The proposed Governance Structure for the Voluntary Agreements, now the Agreements to Support Healthy Rivers and Landscapes. (Graphic provided by Scott Hamilton, data utilized from The Agreements to Support Healthy Rivers and Landscapes)

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

Many of California’s native fish species are in serious trouble. They face significant population decline, with many species designated as endangered and several more whose status is pending. The State Water Resources Control Board decided to take on the issue under the umbrella of their update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan – a 6,000-page document, the executive summary of which is 66 pages. Comments on the plan are due January 19, 2024 (the draft staff report can be found at Bay-Delta Watershed 2023 Report | California State Water Resources Control Board). The problem is that the State Board only has one knob to turn — flow — specifically outflow to the ocean. The State Board’s proposal is, simplistically, that 40% of the unimpaired flow of the tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers should flow to the ocean. In a Valley with highway signs already urging the governor to “stop wasting our dam water,” the State Board proposal, at the very least, would add considerably more stress to agricultural and urban water supplies that are already unreliable. But worse than that, flows alone can’t fix the fish problems. Native fish species are declining due to loss of habitat, contaminants, and introduced species like striped bass, largemouth bass, and inland silversides that prey on native species. 

Recognizing the multiple stressors and the expense and inadequacy of the State Board proposal, a group of water districts that included the Kern County Water Agency worked with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources to develop an alternative proposal — one that included both flow and non-flow measures. That process was known as the Voluntary Agreements Program, but as Jennifer Pierre, Executive Director of the State Water Contractors, pointed out at the fall meeting of the Association of California Water Agencies in November, there was really nothing voluntary about the process. The program name has since changed and is now referred to as “Healthy Rivers and Landscapes.” The Agreements to Support Healthy Rivers and Landscapes, as proposed by the water agencies, have five major components: flow measures, non-flow measures, funding, governance, and science. More information on that program can be found at Agreements to Support Healthy Rivers and Landscapes

Essentially, all the contributing parties will provide more water to increase flows in rivers. Most of those flow increases will occur in the spring of dry, below-normal, and above-normal years and generally provide an additional 800,000 acre-feet of flow. Relevant for Kern is the loss of 50,000-acre feet per year from Friant Contractors and reduced CVP and SWP Delta exports of between 125,000 and 175,000-acre feet per year.  Also, several water purchase programs, ranging from 150,000 to 235,000-acre feet per year in total, will make it harder and more expensive for water users to buy water when they are short. On the plus side, the proposal would eliminate the San Joaquin River I/E Ratio regulation — a measure that restricted export pumping to protect out-migrating salmon but was actually ineffective. Pierre also pointed out that the proposal provides no additional environmental flows in wet years since the rivers have adequate flows for fish in these year types.  “Wet years” constitute around 30% of the water year types, and diversion to groundwater storage in these year types is critical to achieving groundwater sustainability. 

Non-flow measures have habitat restoration targets that vary by watershed. The restoration projects include restoration of spawning habitat, rearing and floodplain habitat, use of agricultural lands (primarily rice) to increase food availability for salmon, instream habitat, tidal wetland habitat, and predator control activities. The projects are proposed to be phased in over eight years and involve 55,000 acres. 

Governance for the program is structured around the principles of inclusiveness, collaboration, transparency, accountability to outcomes, consensus, informed decision-making, efficiency, certainty and adaptability, and respect for rights, authorities, and obligations. Governance occurs at two levels, which must be coordinated: system-wide (the whole of the Central Valley) and tributary governance (the individual watersheds). Program participants will establish a Systemwide Governance Committee for implementation. The draft proposal looks to use existing governance organizations for the individual watersheds, to the extent possible.  

The Science Program is designed to determine if the implemented actions are effective and involve several goals: to inform decision-making, to track and report progress, to reduce management-relevant uncertainty, and to provide recommendations on adjusting management actions.  

As stated on the California Natural Resources Agency website, “Implementation of the agreements 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 agreements.” 

If this program felt involuntary to the participants, it is likely to feel more so to the farmers, who will involuntarily endure decreased water supplies and increased costs. Be that as it may, something had to be done, and the State Board proposal was doomed to be ineffective.  It is critical that river functions be restored, that floodplains are reconnected to the rivers, and that projects are implemented to improve the survival of native fish. The Agreements to Support Healthy Rivers and Landscapes recognize the needs that must be met while trying to find the right balance between flow and non-flow measures. More water will now have to be recharged in wet years to achieve groundwater sustainability. 

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