State Water Board Must Reconsider Unimpaired Flows Approach

  • by Timothy Quinn
  • Aug 14, 2018
  • Voices on Water

Years of hard work behind the Brown Administration’s California Water Action Plan could be at considerable risk if the State Water Resources Control Board persists on its path to implement a Bay-Delta flow regime based on “unimpaired flows.” Next week, the State Water Board should convert its proposed hearing on this topic to a workshop and commit to the collaborative path being pursued by the Brown Administration and stakeholders.

When the State Water Board released its proposed amendments to the Bay-Delta Plan update last month, the revised plan was essentially the same as the initial plan calling for 40% unimpaired flows in the San Joaquin River watershed, largely ignoring the comments of local public agency water suppliers and others. This persistence to establish a 40% unimpaired flow standard for the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries (to be followed by a 55% requirement in the Sacramento Valley) could set the stage for one of California’s longest and most fierce conflicts over water policy ever. The California Water Action Plan could be the first casualty of this conflict. It calls for a comprehensive statewide approach to achieve the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California while protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. In contrast, the State Water Board’s current approach will almost certainly undermine the groundwater sustainability, safe drinking water, storage, Delta conveyance, and other key elements within the California Water Action Plan.

This conflict is unnecessary. It can and should be avoided with leadership from the governor, the State Water Board and stakeholders within the water community.

No one seriously disputes that the policy on unimpaired flows being pursued by the State Water Board will hurt local economies and impede implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). For example, by reducing surface water supplies for municipal and agricultural uses, the unimpaired flows proposal leaves local government with a stark choice: either increase groundwater pumping to offset lost surface supplies, which in the long run would likely be incompatible with the requirements of SGMA, or shrink their local economies. Under a policy of coequal goals, the objective in implementing SGMA should be to achieve sustainable groundwater conditions while sustaining healthy local economies.

Overall, the State Water Board is pursuing a strategy that is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the central policy of coequal goals. So what does the water community want? First and foremost, we want the State Water Board to evolve from being the regulator of flows as a single variable to becoming a robust partner with stakeholders, state and federal agencies in developing integrated resources plans for ecosystem management. This means using “all the tools in the toolbox” in a fishery management plan. These tools include habitat restoration and harvest management along with predation and pollution control as well as other measures. Where appropriate, these tools should link to flow and temperature requirements reflecting habitat and flood plain management elements within the California Water Action Plan.

Becoming a partner also means exercising responsibility by using flows wisely, because flows are the tool that most negatively affects the water supply community and undermines the policy of coequal goals. When using such an impactful tool, the State Water Board has an obligation to use it as efficiently as possible. That is why the water supply community advocates for a functional flows approach applied through a voluntary agreement process. This requires that each flow measure has an identifiable purpose and that the overall environmental water budget is built from the bottom up to be as efficient as possible.

Using mandatory unimpaired flows alone is a decidedly top-down approach to water management that starts with a large water budget, much of which has no identified functional purpose. The argument in support that all is well because some of the water can be directed to functional purposes misses the point. It remains a top-down approach to ecosystem management that is inherently inefficient, with an overreliance on flows as the primary management tool – the tool that harms other stakeholders the most.

In essence, the water supply community is asking state government to undergo the same transformation that we have undergone during the past three decades. Prior to the 1980s, water managers often established water supply plans that relied almost exclusively on diverting flows from the natural environment. Today, water managers put much more emphasis on developing local water resources, using a wide range of new water management tools within integrated resources plans. This new strategy significantly reduces the need for imported water below levels that would otherwise be required. In the long-term water-efficiency legislation passed this year, virtually everyone at the table agreed that water supply management budgets had to be built from the bottom up to assure that the overall budget was based on efficiency.

To avoid a paralyzing spiral of litigation, we need to modernize ecosystem management, much the same as we have modernized water supply management. Fortunately, the governor appears to be on the right track. When the State Water Board initially released its draft unimpaired flow plan, the governor set us on a course of developing voluntary agreements to fulfill its intent. The best shot at avoiding litigation and moving closer to this modern approach is through a collaborative process, as originally envisioned a year ago by Governor Brown. Now is the time for the Brown Administration and stakeholders to do whatever is necessary to produce voluntary agreements to change the direction of ecosystem management in California.  It might require giving the voluntary agreement process more time this fall.  And it might require that the governor personally engage to get the voluntary agreements process to the finish line. His leadership in water is greatly appreciated.

The Brown Administration has made too much progress on water to leave this issue to litigation.  We all need to work together to come up with a better approach that solves these difficult issues with collaboration instead of adversarial conflict.

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