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California cedes water to feds in Delta deal with Trump

Southern Californians could lose billions of gallons of water a year to Central Valley farmers under a deal Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has struck with water officials working for President Donald Trump.

There’s no guarantee the agreement with Trump will accomplish what Brown’s team is seeking: a lasting compromise on environmental regulations that could stave off significant water shortfalls for farms and cities across California. A powerful state agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, hasn’t yet signed off on Brown’s compromise environmental proposal. Environmental groups have called the governor’s idea woefully insufficient to save ailing fish populations.

Brown’s administration also made a separate concession to the Trump administration on the governor’s controversial Delta tunnels project, to the dismay of environmental groups that oppose the tunnels.

The various deals began to come to light Wednesday, as the state water board, made up of Brown appointees, was about to vote on a plan that would take substantial amounts of water from cities and farms and leave it in the state’s rivers to assist struggling fish species such as salmon and steelhead.

Hoping the board would back down, Brown’s administration rolled out a bold but tentative water-sharing agreement supported by irrigation districts and urban water suppliers. Under the proposed settlements, farms and cities that rely on the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project agreed to surrender a smaller volume of water. They also pledged to kick in hundreds of millions of dollars in cash for habitat improvement projects, to boost the ailing fish.

Brown’s compromise also got support from water agencies that don’t take water from either the state or federal project, but stood to lose supplies to the state board’s plan. They include the city of San Francisco, which relies heavily on water from the Tuolumne River.

For state officials, forging this grand compromise appears to have come at a price to the State Water Project and its biggest customer, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Under a separate deal made Wednesday with the Trump administration on rules governing Delta pumping, the State Water Project will relinquish an average of 100,000 acre-feet of water a year to customers of the federal Central Valley Project, which mainly serves farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, said John Leahigh, the state project’s executive manager for water operations.

In dry years, the State Water Project could cough up as much as 200,000 acre-feet, Leahigh said. That’s about one-fifth the capacity of Folsom Lake.

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan, said federal officials signaled they wouldn’t participate in Brown’s compromise plan unless the state gave up some water through the new rules governing the Delta pumping.

Kightlinger defended the horse-trading, saying the governor’s compromise on environmental regulations is crucial to avoiding severe water cutbacks — and the compromise would go nowhere without participation from the federal Central Valley Project water agencies.

“The Central Valley contractors, that was pretty critical, to get them on it,” said Kightlinger. “They’re just too big.”

Karla Nemeth, Brown’s director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the deals were separate.

“I don’t view them as a quid pro quo,” she said.

She added that the state gained other concessions from the Trump administration. Among other things, Nemeth said the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, signed a separate pact agreeing to a cost-sharing plan worth “several hundred million dollars” on a series of habitat-restoration projects the state has undertaken in the Delta in the past two years.

All told, “I don’t think we gave away the store,” said Nemeth, whose agency runs the State Water Project.

Leahigh said the state didn’t give up that much water: “Certainly anytime you’re going to make an adjustment there’s going to be winners and losers, but we’re talking about 100,000 to 200,000 acre-feet. That’s in the context of the delivery of millions of acre-feet between the two projects. It’s not a huge number.” An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to supply an average California household for at least a year. The city of Sacramento’s water utility provided its customers around 86,000 acre-feet in 2015.

Asked about the various agreements, Erin Curtis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said, “We want to emphasize Reclamation’s longstanding partnership with the state of California. Recent discussions have provided an opportunity to work collaboratively on issues now and into the future.”

As for the Delta tunnels, Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Water Resources, said Brown’s administration gave federal officials a “no-harm agreement” that says the Central Valley Project’s customers won’t lose any water if the tunnels are built. If they do, they’ll get compensated in cash or some other water supply.

South state water agencies that pull water from the Delta are supposed to pay for the tunnels, which would reroute how water reaches the giant federal and state pumping stations at the south end of the estuary. The farmers who rely on the Central Valley Project have so far refused to pay their share, causing concern among some that they might lose water if the tunnels get built.

In return for the “no-harm agreement,” Mellon said the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the CVP, pledged to continue helping the state seek crucial permits needed before construction can begin.

Environmentalists said Brown’s administration is capitulating to Trump’s desire to ship more water to Valley farmers, to the further detriment of the Delta and the estuary’s fragile ecosystem.

“It appears that California’s salmon, thousands of fishing jobs, and the health of the Bay Delta estuary are the sacrificial lambs in these series of agreements between the Trump and the Brown administrations,” Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email. “It’s outrageous that they are trying to sacrifice California’s environment to appease Trump.”

The series of deals capped months of negotiations — and not-so-veiled threats from Trump — over how to allocate the river water that flows into and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s man-made north-to-south delivery system.

The State Water Project and the feds’ Central Valley Project both take water from the rivers and deliver them to their respective customers through giant pumps located a few miles apart in the south Delta.

In July, the State Water Resources Control Board announced it was ready to move ahead with a long-awaited plan to force farms and cities to leave far more water in those rivers for Chinook salmon and other fish species. Their numbers have dwindled in recent decades, in part because of the damaging effects of the pumps.

The Trump administration publicly threatened to sue the water board. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a memo declaring “the time for action is now” on a plan to move more water to Valley farmers. He then told the state he wanted to renegotiate the “coordinated operation agreement,” a 1986 document that governs how the two projects work in tandem to deliver water through the Delta.

A tentative truce began to emerge Wednesday. The state and federal governments signed an update to the 1986 agreement. It gives the federal project more leeway to make deliveries when there’s plenty of water in the Delta but pumping operations are limited by rules designed to protect endangered fish from the powerful effects of the pumps themselves. It also relieves the federal project of some of its obligations to release water from its Shasta and Folsom reservoirs in dry years to put cool water into the system to help Chinook salmon, Leahigh said. Bottom line, the new deal takes water from the State Water Project and gives it to the feds’ Central Valley Project.

At about the same time that agreement was signed, Nemeth and Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, presented the state water board with Brown’s big environmental compromise — his alternative to the board’s proposed wholesale reallocation of river water to fish.

Under Brown’s plan, farm and urban water districts from throughout the Central Valley would cough up some of their water, although not as much as the board has been contemplating. In addition, those districts would also tax themselves to the tune of $800 million to help pay for a series of habitat restoration projects — more spawning grounds and the like — to help the fish. The state would kick in $900 million of its own.

The water districts said the Brown administration’s plan makes more sense for the fish — and is far preferable to giving up water in the volumes the state water board has been considering.

If the state board goes ahead with its plan, water deliveries out of the Delta will fall “by an excess of 1 million acre-feet, which would have a dramatic effect on our water supply,” said Tom Birmingham of Westlands Water District, a Central Valley Project customer that serves farmers on Fresno and Kings counties.

The fate of the governor’s compromise is decidedly uncertain.

After hours of debate and public testimony, the state water board voted 4-1 to approve its proposal to reallocate billions of gallons of water to the fish from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. The board still hasn’t voted on a similar proposal covering the Sacramento River watershed, including the American and Feather rivers.

The board didn’t close the door on the governor’s compromise plan, though. It said it would study the Brown compromise more closely, and it encouraged water agencies on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers, which haven’t yet agreed to the governor’s plan, to explore compromise deals too.

Environmentalists, however, say the plan is sorely lacking in specifics and doesn’t include nearly enough water to stave off extinction for the fish. They also said many of the habitat restoration projects to be funded by the governor’s compromise are already in the pipeline.

Barry Nelson, a water policy advocate for a number of fishing and environmental groups, was incredulous that the state would agree to part with so much water to gain support for a plan that he thinks the state water board will ultimately reject.

“They traded 100 to 200,000 acre feet for that document?” Nelson said.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
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