Voluntary agreements shared with State Water Board. Will they replace disputed flow plan?

The Tuolumne River runs through Waterford, Calif., on August 24, 2018.
The Tuolumne River runs through Waterford, Calif., on August 24, 2018.

The top state agencies that manage water and wildlife resources in California submitted a package of voluntary agreements with water districts to the State Water Resources Control Board on Friday, as an alternative to controversial flow requirements approved in December for the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

The agreements, hammered out in the waning hours of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and favored by Gov. Gavin Newsom, combine increased river flows with a larger set of tools for restoring salmon in rivers that feed into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

The departments of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife, which are negotiating the voluntary accords, followed through with their promise in December to provide details of proposed agreements to the state water board in March.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, and other local water districts, have strongly opposed the water board plan approved Dec. 12, which requires 40 percent unimpaired flow in the rivers, charging it would severely damage the farm-based economy in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

The MID and TID issued statements Friday in support of the tentative agreements. “Gov. Newsom’s commitment to the voluntary agreement concept has been evident since the day of he took office,” TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto said. “He’s dedicated significant amounts of his administration’s time and resources to work collaboratively with water users and environmental communities to advance the voluntary agreement framework.”

Representatives of more than 40 groups, including water users, conservation groups and state and federal agencies, signed onto the package of agreements and committed to a further analysis of the measures to achieve environmental goals in the delta.

The parties are not entirely in agreement with the proposals released Friday but are committed to trying “to reach voluntary agreements that advance California on the path toward sustainable water management,” says the cover letter, signed by officials from city and county water agencies, water contractors and irrigation districts including Westlands in Fresno County.

Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Merced irrigation districts did not reach agreement on tentative deals with the state before the Dec. 12 water board decision. The Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy were among conservation groups that signed the cover letter.

In a formal statement Friday, the State Water Resources Control Board agreed with the concept of the agreements. “The board recognizes voluntary agreements have great potential to improve ecological outcomes by combining flow and habitat restoration activities, and could result in more timely and durable ecosystem improvements than flow alone might achieve.”

The board, which oversees water quality and water rights in California, said its staff, with support from the parties, will review the agreements and continue to work on the second phase of its Bay-Delta update focused on the Sacramento River and tributaries.

Board staff also will work with the water districts in finishing up the agreements, and “looks forward to a meaningful public discussion on the challenging, but critical and necessary, update of the Bay-Delta plan,” the statement said.

Last month, Gov. Newsom appointed Joaquin Esquivel as water board chairman, replacing Felicia Marcus, to bring more balance to state water policy.

The first phase of the Bay-Delta water quality plan approved in December relied heavily on February-through-June flow measures in an attempt to double the salmon population in the lower San Joaquin tributaries. Local irrigation districts said it would require giving up massive amounts of water in wet years. In addition, restrictions in the plan could drain reservoirs like Don Pedro in consecutive dry years, cutting off water to farmers.

The districts, which have filed lawsuits challenging the decision, also charged that flows from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers were imposed separate from any requirements for water users in the Sacramento River system.

With the voluntary agreements, MID and TID would release an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water per year in the Tuolumne for environmental purposes. Additional water from the upper San Joaquin, Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, American and Mokelumne rivers would flush the delta with 700,000 acre-feet of water.

The additional water from the Sacramento system would come from land fallowing, reservoir storage and groundwater substitution.

The nonflow measures in the agreements include habitat restoration, almost 300,000 cubic yards of gravel to encourage spawning, 5,500 acres of tidal wetland in the delta, as well as floodplain and fish passage projects.

“The key is the broader set of tools,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. “The water board really has authority to regulate the flows and not necessarily require these other things ... The thinking is the water board staff can start to do some analysis on the (proposed) agreements, together with the parties that have been working on this.”

Work on the agreements is expected to continue through the year. The state water board could consider adopting the overall plan near the end of the year.

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Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.