New­som in­her­its fed ‘headaches’ de­spite Brown’s water deals

The Sacramento Bee - - Capitol & California - BY DALE KASLER AND RYAN SABALOW [email protected]

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 — even as it made peace with Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials on other water is­sues.

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 com­mit-

ted 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, leav­ing sal­mon, steel­head and Delta smelt on the brink of ex­tinc­tion. To re­vive the species, sci­en­tists say more water needs to fol­low its nat­u­ral flow to the Pa­cific.

Since 2009 the state water board has been work­ing on a pro­posal to re-di­vide the Sacra­mento and San Joaquin rivers and their trib­u­taries and al­low more water to rush through the Delta. The state pro­posed leav­ing al­most 300,000 ex­tra acre-feet of water in the San Joaquin watershed, plus any­where from 1.1 mil­lion to 3.1 mil­lion acrefeet in the Sacra­mento and its trib­u­taries. By com­par­i­son, Fol­som Lake can hold around 1 mil­lion acre-feet.

The plan would mean sub­stan­tially less water for farms and cities that draw from those rivers — in­clud­ing the city of San Fran­cisco and sev­eral Bay Area sub­urbs, which rely heav­ily on the Tuolumne River, a trib­u­tary of the San Joaquin, to serve 2.6 mil­lion peo­ple.

The state board’s pro­posal would also spell trou­ble for nu­mer­ous water agen­cies that don’t feed di­rectly from those rivers but count on lots of water be­ing avail­able for pump­ing out of the Delta. Among them: the gi­ant ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts con­trolled by San Joaquin Val­ley farm­ers, and the 19 mil­lion cus­tomers of the Metropoli­tan Water Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Al­ready strug­gling with fre­quent short­ages, water agen­cies be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal groups over al­ter­na­tives to the state board’s pro­posal.

The talks in­ten­si­fied last sum­mer. That’s when the board’s staff fi­nal­ized its pro­posal for the San Joaquin watershed — and Ryan Zinke, who was then Trump’s In­te­rior sec­re­tary, jumped into the fray.

The U.S. Bu­reau of Recla­ma­tion, which runs the Cen­tral Val­ley Pro­ject, threat­ened to sue the state if it took water from farm­ers. Zinke and his deputy David Bern­hardt, a for­mer water lob­by­ist for Val­ley farm­ers, be­gan pres­sur­ing Cal­i­for­nia to find more water for agri­cul­ture, not less.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say Zinke’s team also threat­ened to fight the Delta tun­nels pro­ject, Brown’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to reroute the es­tu­ary’s water flows in an ef­fort to im­prove con­di­tions for fish. Los­ing the feds would send the pro­ject back to square one af­ter ten years and $200 mil­lion worth of plan­ning.

Zinke’s ini­tia­tives “re­ally changed the dy­namic,” said Rachel Zwill­inger of De­fend­ers of Wildlife, one of the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. “There were more pieces of the puz­zle be­ing ne­go­ti­ated.”

The puz­zle be­gan tak­ing shape in early De­cem­ber. First Brown en­dorsed a pro­posal in Congress to ex­tend a 2016 law signed by for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama that re­laxes some of the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­stric­tions on Delta pump­ing. The pro­posed ex­ten­sion, backed by Demo­cratic Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bak­ers­field, is still pend­ing.

Then came a se­ries of agree­ments un­veiled Dec. 12.


In one deal, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pledged to con­tinue work­ing on Brown’s Delta tun­nels pro­ject. In re­turn, the state guar­an­teed that Val­ley farm­ers wouldn’t lose any water to the pro­ject. Farm­ers had feared they could wind up with less water be­cause they’ve re­fused to con­trib­ute money to the tun­nels pro­ject.

Brown also agreed to rene­go­ti­ate the “co­or­di­nated op­er­at­ing agree­ment,” an ar­cane rule­book that gov­erns the Delta pumps.

The re­write is a con­ces­sion to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. It al­lows the feds’ Cen­tral Val­ley Pro­ject and its mostly agri­cul­tural cus­tomers to take a big­ger share of the Delta’s wa­ters — as much as 200,000 acre-feet a year — from the mainly ur­ban cus­tomers of the State Water Pro­ject. An acre­foot is 326,000 gal­lons, a year’s sup­ply for one to two house­holds.

The ex­tra water proved crit­i­cal to se­cur­ing agri­cul­ture’s sup­port for the big­gest deal re­vealed that day: Brown’s set­tle­ment plans for the rivers. Jeff Kightlinger, whose Metropoli­tan Water Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is the State Water Pro­ject’s big­gest cus­tomer, said the state had to give farm­ers ad­di­tional water from the Delta so they’d be will­ing to sur­ren­der a por­tion of their sup­plies to help Brown’s plan for the fish.

“You have to have the Cen­tral Val­ley part of it,” he said last month.

Brown’s peo­ple de­scribed the com­pro­mise as a break­through. San Fran­cisco would take less from the Tuolumne. Water agen­cies from greater Sacra­mento would take less from the Amer­i­can. Many of the Cen­tral Val­ley’s farm­ing dis­tricts kicked in water, too, with some agree­ing to idle land.

The new water for fish would to­tal at least

740,000 acre-feet a year, for 15 years. It could grow to 1 mil­lion if sci­en­tific stud­ies proved more was needed for the fish.

While this was less than the vol­ume sought by the state board, the of­fer in­cluded a sweet­ener. The water dis­tricts promised

$800 mil­lion over 15 years, and the Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion pledged

$900 mil­lion in bond funds, to re­vive fish pop­u­la­tions through other means: spawn­ing grounds, nu­tri­ent-rich flood­plains and other habi­tat projects. Some of the cash would com­pen­sate water dis­tricts for cough­ing up water, par­tic­u­larly the agri­cul­tural dis­tricts where farm­ers have agreed to fal­low land.

Brown’s ad­min­is­tra­tion saluted the will­ing­ness to sur­ren­der water.

“There’s a touch of courage here,” Karla Nemeth, di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of Water Re­sources, told the state water board.


But as Nemeth spoke, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and fish­ing groups were fum­ing. They said the water wasn’t nearly enough, and the habi­tat projects were inad­e­quate.

Zwill­inger of De­fend­ers of Wildlife said en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists were es­sen­tially frozen out of the ne­go­ti­a­tions in re­cent weeks, and the deal “re­ally did not re­flect in­put from the con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity.”

And, as en­vi­ron­men­tal groups went through the de­tails of the set­tle­ments, they were trou­bled by what they saw: Many of the habi­tat projects have been on the draw­ing board for years and would likely get com­pleted any­way, they said. Some are al­ready un­der­way.

For in­stance, al­most all of the habi­tat projects pro­posed for the Tuolumne had al­ready been promised by re­gional water dis­tricts to se­cure a new fed­eral li­cense for New Don Pe­dro Dam. An of­fi­cial with the dam’s part-owner, the Tur­lock Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict, ac­knowl­edged as much in an in­ter­view with the Sacra­mento Bee, though he said the pro­posed deal would speed up the process to get­ting them done.

“We hope we can start mak­ing progress on the river sooner rather than later,” said Steve Boyd, the Tur­lock dis­trict’s water re­sources di­rec­tor.

In the Glenn County com­mu­nity of Hamil­ton City, a $90 mil­lion flood­plain restora­tion pro­ject has been un­der con­struc­tion since 2015, yet it’s listed un­der the pro­posed agree­ments. The pro­ject con­sists of mov­ing a levee fur­ther back from the Sacra­mento River to cre­ate more habi­tat on a wider flood­plain. When a Bee re­porter vis­ited the site in De­cem­ber, a worker was driv­ing an ATV be­tween rows of freshly planted na­tive trees.

About 30 miles east of Hamil­ton City, crews in hard hats were wrap­ping up work for the win­ter sea­son last month on an­other pro­ject on Brown’s list. This one in­volves cut­ting a notch into a levee on the Feather River to al­low more water to flow into sea­sonal marsh­lands south of Oroville.

John McManus of the Golden Gate Sal­mon As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents fish­er­men, said it’s “smoke and mir­rors” to count “re­quired habi­tat restora­tion that’s al­ready built or been in the works for years” as some­thing new.

State of­fi­cials counter by say­ing that that many of these projects — even ones that may be un­der­way — need fund­ing to get fin­ished, and the pro­pos­als pro­vide that cer­tainty.

Michael Bes­sette of the Sut­ter Butte Flood Pro­tec­tion Agency, which is over­see­ing the Oroville levee work, said $12 mil­lion has been spent on the pro­ject, but an­other $7 mil­lion is needed to fin­ish the job.

He was thrilled Brown’s pro­posal ap­peared to make it a pri­or­ity.

For now, though, the Brown set­tle­ments haven’t con­vinced the state board. It voted 4-1 to go ahead with its orig­i­nal plan to re­al­lo­cate water to the fish — more water than Brown’s com­pro­mise of­fered. The vote only cov­ered the San Joaquin River watershed; a vote on the rivers of the Sacra­mento Val­ley hasn’t yet been sched­uled.

Board mem­bers promised to con­tinue study­ing the set­tle­ment plans in the mean­time. Chair­woman Feli­cia Mar­cus called them “in­trigu­ing” but also hinted she was disappointed that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists had been cut out of the talks.

“I would en­cour­age ... that the process be­come more open, and more play­ers be in­volved,” she said in a ref­er­ence to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

What­ever the state board de­cides, how­ever, the courts will prob­a­bly have the last word.

There’s “go­ing to be lit­i­ga­tion any­way, right? It’s a given,” said water pol­icy ex­pert Jeff Mount of the Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia. “Hardly any­thing hap­pens in water with­out lit­i­ga­tion; that’s just what we do here in Cal­i­for­nia.”

PAUL KITAGAKI JR. pkita­[email protected]

Adam Gray of the 21st Assem­bly Dis­trict ad­dresses hun­dreds at­tend­ing the “Stop the State Water Grab” rally in Sacra­mento in Au­gust.

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