Community Columns

SB 1 puts water agreement at risk

You’re running a marathon that everyone said you’d never complete. Despite many obstacles, you kept moving forward. And then, just as the finish line is within sight, race officials announce that the results won’t count.

California is at this juncture now on water policy. Following marathon-like negotiations between federal and state policy makers, water agencies and other stakeholders, agreement on how to more effectively manage our water is finally within reach.

Proposed legislation — Senate Bill 1, by Toni Atkins, D-San Diego — puts that victory at risk.

The State Water Board has spent the past five years crafting a plan that sets flow standards for rivers to both protect the Delta and provide an adequate supply of water for Central Valley communities. A critical center point of the plan is voluntary agreements (VAs), under which all parties operate with an agreed-upon amount of water for river flows enhanced by new environmental projects — paid for by farmers, water districts and other water users such as the city of Modesto — that will help get maximum benefit from the water.

This approach is favored by the Trump administration, Gov. Newsom, former Gov. Brown, and the heads of the state Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Agency.

Newly proposed amendments in SB 1 throw this voluntary blueprint out the window by codifying federal regulations governing water operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — an unprecedented act — locking California into the existing regulatory framework, and returning us to an endless cycle of lawsuits and delay. SB 1 states any voluntary agreements would exist separately from theregulatory structure, rendering them moot.

The breakthrough represented by VAs cannot be overstated. They provide a roadmap for federal-state-local agreement on water management. Unlike the current system, VAs would allow us to move water where it is needed in years of drought, replace fragmented environmental rules and better manage a reduced water supply. A completely new approach to managing water, VAs require scientific studies and put the new science into practice. At the same time, the VAs provide all water users with more certainty of water flow that is simply not a part of our current system.

The Public Policy Institute of California says VAs would “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.” A product of compromise and agreement, the VAs allow all parties to move forward, ending the decades-long cycle of lawsuits. Real results will be felt now, not 10 years from now.

If passed in its current form, SB 1 will cause the collapse of the voluntary approach. It will threaten water supply reliability for millions of Californians, jeopardize the environmental health of the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds, and even prevent the Newsom administration from using the best available science to improve conditions for at-risk fish species.

Because SB 1 deprives federal and state agencies of flexibility, SB 1 would prohibit any adjustments to water levels determined necessary to protect for Delta smelt at the State Water Project — even though improved fish monitoring and scientific research conducted over the last decade found that pumping requirements should be modified. That flexibility is exactly what the VAs are intended to promote, with clear oversight to protect species and habitats.

Last-minute political gamesmanship may be an obstacle on the water management marathon, but it is not an insurmountable one. SB 1 should be rejected so we can cross the finish line.

Mike Wade is executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.