Another step towards agreement on California’s water problems

California water officials are seeking “voluntary agreements” to improve water flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have made a new breakthrough.

For at least a decade, state water managers and local water agencies have occasionally pursued the holy grail of a framework agreement to improve the environmental health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by increasing its water flows.

California’s water supply is a zero-sum game at all times. Therefore, increasing flows through the delta to improve habitat for salmon and other species would require local water authorities, particularly those serving farmers, to take less from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries.

Not only is that difficult to sell, but it could also affect water rights, some of which date back to the 19th century. State officials have hoped so-called “voluntary agreements” would prevent direct action that could trigger litigation over these rights.

However, many environmental groups have been pushing for outright and binding restrictions on water diversion, saying they do not trust agreements without legal force and believe water rights must be reconfigured to meet the conditions of the 21st perpetual drought.

Pressure for agreements mounted in 2018 when the state Water Resources Control Board released its draft new regulations to protect the delta, which indicated that about 40% of natural river flows flow into the delta and most into the San Francisco Bay and the San Francisco Bay should flow Pacific Ocean.

To reach that number, water diversions from rivers for agricultural and municipal users would need to be greatly reduced.

A few months later, in his first State of the State address, newly installed Gov. Gavin Newsom emphasized the urgency of the situation, saying, “Our first task is to cross the finish line of genuine agreements to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta.” We must do this for the resilience of our mighty rivers, the stability of our farming sector, and the millions who depend on that water every day.”

Later that year, he vetoed a bill that would have largely inherited all environmental laws that existed in the federal government prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, because the Trump administration had eased water diversions. Had the bill become law, Newsom warned, it would have sidelined efforts toward voluntary water deals.

In 2020, Newsom’s resource agency released a framework for such agreements, and earlier this year announced initial agreements with some major water interests that would prevent a legal clash.

However, there have been holdouts, particularly government agencies that draw water from the Tuolumne River, including the City and County of San Francisco, which own the Hetch Hetchy Dam on the Tuolumne and pipe their water into the city. Tuolumne Water Divers filed a lawsuit challenging the water board’s right to impose diversion restrictions and their offers of voluntary cuts were rejected as insufficient.

There was a breakthrough last week. San Francisco and two agricultural water boards, the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, entered into an agreement with the state to increase the Tuolumne Rivers and improve habitat.

“This collaborative approach promises to get this (work) done faster and more holistically while improving water reliability for communities, farms and businesses,” Secretary of State for Resources Wade Crowfoot said in a statement.

Does this mean the Delta Water War is over? Not necessarily.

Environmentalists still don’t like the voluntary agreement’s approach, and there’s another unsolved Delta issue: A Newsom-sponsored tunnel under the Delta to channel water from the Sacramento River to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy.

Opponents of the tunnel believe the flow improvement agreements are being sought simply to make the project, which would divert water from the delta, more environmentally sustainable.

Dan Walters is a columnist at CalMatters.