Newsom inherits Brown’s disputed water deals
As his term as governor drew to a close last month, Jerry Brown brokered a historic agreement among farms and cities to surrender billions of gallons of water to help ailing fish species. He also made two big water deals with the Trump administration — one to shore up support for his struggling Delta tunnels project, the other to transfer some of urban California’s water to Central Valley farmers whom the White House supports.
It added up to a dizzying display of deal-making over an issue that confounded Brown during much of his four terms in Sacramento. His top aides said the agreements represented a bold attempt to calm California’s notorious water wars and inject a dose of common sense into a system traditionally ruled by strife and paralysis.
“We rise together, we fall together,” Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said in rolling out Brown’s plan for the fish. “I see a future that can help us bring all parties together.”
Yet as Gavin Newsom takes over as governor, the state of water in California seems as unsettled as ever.
The centerpiece agreement Brown made — a giant compromise on reallocating water to help the fish — ran into immediate trouble. The State Water Resources Control Board, a powerful agency governed by Brown appointees, essentially shelved the plan hours after it was unveiled Dec. 12.
The board agreed to reconsider the compromise in the coming months, but opposition to Brown’s plan was instantaneous. Environmental groups — always a powerful voice in California water — say they’ll do what’s necessary to kill the compromise for good. They say the Brown plan is a sham, part of a broader sellout of environmental concerns to appease Donald Trump.
Environmental attorney Doug Obegi, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Brown’s various deals are likely to produce “a whole bunch of headaches rather than a grand bargain.”
Meanwhile, the state board’s vote has come under attack in the courts already. The Merced Irrigation District sued within days. On Thursday, the city of San Francisco and a host of agricultural irrigation districts, which pull water from the Tuolumne River and were part of Brown’s voluntary settlements, sued to overturn the Dec. 12 vote. The Trump administration, which has been aggressively pushing for more water for agriculture, also has threatened to sue.
Newsom said little about water during his election campaign, other than he might scale back the Delta tunnels to a single pipe. He reiterated that stance Thursday during a press conference on the budget, saying “I’m concerned about the twin tunnels but I’m committed to conveyance.” He also said he’s assessing the current membership of the state water board, and is scrutinizing the settlement plans unveiled by Brown.
Like practically everything in California water, the agreements revolve around the rivers that flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The estuary is the hub of the state’s network of dams and canals that supply water to the farms and cities that belong to the State Water Project, built by Brown’s father Gov. Pat Brown in the 1960s, and the U.S. government’s Central Valley Project, begun by Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal.
Water users and environmentalists have fought over the Delta for decades — how much flows in, how much reaches the ocean and how much gets pumped south.
State scientists say farms and cities take as much as 90 percent of the natural flows on some of the tributaries. To revive the species, scientists say more water needs to follow its natural flow to the Pacific.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dutch, 2, listen to a speech from first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.