Conflict to Collaboration

Conflict to Collaboration

A regulatory approach has dominated water management in California over the past three decades. This was a significant shift from the development phase of California’s water system, as described by water policy expert Tim Quinn, former executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Many believe that policy-makers and water users are making another transition, this time from conflict to collaboration.

A near empty San Luis Reservoir during the 2012-2016 drought

Significant changes like this, where new or increasing demands lead to policy changes that increase resource scarcity, often generate resistance among the negatively impacted parties. In California, this resulted in warring factions fighting over water supplies, often in a zero-sum game of winner take all, or, more accurately, winner take most. The detrimental effect of the regulatory approach to water management on farms, farm jobs, rural communities, and California’s economy is squarely rooted in dwindling water supply reliability.

It’s important to note that not all water supply shortages are caused by regulatory restrictions. California’s variable hydrology also plays a role; however, the ultimate impact is intensified by the restrictions imposed by State and federal regulatory actions affecting the delivery of water to millions of people and millions of acres of farms throughout California.

Local Cooperation Increases Water Deliveries to Farms and Wildlife Refuges

At the local level, farmers on the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley saw the reliability of their water supply contracts fall from about 90 percent in 1989 to roughly 30 percent in the last five years. These water supply restrictions were based mostly on environmental regulations intended to improve populations of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, however numbers of the listed species continued to decline, despite the imposition of regulations that, over time, have redirected vast amounts of water from agricultural uses to environmental uses.

In an effort to respond to these policies and improve the reliability of their dwindling water supplies, local water agency members within the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority chose a different path, one of collaboration.

Starting locally, senior and junior water rights holders, along with wildlife refuges, began working together on multi-benefit projects that increased water conservation or modified the timing of water deliveries, providing additional water supplies for farms and flexible water management for the refuges. This collaborative effort helps deliver more water for irrigation in the summer, while increasing the ability to deliver supplies to refuges in the fall when it is needed most for waterfowl habitat.

The benefits of local cooperation are improved by recent policy decisions at the federal level to increase opportunities to deliver water to farms when its available, while at the same time, enhancing protections for endangered fish.

Federal Response Enhances Regulatory Structure to Improve Water Supply Reliability

USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith with SLDMWA Executive Director Federico Barajas along with agency staff

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith came to California recently to participate in a tour of California’s federal water infrastructure, the federal San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and local farms near Los Banos. She brought with her a message of cooperation, unity, and a desire to continue to enhance the regulatory structure to improve the reliability of water supplies and improve protections provided for threatened and endangered species.

Director Skipwith comes from a background in the agricultural industry, has a law degree, and co-founded AVC Global, a company designed to reduce inefficiencies “…in buying and moving agricultural products from the farm to the final use,” according to the AVC Global web site.

Her primary responsibility is administering federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, which means her real-world experience developing partnerships, problem solving, and achieving goals while taking into account the people on the front lines where federal laws are implemented is a real asset. It’s clear that she brings a real-world perspective to her role as the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“President Trump’s (October 2018) Executive Order on water brought together agricultural, municipal, and environmental stakeholders to finish the update of the biological opinions,” she said.

That update had begun during the Obama Administration.

“Under a short timeframe, the parties had to work together to make it happen, she said. “President Trump, (Interior) Secretary Bernhardt and the Fish and Wildlife Service helped broker what was an amicable process.”

New Biological Opinions Improve Conditions for Water Users and Listed Species

The end result is a new set of biological opinions that have helped deliver more water to farms and provide better, more science-based solutions to species protections. Instead of the former calendar-based approach to species management, new science generated from 10 years of research into California’s Bay-Delta has improved protections for fish and helped deliver more water to the people who need it.

CFWC Executive Director Mike Wade with USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith

Director Skipwith also mentioned the Great American Outdoors Act, recently passed by Congress, to help end the
maintenance backlog at the country’s National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.

“There is a $1.3 billion backlog of projects like this and $1 billion of it is in refuges. Refuges are public lands that need to be in good shape for the species that depend on them and they also need to be welcoming and accessible for the people who visit to enjoy the wildlife and open space. It’s a blessing to have bipartisan support for it,” she said.

She praised the efforts of local water agencies, including the members of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority for their efforts to forge agreements that include the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agreements help local water users and the federal government operate more efficiently while delivering water to grow the nation’s food and to protect vitally important neighboring wildlife refuges.

Moving Forward With Modern Science and Smart Management- Biological Opinions in 2020

New Federal Biological Opinions Utilize the Latest Science to Benefit Fish and Other Water Users

One thing all Californians know for certain is that our current system of managing water isn’t working for anyone.

Over the past decade, struggling fish populations have continued to decline, farms have been forced to fallow land, and cities and towns face ever-tightening restrictions.

Meanwhile, endless lawsuits tie up progress in court, further locking our failing system into place.

In an effort to break the policy logjam, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently updated federal biological opinions (BiOps) which are rules that exist to protect endangered, and  threatened species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region while also meeting the water supply needs of Californian’s farms, businesses and our people.

Let’s be clear – because the old rules are based on science that is now over a decade old, these failed rules badly needed updating. We must act now to adopt smart solutions, and modern science to prepare for our changing world.

It’s past time to update our policies and take actions that can produce a more secure water future for all Californians.

Here are a just a few reasons we should all welcome this policy update:

Embraces modern science and provides the ability to continuously update the science and use it to adapt rules as necessary

Science has been steadily progressing while the old rules were in effect. However, the process to incorporate new findings into existing rules simply didn’t exist. The new BiOps not only incorporate 10 years of study, they put in place adaptive management to help keep the rules up to date as we go. To keep us from once again letting rules get outdated while struggling species suffer, the new Biological Opinions allow for ongoing scientific review as well as independent evaluation by outside experts.

Adopts smart, data-based tools to help struggling species, using real-time monitoring rather than an arbitrary calendar date

Would you rather have a doctor treat you for symptoms they see or provide medication simply because the calendar says it’s flu season. Exactly.

Under the old rules, a calendar dictated when water was moved through the system or withheld. This rigid, arbitrary approach that often ignored what was actually happening in California’s delta. Under the new BiOps, scientists will monitor conditions, and officials must account for fish needs in real-time and base pumping decisions on the actual conditions witnessed. Plus, there is a commitment to reduce pumping when sensitive species are present. We believe this new approach will provide better protection for fish and a is part of a broader strategy to improve their chance of a full recovery.


Pays for new tools to help fish thrive

One of the things science has taught us over the last decade is that water is just one of many factors impacting the health of fish populations. Improving habitat, increasing food supply, and enhancing predator control also play significant roles. 

Under the new biological opinions, $1.5 billion will be spent on fishery improvements that scientists have shown can benefit our native species. That includes investments in habitat, restored spawning grounds and side channels in rivers and streams that are important to the salmon life cycle. Other measures will be put in place specifically for Delta smelt.

Not only did the old rules provide none of this assistance, they were not even allowed to consider these critical factors.

In terms of water, the new rules will increase the amount of cold water stored behind Shasta Dam in order to maintain healthy temperatures for spawning salmon in times of drought.

Provides more supply to California’s water users AND better protects struggling fish

Opponents claim that the new rules are bad simply because they provide more water for farms, businesses, cities and town. But as with the existing BiOps, that is an outdated way of viewing the situation. Water supply in California does not have to be a zero-sum game. Thanks to improved science we have found better ways to protect fish while also providing additional supply to other water users. 

Why all Californians should care about these rules

Getting these rules right impacts the entire state. Water from the federally-run Central Valley Project delivers enough water to meet the needs of 1 million California households, over 3 million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world and over a million-acre feet of water for fish and wildlife and their habitat, including state and federal wildlife refuges and wetlands. The State Water Project serves the water needs of 750,000 acres of productive farmland and the domestic water supply for two-thirds of all Californians.

Having the new rules in place will provide greater flexibility within the entire system, producing greater reliability of supply for all.

Where do we go from here?

As exciting and forward-looking as the new BiOps are, they are one piece of a very complicated water puzzle. Federal, state and local governments must continue to work with all water users to bring our entire water management system up to date.

Statement by Mike Wade, Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition on the Initial Allocation Announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation

Statement by Mike Wade, Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition on the Initial Allocation Announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation

February 25, 2020

“Today’s announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation of a 15 percent initial allocation for water supplies south of the Delta is clearly the result of the dry hydrology California is experiencing. February is shaping up to be possibly the first time in recorded history without any measurable precipitation. That alone is evidence that California may be on the leading edge of another drought.

“These dry conditions are similar to what we saw in 2009. For months farmers were not given an allocation amount and told they may get zero water. In April of that year, well past the time to make effective planting decisions, the allocation was set at 10 percent.

“The new biological opinions implemented last week are already making a difference by allocating 15 percent in February. We’re obviously hopeful that allocations will rise, but we’re pleased to be off to a better start than we were under the old operating rules.

“Had the new biological opinions been in place last year we believe an additional 1 million acre-feet of water could have been stored for use this year, delivering more water and offering better species protection, based on what we’ve learned over the past 10 years studying the Delta and its tributaries.

“That kind of operational flexibility is essential for California to remain the nation’s leading farm state and to continue to produce more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S. as well as vast amounts of dairy, beef and nursery products.”