What new water deals mean and what work is left to be done

A scene from the Delta, which is a highly altered ecosystem through which passes much of the water used in the Bay Area and Southern California.
A scene from the Delta, which is a highly altered ecosystem through which passes much of the water used in the Bay Area and Southern California. CALmatters

California’s State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project span several northern watersheds, converging in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where their pumping stations operate a stone’s throw away from one another. They coordinate their operations daily and have done so for decades.

Earlier this month, the California Department of Water Resources signed three agreements updating how the state and federal projects share environmental and financial obligations associated with their operations.

The department also joined the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in outlining a comprehensive plan for improving river flows and restoring habitat in key watersheds. While each of these actions is important on its own, together they provide a critical set of tools to maintain a productive partnership in managing California’s limited resources into the future.

The Brown Administration has championed water supply reliability and greater environmental enhancements for rivers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds. Clarifying how environmental obligations are shared between the state and federal projects amid changing conditions is foundational to advancing those goals.

In 1986, the state and federal governments signed an agreement detailing how the two projects are operated to meet environmental regulations and provide water to sustain the rivers and the Delta.

The operating agreement was supposed to be adjusted every five years. But in the 32 years since it was signed, no adjustments were made. In that same period, our water management challenges changed dramatically.

During the record-breaking drought in 2014-2015, for example, it was evident that federal reservoirs simply did not have enough water to provide cold water for salmon in rivers upstream and freshwater flows for the Delta.

The state needed to step in, and did, releasing more water from state reservoirs to meet shared environmental responsibilities and taking other measures.

The updated agreement recognizes changed conditions since 1986, including hydrology and environmental regulations. The update calls for more periodic reviews.

Another new agreement formalizes cost-sharing formula for projects such as habitat restoration and monitoring of stressed fish populations needed to meet joint responsibilities under the federal Endangered Species Act. Both state and federal funding is crucial to advancing this work.

These agreements on operations and cost-sharing establish the groundwork for the other major announcement, on Dec. 14: a comprehensive and potentially historic plan to improve the health of the river system.

For more than a decade, the State Water Resources Control Board has been working to establish new criteria for environmental flows, known as the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The process will come to closure in the months ahead when the Water Board either decides to impose a plan that focuses primarily on sending more water down rivers, or opts to incorporate a voluntary, collaborative solution crafted in concert with water users from Redding to San Francisco to Fresno to Los Angeles that combines more strategic flow increases with habitat restoration, advances in monitoring and comprehensive science.

With Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham, we presented a framework to the water board on Dec. 12. It was an important step forward, but there is more work to be done. Success in the coming months will require involvement from the environmental community and others.

The state and federal government agreed this month on how to move forward with the Delta conveyance project known as California WaterFix. This is an upgrade to the existing infrastructure that delivers water through the Delta and will improve environmental conditions and ensure reliable water supplies.

It provides the opportunity for continued federal participation, but describes how the project would operate if the federal government or Central Valley Project water contractors choose not to participate.

California’s water management systems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed are complex. Agreements about how to manage them for water users and the environment take years to resolve and must be able to weather changes in state and federal administrations. It is essential to sustain coalitions to support this work vital to California’s future.

Karla Nemeth is director of the California Department of Water Resources. She wrote this for CALmatters.