Water runoff on the South Fork American River in El Dorado County near US Highway 50. Photo by John Chacon / CDWR

NEVADA IRRIGATION DISTRICT considers joining voluntary agreement efforts in the Delta watershed

Presentation at NID’s January board meeting focuses on the benefits of water supplier’s participation in the voluntary agreement process

At the January 13, 2020 meeting of the Nevada Irrigation District, David Guy from the Northern California Water Association gave a presentation on the efforts to negotiate voluntary agreements for the Delta watershed that would serve as an alternative to the State Water Board’s update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

Note: This presentation focuses on the water supplier benefits in participating in the voluntary agreements.  For the opposite point of view, read PLANNING & CONSERVATION LEAGUE: The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan: Where is it at?, also posted on Maven’s Notebook today, in which a panel discussed the lack of progress on the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update and the voluntary agreements.

Mr. Guy began by noting that state, federal, and local agencies are committed to fixing the ecosystem problems within the Sacramento River and Delta watershed.  These agencies and NGOs have been working on a collaborative approach called the voluntary agreements, which would improve river flows and restore habitat to help recover native species in the Delta, as well as provide funding for continuing science efforts.  He noted that the Voluntary Agreements might catalyze localized innovative actions and project-specific activities that may improve aquatic environments while building long term resiliency through California’s water systems.

I’m here today to talk about voluntary agreements and the opportunity to manage water in this region,” Mr. Guy said. “What gets us excited as water managers throughout this region is this idea of ‘ridge top to river mouth’ water management.  Nevada Irrigation District, you’re doing that within your service area.  What we’re really trying to figure out is how do we all do that going forward in a better way.”

Periodically, the State Water Board updates the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan for the Delta.  Then the question becomes, how do we meet those water quality obligations in the Delta?  

We obviously watch this very closely in areas upstream of the Delta, and in our view, the State Water Board came out with a proposal in July of 2018 that was looking at million acre-feet of water to be redirected from the Sacramento River Basin to the Delta for outflow,” he said. “That’s basically Folsom reservoir when it’s full. That’s a lot of water that would be redirected to the Delta.  It would have a major impact on everything in the north state – it would impact the farms, the cities, the rural communities, the refuges, the ecosystem, and the salmon.  So we said, ‘we think there’s a better way to do it.’ And it’s this new way that I want to talk about today.”

The idea is ‘ridgetop to river mouth’ water management, and that includes all the things that are being done to invest in headwaters and forest health all the way down to the valley floor.  The Sacramento Valley has a major initiative underway to reactivate the floodplains for the benefit of fish and wildlife that has got a lot of attention.  Sustainable groundwater management is also a big issue; GSAs will be submitting their plans in January of 2022.  There are various salmon and bird recovery programs that are ongoing, and the Sites reservoir project that will be helpful to the region.

I mention all of this because, in our view, the voluntary agreements are really the cornerstone for you and every other entity in the north state to be able to continue to do what you’re doing and to do it well,” said Mr. Guy. “So the question that we have asked is, are we better off fighting, which is what the State Water Board process ultimately leads towards? Or do we work on a fix program? And how do we best improve fish and wildlife?

So the Northern California Water Association has been working with others on negotiating a voluntary agreement that would be in place for the next 15 years. It’s an opportunity for every entity in the north state and others throughout the state to develop a proposal to improve fish and wildlife while ensuring that there are reliable supplies for cities, rural communities, and farms.

When Governor Newsom came into office, he made the voluntary agreements a priority, calling them out in his initial state of the State address. The pandemic and other events have slowed down the voluntary agreement process. 

However, just last Friday, the Governor announced his budget proposal for this year, which included a budget change proposal for $125 million of Proposition 68 money that would be dedicated towards the programs envisioned under voluntary agreements.  The slide has the language that was in the budget change proposal.

So there is a commitment from the state to advance the voluntary agreements as a better alternative to the State Water Board process,” said Mr. Guy.

What are the voluntary agreements? The chart on the slide is from the framework put together by the Natural Resources Agency and Cal EPA, which shows the proposed flows.  The columns correspond to critically dry (C), dry (D), below normal (BN), above normal (AN), and wet (W).  The second line shows the flows that would be dedicated from the Sacramento Valley as part of the voluntary agreement.

Keep in mind that the number before that we talked about from the State Water Board was around a million acre-feet,” said Mr. Guy. “The proposal here for in the middle of the year types, it’d be around 276 to 280,000 acre-feet of water.  This is very different because there’s a compensation feature and some other important things to this. This was the state team proposal in February, and that was about the time that the COVID and other things started to emerge, and so things started to slow down.”

There are other important pieces of the framework, he noted. “Habitat is one of the things that we are trying to do in this voluntary agreement because we think that flows for the sake of flows haven’t really worked. We’ve been trying that experiment for the last arguably 30 to 50 years.  Flows for the sake of flows don’t add anything; the key is to get the flows connected with the land surface and connected to the habitat so that the flows and the habitat work together to improve conditions for fish and birds.  We’ve seen various examples in our part of the world where we’ve seen birds and fish do well because of that connection between flows and habitat.”

There are various funding sources for the program that include state and federal funding, grants, and contributions from water users.  There would be a governance structure to help organize the effort in the Delta.  The effort would be science-driven, and they will be working with the leading scientists to make sure that the flows and the habitat are being used in the most effective way going forward.

Since the state put out its framework last year, between the pandemic and the acrimony over state and federal litigation that emerged in the spring, negotiations went on pause; however, the water suppliers kept working on the proposal, working to put it into a robust package.

The Sacramento Valley would contribute 250 to 270,000 acre-feet of water to the program from the American, Feather, Sacramento, and Yuba rivers, and to a lesser extent, places such as Putah Creek, Mill Creek, and potentially some others.  Mr. Guy noted that on the Bear River, the South Sutter Water District already has an arrangement with DWR, so the Bear River is involved, but it’s through a different arrangement at this time.  There would be nearly 5,000 acres of floodplain restoration, which he referred to as ‘the future of fish and wildlife in California.’ Funding of $1.5 billion over 15 years would come from contributions by water suppliers across the state, state bond funds, and federal funding.

The state team also presented a list of implementation issues shown on the slide.  The voluntary agreements would be for 15 years, and it would include verification to ensure the flows materialize as envisioned.  Ms. Guy also noted those who are not signatories to the voluntary agreements could potentially be subject to a State Water Board proceeding that would look at unimpaired flows, much like the proposal did in 2018.

The water suppliers plan to share their work on the framework in the next several weeks.  So the question Mr. Guy had for the board members was whether the Nevada Irrigation District would like to participate in this program.

The thought we have in the valleys is we would like to have all of the major water supply entities in the Sacramento River Basin as part of this because we would love to avoid having the State Water Board come into the region through some regulatory proceeding,” said Mr. Guy. “We think we can do a better job for fish and wildlife through this voluntary agreement proposal.”

In my view, the voluntary agreements allow us to go forward with healthy headwaters and forest management,” said Mr. Guy. “The state in its budget the other day committed a billion dollars to this.  A lot of work still to be done on that, but obviously, a major commitment from the state to hopefully help you and others.  We have a major initiative underway on the valley floor with respect to floodplains that I think the voluntary agreements will help move forward. This is where I think a lot of the benefits to fish and wildlife will ultimately come from.”

Mr. Guy noted that a major coalition is working on floodplain restoration.  They are also working on a salmon recovery program; a big part of the voluntary agreements is to help advance salmon recovery efforts and bird recovery efforts.   

The objective is how do we best support all of these multiple beneficial uses this year and beyond, and we think that the voluntary agreements are really the package to help do that,” said Mr. Guy. “We would love to work with NID to see if there’s an opportunity for you to participate in this program.  It’d be a 15-year program that I think will help fish, and I think it will help your water supply reliability.”

Communication is essential; the NorCal Water Association wants to talk about the work going on in the Sacramento Valley and others in the region. They do that through two platforms: NorCalWater.org and SacramentoValley.org.  

We think this ‘ridgetops to river mouth’ water management is a really nice story that is resonating in a lot of parts of the state,” said Mr. Guy.


Director Karen Hull said she is not familiar with the Northern California Water Association.  Can you give an overview of your mission and your membership? And what does participation look like if NID were to be involved more actively in this work?

The Northern California Water Association was formed in early 1991 during the drought from 1988 – 1994,” said David Guy. “There was a lot of pressure on Northern California water supplies for the rest of the state with the of redirecting water to Southern California and the Bay Area and for other purposes. So the folks in Northern California coalesced around Northern California Water Association.  We represent most of the water supply entities in Northern California, including the Sacramento River Basin. So any entity that is tributary to the Sacramento River, which includes all the major river systems north of the Delta.  We also include counties and cities in the membership as well. So it’s folks that want to make sure that we protect the water rights and the water supplies in Northern California for now and for future generations.  The goal is to help you and other entities manage your water supplies for all the purposes that you manage water supplies, and there’s a lot of them. And so we really want to help enable that help you do that.”

On the second question, right now, entities are committing a certain amount of water to the arrangement, committing to work on certain habitat projects, committing to work in the governance, and I think that’s really what the commitment looks like from a water entity perspective.  … The important thing is that you all get to define that; nobody else gets to define that for you. One of the great things about these agreements is you get to do it on your terms. And hopefully, it’ll help to the larger dynamic, but most folks have committed a certain amount of acre-feet of water during those different year types, depending on what your system looks like, what your water rights contracts, all the things that you know better than anybody. And so you get to decide what that commitment looks like.”

Our goal, obviously, is to help meet those state objectives that I put up in that initial chart because we think that if we can be close to those state objectives, which I think we are, then I think we have a good case to go to the state and say let’s move forward to voluntary agreements. Let’s not move forward with the State Water Board process. And that right now is our primary objective.”

Director Hull: Just to clarify, FERC requirements for flow are entirely independent of this, correct?

Yes, they are, absolutely,” said Mr. Guy. “We see FERC proceedings throughout the agreement area. And obviously, the goal is to get the water board to be helpful in those FERC proceedings through its 401 program and hopefully help advance these agreements and not do something counter.  We have seen some instances where they want to do something different. And we’re trying to avoid that through the voluntary agreements.”

Director Ricki Heck asked if the Northern California Water Association is acting as the lead agency for bringing the water agencies and water managers together, and the Association would then present the agreement to the state?

The Northern California Water Association is a nonprofit 501c3, so we cannot be a lead agency, at least in the CEQA sense,” said Mr. Guy. “What I see as NCWA’s role is we’re more of a coordinator in helping you and the other entities that are participating in this kind of come together to share information and to work together.  What that ultimately could look like is still to be determined. We have used joint defense agreements in the past or joint exercise of power. Those are the kinds of things we have done in the past to bring entities together. But that’s still some of the work ahead. We would be more in a coordinating role is the way I would describe it, as opposed to a lead agency.”

Director Rich Johanson noted that the State Water Board wants a million acre-feet. From what you’re saying, you have some doubt about the science behind that.

We do,” said Mr. Guy. “If you look at the trends, it’s been a trend for about the last 50 years that there has been a ratchet up of water flowing into the Delta. That number just keeps increasing all the time. And yet fish keep declining in the Delta, and water supply reliability has suffered as well.  So what we’re trying to suggest is, let’s try a different approach. And it’s not that the water itself is doing anything wrong, other than taking it away from regions; it says that water by itself, going through a sterile riprap channel, which is essentially what you see in the Delta – you can add all the water in the world to that channel, no fish in their right mind would want to live there. It’s the most inhospitable place for a fish.”

That’s why we get pretty excited. And the leading scientists from UC Davis and some of the other communities have been pointing to the floodplains. And if we can get that water spread out, slow down out on the historic floodplain, that seems to show some real promise.  There are food sources for the fish. There is safe habitat for the fish, so they don’t get eaten by predators. And so I think that’s a large part of what this alternative is, is saying, instead of just putting water down into a sterile channel, let’s put water in different places where we think you can benefit fish and wildlife.”

Director Johansen noted that having farmed in the valley for quite a few decades, he agrees that they just keep asking for more and more water without the results. “The results are better habitat, but we’re not getting that. We’re just getting more water taken. So I question the state’s motivation, is it to increase habitat? Or is it to take more water? So in 15 years, how trustworthy is the state to not ask for more than 15 years. So what do we hope to gain in 15 years that is going to show them that we are looking for more habitat?  We are ready to commit water to it. But we’re ready to do it in a very scientific way that produces results and not just them taking more water.

What we’re hoping in the 15 years is that through some of the scientific things that we’re talking about through voluntary agreements, and that could include anything that NID wants to do to try to contribute flows and habitat to the arrangement that you think would work, as well as this larger floodplain reactivation dynamic, and some of the work that’s going on in the headwaters,” said David Guy.  “I think it’s the combination of these things that we’re hoping that will turn the corner on this so that we don’t just continue that same cycle of asking for more water in a sterile channel,  We need to start thinking about our water resources differently in that way.  I’ll let you decide whether you have confidence in the state. I like the voluntary agreements because you get to do them on your terms, largely, as long as they fit into the larger program.  You get to define where you put that water, where you put the habitat, and where you contribute. And I think as long as we’re doing it that way, that gives me a lot more confidence that you’re making that decision in your region that you know and understand versus the state, so that’s what gives me some confidence that this will work better.”

Director Johansen noted that the foothills are quite different in Nevada and Placer County. “We have world-class habitat here. And that habitat has been fed by a lot of NID water throughout the last century. You come on any ranch, any farm, and you see habitat – it’s not all fish.  Ranchers are putting out habitat for quail, so they have a protected area. At certain times of the year, you can’t drive through here without slowing down for the quail. The deer are moving through, as are the mountain lions.  We have world-class habitat here. … If NID is giving up more water at the expense of the ranchers and farmers, we’re going to lose this habitat for a habitat that has no science behind it. We know this habitat is working.

I just want to say that cooperation, collaboration is a two-way street,” added Director Johansen. “And the other side better step up because I know the farmers and the ranchers in the valley have been trying to figure out how to collaborate and how to work with a moving target.  It’s almost like we’re trying to achieve something that the other side doesn’t want, or there’s another motivation involved.”

Director Laura Peters asked, “The percentage of unimpaired flows that the Basin Plan is proposing is a million acre-feet. And in my understanding with these voluntary agreements, we think we can achieve the same objectives with only a quarter of that 250 to 275,000 acre-feet by using different management strategies?”

Yes, and I think the important thing to keep in mind is that million acre-feet, if that was redirected through a regulatory process, there would be no financial incentives to do that,” said Mr. Guy. “That would be a purely regulatory dynamic that you essentially would have no control over.  There would be no management of that water.  We’re trying to change the management dynamic in a more sophisticated way going forward, where you integrate water and habitat. And yes, I think the bottom line is we can do it with less water in a more effective way. And through some different financial incentives, I think there’s a way to do this in a way that works, hopefully, for the local entities in Northern California.”

That one million acre-feet, Is there like a river gauge or something? Where do they want that million acre-feet?” asked Director Peters.

The million acre-feet is just the gross number,” said Mr. Guy. “We didn’t make that number up. It’s in their staff report. They have various gauges on the different river systems to measure this unimpaired flow. … There would be certain measuring points that it would be on. I’m sure there’s one on the Yuba, there’s one on the American, so there are various places I know that would impact Nevada Irrigation District.”

Where I’m going with this is I’m thinking that if we spread and sink waters, that probably the participants would be actually applying more water to the watershed, but it would be higher up in the watershed,” Mr. Guy continued. “So if you have floodplains, and you spread it and sink it higher up, it’s going to move through the ground, and it’s going to end up in the river system, just through natural geology and geomorphology. So, the measurement is there.  We’re just going to apply the water in a smarter way.”

And learn,” Mr. Guy added. “I like to be honest in these dynamics.  We sure don’t have this all figured out, but we do know that what has been going on hasn’t been working in the Delta. So let’s try something different.  Let’s try a new management approach, which is what all of you are saying in so many words, and then let’s be honest, let’s assess whether it works or not. In areas where it works, you keep doing it.  In areas where it doesn’t work for some reason you hadn’t anticipated, you adjust.  Those of you on the board who farm, you do that every day on your farm, right? When something works, it’s great when it doesn’t you try something different the next day.  I think that’s a big part of this.”

Director Johansen then said, “The San Joaquin Valley is expected to lose 20% of its prime farmland due to SGMA. That’s a million acres. And that is the breadbasket of the United States. Sierra Harvest has a goal of 20% – we’re going to grow 20% of our food in Nevada County by 2025, but we’re not going to be able to do that without water. So you got a San Joaquin Valley that is hungry for water. They’ll grab it anywhere they can take it.  They are out there now looking for water. And they’re procuring it. So I’m just saying that, in real terms, our food supply is at stake here. And I can’t say it any more clearly than that.”

Thank you very much for your presentation,” Director Johansen said. “I thought it affirmed what the Farm Bureau has been saying about just dumping water down the rivers. And this hasn’t been in the news, but specifically, with salmon numbers going up, they dumped the water down, and the black bass ate them. Looking into more scientific or more common sense objectives is really is going to be an uphill battle. But I think it’s imperative for all of us to participate in those things. And that I applaud the effort. It sounds like this is a kind of a program like the irrigated lands program is where the farmers cooperated, got together, tested their water, they saved a lot of money, and they didn’t have the regulatory impact on them coming down. But they still had to do the work. And it’s a bit of, I think, a win-win in that realm. And I hope that this works that way, too. It sounds like a good way to go.”

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