(Chart: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

In March, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by key water leaders to improve the health of rivers and landscapes in the Central Valley. Why does that matter? A major question facing regulators is how much water needs to stay in rivers in the Central Valley to keep them healthy. The State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) is required to update its Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan to protect native fish, wildlife, and other beneficial uses of water. Existing policies have proved ineffective in addressing declining abundances of native fish. Changes were needed. But the problem here is that the health of the rivers depends on much more than just how much water is flowing through the Delta and, by extension, in rivers upstream that feed the Delta.

(Chart: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Before Europeans settled California, there were no levees on rivers to keep flood water contained. When the snow melted, huge areas of the Central Valley became wetlands. Those wetlands fueled the food web, provided habitat for waterfowl, and their waters drained back into rivers producing food for fish. In the last 100 years, large dams have been built that cut off salmon from their natural spawning grounds. Rivers and estuaries have seen the deliberate and accidental introduction of predators and species that compete with native species for food. For salmon, harvest and hatchery management practices continue to influence abundance of salmon. So, thinking that the abundance of native fish species can be restored just by increasing flows in rivers is naive.

(Chart: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

The State Board understood that a comprehensive solution was necessary if abundances of native fish were to improve but were limited by the scope of their authority. Consequently, the State Board proposed some draconian measures that would require a minimum percentage of natural flow to stay in the rivers and would have severe impacts on water supplies in the Central Valley. Currently, much of the natural flow in the spring is stored in reservoirs for later use and is not needed to maintain healthy rivers. The State Board hoped that their proposal would be sufficient motivation for stakeholders to develop their own comprehensive solution – the development of “Voluntary Agreements” (VAs). For a while stakeholders engaged in vigorous negotiations but over time the negotiations began to deteriorate. First, many environmental organizations withdrew from the VA process, and then in 2020 water districts reliant on water from tributaries to the San Joaquin River also withdrew. That deterioration was partly a problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. There was no way to satisfy everyone’s needs with the limited water supplies available. After August of 2020 the process stalled. Seeing a pending crisis, the governor called key stakeholders back to the VA negotiating table. Those stakeholders were primarily state and federal agencies and water leaders from around the state.

On March 29th, the MOU was signed. Signatories to the agreement committed to finalize several initiatives including:

Up to 824,000 acre-feet of additional flow to and through the Delta in the January to June window – an important period for salmon (target flow volumes vary with the type of water year but will be above current regulatory conditions)

20,000 acres of additional floodplain habitat

20,000 acres of rice cropland inundated to improve food web conditions for fish

Restoration of over 5,000 acres of additional tidal wetlands and associated floodplain

Nearly 3,300 acres of additional spawning, and instream and floodplain juvenile rearing habitat. 

According to the state press release, implementation “is estimated to cost $2.6 billion, to be shared by water users and the state and federal governments. Water agencies will self-assess fees to support implementation of the voluntary agreements. Water users and the state will make flows available through a combination of reduced diversions, year-by-year purchases of water, long-term or permanent purchase of water, and voluntary fallowing of agricultural or pasture lands.” For Kern County, the cost is significant. The funds needed for environmental initiatives includes a fee of $10/acre foot for water exported from the Delta. That puts Kern County’s share at around $600,000 per year. But for once, it is not solely water exporters who are bearing the cost of improving environmental conditions in the Delta. 

The MOU recognizes there is still much to be done, but it reignited the process, opening the pathway to a solution. Given that most of the environmental organizations withdrew from the process, it is ironic that some of them complained about the “backroom” negotiations (see a blog by Doug Obegi, Director of NRDC’s California River Restoration Program – Who (and What) are Excluded from Backroom Bay-Delta “Deal” | NRDC at NRDC.org/Experts/Doug-Obegi/About-Deal-Bay-Delta). Two implications emerge. First, over the past three decades, water managers have become far more knowledgeable of and proactive in addressing environmental issues. By understanding the environmental issues but also the needs of their constituents, water managers are positioned to offer reasonable and balanced solutions. Second, the more extreme environmental organizations do not appear to be interested in balanced solutions. While there are, of course, some very responsible environmental organizations—The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense and Audubon, to name just a few—it appears leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to collaborate with the more extreme environmental groups whose proposals are not supported by the best available science and are out of touch with reality.

Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors saw the value of the MOU and the collaboration that led up to it saying, “Our only path forward is together, and the VAs create an appropriately sourced governance approach that will allow resource agencies, public water agencies and conservation groups to work together to better balance the environmental and economic needs of our State. We look forward to working with our partners and state leaders to move the VAs forward to achieve reliable water supplies for Californians and our ecosystems.”

In a water-short state like California, the resource allocation decisions are difficult and the consequences of making a wrong decision are severe. Creative solutions are needed. Collaboration can be very effective in developing those solutions, but participants in those processes should not be afraid of what the science might tell them. Good decisions necessitate the use of good science.

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