August 21, 2019
As negotiations continue, representatives of Sacramento Valley water agencies say they’re hopeful voluntary agreements will serve as an alternative to state-mandated “unimpaired flows” plans being drafted by the State Water Resources Control Board.
A proposal affecting Sacramento Valley tributaries would be the second phase of the water board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The board adopted the first phase of the plan late last year, requiring water users in San Joaquin River tributaries to leave 30% to 50% of unimpaired flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to help fish populations, unless voluntary agreements on the three tributaries can be reached and adopted instead.
The plan affecting Sacramento River tributaries has not been released, but water-resource managers in the region said they have been collaborating with government agencies and environmental groups to develop voluntary agreements that would accomplish the goals of the state board’s flows-only methodology.
With the aim of improving conditions for native fish and wildlife through a combination of targeted river flows and various habitat-enhancing projects, participating water managers said discussions focus on policy, science and asset management.
“There’s going to be impacts and there’s going to be a cost to this. There’s no way around it,” Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District General Manager Thaddeus Bettner said, adding that if the state water board were to pursue a flows-only approach, “the costs and impacts would be much more severe.”
Bettner said GCID and other Sacramento Valley water agencies working on a voluntary settlement agreement see it as “managing risks and creating certainty for the next 15 years for our users, which include farmers and the environment.”
In addition to developing system-wide solutions, he said, “More importantly, we think we can make a difference. We believe we have a better toolkit and process to improve the fishery and have the monitoring that goes with that, and make some of the broader landscape changes. We think that is the right approach and also believe the agreements create a template for moving forward after the 15-year period.”
Bettner said Sacramento Valley water agencies are collaborating with other stakeholders to increase instream flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by about 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet annually, and to implement many enhancement projects in the first two years of the agreement.
At Reclamation District 108 in Grimes, General Manager Lewis Bair said his district and others have been engaged in discussions on “floodplain re-engagement that the biologists are pointing to as a foundational change for the fishery.”
“Our flood system has really isolated our fishery from their old juvenile rearing grounds and without that, a lot of folks believe it will be really tough to recover the fishery,” Bair said. “The exciting part (of the floodplain plan) is it is complementary in season to agriculture; it could work for all.”
Related to dedicating flows for the system, Bair said a voluntary agreement for the Sacramento Valley could involve fallowing of some acreage to provide new water for instream flows in a way that offers flexibility, as opposed to the state water board’s approach he described as, “‘We will regulate and get it from somewhere.'”
“We’re suggesting that we’ve put a significant amount on the table, and let’s have a significant, well-funded science program, learn from it, then at the end of 15 years, we’ll have another conversation about additional assets,” Bair said. “That’s really where the negotiations are at this point.”
He said the team leading voluntary-agreement negotiations for the state “is really trying to figure out a path forward, and I think we’re getting there.”
Though the Sacramento Valley districts say they have a portfolio of solutions that should address the needs of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, they also continue to advocate for construction of Sites Reservoir as an additional source of dedicated environmental water, in addition to water for cities and farms.
“We’re making sure that all of those pieces will work together,” Bettner said.
In a July 1 memo, the secretaries of the California Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Agency said the group of stakeholders should be ready by mid-October to have their plan’s viability tested against the water board unimpaired-flows plan.
Water districts that depend on supplies from the San Joaquin River tributaries have filed a series of lawsuits against the state water board plan.
On the Tuolumne River, Modesto Irrigation District spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, “We continue to stay actively engaged in the ongoing voluntary agreement discussions.” On the Merced River, the Merced Irrigation District, which also has a pending lawsuit, noted there is nothing new to report.
The California Farm Bureau Federation filed its own suit, challenging the environmental review for the unimpaired-flows plan for the San Joaquin River tributaries.
Regarding ongoing negotiations for voluntary settlements on those rivers, CFBF Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said, “The water users are best positioned to determine what is achievable as a voluntary settlement in lieu of litigation, and we encourage them in their efforts.
“CFBF is going to continue in its lawsuit challenging the environmental review process for the flows that have been adopted for the San Joaquin River tributaries until and unless an alternative pathway is reached,” Scheuring said. “We continue to believe that nonflow measures should be an essential part of any solution, rather than the state water board’s flows-only approach.”
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.