Connecting Waterpeople

California agreement will secure environmental flows through water purchases

  • California agreement will secure environmental flows through water purchases

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, in northern California, is a fragile ecosystem and a major source of water supply for the state. State and federal officials have announced an agreement with local water suppliers intended to improve the health of rivers and landscapes in the Delta watershed, informs the Los Angeles Times. The cost is estimated at $2.6 billion and will be shared by water users, as well as the state and federal governments.

Water extracted from the delta feeds the canals of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. The state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) owns and operates the State Water Project, delivering water to more than 27 million people in cities to the south, agricultural land and businesses. The Central Valley Project, owned and operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, delivers water primarily for agricultural uses, though it also includes water for municipal and industrial uses.

In response to drought conditions in California, last December the DWR announced it would allocate zero water through the State Water Project. That allocation was later revised up to 15%, and then down to 5% of requested water supplies for 2022. In addition, the DWR guarantees water for unmet healthy and safety needs of the water agencies that contract to receive State Water Project supplies. Central Valley Project contractors are also suffering the impact of drought. Farmers will not receive any allocations, and municipal and industrial users will only receive water for public health and safety.

The ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has been suffering for decades, and freshwater exports are a major cause; more frequent and severe droughts driven by climate change has exacerbated the pressures on the delta. January to March of 2022 were the driest in the state’s recorded history, and the snowpack, which supplies about one-third of the state’s water supplies and predicts the water supply through the summer months, was 38% of the average on April 1. That is the lowest mark since the last drought in 2015.

Known as a Memorandum of Understanding, the new agreement outlines an eight year programme that includes habitat creation, new flows for the environment above existing regulatory requirements, funding for environmental improvements and water purchases, and a new, collaborative science program for monitoring and adaptive management.

“This agreement will move us away from the ‘water wars’ of yesteryear, ushering in a new era of collaboration in the battle to fight climate change,” said California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld.

The additional environmental flows to and through the Delta will be made available by water users and the state through a series of measures that include reduced diversions, water purchases and voluntary fallowing of agriculture or pasture lands. Under the agreement, up to an extra 824,000 acre feet (1 billion cubic meters) of water would flow through the Delta from January through June.

In California, water is allocated by a water rights system based on seniority, where farmers often have more senior water rights. State and federal agencies would allocate water through a regulatory process that often ended up with protracted lawsuits from rights holders. State officials have stressed the benefits of reaching an agreement through a collaborative approach, with negotiations that have been taking place since 2016. The state thus moves away from its traditional regulatory approach, reducing uncertainty from subsequent litigation.

However, environmental groups, Native American tribes and other groups were left out of the negotiations. Critics of the agreement say the state’s scheme only promises a small fraction of the flow required for the environmental health of the delta watershed, about half of the flows the state water board indicated would be needed in a 2018 report.

Although some of the state’s biggest water agencies, such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides drinking water to 19 million people, have signed the new agreement, not everyone is on board. Water agencies that do not sign it will have to go through the traditional regulatory process. In addition, the agreement still has to go through a lengthy regulatory review.

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