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Environment Report: Big Northern California Water Deals Will Trickle Down to San Diego

State and federal water officials have worked furiously to redo how we all share the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers and their numerous tributaries. At stake for cities and farms is how much water will be available and at what price. At stake for fish is their very existence.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta / Photo by Ry Rivard

In this week’s Environment Report, let’s focus on an issue that doesn’t always get much attention in Southern California: the rivers of Northern California.

Every so often, people get together and divide a river.

That’s been happening a lot lately in the final throes of Gov. Jerry Brown’s term. State and federal water officials have worked furiously to redo how we all share the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers and their numerous tributaries.

At stake for cities and farms is how much water will be available and at what price.

At stake for fish is their very existence.

The rivers start in Sierra Nevada mountains, weave across Northern and Central California, meet up in a giant delta and would naturally run out to sea at San Francisco Bay. But for generations, people have twisted and drained these waterways every which way to serve cities and farms.

In San Diego, we may never see them or the mile-high mountains they flow from, but we consume their parts. Over the past decade, roughly a fifth of the San Diego region’s water was brought hundreds of miles south by a state-run water system known as the State Water Project.

The state project has a sibling, the Central Valley Project, which the federal government built to help farmers in California’s arid middle. Their water is legally separated but it physically mixes because the two projects share facilities.

There’s less water to share, though, because of drought and regulations meant to save the rivers and the fish in them. The enormous dams, sprawling reservoirs and concrete-lined channels that humans use to plumb the rivers have, in many ways, destroyed them.

Prompted by the collapse of fish populations, the State Water Resources Control Board is trying to prevent humans from totally drying up these rivers each year. The regulators’ lodestar for how much water the rivers need is the amount of water a Chinook salmon needs to migrate.

In mid-December, after nearly a decade of debate, the board approved regulations to increase the flows in the Lower San Joaquin and its tributaries by cutting the water available for farming and drinking by an average of 14 percent. That water will instead be left in the river and flow out to sea.

The board is also at work on a similar plan for the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

To environmentalists, the Water Board has finally stood up for an ecosystem that most people, one way or the other, have been destroying for decades.

To farmers and even some otherwise environmentally conscious cities, like San Francisco, this is a sort of blasphemy – water that could be used by humans will be dumped into the ocean.

At the 11th hour, a group of water officials from over a dozen different agencies – including those that get water from the State Water Project and those that get water from the Central Valley Project – rolled out an alternative.

This alternative, negotiated over two years but still incomplete, would stave off mandatory cuts and replace them with series of multi-part “voluntary settlement agreements.”

The Water Board has at times invited voluntary settlements like this. That’s because its powers are limited and any regulation that prompts a lawsuit – like its salmon rules already have – can end up in court, delayed or even rejected. For now, though, the board is moving ahead with salmon-focused rules while waiting for more details to see if these settlements can do enough to save the rivers.

The core of the settlements is money, about $1.7 billion – a mix of state and federal money, plus two new fees that farmers and city water customers will pay.

One fee would be used to buy water from farmers willing to stop farming and sell the water they would have used. That water would be left in the river.

The other fee would fund research and projects to help fish in ways that don’t involve giving them more water. For instance, humans could kill non-native predators that eat salmon. Or we could dump more gravel into rivers to create habitat for salmon to spawn in – normally this gravel would end up in rivers for free, but dams now block its flow.

The deal involves several hundred million dollars from higher water bills, but the fees would be spread across so many customers they’d be relatively small – not more than a few dollars a year for a typical San Diego homeowner.

For environmental groups, which have not signed off on these settlements and are skeptical of them, it’s hard to see a way that fish populations can dramatically improve without dramatically more water.

As the voluntary settlement idea was coming together, the Natural Resources Defense Council asked a series of questions about how the settlement would actually work – whether it would use methods that the group considers a failure and whether it would actually provide new water to rivers. So far, many of these questions don’t yet have clear answers.

Even though any real settlements probably won’t be signed for another year or more, helping to solve this problem could be a prize for the outgoing governor, who has been interested in and bedeviled by water issues for years.

Brown had also hoped to shore up the State Water Project – which his father built – by building a pair of tunnels to carry water around the environmentally sensitive delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin meet.

Another deal signed in recent weeks makes the tunnels a bit more likely.

The federal government could have torpedoed the project by dropping its support for the tunnels. Farmers who buy water from the Central Valley Project, few of whom want to help pay for the $17 billion tunnels, had been pressuring the federal government to do just that. But the state promised that building the tunnels wouldn’t hurt the quantity or quality of water those farmers receive even if they don’t pay anything for the project; in exchange, the farmers and the feds promised not to try to kill the tunnels.

The state and the federal government also updated how they share water among the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, a deal known as a “coordinated operating agreement” that was last formally renegotiated in 1986. Farmers who get water from the federal government say the state has been taking more than its fair share of water in recent years, reducing the water available for the farmers.

They have a sympathetic ear in Washington. President Donald Trump has said he wants to get these farmers more water and one of the top officials at the Department of Interior, which oversees in the Central Valley Project, is a former lobbyist for the project’s biggest user, the Fresno-based Westlands Water District.

With all that in mind, the state agreed to give up as much as 5 percent of its water in dry years, enough water for nearly 2 million people. But supporters of the updated agreement suggest those cuts are not only manageable but they avoid a larger showdown with the federal government. If the farmers hadn’t been satisfied by this updated agreement, the theory goes, they would have worked to weaken federal environmental regulations or simply ignored state regulations.

“California is better off because of this update,” the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, Karla Nemeth, said in a statement. “It will ensure that our water project operations protect the environment, a key value for all Californians.”

Some of that looks like the state ceding water to the Trump administration, but it also accepts another reality – cities, including San Diego, have paid for new reservoirs in Southern California that can store Northern California water in good years to prepare for dry years. The Central Valley Project, known as the CVP, can’t do that as well, so farmers are left without water when they need it most.

“We can manage wet year water better than the CVP can,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The district delivers water from the State Water Project to Southern California, including San Diego.

The deal for the state to cede water happened at the same time the federal government agreed not to try to block the tunnels, which prompted foes of the tunnels project to claim there had been a quid pro quo that one anti-tunnel group, Restore the Delta, called the governor’s “desperate, yet dangerous swan song for California.”

People who support the water-ceding deal and the tunnels agreement said they are legally unconnected. But they are clearly tied together, as a letter from Nemeth shows. She said it was her expectation that users benefiting from the updated water-sharing agreement would drop objections to the tunnels.

One view is that Brown’s administration is, at this point, doing anything it can to shore up a tunnels project he invested so much in, even if the deals don’t protect the environment. The other view is the Brown is doing a series of deals because he sees peace on the rivers as its own kind of prize, and there’s no reason to sell his soul for two tunnels when the incoming governor may well do one tunnel or none anyway.

San Diego water officials have been keeping an eye on these deals but don’t seem to be directly involved. Indeed, they have prided themselves on reducing their dependence on Northern California water. Part of that is because of a recently opened desalination plant that makes ocean water drinkable and part of it is because of higher reliance on water from the Colorado River, though that river has been in drought for much of the past two decades.

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