PALMDALE — Water wars are nothing new in California; Mark Twain himself is alleged to have said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”
However, for a portion of the state’s highly contested water use, a new concept may help reduce some of the friction and litigation.
The area of the Sacramento River Delta, which includes the San Joaquin River, is an important part of the water supplies for the state, including those areas to the south served by the State Water Project. This includes the Antelope Valley.
The State Water Project moves water from Northern California to Southern California through the California Aqueduct. It supplies water to 27 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland.
The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan governs water use in the Delta area, including how much water is allowed to flow through it to the ocean, instead of being diverted for use.
Rather than pursue a lengthy adjudication of this entire watershed — such as was done with the groundwater aquifer in the Antelope Valley — a system of voluntary agreements has been proposed, in which the individual water agencies, environmental organizations, government agencies and the like voluntarily agree to allow so much water though the Delta and provide funds for environmental restoration and research.
“The voluntary agreements are really important to help stabilize how we plan and conduct ourselves in water,” State Water Project General Manager Jennifer Pierre said, Thursday, in a presentation to the Antelope Valley State Water Contractors Association.
This system of voluntary agreements was started by Gov. Jerry Brown, in 2015, and has been continued under Gov. Gavin Newsom.
This system involves time-bound agreements in which water agencies voluntarily provide some water to flow through the Delta, as well as some funds.
These agreements can be implemented immediately, unlike a lengthy adjudication battle, and will allow for environmental restoration actions to begin, right away, Pierre said.
Importantly, these voluntary agreements include system-wide governance to provide a forum to coordinate actions, such as releasing water from reservoirs, as well as scientific research, she said.
Right now, there isn’t really a platform for sharing data and information across agencies involved in water supplies and associated environmental concerns.
This all-hands form of governance may also help address the problems that arise from a lack of trust, Pierre said.
“That lack of trust certainly stems from our lack of forums to really communicate with each other and understand each other’s perspectives,” she said.
This is especially important as climate change creates new management issues.
“We’re going to have to make hard choices, and we’re going to have to make them together,” Pierre said.
A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed by participating agencies representing about two-thirds of the total Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed.
“I’m expecting additional parties to sign on as we go, Pierre said.
This MOU provides the framework to advance these concepts, but does not commit resources.
It covers an eight-year period, with the ability for review and to extend it further.
The agreement framework has laid out amounts of water different agencies will agree to let flow, at levels specified based on annual water conditions; less water will be let out during critically dry years, or very wet years.
Funding for the $2.9 billion, eight-year program is planned to come largely through $1.4 billion in state commitments through the General Fund and bonds. The federal government is expected to contribute $740 million, and public water agencies contributing $588 million. The remaining $168 million would come from other sources.
For the State Water Contractors, the contribution would be based on $10 per acre-foot delivered through the Project, which means in dry years, when less water is delivered, the amount would be less.
“The point here is everybody is pitching in,” Pierre said.
AVSWCA General Manager Peter Thompson said this appears to be a preferable option to the likely contentious regulatory action in the Delta that was coming.
“This takes it from being a siloed and political regulatory action to a collaborative and scientific regulatory action,” he said.
It offers shared responsibility for meeting the regulatory needs in the Delta, he said.
The State Water Resources Control Board still needs to evaluate this program to see if it meets the state’s environmental requirements.
While that’s happening, there are interim operations for both the State Water Project and the similar federal Central Valley Project, for 2023 and 2024, Pierre said.