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A Year Later, ‘Water Grab’ Plan Settlements Still Stuck

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Sacramento, CA – A year later, issues triggered by a contentious plan by state water regulators to increase unimpaired river flows for the benefit of fish remain firmly mired in red tape.

Last December, as reported here, the outgoing and incoming California state governors were trying to help facilitate stakeholder agreements ahead of the Water Board’s vote that passed its long-proposed plan to require unimpaired river flows of up to 40 percent through the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries for the supposed benefit of protecting delta fish.

Among the far-reaching consequences of what many described as a major “water grab” are heavy impacts to upstream communities, including locally to New Melones reservoir, which could under the plan be largely rendered useless for recreation.

Last month, officials at the California Natural Resources and Environmental Protection agencies announced several actions they were taking to protect imperiled fish while improving real-time management of the State Water Project (SWP). At the same time, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) released a draft environmental impact report reflecting the state’s assessment that indicated recently proposed rules by federal agencies are not scientifically adequate and fall short of protecting species and the state’s interests.

Governor Gavin Newsom additionally made the decision to sue federal regulators to ensure the state and feds would retain a shared responsibility of state and federal water project operations to protect species as well as state interests.

The Newsom administration points out that it is continuing to collaboratively work with state, local and federal partners on refining a voluntary approach — to provide additional water, habitat, and science — towards improving environmental conditions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems and the delta while securing water for other beneficial uses.

State Lawsuit, A Monkey Wrench? 

Weighing in on how things are going, Steve Knell, general manager of the Tri-Dam Project Partner Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) thinks the state’s suit has the capacity to stall the progress many stakeholders were hoping for. He comments, “The Voluntary Settlement Agreements (VSAs) are in a quandary. Everyone was negotiating off the old Biological Opinion (BO) enacted by the feds in 2009.”

He continues, “The recently released revised BO by the feds has created a firestorm between the feds and California. The new BO reduces ocean outflow through the delta by an estimated 580,000 acre-feet. That doesn’t make the state very happy, which was counting on more delta outflow, not less, hence their suit.”

Knell shares that OID and other VSA negotiators are unsure to which “goal post” — the old BO or the new BO — they should negotiate. “The state’s lawsuit will change timelines and create setbacks and at some point, the State Water Board is going to have to act, but on what?” Chalk it up, he says dryly. “[it’s] just another day in the water business.”

State agencies are preparing to release a draft water resilience portfolio that will provide tools for local and regional entities to continue building resilience and encourage collaboration within and across regional lines. The effort directly relates to an executive order made by Newsom at the end of April.

The order called for state agencies to reassess priorities of the 2016 California Water Action Plan, update projected climate change impacts to the state’s water systems, identify and act on key priorities.

The agencies were mandated to inventory and assess the existing demand for water on a statewide and regional basis, available supplies and their quality; projected multi-use needs in the coming decades; and among other projects, water policies, programs, investments, and efforts, assess the work underway to complete the VSAs for the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems regarding flows and habitats.

The order specifically includes operating principles, which include prioritizing multi-benefit approaches that meet multiple needs at once, encouraging regional approaches among water users sharing watersheds, and extensive, broad outreach to stakeholders at every level.