Board agrees to Newsom-Brown request to delay decision on water plan

Tuolumne River is cresting the La Grange dam, a rare event that happens only in time of abundant water. Photographed in La Grange, Calif., on Friday, May 26, 2017.
Tuolumne River is cresting the La Grange dam, a rare event that happens only in time of abundant water. Photographed in La Grange, Calif., on Friday, May 26, 2017.

The State Water Resources Control Board honored a request by Gov. Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom for 34 days to work out voluntary settlements with irrigation districts in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, which are under pressure to divert less water so salmon populations can rebound in rivers.

Wednesday, the state board voted 3-0 to postpone approval of a water quality control update for the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta that’s fiercely opposed by water districts, agricultural interests and communities that rely on water from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

The governor and Newsom asked for the one-time extension Tuesday in what some called an historic letter, which would allow current negotiations to progress and “result in a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome.”

Brown has continued to push for his delta tunnels project in the final weeks of his storied political career, though it’s unclear exactly how the water board plan for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries serves the tunnels project.

Delta protection and environmental groups have cast aspersions on voluntary settlement agreements as “backroom deals” that, in their view, have historically allowed water districts and their agribusiness customers to evade water quality or environmental objectives.

Water Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus agreed to support the request from the state’s top elected official and his successor, though she preferred to see more parties involved in the negotiations.

“There are folks who won’t be in this room and a lot of skepticism on the part of people who don’t know what’s going on in there,” Marcus said, adding later. “I am willing and welcome the attempt of the governor to try and get us a little closer to (agreements) in a way that only (Gov. Brown) can.”

Michael Franz, a Turlock Irrigation District board member, said after the meeting that lawsuits likely would have been triggered if the state board had approved the controversial Bay-Delta plan this week. And the talks would have ended.

“I am grateful the water board heeded the governor’s request,” Franz said. “We look forward to continuing with the good faith process at the negotiating table.”

Franz explained that a board vote to adopt the Bay-Delta plan would have forced the districts into court based on legal advice. The legal theory is that water districts must comply with the details of water quality control plans rather than side agreements that are negotiated after the regulatory plans are adopted.

Michael Carlin, chief operating officer of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which diverts Tuolumne River water for residential and business customers in the Bay Area, said the talks have been fruitful in the past two months but more work is needed on the agreement, which includes floodplain restoration and functional river flows to support young salmon. In addition, a revenue structure is needed for funding improvements.

“We are working diligently,” Carlin said. “We think we can get there in the next 35 days.”

Doug Obegi, director of river restoration for the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged the board to approve the Bay-Delta plan and let the parties continue with negotiations.

“I would love to see a settlement that requires less flow,” Obegi said. “But I have never seen any credible science showing that is possible. If there’s a voluntary settlement that achieves a (salmon) doubling objective then bring it back and let all of us evaluate it.”

Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth told the water board that the voluntary settlements are a path to implementing measures needed to save the imperiled ecosystems in the delta.

Bonham said the governor has promised to seek no additional delays after Dec. 12. “The governor and governor-elect are the right leaders, at the right time. They are bold. They know how to accomplish bold things. They agree with the need to improve aquatic ecosystems and that it’s an urgent need,” Bonham said.

Board Member Steven Moore, who will soon leave the board, said it’s important that settlement proposals include a water budget for the environment and that the governor recognized the importance of that in a phone conversation. The Bay-Delta plan would establish river flow objectives of 40 percent of natural flow, within a range of 30 to 50 percent, to double salmon populations in the rivers. In wetter-than- normal years, the districts could store extra water in reservoirs for supporting the fish in dry years, when aquatic life has suffered from limited flows.

Local irrigation districts and elected officials in Stanislaus County predict the flow requirements will result in severe cuts to water deliveries to agriculture and would devastate the economy.