As his term as governor drew to a close last month, Jerry Brown brokered a historic agreement among farms and cities to surrender billions of gallons of water to help ailing fish species. He also made two big water deals with the Trump administration — one to shore up support for his struggling Delta tunnels project, the other to transfer some of urban California’s water to Central Valley farmers whom the White House supports.
It added up to a dizzying display of deal-making over an issue that confounded Brown during much of his four terms in Sacramento. His top aides said the agreements represented a bold attempt to calm California’s notorious water wars and inject a dose of common sense into a system traditionally ruled by strife and paralysis.
“We rise together, we fall together,” Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said in rolling out Brown’s plan for the fish. “I see a future that can help us bring all parties together.”
Yet as Gavin Newsom takes over as governor, the state of water in California seems as unsettled as ever.
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The centerpiece agreement Brown made — a giant compromise on reallocating water to help the fish — ran into immediate trouble. The State Water Resources Control Board, a powerful agency governed by Brown appointees, essentially shelved the plan hours after it was unveiled Dec. 12.
The board agreed to reconsider the compromise in the coming months, but opposition to Brown’s plan was instantaneous. Environmental groups — always a powerful voice in California water — say they’ll do what’s necessary to kill the compromise for good. They say the Brown plan is a sham, part of a broader sellout of environmental concerns to appease Donald Trump.
Environmental attorney Doug Obegi, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Brown’s various deals are likely to produce “a whole bunch of headaches rather than a grand bargain.”
Meanwhile, the state board’s vote has come under attack in the courts already. The Merced Irrigation District sued within days. On Thursday, the city of San Francisco and a host of agricultural irrigation districts, which pull water from the Tuolumne River and were part of Brown’s voluntary settlements, sued to overturn the Dec. 12 vote. The Trump administration, which has been aggressively pushing for more water for agriculture, also has threatened to sue — even as it made peace with California officials on other water issues.
Newsom said little about water during his election campaign, other than he might scale back the Delta tunnels to a single pipe. He reiterated that stance Thursday during a press conference on the budget, saying “I’m concerned about the twin tunnels but I’m committed to conveyance.” He also said he’s assessing the current membership of the state water board, and is scrutinizing the settlement plans unveiled by Brown.
All about the Delta
Like practically everything in California water, the agreements revolve around the rivers that flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The estuary is the hub of the state’s network of dams and canals that supply water to the farms and cities that belong to the State Water Project, built by Brown’s father Gov. Pat Brown in the 1960s, and the U.S. government’s Central Valley Project, begun by Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal.
Water users and environmentalists have fought over the Delta for decades — how much flows in, how much reaches the ocean and how much gets pumped south.
State scientists say farms and cities take as much as 90 percent of the natural flows on some of the tributaries, leaving salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt on the brink of extinction. To revive the species, scientists say more water needs to follow its natural flow to the Pacific.
Since 2009 the state water board has been working on a proposal to re-divide the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries and allow more water to rush through the Delta. The state proposed leaving almost 300,000 extra acre-feet of water in the San Joaquin watershed, plus anywhere from 1.1 million to 3.1 million acre-feet in the Sacramento and its tributaries. By comparison, Folsom Lake can hold around 1 million acre-feet.
The plan would mean substantially less water for farms and cities that draw from those rivers — including the city of San Francisco and several Bay Area suburbs, which rely heavily on the Tuolumne River, a tributary of the San Joaquin, to serve 2.6 million people.
The state board’s proposal would also spell trouble for numerous water agencies that don’t feed directly from those rivers but count on lots of water being available for pumping out of the Delta. Among them: the giant irrigation districts controlled by San Joaquin Valley farmers, and the 19 million customers of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Already struggling with frequent shortages, water agencies began negotiating with environmental groups over alternatives to the state board’s proposal.
The talks intensified last summer. That’s when the board’s staff finalized its proposal for the San Joaquin watershed — and Ryan Zinke, who was then Trump’s Interior secretary, jumped into the fray.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, threatened to sue the state if it took water from farmers. Zinke and his deputy David Bernhardt, a former water lobbyist for Valley farmers, began pressuring California to find more water for agriculture, not less.
Environmentalists say Zinke’s team also threatened to fight the Delta tunnels project, Brown’s controversial plan to re-route the estuary’s water flows in an effort to improve conditions for fish. Losing the feds would send the project back to square one after ten years and $200 million worth of planning.
Zinke’s initiatives “really changed the dynamic,” said Rachel Zwillinger of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the environmental groups at the negotiating table. “There were more pieces of the puzzle being negotiated.”
The puzzle began taking shape in early December. First Brown endorsed a proposal in Congress to extend a 2016 law signed by former President Barack Obama that relaxes some of the environmental restrictions on Delta pumping. The proposed extension, backed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, is still pending.
Then came a series of agreements unveiled Dec. 12.
Two deals with Trump
In one deal, the Trump administration pledged to continue working on Brown’s Delta tunnels project. In return, the state guaranteed that Valley farmers wouldn’t lose any water to the project. Farmers had feared they could wind up with less water because they’ve refused to contribute money to the tunnels project.
Brown also agreed to renegotiate the “coordinated operating agreement,” an arcane rulebook that governs the Delta pumps.
The rewrite is a concession to the Trump administration. It allows the feds’ Central Valley Project and its mostly agricultural customers to take a bigger share of the Delta’s waters — as much as 200,000 acre-feet a year — from the mainly urban customers of the State Water Project. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, a year’s supply for one to two households.
The extra water proved critical to securing agriculture’s support for the biggest deal revealed that day: Brown’s settlement plans for the rivers. Jeff Kightlinger, whose Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the State Water Project’s biggest customer, said the state had to give farmers additional water from the Delta so they’d be willing to surrender a portion of their supplies to help Brown’s plan for the fish.
“You have to have the Central Valley part of it,” he said last month.
Brown’s people described the compromise as a breakthrough. San Francisco would take less from the Tuolumne. Water agencies from greater Sacramento would take less from the American. Many of the Central Valley’s farming districts kicked in water, too, with some agreeing to idle land.
The new water for fish would total at least 740,000 acre-feet a year, for 15 years. It could grow to 1 million if scientific studies proved more was needed for the fish.
While this was less than the volume sought by the state board, the offer included a sweetener. The water districts promised $800 million over 15 years, and the Brown administration pledged $900 million in bond funds, to revive fish populations through other means: spawning grounds, nutrient-rich floodplains and other habitat projects. Some of the cash would compensate water districts for coughing up water, particularly the agricultural districts where farmers have agreed to fallow land.
Brown’s administration saluted the willingness to surrender water.
“There’s a touch of courage here,” Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, told the state water board.
‘Smoke and mirrors’
But as Nemeth spoke, environmentalists and fishing groups were fuming. They said the water wasn’t nearly enough, and the habitat projects were inadequate.
Zwillinger of Defenders of Wildlife said environmentalists were essentially frozen out of the negotiations in recent weeks, and the deal “really did not reflect input from the conservation community.”
And, as environmental groups went through the details of the settlements, they were troubled by what they saw: Many of the habitat projects have been on the drawing board for years and would likely get completed anyway, they said. Some are already underway.
For instance, almost all of the habitat projects proposed for the Tuolumne had already been promised by regional water districts to secure a new federal license for New Don Pedro Dam. An official with the dam’s part-owner, the Turlock Irrigation District, acknowledged as much in an interview with the Sacramento Bee, though he said the proposed deal would speed up the process to getting them done.
“We hope we can start making progress on the river sooner rather than later,” said Steve Boyd, the Turlock district’s water resources director.
In the Glenn County community of Hamilton City, a $90 million floodplain restoration project has been under construction since 2015, yet it’s listed under the proposed agreements. The project consists of moving a levee further back from the Sacramento River to create more habitat on a wider floodplain. When a Bee reporter visited the site in December, a worker was driving an ATV between rows of freshly planted native trees.
About 30 miles east of Hamilton City, crews in hard hats were wrapping up work for the winter season last month on another project on Brown’s list. This one involves cutting a notch into a levee on the Feather River to allow more water to flow into seasonal marshlands south of Oroville.
John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which represents fishermen, said it’s “smoke and mirrors” to count “required habitat restoration that’s already built or been in the works for years” as something new.
State officials counter by saying that that many of these projects — even ones that may be underway — need funding to get finished, and the proposals provide that certainty.
Michael Bessette of the Sutter Butte Flood Protection Agency, which is overseeing the Oroville levee work, said $12 million has been spent on the project, but another $7 million is needed to finish the job.
He was thrilled Brown’s proposal appeared to make it a priority.
For now, though, the Brown settlements haven’t convinced the state board. It voted 4-1 to go ahead with its original plan to reallocate water to the fish — more water than Brown’s compromise offered. The vote only covered the San Joaquin River watershed; a vote on the rivers of the Sacramento Valley hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Board members promised to continue studying the settlement plans in the meantime. Chairwoman Felicia Marcus called them “intriguing” but also hinted she was disappointed that environmentalists had been cut out of the talks.
“I would encourage ... that the process become more open, and more players be involved,” she said in a reference to environmentalists.
Whatever the state board decides, however, the courts will probably have the last word.
There’s “going to be litigation anyway, right? It’s a given,” said water policy expert Jeff Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Hardly anything happens in water without litigation; that’s just what we do here in California.”
This story was updated to reflect that the state water board has been working on river allocations since 2009, that the board hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on the Sacramento Valley’s rivers, and that the board’s plan is being challenged in court by San Francisco and others.