California Water Association:

The Sacramento River Basin water suppliers on the American, Feather, Sacramento and Yuba Rivers have constructively developed, with the California Natural Resources Agency, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state and federal water contractors, a comprehensive framework proposal for a series of voluntary agreements to implement water quality objectives in the State Water Board’s Water Quality Control Plan (WQCP) for the Bay-Delta. These agreements include a portfolio of instream flows, reactivating the floodplain and habitat restoration measures that will benefit multiple fish and wildlife values for each river and provide a more-collaborative, effective and successful alternative to the traditional adversarial State Water Board hearing process. These voluntary measures will be implemented very quickly.

Substantial Contributions to Fish and Wildlife

Sacramento River Basin water suppliers have a proven legacy of successfully working with diverse parties to implement innovative conservation actions for fish, birds and wildlife across the region. (see since 2000.) Building on this legacy, the Sacramento River Basin parties have proposed additional instream flows as part of an ecosystem water budget, which, when integrated with the proposed habitat enhancements and other measures below, will substantially contribute to restoring Sacramento River Basin salmon runs and other avian and terrestrial species to viable populations over the next several decades.

These flow and habitat measures will be integrated as a modern, functional flow approach–where every drop of water serves multiple benefits, maximizing benefits for both consumptive and environmental water while working to avoid impacts in the region. These actions recognize the time-value of water and are specifically designed to meet California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s biological objectives for the Sacramento River Basin.

Portfolio of Actions

  • Additional Flows: The Sacramento River Basin parties will continue to implement the numerous instream flow arrangements and various projects taken on these rivers since State Water Board D-1641 took effect in 2000. These actions have already improved habitat conditions and contributed toward implementation of D-1641 objectives. Additionally, the agreements will bolster Delta outflow in the spring and summer during above normal, below normal, dry, and critical dry years in certain rivers, while assuring cold water pools in reservoirs are preserved for salmon spawning.
  • Habitat Enhancements: Sacramento River Basin water suppliers and the fish and wildlife agencies have developed a comprehensive program for habitat enhancement on each of the four rivers. The water suppliers will immediately begin implementing these projects in partnership with state and federal agencies and conservation organizations. A program for expedited permitting for aquatic restoration will be deployed to ensure habitat delivery is completed in a timely manner and not delayed. The water suppliers are also collaborating with landowners on reactivating the floodplain to restore ecological functions in the bypasses, ricelands and other managed wetlands.
  • Endowed Funding: Funding for the agreements will be generated by water suppliers to implement the additional flows, habitat enhancements and additional science efforts, combined with state bond funding and federal assistance for multi-benefit water quality, water supply and watershed protection and restoration.
  • Collaboration and Regional Governance: The water suppliers on the four river systems will work with the Natural Resources Agency, federal and state agencies, and conservation organizations to further regional management structures that will facilitate collaboration and effective decision-making to advance these actions.
  • Robust and Structured Science Program: The agreements are based upon collaborative and structured science that will use a careful review of data and testable hypotheses to determine specific flow and structural habitat actions, direct science needs, and incorporate outcomes of the testable hypotheses to continue to inform decision-making to advance and improve fish and wildlife restoration. This will also be funded by the water suppliers through the voluntary agreements.
  • Integration of Rivers. The agreements provide a new opportunity to integrate and coordinate the operations of the rivers in the Bay-Delta watershed to provide maximum benefit to fish and wildlife, while providing water to cities, rural communities and farms.

From the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA):

“From Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA):

“Today the Water Board took action, after more than two decades, to call for real change to benefit fish and fishermen,” said Oppenheim.  “Today’s vote represents the setting of the bar, and water users will either rise to meet it or get beaten in court. Commercial salmon fishermen have experienced decades of disastrous decline. Today’s vote could be the turning of the tide”.

From Restore the Delta:

After an all-day hearing today capping a nearly decade-long process, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWB) voted this evening to set a 40% flow standard for rivers that feed the lower San Joaquin River to help protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem from collapse due to decades of over-pumping and restricted flows.

“We are very happy that the State Water Resources Control Board approved Phase I of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan update,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, “It was a big decision, 20 years in the making. We are relieved flows in the Delta will now be closer to what is required for a healthy estuary.”

The day started with the Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife presenting a plan, which was not available online to the public at the time of presentation.

At noon, The Sacramento Bee broke the news:

California unveils $1.7 billion plan for rivers, fish. Will it ward off a water war?
“Capping 30 days of feverish negotiations, the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled a dramatic plan that would reallocate more than 700,000 acre-feet of water from farms and cities throughout much of the Central Valley, leaving more water in the rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to support ailing steelhead and Chinook salmon populations.”

The last-minute proposal was based on voluntary settlement agreements (VSAs) with Central Valley water agencies; however, only agencies in the Tuolumne River basin have signed a voluntary settlement agreement. The proposals are preliminary and mostly theoretical at this point. Other features are recycled restoration projects from river plans and the long-defunct Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The hope is this new process would create a comprehensive plan that would end California’s water wars.

Environmental water groups from throughout the Bay-Delta region argued that the vote needed to happen today, because those negotiating VSAs would have regulations to work within since status quo regulations don’t work. They argued that the voluntary settlement agreements need to be thoroughly vetted before the SWRCB could incorporate them into the proposal that required a vote today.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said, “We remain skeptical of the grand bargain presented at the 11th hour today in draft form. It was void of any Delta party or environmental NGO partners, and it appears upon initial review to deliver less water for the Bay-Delta estuary than contained within the plan just adopted by the SWRCB. It’s another attempt to chip away at full restoration of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.”

Tim Stroshane of Restore the Delta said, “The Grand Bargain in the works raises many questions. Grand for whom? Who commits to what? When will the public be included? What is the reciprocity involved and who compensates who? When will the public be included? Are these negotiations taking us down the road to paying for a public trust that ever recedes? State officials as yet have no answers for these and other questions.”

Meanwhile in Washington, Senators Feinstein and Representative McCarthy sought to extend drought-era water quality deregulations for an additional seven years that according to Metropolitan Water District’s General Manager, Jeff Knightlier, would create water assurances for exporters participating in the voluntary settlement agreement process.

From the State Water Contractors:

In coordination with several public water agencies throughout the San Joaquin-Sacramento Bay-Delta, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), the State Water Contractors are pleased that we have successfully outlined a proposal for voluntary agreements for several tributaries and the Delta.

The proposal is a critical step towards better species management that relies on the integration of flow and habitat measures along with new funding to meet species needs. The proposal was coordinated among the many water users and other stakeholders throughout the system. These agreements establish how funding for habitat and water will be secured and used, how science will be used to inform decision-making and adjustments over time to benefit species and ecosystem functions. The agreements also lay out a suite of initial actions that provide immediate environmental benefits.

“The proposal represents a landmark change in species management that guarantees funding for dozens of important habitat projects, provides substantial flow for the environment, and paves the way to a more sustainable future, meeting the state’s co-equal goals of providing water reliability and increased protections for our environment. We believe that a collaborative, voluntary approach that can be implemented as soon as next year is far superior to a top-down regulatory approach that could end up in court for years.”

Jennifer Pierre
General Manager
State Water Contractors

From the Southern California Water Coalition:

Today, the State Water Resources Control Board is hearing about proposed voluntary settlement agreements related to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary. We believe it is critically important that SWRCB is able to hear this proposal and many different points of view.

The proposal put forward by the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and several public water agencies represents a collaborative effort to advance species management, relying on the integration of flow and habitat measures along with new funding to meet species needs. (Read more about them on this blog by the California Department of Water Resources.) It leads to system-wide environmental improvements that can be immediately implemented.

“Common sense tells us that collaborative, voluntary negotiated approaches that come from affected parties are far more effective than ‘command-and-control’ measures that spawn more litigation than real-world results. Agreements among the multiple parties are the best way to achieve immediate environmental benefits and assure water reliability, not state mandates. That is true not just in the Bay-Delta, but throughout California as we work together toward a sustainable water future.”

Charles Wilson
Executive Director
Southern California Water Coalition


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