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Water plan announced for habitat, farms

Issue Date: April 6, 2022
By Christine Souza
A water pump reaches into the Feather River, just north of the Sacramento River confluence. A Newsom administration plan to increase river flows for salmon populations and habitat restoration would also include funds for rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley who fallow land to save water.
Photo/Peter Hecht

A $2.6 billion plan to improve water quality for salmon and native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, unveiled last week by the Newsom administration, pledges to increase river flows and enhance habitat restoration.

The plan, which describes steps for binding agreements, would also include funds to reimburse rice farmers who fallow land to save water.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said voluntary agreements under the framework are preferable to a regulatory, flows-only approach to managing California water supplies. But he said the plan needs more work.

"Our farmers and ranchers need alternatives to flow-centric Bay-Delta policies that still fall short in safeguarding our environment and protecting California's economy, including the critical contributions of agriculture," Johansson said. "We strongly encourage a renewed commitment by the administration to find collaborative solutions to ensure healthy ecosystems and a healthy economy for those farming communities."

The plan was in the works for several years, and it now has signatories including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources and water districts in the Sacramento Valley and south of the delta. Also signing the agreement were the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, the Kern County Water Agency and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in Los Angeles.

While many environmental groups oppose the plan, Newsom, water users and others encouraged voluntary agreements as an alternative to the regulatory regime of the Bay-Delta water quality control plan by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Sacramento Valley farmer Fritz Durst said the voluntary agreements "resolve the water-flow issue and also provides a path forward for us to improve the life cycle of the salmon." He said Sacramento Valley water users remain hopeful but added that flows alone will not solve the challenges facing salmon and native fish.

"The Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, we've been working collectively to look at: What are the problems with the salmon, and what can we do to help resolve some of the most critical deficiencies in the system?" said Durst, a settlement contractor who diverts water from the Sacramento River.

"Now, we've got the agreements from the agency folks that they won't try to stand in the way of us taking these actions, and they'll actually help us with permitting, funding and, most importantly, they're going to be at the table with the science teams so we have collaborative information," Durst said.

State and federal governments would pay for much of the plan, and water districts would contribute more than $660 million, with money going for habitat restoration and to reimburse rice farmers to leave fields fallowed to keep more water in the Sacramento River.

Northern California Water Association President David Guy noted that "voluntary agreements offer a different, modern and more comprehensive approach that will expand the toolbox for the Bay-Delta, while signing up the leading water resource managers in California to work together with fish and wildlife agencies and conservation partners to implement the actions in this toolbox in a way that has never been seen."

He said the approach stands to improve conditions for fish and wildlife, while ensuring water for cities, rural communities and farms.

Friant Water Authority, a key Central Valley Project contractor, announced that it is talking with state and federal governments officials on a potential path to joining in the voluntary agreements.

Districts that rely on water from San Joaquin River tributaries have not reached agreements with the state.

Last fall, the state informed the districts that it plans to move forward with the 2018 Bay-Delta plan adopted by the state water board. This would require San Joaquin River districts to leave 30% to 50% of flows from February to June to remain in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers for fish.

Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which jointly operate Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River, said in a statement, "We remain disappointed state officials have decided to leave behind the viable, tenable and ready-to-implement Tuolumne River Voluntary Agreement."

"Despite the harrowing challenges of a third year of drought, an additional 186,688 acre-feet would have been released from the Tuolumne River over the last two years if the Tuolumne VA was in place, accounting for a 71% increase over current regulatory conditions," TID/MID stated. The agencies added that they remain committed to a collaborative solution.

After the board adopted the plan to divert more flows to fish in late 2018, nearly a dozen lawsuits were filed challenging different aspects of the plan.

In addition to a lawsuit filed by California Farm Bureau, water districts, urban water suppliers and environmental and fishing groups also brought legal actions. The lawsuits are expected to be heard in court in coming months.

Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, which has rights to water on the Stanislaus River that it shares with South San Joaquin Irrigation District, said he is concerned about equity in water required to be diverted under the plan.

"If you look at the San Joaquin River in below-normal years, the flow contribution of 179,000 acre-feet would have to be contributed above the baseline to get to 40% (flow)," Knell said. "The Sacramento River system is nine times larger, and (signatories) only agreed to 100,000 acre-feet (above the baseline), so there's something wrong here. If you have nine times more water, that number should be much larger than 100,000 acre-feet."

"If there's room to negotiate, it will be on the basis that this is inequitable and we want (the state) to come back to the table and make things right, and then we might be able to come up with a deal," Knell said.

Johansson said he appreciated the work invested in the plan by the Newsom administration, districts and others. But he called for additional negotiations for a comprehensive solution that also satisfies water districts on the lower San Joaquin River tributaries "to ensure healthy ecosystems and a healthy economy for those farming communities."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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