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Water Board Imposes Flows Amid Sweeping Delta Pacts


California’s water board late Dec. 12 imposed minimum flow requirements for three rivers that run through some of the state’s richest farmland while urging agencies to pursue sweeping proposed agreements with water providers throughout the Central Valley, as regulators seek to improve conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its fisheries.

After an all-day hearing, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a motion to require unimpaired flows of up to 40 percent to 50 percent in the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne rivers — key tributaries to the lower San Joaquin River — after voluntary agreements with water agencies on two of the rivers proved elusive. Farm groups had implored the  board to reject the mandate.

Meanwhile, the board wants to hear more details about conceptual pacts that could provide as much as 1 million acre-feet of new water and up to $1.7 billion for habitat restoration, scientific research and other costs, according to Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth.

Partners would range from the Friant Water Authority, which agrees to send an additional 50,000 acre-feet through the Delta, to Sacramento River water agencies, which would make available 100,000 acre-feet of water by voluntarily fallowing 24,000 acres, says Charlton Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Habitat restorations in the package of agreements are “on a mammoth scale,” Bonham told the water board.

“We need a system-wide perspective,” he says. “It’s unwise to think about any individual piece. We stand today in support of the idea of comprehensiveness to get to where we need to go.”

Agreements sought

Bonham and Nemeth say the voluntary agreements’ language will be drafted by Feb. 15 and submitted to the board by March 1. A comprehensive plan would be circulated for a 45-day public comment period next fall, with certification of the plan possible by December 2019, the officials say.

The two directors sought the agreements as potential alternatives to imposing minimum river flow requirements as part of the Bay-Delta Plan, a management blueprint for the estuary that includes the San Francisco Bay and Delta.

Their nearly 2-hour presentation kicked off a nearly 10-hour water board hearing, at which water agencies urged the board to embrace the voluntary measures while environmentalists complained they wouldn’t go far enough to protect the beleaguered Delta. At 7:13 p.m., the board voted 4-1 to approve the flows mandate, with board member Dorene D’Adamo dissenting.

“If this was an easy decision, it wouldn’t have taken years of reflection,” Chairwoman Felicia Marcus told a packed meeting hall at the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Sacramento. “But this is not easy. It is one of the hardest decisions the board has had to make. This is a hard decision because it’s about competing social goods and needs, not right and wrong.”

Marcus noted that implementing the minimum flows will require a separate rulemaking process, and “there’s still good opportunity for voluntary agreements in the future.”

D’Adamo tried unsuccessfully to table the minimum flows indefinitely, warning that some water agencies had told her they would withdraw from the agreements and potentially go to court if the policy were adopted.

“They have really gone out on a limb” with their own boards, D’Adamo says. “It’s so exciting to see the next year but I think that will slip through our hands.”

“If people say if they have to litigate they’ll leave the table, they were never really engaged at the table,” Marcus responds.

The decision had already been postponed twice – most recently in November at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom – to give time for settlement talks. On the Tuolumne River, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission agreed to establish a $38 million conservation fund to restore floodplain as well as river-rearing habitat while setting up a “robust” flows plan, Bonham says.

Numerous pacts

A Modesto Irrigation District spokeswoman told the Modesto Bee that a total of $171 million in restoration and habitat restoration projects would be done over a 30- to 40-year life of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license renewal for Don Pedro dam.

Talks with water agencies along the Stanislaus and Merced rivers have so far failed to produce an agreement, Bonham says.

However, the state reached pacts in numerous watersheds north of the Delta that were to be involved in Phase 2 of the updated Bay-Delta Plan, including the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, American and Mokelumne rivers. The agreements include some additional flows at needed times while placing a big emphasis on improving habitat.

New water for the Delta would come in three “blocks,” Nemeth explains. In addition to about 440,000 acre-feet in all but the most critically dry years from the tributaries, another 300,000 acre-feet will come from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, she says.

“It’s a substantial increase of spring flow as well as an additional box of water that can be moved around,” says Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, which supports the agreements.

The third “block” of an additional 300,000 acre-feet would come online in about the seventh year to test the benefits of additional outflows, Nemeth says. The water would come from a variety of sources, including Proposition 1 storage projects, she says.

Funding for restoration projects and research would be generated partly by surcharges of $7 to $12 per acre-foot of water delivered to users and partly with money from existing water bonds or other state resources, Nemeth says.

“Generally our approach to funding the totality of the agreement breaks down into about an $800 million contribution from water users and $900 million investment of the state of California,” Nemeth says.

Northern California Water Association president David Guy says the organization worked closely with agencies and state and federal officials on the north-of-Delta agreements and urged the board to approve them.

Water attorney Kevin O’Brien encouraged members to pass the agreements as a package rather than dividing Delta flows decisions into two phases, which he says could be “a problem under the law.

“The problem we have in this state with its fish population is a complex problem with a lot of causes,” O’Brien says. “If we are going to solve that problem, it’ll take a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach, and we need to start now.”

Working for several years

State water regulators have been working for several years on an update to the Bay-Delta Plan. Currently, flows remaining in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers can run as low as 10 or 20 percent of unimpaired flow at critical times of the year and range from 21 to 40 percent on average for the three tributaries south of the Delta, water board officials say.

However, farm groups such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and California Citrus Mutual have argued the plan would effectively rescind water rights, and the Almond Board of California has urged state regulators to consider efforts that farmers have already made to save water in their operations.

The unimpaired flows plan for the three San Joaquin River tributaries faced mounting opposition from President Donald Trump’s administration and among federal and state lawmakers in both parties. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman has threatened to sue the state water board if it devalued the federal government’s investment in its water projects.

Kristin White, a deputy operations manager for the Central Valley Project, reiterated the agency’s lawsuit threat during the board’s hearing while praising the framework of voluntary agreements.

“This framework lays the groundwork for an implementable, improved water management system in California,” White says.

D’Adamo contends that some water agencies may conclude they have a better chance joining a federal legal fight against the flows plan.

“The elephant in the room here is Donald Trump,” she says.

Motions by D’Adamo to eliminate the minimum flows in June and add flexibility during drought years were also defeated by her colleagues.

Source: Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

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