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Commentary: California’s struggle for water certainty continues

Issue Date: July 24, 2019
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Decisions regarding water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will have longstanding consequences.
Photo/Steve Adler

A series of interconnected decisions this summer could affect water availability for years to come.

As Farm Bureau has reported through the years, several fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its tributaries are protected as either "threatened" or "endangered" under both federal and state endangered species laws. As a result, projects and activities that could potentially affect these species require a permit.

For many years, federal "biological opinions" for delta smelt and winter run chinook salmon have dictated restrictions on operations of the pumps, reservoirs and canals of the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project—major water works that "move the rain" from Shasta clear to San Diego.

In the time since the last permits were issued a decade ago, there's been quite a bit of water under the bridge (very literally), and steps to revisit these critical documents have been in the works for years. Informed by a decade of science and on-the-ground experience with what we know has not worked, long-awaited new federal biological opinions are finally nearing completion.

This is important stuff for vast swaths of productive farmland in California and a hopeful moment. Behind the scenes, however, it's more complicated than that.

Here's the situation:

First, as you may have seen reported, the federal biological opinions originally scheduled for earlier this summer are now scheduled to be released by the end of August, according to the latest commitments—and, frankly, given all that's involved, the delay is hardly any surprise.

For one thing, it's two biological opinions, from two different federal agencies, for two different types of aquatic species and two separate projects (state and federal), with a whole lot of people throwing darts from the sides.

If that weren't enough, this is coming in the middle of already extraordinarily hard and complex negotiations around voluntary agreements concerning proposed unimpaired-flow standards in the delta and its extended watershed.

These voluntary agreements, or "VAs" as they're known, could avoid decades of litigation by immediately committing substantial amounts of land, water and money to fish, habitat restoration and science, as an alternative to the proposed unimpaired-flow standards from the State Water Resources Control Board. Those standards would reserve larger proportions of the water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems for fishery purposes.

Without VAs, the unimpaired-flows standards could hobble the economies of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, with severe impacts falling on aquifers, on agriculture and on disadvantaged communities—but how do you negotiate when amounts and volumes of water for different uses and different purposes are so very fluid?

Then there is another complicating factor: In the past, the federal endangered species permitting process has done double duty, serving both the federal and state water projects. Earlier this year, however, the state project chose to put in for a separate set of state permits.

As near as we can divine, the basic intent of the new federal permits is to take a more flexible approach that relies less on specified levels of water flow to balance species protection and water supply. But state permits that hew closer to the status quo are now on their own track.

Given the abysmal outcomes for both fish and people of the "flows only" strategy of the last decade, the federal plan will apparently aim for a more balanced and adaptive approach. The state strategy, for its part, appears to seek greater continuity with the existing permits and the various efforts already in progress.

There are potential pros and cons to each approach, and many unknowns associated with both. What we do know, either way, is that the lawsuits from certain environmental activist groups are virtually guaranteed.

Uncertainty about the permits would also hurt as we move toward the official onset of game-changing Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requirements in 2020 and beyond. When it comes to delta conveyance and new infrastructure as well—as with new storage and badly needed groundwater recharge—these additional sources of uncertainty only further roil the waters.

In short, the stakes are high, and how elected officials, government agencies and affected communities respond to the challenges of the next few years could determine future water supplies in much of California.

California farmers are eternal optimists and natural innovators. Get out of their way and, if there's a solution, they'll find it. But this California water fight is a critical one. It's a multi-front struggle, from SGMA, to bay-delta issues, to species, to infrastructure and regulation, in boardrooms, hearing rooms and courtrooms at all levels.

Come what may, know that Farm Bureau is fighting hard to ensure a future where California farmers can continue feeding the world. Let's continue that fight together and call, as we must, for sensible 21st century water solutions that can successfully balance the need for environmental protection with the need for a robust agricultural economy and thriving cities.

(Justin Fredrickson is environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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