The Trump administration is trying a bold new tactic to bring more water to Central Valley farmers — one that could come at the expense of millions of urban Southern Californians.
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation served notice to California officials Aug. 17, stating it wants to renegotiate a landmark 1986 agreement governing the big federal and state water projects and how they pump water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to their member agencies in southern half of the state.
Reclamation’s efforts could significantly alter the balance of power between the state and federal governments as they share control of the water that flows through the Delta. The estuary is the hub of California’s complex north-to-south water delivery system.
The complicated 1986 deal requires both sides to surrender water at times from their reservoirs, to serve Delta environmental needs and other purposes. Now the feds want to keep more of their water on hand, for delivery to Valley farm-irrigation districts and other customers of the federal government’s Central Valley Project, leaving less for the State Water Project. Experts say hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water could be at stake.
The two sides have been discussing possible revisions to the agreement for a while, and there’s considerable uncertainty whether the feds can successfully wrest more water away from the state. But Reclamation’s move is clearly ratcheting up tensions between state and federal officials over how to divide and deliver the state’s precious water supply.
State officials “were hoping this day would not come,” said Greg Gartrell, a Bay Area water policy expert with 30 years of experience in Delta issues.
The feds recently threatened to sue the state over a proposal to reallocate the flows on the San Joaquin River, giving more water to fish and less to Valley farmers. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees Reclamation, then ordered aides to develop an action plan aimed at “maximizing water deliveries” to agriculture and other Central Valley Project customers.
During the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump told a rally in Fresno he would deliver more water to Valley farmers, who have struggled for years with reduced supplies.
Meanwhile, Central Valley Project and State Water Project members are in conflict over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to build the Delta tunnels, which are supposed to ease the estuary’s environmental troubles and enable both projects to pump water more reliably. So far the big farm-irrigation districts in the CVP have refused to help pay for the tunnels, increasing the burden on State Water Project agencies.
Now comes the attempt by Reclamation to rewrite the rules on Delta pumping. Although the two sides informally have been discussing revisions for two years, Reclamation’s formal “notice of negotiation” landed the same day as Zinke’s bluntly worded memo on water deliveries and sent a jolt through the halls of state government.
If the feds get their way in the Delta, there would be less water for the State Water Project and its most important customer: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. That leaves state officials anxious, experts say.
“You have 19 million people who are caught up in the State Water Project,” said Sacramento water lawyer Stuart Somach, who helped negotiate the 1986 agreement while serving in the federal government. “If you have leverage over 19 million Californians ... you’ve got quite a bit of leverage.”
Gartrell, a retired assistant general manager at the Contra Costa Water District — which gets water from the CVP — said the federal government “probably has the upper hand” in part because of water rights. Both projects operate under legal water rights granted by the state, and the Central Valley Project, which was built about 20 years before the State Water Project, enjoys more senior legal status, experts say.
“My gut feeling is that the risk is greater for” the State Water Project, Gartrell added.
Spokeswoman Erin Mellon of the state Department of Water Resources said DWR officials met this week with federal officials about the Delta agreement. “We have a joint interest in ensuring our water system meets the needs of California communities and ecosystems and will maintain an open dialogue,” she said.
Metropolitan officials had no comment; nor did officials with the mostly agricultural Kern County Water Agency, another big member of the State Water Project. Jennifer Pierre of the State Water Contractors, an organization that represents State Water Project member agencies, said of the negotiations: “The outcome and its implications are not known. Regardless, we’ve had a decades-long partnership with the CVP and we expect that to continue in the decades ahead.”
The state can’t simply ignore Reclamation’s attempt to renegotiate the rules. If a new deal on the Delta isn’t made within two years, the federal government could simply dissolve the 1986 agreement, experts say. That could create a free-for-all for the water in the Delta, something state officials are eager to avoid.
Without an agreement on the Delta, “you really have quite a chaotic situation,” Somach said.
The two sides have shared governance of the Delta since the late 1960s, when Oroville Dam was completed and the State Water Project effectively opened for business. A formal deal, known as a coordinated operation agreement, was hammered out in the 1980s. It was approved by Congress and signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. Although Washington and Sacramento frequently have argued over the movement of water through the Delta, this is the first time either side officially has demanded a new deal.
Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis said it was a coincidence that Zinke sent his memo demanding more water for farmers the same day that Reclamation notified DWR it wants to renegotiate the Delta agreement.
She said her agency has been speaking with state officials informally for two years about the revising the agreement. While those talks have been productive, she said, “we’re at a place where we haven’t been able to come to an agreement” and Reclamation decided it was time to institute formal negotiations.
She acknowledged, however, that Reclamation is motivated by a desire to redivide the water that pours through the Delta.
The 1986 agreement calls for each side — the State Water Project and the federal CVP — to release water from their reservoirs to satisfy state standards on Delta water quality and other so-called “in-basin uses.” Much of that water then rolls completely through the Delta and out to the ocean, and isn’t available for either project to pump to their customers in the south state.
The amount of water that’s surrendered can be considerable — several million acre-feet in most years, according to Gartrell. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons. Under the 1986 rules, the Central Valley Project is the one surrendering the bulk of the water: 75 percent of it in dry years; 55 percent in wetter years.
Now the feds want a better deal.
“We want to find a more balanced solution to those requirements,” Curtis said. She added that “we want to do it in mutual agreement with the state.”
Why did the U.S. government agree in 1986 to furnish the bulk of this water in the first place?
When the deal was being negotiated in the early 1980s, Somach said the federal CVP had lots of extra water at its disposal — considerably more than it needed at the time. Reclamation owns and operates most of California’s largest reservoirs, including Shasta Lake.
What the feds lacked was an efficient way of moving it through the Delta. The federal government’s Delta pumping plant, built in the early 1950s, has about half the pumping capacity as the state’s plant, completed in the late 1960s. The plants sit 2 miles from each other northwest of Tracy, at the south end of the Delta.
So a deal was struck. The feds agreed to surrender more of their water to satisfy the environment and other needs. In exchange, the state agreed to use its pumps to help the Central Valley Project deliver water to its customers — mainly Valley farmers south of the Delta.
Since then, however, conditions in the Delta have changed dramatically, prompting Reclamation’s desire for a new arrangement.
The winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta smelt have been given protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, signed into law by the first President George Bush, designated more of the CVP’s water for environmental purposes.
The end result has been a lot less water available for pumping to the south state. That’s hurt customers of both projects, although Valley farmers say they have suffered more than anyone. During the worst years of the recent drought, farmers on the west side of the Valley got no water deliveries at all from the Central Valley Project. Last year’s record rains brought them a 100 percent allocation, but this year, after a relatively dry winter, they got just 50 percent of their expected allotment.
Experts said it’s far from certain, however, that Reclamation can secure more water for agriculture.
“It’s so complicated, you can’t really guess how it’s going to turn out,” Gartrell said.