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State, feds in talks over water

The parties are trying to agree on management of their respective water projects.

Tim Hearden

June 4, 2020

4 Min Read
Water released from Shasta Dam
The Shasta Dam in Northern California releases water in 2019.Tim Hearden

California and federal water regulators are trying to quickly resolve their legal dispute over competing biological opinions governing the management of their respective water projects, a top state official says.

The talks are proceeding after Gov. Gavin Newsom filed suit in February to nullify new federal opinions that would ease restrictions on surface water for San Joaquin Valley growers.

State officials argue the new federal conclusions affecting water operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are not scientifically adequate and fall short of protecting species and the state’s interests.

“I actually think there is strong potential” for finding common ground, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said this week. “There are some clear differences … in state and federal approach, but the men and women that do the work operating the system work really closely together. They all wake up every morning wanting to maximize water reliability but also to avoid extinction of fish.”

Pushing for compromise

Farm groups have been pushing for Newsom to work with the federal government on water deliveries after President Donald Trump visited Bakersfield in February to sign a record of decision that seeks to coordinate the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project.

Related:Groups urge Newsom to work with feds on water

The dispute arose when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October issued opinions that will affect water operations in the Delta and were three years in the making, as federal officials sought to update analyses of Delta smelt and other imperiled fish that were more than a decade old.

California water regulators in November announced plans to use their own data to operate the SWP rather than rely on the new federal opinions.

“I know it’s been discouraging to many in the agricultural community to witness all this litigation and, in some cases, name-calling,” Crowfoot told the State Board of Food and Agriculture on Tuesday. “Our focus remains very clear – ensuring state law is complied with.

“We retain a line of communication with our partners at the federal agency and with the state water contractors as well as the litigants who are suing us and the federal agencies on behalf of the environment,” he said. “We actually feel conditions are right to see if we can settle out these issues.”

Voluntary agreements

A settlement would remove a key obstacle to enacting voluntary agreements with water agencies in the Central Valley that Crowfoot says would provide more reliability in water allocations for growers while improving conditions in the Delta, which suffers from numerous environmental challenges.

Related:Growers see Trump's water delivery order as a promise kept

California’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection agencies in February proposed a framework for the agreements. The framework includes a 15-year program to provide new flows for fish recovery, create 60,000 acres of new and restored habitat, and generate more than $5 billion in new funding for environmental improvements and science, according to news releases.

“More work remains,” Crowfoot said. “We have to turn that framework into a legally enforceable agreement.”

Farm groups urged Newsom’s administration to work with the federal government on water deliveries after state Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed suit in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of the state regulatory agencies, claiming the federal opinions “run counter to the scientific evidence that was before the agencies” and failed to analyze the potential harm to the species, according to the Bay City News Service.

A U.S. district court judge in May issued a preliminary, limited injunction against the federal opinions while holding some aspects in abeyance. An injunction would effectively revert Delta pump operations back to the more restrictive biological opinions developed during then-President Barack Obama’s administration.

“We have to get off the merry-go-round of endless litigation,” California Farm Bureau Federation president Jamie Johansson said in February. “No one benefits from that. Fisheries continue to suffer. Productive farmland goes unused. It’s not a sustainable path for anyone.”

Moving beyond lawsuits

At issue is whether the Trump administration’s new guidelines adequately protect species, Crowfoot told the board. He said the agencies’ goal is to “move beyond that process as quickly as possible” and “resolve the legal disputes,” which would “allow the parties to get to the table on the voluntary agreements.”

In other matters, Crowfoot defended the SWP’s decision to keep water allocations at 20 percent of contracted supplies even though Lake Oroville – the project’s chief reservoir – is at more than 80 percent of normal levels for this time of year.

He said the agency learned during the 2012-2016 drought to manage its supplies carefully in a dry year.

“Hopefully next year we’ll return to a normal year,” he said. “But it’s also possible this winter is the beginning of a drought. We need to be prepared if that’s the case.”

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