San Diego’s historic community swimming pool, “The Plunge,” in Mission Beach, recently reopened following years of disrepair, safety concerns, and maintenance issues. A $5.2 million public-private partnership made the renovation project possible and residents are once again splashing in the water.

But what if, at the last minute, the City of San Diego said the pool would remain empty…no water…despite the private investment that enabled the project?

The California Legislature returned to work on August 12 to consider the fate of Senate Bill 1 (SB1) by San Diego Senator and President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins. The bill, unless amended, may end up imposing conditions on California water users as nonsensical as a restored historic pool with no water to fill it.

 After a decade of scientific study and new collaboration between water users, California stands close to completing historic, Voluntary Agreements (VAs) on water management. These agreements are supported by Governor Gavin Newsom as part of his goal to build a climate resilient water system. SB 1 includes language that acknowledges the Voluntary Agreements but imposes other restrictions that will make them completely useless, like an empty swimming pool. 

Without changes to SB 1, the voluntary approach will be thrown out the window and California will be forced back into our failed regulatory status quo, forced to comply with regulations that are based on decades old science. 

Under the VAs, water users have agreed to commit up to $738 million for environmental water supplies, additional science, and structural ecosystem habitat. SB 1 removes the incentives that makes these investments possible. In other words, all sides agreed to give something up in exchange for environmental improvements and more efficient water deliveries. SB 1 wants to keep the concessions, but without giving water users the flexibility to implement the projects that will make it work. It’s like agreeing to keep the pool open, but without water, and still insisting on private investments to pay for it.

It is impossible to overstate the value and importance of the VAs. Previously warring factions have come together and agreed on a path forward that protects the environment while also ensuring water reliability and security for California water users.

If SB 1 is allowed to derail the VAs, this is just some of what we lose:

This integrated approach complements the Governor’s Executive Order calling for a Water Resilience Portfolio that embraces innovation and encourages regional approaches while integrating investments, policies and programs across state government.

Rather than relying on an outdated regulatory process to pick winners and losers, government agencies, farmers, conservationists, communities, urban users, and others committed to establish a 15-year partnership to improving the ecosystem and water supplies together. Avoiding the stop-and-start process that comes with endless lawsuits, all sides agreed on an implementation plan that allows for periodic progress checks and an ability to adjust as we move forward. This system of adaptive management allows us to always utilize the latest science rather than wait for the regulatory system to catch up.

Science has taught us that fish need more than just water. Food supply, habitat, predator control and other factors are critical and are addressed by the VAs. That is not the case with our current regulatory structure. 

Governor Newsom and the Legislature set aside $70 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year state budget for habitat restoration projects and other actions to help kick-start the Voluntary Agreements and add to the annual financial support from farm and other water users. 

California is a world leader in environmental policy, from clean air to safe drinking water, curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, increased recycling, landfill reductions, and clean energy. It would be a shame to step backwards when it comes to smart water policy. California’s future is in collaboration and multiple-benefit projects like the Voluntary Agreements. Let’s hope our elected officials agree.