With SB1 behind us, California Has a Brighter Future for Water and Environmental Management

Mike Wade
Executive Director, California Farm Water Coalition

We applaud Governor Newsom’s veto of SB1, legislation that would have blocked efforts aimed at finding collaborative solutions to water supply and ecosystem challenges. He chose to calmly focus on the long-term rather than get caught up in the politics of the moment, which is often difficult. But it’s critical because what’s at stake is nothing short of California’s water future. 

Now that the path is clear, the Voluntary Agreements on water can move forward. These agreements represent a completely new way to manage our water supply and environment because they are cooperative efforts between all water users including farms, cities, conservationists, and rural communities. The impacts of the VAs will be felt throughout the state, including the Bay Area, which depends on water supplies from the Bay-Delta watershed.

The process of developing a framework for the VA’s is close to completion. According to a July update letter by California Secretary Jared Blumenfeld and California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, by mid-October they expect, “to have the modeling and scientific analysis nearing completion and the governance and adaptive management structure in close to final form.”

This is a significant achievement that has its roots in successful projects, such as the Yolo Bypass Restoration Project. According to CalTrout’s Dr. Jacob Katz, who has worked on floodplain science for over a decade, the Yolo Bypass project “is a first-of-its-kind, multi-benefit project, that integrates a 21st century scientific understanding of fish and rivers into water management. It allows California’s largest river to safely flood and then drain slowly back into the Sacramento River and the Delta, providing benefits for fish and wildlife.

Another local success story was the Butte Creek Salmon Recovery project, launched in the 1990’s with the involvement of President Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Butte Creek’s holistic and cooperative approach turned fewer than 100 returning salmon in the 1970’s into what is now an average annual return of more than 10,000.

These, and other successful local projects, were early experiments in farm, urban and environmental water users cooperating at the local level and coming up with new ways to solve old problems. They are the building blocks of today’s larger-scale Voluntary Agreements.

The VAs, just like these early projects, rely heavily on current science, which is constantly revealing smarter ways to manage our water and our environment. And unlike our existing regulatory system, the Voluntary Agreements will employ adaptive management, allowing us to utilize continuously updated science as it becomes available.

It is also of major significance that annual funding will make all of this a reality. Farm and other large water users will be putting hundreds of millions of dollars towards ecosystem and water flow projects. In addition, Governor Newsom and the legislature recently set aside $70 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year state budget for habitat restoration actions and other measures for the Voluntary Agreements.

With these agreements water users large and small will gain much needed water supply reliability. Farmers are agreeing to redirect water to benefit salmon and other species in return for better reliability so they will know what and when they can plant. Urban and rural communities will also benefit from increased reliability rather than constantly wondering if today’s forecast will bring additional restrictions on usage. It is this supply reliability that makes it possible for water users to provide all the environmental benefits embedded in the VAs.

And while all sides are at the table, certain environmental representatives are now saying the current set of proposals don’t go far enough to protect the environment, a possible reaction to the governor’s SB 1 veto. Hopefully that will change and we can take ourselves out of the endless cycle of lawsuits that has been the hallmark of our existing regulatory system. Once finalized, the VAs can begin producing results today, not 10 years from now.

Thanks to the efforts of Governor Newsom, Senator Diane Feinstein, and many others, both past and present, the Voluntary Agreements are near completion and will fit well with the Governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio.

They represent a great step forward for California and we welcome the participation of everyone who is ready to roll up their sleeves and make the VAs work for California’s people, farms, wildlife and our environment.

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