Water Board Delays Action on Flows

It’s a small victory, but we’ll take it. The controversial proposal to require higher river flows for improving water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will not be voted on at next week’s State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) meeting. The proposal would drastically reduce the amount of water available for agriculture and cut deeply into urban water supplies, resulting in higher costs for water to business. It only delays the proposal; it doesn’t stop it from moving forward at a later date. It gives a little more time to look for ways to soften the impact.

The hearing Tuesday will go forward as scheduled, but final action on the proposal is deferred to a later undisclosed meeting. This is the last time comments will be taken on the proposal.

The delay was in response to a request from the Natural Resources Agency, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Department of Water Resources for time on the agenda to make a presentation on adaptive implementation and voluntary settlement agreements and a request to defer final action on the item.  Water Board Chairwoman Marcus granted both, but wasn’t pleased.

In her letter to Secretary Laird, Marcus points out that over the last couple of years she and her staff have repeatedly emphasized that voluntary settlement agreements would be a quicker and more durable solution to protect the beneficial uses in the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries. However, she emphasizes that the pending board action recognizes both flow and non-flow actions to enhance fisheries and allows flexibility for adaptive management. The voluntary agreements are non-flow elements. Early in the process of developing the proposal, the Governor made it clear that he prefers voluntary settlement agreements, and judging from the request by Secretary Laird, that is still the case.

Nevertheless, advocates have been in the hallways asking legislators to intervene with the Water Board to delay action and seeking a possible legislative fix.   Assembly Member Adam Gray whose district is severely impacted by the proposal organized a Stop the Water Grab rally for August 20 on the north steps of the Capitol. Other legislators have contacted the Water Board members expressing concern for the impacts of this action on their constituents.

The proposal calls for a 40 percent “unimpaired flows” from February through June with a permitted diversion range of 30 to 50 percent, depending on conditions for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers through to the San Joaquin River.   The Water Board acknowledges the diversion can create financial and operational challenges for local economies as well as lost jobs but it insists that it is necessary to provide enough water for vulnerable fish and wildlife. The science is not clear that more water alone will help the fish thrive. Cities, counties, water districts and irrigation districts that must provide water to their customers, which are businesses as well as residents, will have to find replacement water which will be very expensive if it is available. Agricultural operations will suffer, causing more hardship in areas of the state that already struggle with poverty and lack of resources—all for a plan that provides no guaranty of success.

Valerie Nera, Policy Advocate, CalChamber