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Deep Dive: California Water Policy Challenges in 2020

by Tim Stroshane, policy analyst, Restore the Delta

While engaging with the Newsom Administration’s “water resilience portfolio” process and the governor’s “single-tunnel option,” we at Restore the Delta kept our eyes on the bigger picture.

That picture includes a climate emergency: all bets are off on a stable climate moving forward decades and even centuries. That picture includes the health, well-being, and social and economic prospects of the Delta’s environmental justice communities. 

The big picture also, sadly, includes a “single-tunnel option” for diverting water from the Delta. That proposal has new moving parts, each of which mesh into a power play by San Joaquin Valley growers and their water agencies to control California’s water future. With prospects of desiccating heat, fires, droughts, and floods, those controlling Central Valley waters, control the future. 

Restore the Delta sees itself as a good-government organization whose primary organizing methods include protest, litigation, legislation, and negotiation. Our means of protest can include direct action street-level protests to lengthy fact-based comment letters and reports that get to the roots of trouble with water policy and project proposals. When timely, we lobby our state and federal legislators to enact good water policy proposals and defeat passage of the bad. When necessary, we litigate. And, as we did this summer, when public officials signal a willingness to discuss policy approaches and options openly and honestly, we are also willing to talk. 

We switch tactics as necessary to advance our overall goal of a healthy, restored San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary for all of California. But our commitment to saving the Delta for our children and future generations—so that today’s youth can reclaim and celebrate their natural heritage—is stronger than ever.

This summer a time to talk opened up. For a few brief months between Governor Newsom’s February “State of the State” address signaling broad resistance to Trump administration policies to the Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 1 in September, Californians glimpsed a state administration poised to consider real alternatives to California’s 20th century water solutions (dams, canals, tunnels, pumping plants). Back in June, an assessment of these needs was expected in September. As summer turned into August, we were told October; now, maybe December. A final environmental impact report (EIR) on the new tunnel is due out in 2021.

It was briefly possible to imagine, as we wrote passionately in our August report on Climate Equity and Seismic Resilience, a water resilience portfolio process that evaluated California’s future water needs first, would decide whether a single-tunnel option was needed, and that would then allocate financial resources – to an efficient water future. We imagined Southern California and other regions achieving greater regional water self-sufficiency and drought-resistance from new investments in local storage, enhanced water-sharing, stormwater capture, and water recycling. We imagined the Delta receiving investments to boost flood protection and public safety in response to sea-level rise, and long-term protection for Stockton’s municipal water supply.

The glimpse was fleeting. Governor Newsom’s May cancellation of California WaterFix (the twin tunnels project) we now understand was perhaps more of a political calculation, not courage. The governor was simply an avatar for WaterFix’s die-hard supporters, shouldering in public the burden of conceding WaterFix’s defeat. But its supporters—the California water industry—regrouped quickly around Newsom’s single-tunnel option and his support for “voluntary agreements” among major Central Valley water-right holders. The agreements’ flip-side is the continued delay by the State Water Resources Control Board of a new water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta Estuary and of a new water right decision to implement it. The California water industry is making lemonade from lemons; Governor Newsom stirs the pitcher.

The making of lemonade became necessary when the Trump Administration got the upper hand last December. Since 1986, the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) and California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) jointly operated their Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) systems to share Sacramento Valley water resources to mutual advantage. Their agreement is known as the Coordinated Operating Agreement (COA). 

CVP water rights are senior to those of the SWP, however, and the Trump Administration announced in 2017 that the Bureau would seek to increase its share of Delta exports to CVP customers. In December 2018 a renegotiated COA benefited the CVP handsomely. Appendix B to DWR’s EIR (volume 2 at the link below) is that renegotiated COA, and it shows DWR’s long-term average annual SWP supplies decreasing by an average of 133,000 acre-feet; and by 202,000 acre-feet during dry and drought years (Appendix B, Table 1). DWR’s loss is the Bureau’s gain: Shasta Lake, owned by the Bureau, will store more water during droughts, and DWR’s Lake Oroville less—especially in summer months (compare Appendix B’s Figure 1 with Figure 7). CVP agricultural customers benefit at the expense of southern California’s cities, who are primarily SWP customers. Lake Oroville will likely be operated to maintain water quality in the Delta, Shasta and Folsom much less so.

Then both DWR and the Bureau together seek still more water that is currently used to protect endangered fish species in the Delta and the Sacramento Valley’s rivers.

On November 21, DWR released a new environmental impact report (EIR) that addresses for SWP operations in the “long-term” how listed vulnerable species like Delta smelt, winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon, longfin smelt, and green sturgeon will be treated through a new “incidental take” permit. California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permit will determine the allowable level of killing or disturbing these species will endure under the state’s endangered species act. 

Delta outflow is a critical indicator of Delta health—many fish populations respond positively when Delta outflow rises and floods to the Bay. Spring and autumn Delta outflows are projected to decrease dramatically—at least 10 to 20 percent during spring and by a third or more in the fall, when Delta smelt in particular is vulnerable to starvation. (Table 9-1, Delta Outflow in Appendix C, Table 9-1 of the flow model section). 

Delta outflow’s loss is typically Delta exports’ gain: April and May exports increase dramatically—over 120 to 130 percent in wetter years, 50 to 60 percent in drier. (Tables 4-1 [SWP Banks pumps] and 7-1 [CVP Jones pumps] in Appendix C). The estuary takes a big hit at key times and especially in dry years. Unfortunately, this story is familiar. 

Trump Administration proposals called for increased Delta exports and reduced flow protections for endangered fish. Also on November 21, the Newsom Administration announced it would sue—just not yet—the Trump Administration’s own biological opinion and environmental impact statement that dealt with how the combined operations of the CVP and the SWP would move these same species closer to extinction. The EIR plan is the bird in the hand; the suit signaling Newsomian resistance is merely two in the bush.

The Newsom Administration’s suit is half-hearted at best since its own long-term SWP operations EIR also increases Delta exports at key times of year over what is presently allowed. The suit and the SWP exports plan are characterized by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the editorial boards of the San Jose Mercury, and the East Bay Times as “Trump Lite.” Similar withering assessments ensued from the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Earlier in November, the US Department of Interior and Westlands Water District released a proposed contract that would provide to Westlands up to 1.15 million acre-feet (MAF) of water annually in perpetuity. Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, had been a key lobbyist for Westlands prior to President Trump’s election.

Not only that: a San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint, submitted to the Newsom Administration to address the water resilience portfolio, calls for long-term investments by state taxpayers to repair the subsiding Friant-Kern Canal, a parallel canal to restore conveyance capacity lost to excessive groundwater pumping, construction of a new reservoir above Millerton Lake and Friant Dam near Fresno called “Temperance Flat,” and increased Delta exports to provide increased supplies for irrigating more almond crops—or perhaps, more Delta exports to help Valley farmers cope with recharging their underground water supplies to comply with the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Water imported from the Delta can help them stave off retirement of irrigated lands throughout the Valley as long as possible.

Make no mistake: The “voluntary agreements” outcome is to make more water available from the Sacramento Valley and the Trinity River for export from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley. The outcome of the “single-tunnel option” (proposed to have a capacity of 6,000 cubic feet per second) is to facilitate a water market by providing all parties to the voluntary agreements greater “flexibility” to undertake water trades from which water barons in the Sacramento Valley can become richer off their long-standing senior water rights while keeping San Joaquin Valley growers in business in what will be even more a desert than it is today. The outcome of the perpetual Westlands contract—which we hear is the first of more such contracts to be proposed in the months to come—will be to entrench Westlands as a water broker in the San Joaquin Valley and the rest of California—not just the largest agricultural water buyer it has been. Only the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has a larger water service contract than Westlands, but Westlands’ contract would be forever, where Metropolitan’s faces renewal in 2085. 

The outcome of the federal biological opinions and the SWP’s proposed EIR for the incidental take permit is to increase Delta exports for Westlands and Metropolitan to broker water to their clients, customers, and neighbors. The outcome of all of this is to continue “business as usual” by California’s water industry as far into the climate emergency as possible. 

The outcomes for Delta environmental justice communities are many. “Environmental justice communities” have been rechristened by state water and regulatory agencies as “DACs” for “disadvantaged communities” to dissipate the rhetorical sting from real, historical injustices perpetrated by many of those same water agencies or their antecedents. Delta estuary waters would become saltier, so Stockton and Contra Costa Water District water treatment costs would rise, costs that will be passed on in water rates to their customers in Stockton, Antioch, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Stagnating, warming waters from the climate emergency feared for Delta channels already harbor numerous harmful algal blooms. The warm season would lengthen, and the blooms would become more commonplace, especially should fresh water supplies for Westlands and Metropolitan be taken by a single tunnel from north Delta waters—monopolized for their customers and deal-makers.

Westlands and Metropolitan—and their allies behind the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint—believe that control of water is a zero-sum game: Their goal is to get to the future first—first in time, first in right, it is said by water lawyers; use it or lose it, they add. Neither accepting nor denying the reality of climate change is required of Westlands and Metropolitan officials as motivation for their maneuverings. These water agencies and their officials have always been about controlling water, now and in the future. With Trump and Newsom in office this is their moment to secure the future. Governor Newsom’s long game, we hear, is political; by favoring wealthy San Joaquin Valley farmers – he aspires to their political loyalty, and hopes that his investment now gets repaid later by the body politic when he is seen as being for everyday people first, and the environment second. Never mind which people he is really harming in the environmental justice communities by ignoring environmental destruction of Delta waterways. 

It is a time in California and Delta water politics to remember what the great American unionist Joe Hill, reminded his supporters: don’t mourn; organize.

Comments on the perpetual Westlands contract are due to the Bureau of Reclamation by January 8. Comments on the SWP incidental take permit EIR are due on January 6. We will keep you informed.