Water Quality, Fish and Wildlife Protection: It’s All Voluntary

The future is now.

Governor Newsom’s February 13, 2023 Executive Order ordering the State Water Board  to consider modifying flow and storage requirements for the State Water Project (SWP) and the Central Valley Project (CVP) is his blueprint for the Bay-Delta estuary and every river that feeds it.  When requirements to protect water quality, fish, and wildlife are inconvenient, water managers can ignore them.

It’s all voluntary.

For ten-odd years, California’s water managers have promised “Voluntary Agreements” to replace the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  They could never figure out the details of what to propose.

Now they can just stop, and save us all the agony of listening to them pretend that it has to do with science.  They can simply ask the Governor in real time to do whatever they think is best to fill the bottomless pit of their promises to deliver more water than exists.

It’s all voluntary.

The promised Voluntary Agreements are supposed to have Water Rights Decision 1641 as their foundation.  Those are the requirements the Governor’s Order just asked the State Water Board to “consider modifying” in what will at worst be a water year with average runoff.  When the foundation can go away at any time, there isn’t really a foundation.

It’s all voluntary.

The Voluntary Agreements are supposed to be founded on “real-time operations” and “adaptive management,” as is the proposed Delta tunnel.  For decades, water managers have used “real-time operations” and “adaptive management,” to systematically game any rules that reserve water for fish and wildlife.  In the hands of water managers, and the craven fish agency managers who have accepted the concept that the minimal use of water for fish and wildlife is their objective, these concepts have no credibility.

Now there is a new game: ask the Governor to suspend the rules.  The bottom line about “real-time operations” and “adaptive management” is that the Governor can change rules and standards at any time.  Can’t get more real-time or adaptive than that.

When push comes to shove, it’s all voluntary.

Here’s a fun game.  One of these reasons from the Governor’s Order for “modifying requirements” on the SWP and CVP is not like the others:

(i) conserve water upstream later in the year in order to protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead,

(ii) enhance instream conditions for fish and wildlife,

(iii) improve water quality,

(iv) protect carry-over storage,

(v) ensure minimum health and safety water supplies, or

(vi) provide opportunities to maintain or to expand water supplies north and south of the Delta.

Applause if you answered (vi).  Embezzling water allocated to water quality and to fish and wildlife, and giving it to farms and cities, is the only objective the Governor’s Order will achieve.  Numbers (i)-(iv) have no basis in fact.  They are greenwashing.  Robbing Delta outflow or other flows won’t achieve any of those things.  Any benefit to water quality and fish from storing the Delta’s water in reservoirs is completely at the mercy of water managers.

It’s all voluntary.

As for (v), there is no threat to health and safety water supplies in 2023 from limitations on the SWP and CVP.  It is fear-mongering.

The Governor frames the problem thus: California doesn’t capture enough water.  It is worth recalling what another governor said about money: California doesn’t have a revenue problem.  It has a spending problem.  Same is doubly true for water.  California has promised far more water than it can deliver.  Only it’s much easier and much quicker to generate revenue than it is to increase water supply for farms and cities.

Climate change is not the cause of overallocation of California’s water.  Climate change just makes the decades-old problem more obvious.

The more water California’s water managers capture, the bigger the water deficit becomes.  Further capture of water irrigates the illusion that water managers are seeking a reachable goal called “water supply reliability.”  But collectively, they are promoting a system of water deliveries whose demands will never be met.  As the demands of those near the front of the line are met more frequently in any given year, it just whets the appetite of those who miss out.

The “ongoing drought emergency” cited by Governor Newsom is simply this:  a State government that sets no limits on water use sets up protections for water quality and for fish and wildlife as the obstacles to “water supply reliability.”  That’s because some real wet water is (miraculously) actually dedicated to water quality and fish and wildlife protection.  Of course, there isn’t enough water allocated to rivers, estuaries, and bays to steal in order to achieve “water supply reliability.”  The goal as framed is unreachable.

When it’s actually done science, the State has recognized that rivers and fish and wildlife need more water, not less.  The solution for urban and agricultural water supply is the same as water supply dedicated to protecting water quality and fish and wildlife.  It is a water budgeting system that sets enforceable regulatory limits on water deliveries.  Those limits must be based on the limits of hydrology and responsible water management, and grounded in the principles of reasonable use and protection of the public trust.  It cannot be a system based on the annual discretion of water managers who decide in each case what part of the public’s water they will oh so generously give up.  Even less can it be a permanent state of emergency that makes the Governor of California the watermaster of the Central Valley.

Neither the State’s water supply system nor its water quality and fish and wildlife can survive a government in which:

It’s all voluntary.

p.s. Is this too harsh about water agency or resource agency managers?  They have a great opportunity to prove it.  Let them stand up now to show that they are wrongfully lumped in.  Who will be the first water agency or resource agency manager who publicly and vocally objects to the false framing by the Governor?  Who will be the first to oppose the February 13 Temporary Urgency Change Petition for the SWP and CVP, that would retroactively eliminate a major flow requirement into San Francisco Bay in February and March of 2023, and that hit the street on the same day as the Governor’s Order?  Will anyone at least object that changing the rules will kill the salmon from their own rivers and hatcheries?

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