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Blog Post · December 19, 2018

Commentary: Peace in California’s Water Wars is Within Grasp

This commentary was published in CALmatters on December 19, 2018.

Dare we say it? The outlines of a truce in California’s unending water battles began to come into focus last week, though not everyone is willing to sign the treaty. The State Water Board adopted the first phase of a far-reaching revision to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Sacramento‒San Joaquin Delta and its watershed.

This is an effort to improve conditions for dwindling populations of endangered native fish such as salmon and steelhead. It also means an increase in water scarcity for farms and cities.

The mere adoption of the plan was significant. But something else happened in the board meeting that may in fact be more important and longer-lasting: state officials presented the framework of a peace treaty for Central Valley water wars.

With support from Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom, most of the combatants negotiated the outlines of a comprehensive settlement agreement.

The Natural Resources Agency—including the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife—spent countless hours over several years convincing water users to develop a voluntary approach to improve ecosystem conditions for native fishes.

The approach state officials presented to the board would increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, it would create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.

To be clear, a framework was presented, not an actual settlement. But the framework contains commitments of water, habitat restoration and funding.

It also includes timelines for action from water users across the greater Sacramento–San Joaquin River watershed, and a willingness to get this settlement completed by the end of 2019. A few districts—such as the Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Merced Irrigation Districts—balked at the framework and are threatening litigation. But most of the watershed has signed on.

If this settlement is achieved and adopted by the board, it will be a major step forward in water management in the Central Valley. But a lot of work lies ahead. Water and habitat commitments—along with sources of funding—need further negotiation, and a robust governance and science program still needs to be designed. Additionally, many of the non-governmental environmental organizations that were mostly left out of negotiations need to be more involved.

Finally, the federal government can either be a partner or a roadblock to this effort. Federal representatives actively participated in negotiations and helped spur innovative approaches along the way.

But after the State Water Board’s vote, the US Bureau of Reclamation threatened litigation, and the Trump administration is seeking to roll back environmental standards in the Delta. Both actions have the potential to undo the settlements.

Despite these hurdles, there’s reason for optimism that there can be a truce in California’s water wars. What’s clear is that negotiated solutions to water conflicts are fairer and longer-lasting than top-down regulatory solutions or, worse yet, litigated solutions where judges end up trying to manage water.

Incoming Governor Newsom’s support and involvement will be essential to carry this effort to a positive conclusion. It should be a priority for his new administration.


Freshwater Ecosystems Water Supply Water, Land & Air
Public Policy Institute of California