What ‘Collaboration Over Conflict’ Can Look Like

  • by Dave Eggerton
  • Dec 26, 2018
  • Voices on Water

The Dec. 12 decision by the State Water Resources Control Board came with a silver lining. Yes, its 4-1 vote to move forward with a regulatory approach to relying on a percentage of unimpaired flows was disappointing. But in arriving at that decision, State Water Board members heard the most compelling argument yet for considering an alternative approach, one that relies on collaboration among water stakeholders to achieve the same result, and likely with better outcomes.

Thanks to leadership and engagement by Gov. Jerry Brown, and because of a comprehensive presentation by Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth and Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham, Californians now have a much more clear understanding of the investment, dedication and collaborative work among water agencies through voluntary settlement agreements. And just as importantly, the State Water Board left the door open for further consideration of voluntary settlement agreements.

The one in front of them Dec. 12 encompassed 14 signatories spanning seven watersheds, including the Tuolumne River, between the Sacramento River and the Lower San Joaquin River. You can view by visiting DWR online at www.water.ca.gov. It would invest $1.7 billion into habitat restoration to strengthen salmon runs while applying precise use of functional flows to make as much water available as possible to support the fishery. Some of its habitat restoration work is shovel ready for 2019. At least from my perspective, it embraced a far more sophisticated and well-thought-out strategy than employing a percentage of unimpaired flows as a one-dimensional panacea.

The revised version of the State Water Board’s Bay-Delta Plan moves toward mandating 40% of unimpaired flows for February through June, with an allowed adaptive range between 30% to 50% for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers through to the San Joaquin River. This will likely initiate a lengthy water rights process. While increasing flows for the protection of the Delta ecosystem and salmon runs, the amendment will drastically reduce water available to water users in the Lower San Joaquin River Watershed. We all know it does not have to be this way to attain the coequal goals in state law of improving the Bay-Delta ecosystem and water supply reliability. But at least we now have time to demonstrate that, with State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus acknowledging that voluntary settlement agreements have potential and deserve a closer look. That might happen as early as next March.

In the meantime, the voluntary settlement agreements presented Dec. 12 went beyond the initial phase under consideration by including the Sacramento River. Framework documents released for a second phase in the State Water Board’s process to update the Bay-Delta Plan currently indicates the setting of a 55% unimpaired flow requirement in the Sacramento Valley.

What could still happen – and we’re a big step closer to this after Dec. 12 – is the Central Valley irrigation districts and other stakeholders understandably feeling that they may have no other recourse than the courts. But the good news is, the details behind how a collaborative process can bring meaningful benefits to the Delta and its tributaries are no longer obscured or exist in bits and pieces. The comprehensive presentation put forth by Nemeth and Bonham, backed by Gov. Brown and reflecting nonstop hard work by participating water agencies, is there for all to see, understand and appreciate.

The work of all of us now is to support the collaborative process behind voluntary settlement agreements we saw presented on Dec. 12. The many people who worked on them deserve our respect, and we all deserve to see their hard work achieve its full potential.

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