California’s water warriors have a new arena for their perpetual conflict over the allocation of the state’s ever-evolving supply – a nearly 6,000-word proposal from the state Water Resources Control Board.

The draft essentially calls for sharp reductions in diversions from the Sacramento River and its tributaries to allow more water to flow through the environmentally troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“It is a consequential effort,” Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director of the board, said during a media briefing on what is technically an update of the agency’s management plan for the Delta and San Francisco Bay. “It reflects years of scientific analysis that we’ve undertaken and years of public input.”

The board had previously issued a similar policy paper for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. The two rivers merge to form the Delta, a vast maze of islands and channels that is the West Coast’s largest estuary.

In addition to upstream diversions to irrigate fields and orchards and serve municipal users, federal and state projects pump water from the Delta’s southern edge into aqueducts for transfer to San Joaquin Valley farms and homes as far south as San Diego.

The reduction of natural flows through the Delta have, scientists say, increased its salinity and otherwise made it unable to adequately support salmon and other wildlife.

The battle over the Delta has raged for decades with environmental groups, lately joined by American Indian tribes, pressing the water board to impose reductions on diversions, and water users seeking to protect their supplies.

There are, in the macro sense, two conflicts: how much additional flows are needed to restore the Delta and how any reduction in diversions would be framed and enforced.

The water board’s new draft provides some additional focus on both, but doesn’t provide any solid direction.

For the better part of a decade, two governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, have promoted the concept of “voluntary agreements” to reduce diversions, hoping to avoid a head-on political and legal collision.

“We want to thank Gov. Newsom for his continued leadership and commitment to using collaborative voluntary agreements between water users and public agencies to support water quality and fish populations throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” Farm Bureau president Jamie Johansson said in response to the new plan.

However, the water agencies have offered, in the main, much smaller reductions than the water board says are necessary to improve habitat.

The environmental coalitions demanding larger reductions see the voluntary agreements as subterfuges to maintain the status quo and have pressed the board to simply set reduction numbers and enforce them by decree.

“Voluntary agreements serve as backroom deals that continue to leave tribes, environmental justice communities, conservation groups, fishing communities, and other vital stakeholders out of the government-led planning process,” the Restore the Delta coalition responded.

Imposing reductions would touch off a legal battle that Brown and Newsom have wanted to avoid because it would hinge on water rights, some of which date back to the late 19th century.

Environmentalists contend that those rights are anachronisms in the 21st century and should be set aside to give authorities the ability to allocate water rationally, particularly since climate change is affecting precipitation and thus the overall water supply.

However, when the water board tested its authority vis-à-vis ordering diversion reductions from senior water rights holders, it lost in court. Moreover, legislation that would have provided such authority didn’t make it through the Legislature this year, thanks to stiff opposition from farmers and other rights holders.

The water board’s new draft may provide more grist for debate, but it does not resolve the fundamental conflicts.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.



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