California’s water warriors have a new arena for their never-ending conflict over the allocation of the state’s growing supply — a nearly 6,000-word proposal from the State Water Resources Control Board.
The draft essentially calls for a sharp reduction in diversions from the Sacramento River and its tributaries to allow more water to flow into the environmentally troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“This is a consequential effort,” Eric Oppenheimer, the board’s chief deputy director, said in a media briefing on what was a technical update on the agency’s management plan for the Delta and San Francisco Bay. “It reflects the years of scientific analysis we’ve done and years of public input.”
The board previously issued a similar policy paper for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. The two rivers merge to form the Delta, a vast maze of islands and channels that is the largest estuary on the West Coast.
In addition to upstream diversions to irrigate farms and orchards and serve municipal users, federal and state projects pump water from the southern Delta into aqueducts to transfer to farms. and homes in the San Joaquin Valley as far south as San Diego.
Reducing natural flows through the Delta, scientists say, has increased its salinity and otherwise made it unable to adequately support salmon and other wildlife.
The battle in the Delta has lasted for decades with environmental groups, recently joined by American Indian tribes, pressure on the water board imposed reductions in diversions, and water users sought to protect their supplies.
There are, in the macro sense, two contradictions: how many additional flows are needed to restore the Delta and how any reduction in variances is framed and implemented.
The water board’s new draft gives more focus to both, but doesn’t provide any firm direction.
For the better part of a decade, two governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, have promoted the concept of “voluntary agreements” to reduce diversions, hoping to avoid a head-on political and legal battle. collision.
“We want to thank Gov. Newsom for his continued leadership and commitment to using voluntary agreements between water users and public agencies to support water quality and fish populations throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” said Farm Bureau president Jamie Johansson in response to the new plan.
However, water agencies are offering, in the main, much smaller reductions than the water board says is necessary to improve habitat.
Environmental coalitions demanding more reductions see the voluntary agreements as subterfuges to maintain the status quo and pressure the board to simply set reduction numbers and enforce them by decree.
“Voluntary agreements serve as backroom deals that continue to leave out tribes, environmental justice communities, conservation groups, fishing communities, and other key stakeholders from the government-led planning process. ,” the Restore the Delta coalition responded.
Imposing the cuts could spark a legal battle that Brown and Newsom want to avoid because it would hinge on water rights, some of which date back to the late 19th century.
Environmentalists argue that such rights are 21st-century anachronisms and should be set aside to give authorities the ability to allocate water reasonably, especially as climate change affects rainfall and as the total water supply.
However, when the water board tested its authority vis-à-vis ordering diversion reductions from senior water rights holders, it lost in court. Furthermore, legislation that would have given such authority failed to pass the Legislature this year, thanks to strong opposition from farmers and other rights holders.
The new draft of the water board may provide more grist for debate, but it will not resolve the fundamental conflicts.