By Rick PurnellMike Wade

Flushing years of cooperation down the proverbial drain, the California Water Resources Board approved a plan that ignores the urging of two governors, rips apart longstanding water agreements and likely leaves fish high and dry. It also offers lessons for others in the same boat. 

By adopting a plan that imposes minimum flow requirements for rivers that run through some of California’s richest farmland, many believe the board shunned voluntary, cooperative efforts from agriculture and water agencies and embraced unproven species management protocols. 

“The San Francisco Bay Delta is essentially the hub of California’s water supply system. The board’s action was meant to address water deliveries and add water back to streams and rivers that feed the delta,” says Mike Wade, executive director, California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC). “Over the years, native fish populations have declined and invasive species have been introduced. Some are near extinction. There also is controversy over accuracy of the science presented and whether just adding water to the system is what fish need. There are other ecosystem improvements that will help without the drastic reduction in farmer water supplies.”

The California Water Resources Board with a four-to-one vote last December approved a motion to require unimpaired flows of up to 40-50 percent in the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne Rivers which are critical tributaries to the San Joaquin River. The move that has become known as the “water grab” reallocates billions of gallons of water from farms and municipalities in an attempt to rejuvenate struggling salmon, steelhead and other native
fish populations. 

Approval of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan and an accompanying Substitute Environmental Document (SED), follow a nine-year process during which the board analyzed options and conducted extensive public outreach.

Lots of Water Being GrabbedAnja Raudabaugh

The board has grabbed enough water to make a dam burst. CWFC estimates up to 200,000 acres of land will go out of production if the approved plan stands.

“Conservative estimates are that this deal will create a $1.9 billion hit for the state,” Wade says. “It also means the loss of about 7,500 jobs. Plus, farm credit experts indicate that land values decline by as much as 60 percent when water is no longer available.”

The projected fallow acres cover a wide swath.

“It’s hard to overstate how this action by the board lays agriculture to waste,” Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, says. “Every community within 300 miles of the tributaries depends on these river water sources and current water allocations remaining the same. 

“Our membership asked our board to treat this as an imminent threat to all California dairies, not just in the Delta,” she adds. “We estimate 300 dairies will be directly affected and wouldn’t be able to grow feed. Given current milk prices, there’s no way they could survive.” 

Raudabaugh says the vote came at a time when dairy families are, “frankly, demoralized. We’re looking ahead at nine months of depressed prices. The politics of trade have been horrendous for California dairies. Almost half of our milk production goes to cheese and the tariffs on it coming from Mexico are making our product less competitive, contributing to depressed prices.”

Didn’t Have to Be

In an historical spirit of cooperation, landowners, water districts and municipalities joined forces and had committed to ecosystem improvements, says Wade. Their proposals to the board included improved gravel beds for spawning, projects that improve flood plains and shallow areas near the banks that salmon populate during high water flows, and reconnecting oxbows to get water into side channels so salmon have a resting place to grow and feed. 

In all, more than a dozen water agencies in central and northern California proposed to give up 800,000 acre-feet of water and invest $1.7 billion in voluntary ecosystem improvements. An acre-foot of water is equivalent to 325,851 gallons. 

“This was a tremendous amount of money proposed and a huge commitment by farmers and water districts,” Wade says. “What’s unfortunate is that some districts had the funding and the momentum to devote to voluntary measures, but they couldn’t complete them and try to meet the standards the board adopted. The tragedy is that it appears many of them will back away from their voluntary commitments simply because they can’t do both.”

Felicia Marcus, board chair, affirmed that implementing the plan will require a distinct, separate rulemaking process and that there is still opportunity for voluntary agreements, such as those water districts presented to be considered in the future.

However, Dorene D’Adamo, the lone board member to vote against the plan, noted during the meeting how far water agencies had gone to develop workable plans. She cautioned some agency officials would likely withdraw from the agreements and litigate if the policy was adopted. In fact, Merced Assemblyman Adam Gray called for a lawsuit to stop the state from enacting the flow requirements the board approved saying it had disregarded water agency proposals.

Critical Conservation Area of California Bay Delta

Water Board and Attorneys: 1. Fish and Communities: 0.

“Those initially hurt from this are the ones who poured work into developing these proposals, the salmon and the ecosystem,” Wade says. “Work on these commitments would have started as early as this year. Now, everything is delayed. There will likely be lawsuits and we won’t see any improvements for who knows how long.”

The board charted its own course, despite encouragement by then-Governor Jerry Brown and Governor Gavin Newsom to consider the proposals.

“The board and its staff have a mandate to protect wildlife,” Raudabaugh says. “They also have a mandate to protect clean drinking water and protect what is called beneficial uses. In environmental law, beneficial use of scale measures which use of water has a higher meaning. It is people. It is agriculture. It is environment. These are three pillars we have used for the last 30 years. California legislators, courts and governors have all said they need to be co-equal goals. In other words, none of these are more important than the other.”

Raudabaugh continues, “If we are to believe that, this decision doesn’t align with the standard because it clearly elevates the environmental interest because of proposals offered, the Delta ecosystem was about to receive an immediate benefit. Instead, we’re all going to start to fight over county and origin and what water rights look like, especially in those districts who didn’t participate in the proposed settlement because they feared the board would vote the way it did.”

There is sad irony in that some water rights holders were willing to give up water to make the deal work. And giving up water in California doesn’t happen. Instead, observers anticipate lawsuits will flow into courthouses fasten that spawning salmon in an unconstrained river.

“This would have been the water deal of the century if those settlements had been adopted,” Raudabaugh says. “It will be the water calamity of the century if it goes through as it is now.”