Buying a myth on California water impedes real-world solutions

  • by Brent Hastey and Steve LaMar
  • Nov 6, 2018
  • Voices on Water

(This opinion column appeared in the Nov. 6 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle)

The same black-and-white perspective that overshadows nearly all discussion on the water of the San Francisco Bay-Delta unfortunately briefly became San Francisco policy last week when the Board of Supervisors reflexively labeled the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as being against restoring the health of the bay-delta’s ecosystem.

In this narrative, one party incorrectly identifies restoring unimpaired flows as the only answer to declining fisheries. The other party disagrees, which instantly labels them as anti-environment. This in turn creates a false reality that stalls progress, widens divisions and reinforces a good guy-bad guy myth.

It’s time to overturn this myth.

The discussion is not whether someone is for or against the environment. Responsible public water agencies support a healthy environment and restoring the bay-delta’s ecosystem. Mayor London Breed took the first step by vetoing the resolution.

What we should be talking about is how actions taken by the State Water Resources Control Board can best achieve the central tenet of California water law created by legislation in 2009 — the co-equal goals of improving water supply reliability for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecosystem.

This is the position supported by the SFPUC, which has put forward a credible proposal to achieve these coequal goals. It is not “anti-fish,” and in fact would result in a healthier bay-delta fishery.

Achieving this balance is well within our reach, and the path to success is no secret. That path is collaboration between all interests, and it’s essential because a collaborative process makes it impossible to ignore the other side of the table. Compare that against taking a purely regulatory approach, which pits adversarial parties against each other in a winner-takes-all struggle over a limited set of policy actions.

The adversarial regulatory process establishes a zero-sum outcome that ultimately hurts everyone involved. Sadly, this is what we face through the current draft amendment by the State Water Board to the Bay-Delta Plan update, which is viewed by many as a rigid, binary, either/or decision with absolutely no room for collaboration.

The State Water Board’s update proposes mandating unimpaired flows for the San Joaquin River of between 30 percent and 50 percent of total inflow into the bay-delta during the February to June runoff period, with a starting point of 40 percent√. “Unimpaired flow” means the natural runoff before humans began diverting water from the river. The staff proposal for unimpaired flow for the Sacramento River is between 45 percent and 65 percent of total inflow, with a starting point of 55 percent.

This unimpaired flow approach would significantly limit drinking water supplies for cities and rural communities, as well as irrigation water supplies for farms and wildlife refuges. Fortunately, alternatives exist. But they require a coordinated, comprehensive approach. Water managers have demonstrated that successfully preserving and restoring fishery resources requires not one tool — river flows — but many additional tools as well. This includes habitat restoration, controlling predators such as striped bass, protecting water quality, managing floodplains, timing river pulse flows to better suit fish migration, and other measures.

Yes, flows do play an important part, but integrating them with all the tools we have available is what will deliver results. The successful recovery of fisheries in the Sacramento Valley — Butte Creek restoration project and the Yuba River Accord come to mind — provide compelling evidence that a collaborative, comprehensive approach works. And last month√, the California Department of Water Resources√, along with state and local partners, broke ground on the delta’s largest tidal wetlands restoration project. The Dutch Slough Tidal Restoration Project will convert 1,187 acres of former grazing land back into fish and wildlife habitat, in addition to improving flood protection.

History proves that a balance can exist between a healthy environment and a sustainable water supply. In each case, all parties with an interest came together and put in the hard work necessary to define that balance through collaboration. For the delta, we already have a system that harnesses the energy of collaboration through proposed voluntary settlement agreements now under development by the Brown administration, water supply agencies and other stakeholders. The State Water Board is well aware of a voluntary settlement agreement as an alternative to the exclusive use of unimpeded flows, and this alternative deserves an opportunity to work.

Water suppliers are committed to sustainably balancing the water supply needs of our communities and our environment. Renewing efforts at voluntary agreements with all water users and using a more targeted, science-based approach will provide the necessary comprehensive pathway forward.

Brent Hastey and Steve LaMar serve as president and vice president on the Board of Directors of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). Hastey is president of the Yuba Water Agency Board of Directors and LaMar is vice president of the Irvine Ranch Water District Board of Directors. Reach them at and


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