Newsom promised to end California’s water wars. Now that Trump is gone, can he do it?

Article from Sacramento Bee.

By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow
February 08, 2021 05:00 AM

To preserve nature in California and address climate change, California Governor Gavin Newsom on October 7, 2020, committed the state to a goal of preserving 30% of its land and 30% of coastal waters by 2030. By California Governor

Shortly after taking office two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to deliver a massive compromise deal on the water rushing through California’s major rivers and the critically-important Delta — and bring lasting peace to the incessant water war between farmers, cities, anglers and environmentalists.

To emphasize his point, Newsom announced at his first State of the State address that he was replacing a key regulator who hadn’t bowed to the peace process. Later, he vetoed a bill that would have obligated California to battle the Trump administration on practically any environmental issue, including Trump’s desire to pump more water from the Sacrament-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile hub of the state’s water delivery system.

Since then? Not much. The governor appears to have so far fallen into the same fate as governors before him with grand ambitions over California’s most precious resource. The modern version of California’s water war is now a quarter-century old, with no clear end in sight.

His top environmental advisors say negotiations continue on the grand bargain, which was first envisioned by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, at the tail end of his governorship. But they acknowledge that talks have stalled over the past year, largely because of rancorous relations with the federal government — a crucial partner in any California water deal. With Trump gone and Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, Newsom’s advisors believe conditions are ripe for an agreement.

Still, coming to an agreement as promised will require Newsom’s most artful negotiating skills. He’ll have to get past decades of fighting and maneuvering, at the same time California is continuing to recover from the worst wildfire season in modern state history and a pandemic that has since killed more than 42,000 state residents.

Making the issue more urgent: California will likely enter another drought this year, which will have profound effects on the water supply above ground and below.

Newsom has declared himself up to the task. In February 2019, in his State of the State address at the Capitol, he took a centrist tone on water, declaring that creativity and innovation could triumph over California’s traditional zero-sum, tug-of-war approach to water.

“We have to get past the old binaries, like farmers versus environmentalists, or North versus South,” he said.

That’s when he announced he was ousting Felicia Marcus as chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency in charge of policing water rights. Republican-leaning farm groups saw Marcus as a hardliner who had taken an environmentalist’s approach to reallocating California’s two most important rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin.

A year later, on Feb. 4, 2020, Newsom’s administration released a loose framework for his water compromise, including a plan to restore river habitats that would improve fish populations. Farms and cities would surrender some water, but not as much as they would if Marcus had her way.

But the talks almost completely stalled over the last year. In the meantime, conditions in California’s water world continue to worsen. The Delta is still in crisis. Independent scientists are warning the critically endangered Delta smelt are likely to be extinct by next year, and other native fish species such as salmon and steelhead aren’t too far behind.

Now, environmentalists and fisheries advocates are demanding that the state water board ignore Newsom’s efforts at compromise. Instead, they want the board to finish the job it began in December 2018, shortly before Newsom became governor. That’s when Marcus and the board began the process of ordering farms and cities along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to relinquish billions of gallons of water to save nearly-extinct fish species.

“It is painfully clear that those (settlement) talks have collapsed, and that the process has become a strategy for a delay, rather than a serious effort to produce solutions for the Bay Delta,” Barry Nelson, who advocates on behalf of commercial fishermen, told the water board at a virtual meeting last week.

All told, close to a dozen environmentalists urged the board to act on its original plan. They said they don’t think the compromise plan goes nearly far enough to save the fish, and they believe the negotiations are little more than a sham.

“It’s time for you to get back to work,” Cindy Charles, a director of the Tuolumne River Trust and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, told the board.

The water board’s new chairman, Joaquin Esquivel, was noncommittal, saying the agency was “balancing the needs amongst all water users.”

‘We kind of owe it to the ecosystem’

Newsom’s team insists a settlement on the rivers is within reach. His top environmental officials say that though the negotiation process is taking years, when it’s completed, it will have been a far quicker path to saving species than if the water board had unilaterally acted on its own, a move that would inevitably trigger an avalanche of lawsuits that would take close to a decade to resolve in court.

“We kind of owe it to the ecosystem, to the state, to try something that has a chance of actually solving a problem rather than doubling down on a system that we know has failed us,” Jared Blumenfeld, Newsom’s secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview.

The state has taken some steps to advance the process. Newsom’s Natural Resources Agency just asked the Legislature for $125 million to jump-start habitat-restoration projects that could improve fish populations.

But negotiators acknowledged that settlement talks have been bogged down, and each side blames the other for the last year of inaction.

Jason Phillips of the Friant Water Authority, which supplies irrigation water to farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, said the negotiations stalled early last year, after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Trump administration over the federal government’s rewrite of the rules governing water pumping in the Delta.

The rule change symbolized an effort to deliver on Trump’s promise to deliver more water to his political allies, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, and was widely condemned by environmental groups. As much as he wanted to avoid plunging into another water fight, Newsom endorsed the Becerra lawsuit — and announced the litigation at the very moment that Trump began speaking on water issues to a cheering crowd of farmers last year in Bakersfield.

Newsom’s team blamed Trump for the accord talks running into headwinds. Trump “did what he did best, which is sow division when we’re working to bring people together,” said Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of Newsom’s Natural Resources Agency.

The federal government’s cooperation is considered vital to any compromise plan. Newsom’s proposal depends in part on $700 million in federal dollars and another $2 billion from local water districts, some of which are customers of the U.S. government’s Central Valley Project. The federal and state networks of canals, dams and pumps operate in tandem.

Now, with Trump out and the Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Newsom’s team and other negotiators say the settlement process is again moving forward.

“The rumors of the death of the voluntary agreements are greatly exaggerated,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, a Fresno-based irrigation agency that had close ties to the Trump administration.

He said an updated version of the settlement is likely to be released within weeks.

Farmers and cities could lose water

Without a compromise, farmers from Redding to Bakersfield would likely have to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres of land, stressing troubled rural economies.

Under the state water board’s original plan, roughly 1.5 million acre-feet of additional water would be left in the rivers for fish, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Doug Obegi.

That’s enough to fill Folsom Lake one-and-a-half times — and nearly twice as much water as Newsom’s compromise would deliver.

The impact wouldn’t just be felt by farmers. Cities like Modesto and Turlock also would lose a significant chunk of their supply. So would San Francisco, which gets more than 80% of its water from the Tuolumne River, one of the San Joaquin’s main tributaries.

Hundreds of miles south, even Los Angeles might face cuts to its drinking water supply. Southern California cities are a major customer of the State Water Project, which depends heavily on water stored in Lake Oroville and pumped out of the Delta.

Dec. 12, 2018, turned out to be a day of high drama in California’s water landscape. As the state board was about to vote on the first phase of its plan — keeping more water in two San Joaquin tributaries for the fish — top officials from Brown’s administration showed up with news of a vague, tentative compromise.

The Voluntary Agreement would offer a blend of water and habitat restoration to prop up the fish populations, they said, while sparing the farms and cities the level of wholesale cutbacks that could have crippled the Valley’s rural economy. The settlement represents “collaboration over conflict,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The board said it was open to compromise but not sold on it. “The devil’s in the details,” said Marcus, the former chairwoman. The five-member board, all Brown appointees, voted to begin the process of reallocating the San Joaquin tributaries.

Two months later, she was out — and angry environmentalists said she was being punished for not accepting the settlement plan.

“The reward for that first step was the governor didn’t reappoint Felicia Marcus,” said Gary Bobker of the Bay Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit.

California’s never-ending water fight

Fighting over how to divvy up California’s over-allocated water supply is nothing new. Neither are the promises of a compromise to better share the severely overtaxed resource.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the state and federal governments and local irrigation districts built huge reservoirs to store river water for farms and cities in the canyons above California’s massive Central Valley. The state and federal governments also built a massive network of canals and arena-sized pumps in the Delta to ship water to the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and Southern California.

Without this elaborate system, California probably wouldn’t have become America’s most populous state or home to the world’s fifth-largest economy.

But that prosperity has come at a substantial ecological cost to the Delta, the West Coast’s largest estuary, and the rivers that feed into it.

Scientists say it’s no surprise that fish species are going extinct, given the way Californians have so dramatically altered their habitats and siphoned off their water.

The dams cut migratory fish off from their spawning grounds, more than 90 percent of the state’s wetlands have been plowed or paved over, and at various times of year more than half of the rivers’ flow is diverted for human uses.

Environmentalists have been calling for decades for cities and farms to leave more water in the rivers to give the fish a chance. In 2016, after years of study, the state water board, which regulates how water is shared in California, released proposals for reallocation of water on the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and their tributaries.

On the San Joaquin — where in some areas as little as 20% of the water stays in the river — the board would increase the “unimpaired flow” to as much as 50%. On the Sacramento, the unimpaired flow would jump from around 50% to as high as 75%.

The plan triggered cries of a state-sanctioned “water grab.” Farm groups and conservatives protested at the Capitol, but state officials at the time said they were working on a compromise.

The water board held off until December 2018, when it voted to initiate the first phase of the plan on the San Joaquin River. The move was met, predictably, with litigation — a ubiquitous method for handling disputes in California water. Farm irrigation groups sued the state. So did liberal San Francisco, normally an ally of environmental interests but heavily reliant on the Tuolumne River’s flows.

The Trump administration, sympathetic to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, also sued, saying the state board’s decision interfered with the U.S. government’s operations of dams.

With the state board’s plan entangled in lawsuits, Newsom’s administration tried to forge ahead with the Voluntary Agreements process. Last February his administration released the framework that expanded on the settlements outlined by Brown’s administration in late 2018.

The framework called for giving the fish more than 800,000 acre-feet in additional water from the rivers — enough to nearly fill Folsom Lake, but less than the state board’s plan. In addition, the $5.2 billion plan would restore 60,000 acres of fish habitat in the Delta and the Central Valley.

Newsom said his plan would double California’s salmon population by 2050 and end decades of fighting.

“Creating a water future our children can be proud of will require us to reject the old binaries of the past,” he wrote in an opinion piece in Cal Matters unveiling the framework.

A year later, environmentalists complain that the Voluntary Agreement process has amounted to nothing but half-hearted talk and no action, as the Central Valley’s ecosystem continues to collapse.

“It’s heartbreaking that it hasn’t gone further, including on the Sacramento and the Delta,” Marcus, the deposed water board chairwoman, said in an interview. “Because there’s so much at stake.”

By not moving forward with its plan, the state board also has removed a key incentive for the negotiators to speed up their talks, Marcus said.

“I’ve never been a party, anywhere, where a voluntary agreement on something happens in the absence of tough regulation or litigation as the backdrop,” Marcus said.

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