SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Plunging into a decades-old water fight, California officials on Wednesday announced a $1.7 billion salmon restoration plan that would cut into farmers’ water supplies and their wallets.
Hatched during a 30-day negotiating period at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state’s natural resources agencies say they’ve negotiated agreements with water suppliers and cities that entail keeping more water in the state’s most important rivers for fish. The bombshell announcement hijacked a State Water Resources Control Board meeting, where regulators were mulling a separate water plan that was decades in the making.
“It’s self financed by our water user community at the tune of $800 million; in my career I’ve never run across that before,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and former director of Trout Unlimited.
The plan involves proposed voluntary agreements by water users on a variety of rivers, including the Sacramento, Tuolumne, Feather and American. The users, including the City of San Francisco, are hoping down the line to avoid stricter regulatory actions that were additionally approved Wednesday by the water board.
Bonham and the negotiating agencies argued they can bring more immediate change with voluntary agreements compared to a wide-ranging state order that could take years to implement and potentially be tossed by the courts. If allowed, the backers say they can reallocate 700,000 acre-feet of water, nearly enough to fill up Lake Tahoe, for fish restoration.
“Collaboration is the pathway to improvements immediately,” Bonham continued. “The ability to work together produces the fast-track to getting stuff done on the ground.”
The five-member water board appeared happy with the deal they were hearing about along with the public for the first time. Chair Felicia Marcus called it “impressive” and member Dorene D’Adamo said it was “monumental.”
“It’s amazing that you’ve gotten this far and I’m looking at momentum and early action,” said board member Dorene D’Adamo.
The settlements call for fallowed farmland, floodplain restoration, new salmon rearing areas, weed removal, water pump screen improvements and new weirs. Water suppliers and cities would pick up about half the tab, with another $900 million from taxpayer bonds.
However many of the environmental groups in attendance were skeptical of the mammoth plan pieced together in just a month. Environmentalists and fishing groups said they were left out of the private discussions and that the lofty plan still needed to be dissected.
“From first reading, it appears that this is certainly a non-starter,” said Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations Executive Director Noah Oppenheim. “It’s close to status quo in certain circumstances.”
Tim Stroshane of Restore the Delta asked the water board not to rush acting on a plan negotiated “out of the public eye.”
But the water board was careful to note that the theoretical deals needed to be analyzed before it could consider any sort of action.
“The devil’s in the details,” Marcus said.
Nearly eight hours after hearing about the plan supported by Gov. Brown, the water board went ahead with new minimum flow rules for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. As it stands, the contentious decision will reduce the amount of water available to San Francisco and Central Valley farmers, ending over nine years of debate.
After countless iterations and public hearings, the regulator cemented a deal that requires an average of 40 percent of the tributaries’ natural or unimpaired flow to remain in the waterways in order to reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta during periods when salmon are returning from the Pacific Ocean. At certain times of the year, 90 percent of the San Joaquin River’s tributaries natural flows are diverted to farms and cities.
“If this were an easy decision, it wouldn’t have taken years of analysis, reflection and public engagement,” Marcus said before voting for the new flow requirements. “This is simply a hard decision because it’s about competing social goods and needs, not about right and wrong.”
To get more snowmelt water to wind down from the Sierra Nevada and into the delta, the plan calls for major cuts to San Francisco’s take of water from the Tuolumne River in Yosemite over 100 miles away, along with expected cutbacks for some Central Valley farmers.
“We are very happy that the water board approved phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan update,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, “It was a big decision, 20 years in the making. We are relieved flows in the delta will now be closer to what is required for a healthy estuary.”
While some of the groups involved in the tentative agreements threatened to pull out because of the new San Joaquin flow plan, the water board said it’s leaving the door open for discussions in the coming months. Bonham said the proponents could have a draft project description to the water board by March 1, and a comprehensive environmental impact report by August.