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State-Federal Water Deal Takes Bite from L.A.’s Supply

A boat floats down the Sacramento River next to a levee. | Photo by Andrew Burton/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
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With virtually no public notice, state officials quietly gave away a significant portion of Southern California’s water supply to farmers in the Central Valley as part of a deal with the Trump administration in December 2018. 

One year later, it remains unclear why the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) signed the agreement, which strips the agency, during exceptionally dry years, of 254,000 acre-feet of water — about what Los Angeles consumes in six months. This change will place extra strain on urban water users during drought years. The agreement could also have potentially disastrous implications for the Sacramento River’s salmon runs, since it will negatively impact river flows and water temperatures.

Less water in the Delta could negatively impact the Sacramento River | Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images salmon runs. |
Less water in the Delta could negatively impact the Sacramento River | Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images salmon runs. 

“What the state has done could be the difference between a productive salmon season and destitution for commercial fishermen,” said Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

The deal — signed Dec. 12, 2018 by Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s commissioner Brenda Burman — revised a set of rules, called the Coordinated Operation Agreement (COA). This agreement governs the storage of water in northern California reservoirs and the withdrawal of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Massive pumps at the estuary’s south edge, operated jointly by the Bureau of Reclamation and the DWR, draw between 4 and 5 million acre-feet of water from the Delta most years and send it south via a pair of canals. Together, these water projects serve more than half the state’s residents and millions of acres of farmland while, ostensibly at least, leaving enough water in the estuary and in upstream storage reservoirs to support native fish and wildlife. 

Thanks to the addendum to the Coordinated Operation Agreement, the DWR’s State Water Project (SWP) will now be allowed to pump173,000-acre-feet less water from the Delta during years deemed by state officials as “critical,” while the Bureau will be allotted 217,000 acre-feet more water. On average, across all water year types — wet, above normal, below normal, dry and critical — the state will lose 146,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Delta outflow — the amount of water that flows through the estuary and into San Francisco Bay — will decline by 10,000 acre-feet in critical years. Scientists say that Delta outflow is seriously impaired already, and the new arrangement results in even less water for the environment in most year types.

A Dec. 14, 2018 press release from the DWR announced the new arrangement but made no mention of changes to water supplies. 

Some sources in the environmental community suspect that the state sacrificed such a chunk of its water as a sort of bargaining chip in a complex deal between California officials and the Trump administration. Among other things, they suspect the DWR gave the Bureau of Reclamation part of its critical year supply to garner federal support for the controversial Delta tunnels project. The tunnels would reroute water diversions from the estuary from the south Delta to a location about 40 miles upstream on the Sacramento River. While this system could make for more reliable water deliveries, environmental advocates worry that the tunnels would lead to increased diversions and increased stress on the ecosystem.

A marsh in the Delta | Courtesy Department of Water Resources
A marsh in the Delta | Courtesy Department of Water Resources

For years, state officials have been almost frantic to begin building the tunnels, which the Trump administration had distanced itself from in late 2017. At the time, federal officials said they would not commit to sharing in the project’s huge estimated cost, partly because of uncertainties about how the tunnels — formally dubbed California WaterFix — would benefit Delta water users.

Water law attorney Doug Obegi thinks the addendum was a quid pro quo-type deal.

“It seems it was part of a grand bargain to move WaterFix forward and weaken environmental protections in the Delta,” said Obegi, who works with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He added that it appears that “State Water Project contractors were willing to give away some water because they figured they would steal it back from the environment.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the nonprofit Restore the Delta, suspects the same. 

“We have heard rumors for a year that the Department of Water Resources agreed to the [COA addendum] so that they could secure federal funding for the Delta tunnel,” she said by email.

Asked by email if the DWR handed over critical year water as a bargaining chip for WaterFix, John Leahigh, the State Water Project water operations executive manager at DWR replied, “No.” 

Even if there was a bargaining effort at work, it backfired. Early in 2019, the state, under the new governorship of Gavin Newsom, yanked a critical permit application for WaterFix, effectively setting the whole process back to square one in spite of the federal support promised in the COA agreement. The project has been downsized, too, from two tunnels to one.

In addition to cutting the state’s Delta pumping allowances, the addendum modifies requirements to store water in upstream reservoirs. For instance, in critical years it eliminates 81,000 acre-feet of carryover water storage from Lake Oroville, a reservoir that supplies the State Water Project. Carryover storage is essentially water stored away upstream for the following year, so losing that water is a loss for both fish that live downstream of the dam as well as human recipients of the State Water Project’s water.

Leahigh said impacts to storage reservoirs are unavoidable. 

“Regardless of formal sharing adjustments, depleted storage can be expected for Lake Oroville and other Central Valley reservoirs in many future years due to more severe droughts,” he said. 

Oppenheim, at the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, says Nemeth’s agreement with federal water managers will harm the Central Valley’s waning salmon runs, which depend on adequate river flows, especially during dry spells. His group is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last January to stop the deal. The plaintiffs alleged in their suit that the Department of Water Resources, in signing the COA addendum, violated the Delta Reform Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the Public Trust Doctrine.

Not all affected parties are concerned, though. At the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, assistant general manager Roger Patterson, said the hit to local water supplies will be minimal.

“In the big picture, this is a small percentage of our supply,” he said, noting that the State Water Project’s contribution to Metropolitan’s supply is about 30%. The rest comes from the Colorado diversions, Owens Lake, as well as local groundwater basins and recycling programs. 

Patterson also said that the agreement was part of a package of negotiations that, while initially forfeiting some water, could eventually reduce some constraints on State Water Project deliveries and allow Metropolitan “to hang onto more water.”

A boat floats down the Sacramento River next to a levee. | Photo by Andrew Burton/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
A boat floats down the Sacramento River next to a levee. | Photo by Andrew Burton/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

One component of that package that might benefit the State Water Project is the ongoing negotiation of a 2018 state order to leave more water in waterways, either through mandatory enforced action or voluntary agreements. Patterson said the voluntary route would be a more favorable way to meet the order than mandatory cutbacks.   

“If the voluntary agreements are successful as an alternative to the State Water Board’s proposed regulations,” Patterson said, the State Water Project’s supplies will increase by more than the water lost to the COA addendum.

Leahigh said the changes imposed by the addendum ultimately even out for the State Water Project in spite of extra pressure on supply in dry years.  

“The SWP’s larger burden in dry years is offset by putting a higher level of responsibility on the CVP to meet obligations in wet and above-normal years,” he wrote.

For San Joaquin Valley farmers who receive water from the Bureau of Reclamation, the benefits will be substantial. The addendum will increase the total amount of water that the Bureau delivers each year to farmers by 10%, according to a Dec.18, 2018 meeting report from the board of directors of the Westlands Water District. 

Westlands is the arid region of the western San Joaquin Valley that depends mostly on water diverted from distant river basins. The district’s general manager, Tom Birmingham, said Westlands farmers could see a substantial boost in annual deliveries. As much as 60 percent of the Bureau of Reclamation’s increased exports resulting from the COA addendum could wind up flowing to Westlands, he explained. 

The California Aqueduct runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Los Angeles County | Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The California Aqueduct runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Los Angeles County | Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Westlands once paid now-U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt for legal and lobbying purposes. This tight connection creates a conflict of interest that critics think guided last December’s dealings. Just a few months earlier, in August 2018, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a memo directing Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary at the time, to find a way to get more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers. The August 17, 2018 memo also called for “resolving issues with … the Coordinated Operations Agreement, the California Water Fix, and the potential enhancement of Shasta Dam” and “preparing legislative and litigation measures that may be taken to maximize water supply deliveries to people.” 

The December 2018 addendum to the agreement appears to be an outcome of Zinke’s memo.

Leahigh said the COA addendum was long overdue, following updates to environmental regulations in recent years and more detailed climate forecasts, and he said more updates are likely to come “in order to maintain effective, efficient and compliant water supply systems.” 

“This was the first formal update to COA since it was originally signed, and with the addendum we anticipate more frequent reviews due to the changing regulatory environment and operational needs,” he said.

Rainfall this winter has been plentiful, meaning the COA addendum’s dry-year cuts to southern California water deliveries and Delta flows will probably have negligible impacts for at least another 12 months. Meanwhile, Westlands Water District has intervened in the environmental lawsuit against the addendum, which is still plodding through court hearings.

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