Water & Drought

California unveils $1.7 billion plan for rivers, fish. Will it ward off a water war?

Hoping to head off one of the biggest California water wars in decades, state officials Wednesday proposed a sweeping, $1.7 billion plan to prop up struggling fish populations across many of the state’s most important rivers.

Capping 30 days of feverish negotiations, the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled a dramatic plan that would reallocate more than 700,000 acre-feet of water from farms and cities throughout much of the Central Valley, leaving more water in the rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to support ailing steelhead and Chinook salmon populations.

That’s enough water to fill up three quarters of Folsom Lake, and several thousand acres of farmland would be fallowed as a result.

In addition, agricultural irrigation districts and municipal water agencies up and down the Central Valley have tentatively agreed to surcharges on their water to pay for massive habitat restorations to help fish — improved spawning grounds, development of nutrient-rich floodplains and more. The districts would kick in a total of $800 million and the state is planning to contribute $900 million, using water-bond proceeds and other sources, said Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources.

The proposal was quickly blasted by many environmentalists as insufficient to save the fish. But members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration said it would smooth the way to make progress on the rivers as early as next year.

“It’s exciting and an important way to make things actually happen in a timely way,” Nemeth told members of the State Water Resources Control Board. Chuck Bonham, director of Fish and Wildlife, said the compromise plan represents an effort at “collaboration over conflict.”

It was far from certain, however, if the plan would bring peace to warring water factions. The board was set to vote later Wednesday on an even more dramatic proposal to roughly double the amount of water that stays in the rivers in order to benefit fish populations. The plan, unveiled over the summer, would require Valley farmers and cities such as San Francisco and Modesto to surrender even greater amounts of water than the plan presented by Nemeth and Bonham.

Notably, Bonham and Nemeth said they were unable to secure compromise agreements from water agencies that draw on the Merced and Stanislaus rivers — two of the most important rivers in the Valley watershed.

And the plan they did propose found little favor in the environmental community, which could sue in an effort to block the proposal. Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the state plan doesn’t go nearly far enough in requiring cities and farms to relinquish water. “The state keeps asking for less to get to ‘yes,’” he said in an interview.

Trout Unlimited — an organization where Bonham worked for a decade — rejected the plan, too, saying it “falls short of meeting the needs of fishing families and salmon and steelhead in too many California rivers and the Delta estuary.” Regina Chichizola of Save California Salmon urged the board to vote right away: “The salmon are at the point where they can’t wait any longer.”

The state water board has spent years studying water flows on the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds, and earlier this year rolled out a final plan for leaving 40 percent of the San Joaquin’s flow in the river and its tributaries. A similar plan for the Sacramento River watershed was set for a vote next year.

State water board officials describe the situation as dire. In the San Joaquin rivershed, currently as little as 20 percent of the water stays in the rivers. Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the board, has said the status quo has put endangered fish species “on the verge of collapse,” even as she has acknowledged the hardships that farms and cities would face because of the board’s proposal.

She said the board was attempting to “achieve that elusive balance” between the environment and human needs.

The state board, composed of Brown appointees, was poised to vote on the flows reallocation plan last month. But it agreed to a postponement after an 11th-hour request from Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who wanted to give state negotiators more time to reach a compromise with local water agencies, farmers and others.

“A short extension will allow these negotiations to progress and could result in a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome,” Brown and Newsom wrote in November. “Voluntary agreements are preferable to a lengthy administrative process and the inevitable ensuing lawsuits.”

The settlement plans unveiled by Bonham and Nemeth represent a partial solution. For instance, the city of San Francisco partnered with two agricultural irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley on a compromise agreement covering flows on the Tuolumne River, the third main tributary of the San Joaquin. Those water agencies would give up as much as 99,000 acre-feet of water and would spend millions on habitat restoration.

Bonham said the Tuolumne agreement represented “a touch of courage” on the part of San Francisco and the farm districts. Similar settlements were made on the Sacramento, American and Feather rivers, and by water users in the Delta itself.

The plan unveiled Wednesday comes at an unusually contentious time in California’s water world. The Trump administration, which wants more water shipped to Valley farmers, has pledged to sue California to block the plan that the water board has been contemplating. In recent weeks, it’s stepped up pressure on state officials by threatening to withdraw the federal government’s support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s $16.7 billion Delta tunnels project, according to environmental groups that are fighting the tunnels.