On Yuba River, an accord satisfies farmers, fish flows

Issue Date: December 2, 2009
Kate Campbell

After more than 20 years of wrangling, a coalition of agricultural, environmental and fisheries interests reached agreement on instream flows for a 25-mile stretch of the Yuba River—and the resulting Lower Yuba River Accord has been successful enough to merit praise from participants and observers, plus an environmental award from Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The accord brought together 17 organizations in an effort to benefit protected salmon and steelhead while meeting the water needs of farmers and the local economy.

Yuba County rice farmer Tib Belza, a director of the Yuba County Water Agency, was heavily involved in developing the agreement and said it also benefits farmers in other parts of the state, by making surplus water available for sale and transfer. During the past three years, the accord has provided about 150,000 acre-feet of water for users south of the delta.

"The accord is very important to me because water reliability is essential for our farming operation," Belza said. "We were able to negotiate a deal under the accord that allows timing water releases for maximum benefit to fish and farmers. It's also very important because it protects our water rights."

He said problems with instream flows and water releases became a real issue in the early 1990s, when the state Department of Fish and Game released its lower Yuba River water management plan.

"It was really frustrating at the time, because all of the parties saw a different side of the issue and we weren't getting anywhere," Belza explained. "In 2000, we had more public hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board and it was suggested that all the stakeholders come together to find workable solutions to meet all the demands on the river and still protect the environment."

Yuba County farm manager Mike Filice, right, checks the Hallwood-Cordua Canal on the lower Yuba River with Walter Cotter, general manager of the Browns Valley Irrigation District. The pair were among those who helped shape an innovative agreement to manage river flows.

The result consists of three separate, science-based agreements that work together—one for fisheries, one for water purchases and one for "conjunctive use" of surface water and groundwater.

"What we did was step back and ask what each of the parties wanted," Belza explained. "Working from there, we were able to hammer out the accord. We found people had taken aggressive positions on how the water should be used based on misinformation about how the watershed works and how the facilities are operated."

The accord is important for many reasons, said Curt Aikens, Yuba County Water Agency general manager, because it solves water rights issues related to instream flow requirements. It creates supply certainty for the eight water districts the agency serves, he said, by better matching flows to the needs of all users, including fisheries and farmers. It also provides for water transfers out of the area and it assures water for hydroelectric power generation.

"We've created greater supply certainty and better matched flow requirements to the various needs," Aikens said. "We worked on the accord for years and had two pilot programs in 2006 and 2007 to make sure the agreements worked. The accord was formally approved in 2008."

To help smooth the way for the agreements, the YCWA helped rewrite laws that had restricted water transfers under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Key to making water available to those who need it outside Yuba County is an innovative conjunctive use agreement. Basically, during a dry year, farmers use a mix of surface water and groundwater to increase supplies in the river for fish and to generate additional amounts for sale. Money from the water sales is plowed back into the water system, for infrastructure and reimbursement to farmers for pumping costs.

Daguerre Point Dam on the lower Yuba River is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Lower Yuba River Accord will provide money to help with structural improvements to the dam, including flood control structures and new fish ladders.

Under the agency's water purchase agreement, pumped groundwater is only used to irrigate farmland and is not exported out of Yuba County. As part of the management of water resources within the county, groundwater basins are intensively monitored to prevent depletion.

"The Yuba accord is a good example, especially in dry years, of how we can maximize where we have water to help meet the needs of the entire state," said Sarah Woolf, Westlands Water District spokesperson. "We appreciate that farmers in the north have been proactive in managing water efficiently and as a result we've been able to benefit in our water-short area."

Mike Filice, who manages North Tree Farm near Marysville and serves on the board of the Hallwood Irrigation Co., a member of the YCWA, said, "We know there will be times when water is short in our watershed, but right now we've been able to maintain it in a fairly good state. That's helped for now, but might not always be the case. That's the time I think the accord will really help."

Filice said river flow indices and triggers, new air and water regulations, climate conditions and lawsuits that restrict supplies in other parts of the state all have implications for the Yuba River watershed. The accord provides supply alternatives that improve reliability and offer potential benefits to other parts of the state.

"That enables Yuba County's farmers to make capital investments, to hire workers and to successfully grow wholesome food in California, like rice, peaches and plums," he said.

Donn Zea, president of the Northern California Water Association, called stakeholder agreements such as the Yuba River accord a first alternative to more regulation, added costs or legal battles.

"But there's never a one-size-fits-all approach to these things," Zea cautioned. "It depends on the issues and how entrenched the parties are, but, if the parties start talking early enough, they often find more in common than they thought."

Al Montna, a Sacramento Valley rice farmer and president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture, called the Yuba accord "monumental" and said the agreement is "far reaching and forward looking."

"Something like this hasn't been done before. Yuba County has shown real leadership in reaching these agreements and I think it will prove to be one of the finest such agreements developed in the Western Unites States," he said. "It's a real model."

The effort hasn't gone unnoticed. Those who helped create the agreement won the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, the state's highest environmental honor, during a ceremony in September.

For more information about the accord, see www.ycwa.com/projects.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.