Food Grows Where Water Flows

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Clearing the Water on the Biological Opinions

November 25, 2019 in CFWC Blog, Endangered Species, Endangered Species, Water Management, Water Supply

Clearing the Water on the Biological Opinions

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the federal rules known as biological opinions that are intended to protect threatened and endangered species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a biological opinion, “…is a document that states the opinion of the service whether or not a federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”

We are nearing the end of 10 years of implementation of the biological opinions that were adopted in 2008 and 2009 and aimed but failed to lead to the recovery of Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and National Marine Fisheries Service, two agencies responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act for different species, recently released updated versions of these biological opinions.

Calendar-based approach is outdated

Some stakeholders claim that existing calendar-based regulatory structures, rather than the new, real-time monitoring proposed under the updated rules are more protective of species. By contrast, many other stakeholders see a way to improve the reliability of water deliveries while also making positive changes in the environment. Specifically, we believe the new set of biological opinions actually increases protections for listed species and will help fish populations start to recover, rather than continue to decline as they have during the decade we’ve spent basing decisions on a calendar instead of emerging science.

Better protection for fish

So how are the new biological opinions an improvement over the previous ones? Here are four ways that fish receive the same or better protection moving forward.

Increased cold water pool at Shasta

1. Increased cold-water pool at Shasta. The additional amount of cold water that will be stored behind Shasta Dam will be used to maintain healthy temperatures AND will be managed better in order to protect salmon spawning in the Sacramento River.

2. Pumping restrictions related to salvage at the pumps. The salvage (or “take”) target for reducing pumping will be the 10-year average that was achieved under the old biological opinions. Some groups point to the old versions as the Gold Standard. Operating the Central Valley Project under the new biological opinions will not take any more fish than were taken under the old, outdated, and less flexible rules.

Projects will improve salmon spawning

3. Investments in fisheries. Under the new biological opinions, $1.5 billion will be spent on fishery improvements. That includes investments in habitat, restored spawning grounds and side channels in rivers and streams that are important to the salmon life cycle. Net pens for smelt placed in the Yolo Bypass and various reaches of the Delta will help increase smelt populations from a current estimate of about 5,000 fish to a projected half a million by leveraging the existing captive population. This trend reversal is exciting and will be subject to annual reporting, a level of transparency that did not exist under the old rules.

Real-time monitoring replaces a calendar-based approach

4. Real-time monitoring. Under the new rules, pumping restrictions would be based on real-time monitoring of where smelt and migrating salmon are in the Delta, rather than the seasonal prescriptions contained in the current regulations. When we know exactly where fish are it is much easier to make determinations for water project operations that deliver more water for people without any increased risk for fish.

Flexibility for water users

Creating better habitat, improving stream flows, controlling predators, and protecting listed species from the pumps in the Delta can help turn the tide for California’s struggling fisheries. These improvements will translate into more flexibility for water operators, which is good for farms, homes, and businesses. It is the kind of success we have sought, but one that has been out of reach under the old biological opinions.

Welcome to the Future of California Water Policy

October 23, 2019 in CFWC Blog

Welcome to the Future of California Water Policy

While we await an update on the Voluntary Agreements, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the many benefits of this generational change in managing water and the future of California water policy.

First, it’s important to understand just why the Voluntary Agreements are so revolutionary.

The regulatory structure we’re leaving behind operates by defining winners and losers. In a complete break with this system of built-in conflict, California is recognizing that we all share our most valuable resource and all water users should participate in determining its allocation. Under the Voluntary Agreements:

All water users come together and make decisions through a collaborative process:

Water users large and small, farms, cities, rural communities, conservationists as well as federal, state and local agencies have input, making the results comprehensive and immediate. In fact, the array of benefits provided by the Voluntary Agreements are only possible because of the cooperative process.

Urban realities are recognized and planned for: We can’t pretend that people don’t need water or that the state will cease to grow. Conservation is critical, but it can’t be the only tool. The Voluntary Agreements will help meet the needs of urban Californians as well as assist in preparing for the future.

Rural communities are not left behind: In the past, some rural areas have lacked a strong enough voice to ensure reliable surface water deliveries. Under the Voluntary Agreements, they have that voice.

Farms secure water reliability: California families, and the world, depend on our farms for healthy, affordable food. In fact, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), “Food demand is expected to increase by more than 50% in just the next 30 years as the world’s population continues to grow.” EDF goes on to say, “Together, we can secure healthy food and clean water for all people without sacrificing the environment.”

We agree and believe the Voluntary Agreements are critical to making that happen because they provide farms with a key missing ingredient: reliability. If farms don’t know how much water they will have they can’t make planting decisions. In exchange for using less water overall and providing funding for environmental projects, farms will know how much water they will have and be able to plant accordingly.

The environment gets an increased and stable water budget: Because the Voluntary Agreements are a result of collaboration between all stakeholders, the increased amount of water for the environment will be protected. In September 9, 2019 comments submitted to Governor Newsom, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) noted this as a key factor in building a water resilience portfolio. “One of the more important tools that should be adopted is ecosystem water budgets—blocks of water set aside for the environment that can be managed flexibly.” The Voluntary Agreements provide this important tool, delivering support for fish as well as wildlife.

Ongoing funding provided for ecosystem management: In the same report, PPIC also recommends we begin treating the ecosystem as a whole by addressing multiple issues at once. “Rather than focusing on just protecting listed species in order to acquire Clean Water Act and endangered species Act permits, the goal is to define and manage toward a healthy ecosystem.”

In another historic first, farms and other water users are agreeing to tax themselves in order to meet this goal. Scores of projects will be launched under the Voluntary Agreements from fish screens and fish passages to the creation and improvement of habitat to the removal of predator hotspots. These projects, combined with environmental water budgets, will help repair our critical ecosystems and keep them healthy for future generations. (See project maps) PPIC notes one existing project as an example of the kinds of multi-benefit projects necessary: “The Sacramento Valley salmon restoration program—which facilitates the use of the region’s lands and waters for agriculture, waterfowl habitat, salmon migration, and flood control—is a good example.”

Science is real, let’s use it. One thing we know for certain is that our current system is not working for anyone or anything, including the environment. Over the past decade, threatened fish have continued to decline and one of the reasons is outdated science. Our existing regulatory system is simply not nimble enough, nor does it include enough flexibility to adapt as science evolves. In fact, in passing a new flow plan in December of 2018, the California State Water Resources Board noted that it is currently not allowed to consider any factors other than water quality requirements and the amount of water in our rivers. That means they could not utilize everything we’ve learned about the multiple causes of declining fish populations. Under the Voluntary Agreements a new adaptive management structure will allow us to monitor progress and adjust as our experience and knowledge grow – and that’s good for everyone.

Solutions are tailored to ecosystems. The needs of the ecosystem on the Sacramento River are different from the San Joaquin, which are different from the Feather River and on down the line. Rather than apply one-size-fits-all solutions, the Voluntary Agreements are built on a foundation of local expert knowledge and experience, with all stakeholders at the table.

Governor Newsom and his administration have shown tremendous vision in making this break with business as usual. The Voluntary Agreements are a bold move into the future, and we look forward to working with all water users to make them successful. The time is now for Californians to choose a science-based future for our water supply and the environment.

Statement by California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade on the Release of the New Biological Opinions

October 22, 2019 in Endangered Species, Releases

Statement by California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade on the Release of the New Biological Opinions

The release of the new Biological Opinions on salmon, Delta smelt and other species is good news for water users and the environment. Moving from an approach that used a calendar to make ecosystem decisions to one that uses the latest science is the smart way to provide better protection for California’s resources. New, more efficient protections for threatened and endangered fish are essential to being able to manage our water supply system in a way that optimizes it for farmers, urban water users, and dedicated environmental purposes.

The new Biological Opinions will play a critical role in helping implement Governor Gavin Newsom’s Voluntary Agreements, a process underway in California that will provide more water for environmental purposes, funds to pay for habitat improvement projects, and flexibility for water users who depend on reliable water supplies to grow our food.

This announcement is the culmination of more than 10 years of work to research better ways to understand and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The biological opinions being replaced were based on an arbitrary, calendar-based approach, and have not delivered the successful recovery of salmon and Delta smelt populations. The new biological opinions also address threats to certain steelhead, green sturgeon, and killer whales, species cited as casualties in the outdated form of ecosystem management.

The new Biological Opinions mean that for farms, fish, and people, this is the dawn of a new science-based approach to water and ecosystem management. We are anxious to put these new policies into practice and expect to see a positive response for water users and the environment in the years to come.

Voluntary Agreements are the Future of California’s Water and Environmental Management

September 19, 2019 in CFWC Blog

Voluntary Agreements are the Future of California’s Water and Environmental Management

Let’s be clear. One of the most significant efforts for environmental protection to emerge in California will come with the completion of the Voluntary Agreements. However, if Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) becomes law, it threatens the Voluntary Agreements and all the hope they bring for new environmental protections and water supply reliability.

SB 1 is legislation that proponents argue would protect California from potential changes in environmental and labor laws at the federal level. Opponents of the bill expressed concern that it would harm efforts to enact a set of Voluntary Agreements designed to improve both water supply reliability and ecosystem resources. The potential destruction of the Voluntary Agreements is at the heart of Governor Newsom’s announced intention to veto SB 1.

These agreements, the result of cooperation between many large and small water users, includes an unprecedented level of environmental funding. For the first time, farms and other large water users are agreeing to tax themselves to provide hundreds of millions in funding to restore water flows and improve ecosystems.

And you don’t have to take our word for it. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representative Josh Harder, Representative Jim Costa, Representative John Garamendi, and Representative TJ Cox all expressed their support for the Voluntary Agreement approach to solving California’s perennial water battles. Their efforts and those of more than 180 state and local organizations support the Governor’s attempt to move California water and environmental management into the future. It’s time we break away from old ways of doing things that have worked for no one and enter a new era of cooperation.

It is illuminating that the Voluntary Agreement approach received such wide support during the negotiations over the past several months of the legislative session, and indeed, over many years leading us to today.

Some people are saying that water users “threatened” to walk away from the Voluntary Agreements if SB1 passes. The truth is exactly the opposite. It is SB 1 that threatens the Voluntary Agreements. If this law goes into effect it takes away the very flexibility that made the compromises possible. After decades of work, walking away from the VAs is the very last thing we, or many in the state want.

The list of groups opposing SB 1, and supporting the VAs, includes water suppliers that serve most Californians and many local and the statewide organizations, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Business Council, Construction Industry Coalition on Water Quality, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA), the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts, and many others. And there’s a reason for that. They believe there is a better way to solve water and environmental management challenges than following a path that will lead us to the courts.

That path is a dead end. What is needed is a generational change toward water and environmental management in California. A new approach that focuses on new science, a dedicated block of water for stream flows, a funding plan, and the habitat restoration projects that will revive the ecosystem in many parts of the state. That is the new approach that Californians want and that is what we will get from the Voluntary Agreements. Let’s work together on a new era of cooperation and move into the future together.

Voluntary Agreements are Part of California’s Progressive Nature

September 10, 2019 in CFWC Blog

Voluntary Agreements are Part of California’s Progressive Nature

In a 2008 speech to Google employees in Mountain View, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson repeated the axiom, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” He was expressing the progressive nature of The Golden State, which has been a national leader on many fronts since Admission Day on September 9, 1850.

Letter from Congress to Gov. Gavin Newsom

Senate Bill 1 (Atkins, D-San Diego) could reflect California’s independence as a national leader, but unless amended, it will tie us to the past in a way that stymies progressive innovation on environmental projects. SB 1, while championed as a defense for California from potential changes in federal environmental protections, also stands to upend new, unprecedented, Voluntary Agreements (VA). The VAs are bringing warring factions together to improve the ecosystem while at the same time, working toward more water supply reliability for people. The fact that SB1, as written, will destroy the Voluntary Agreements is not disputed. In a recent letter to Governor Newsom, United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressman Jim Costa, Congressman John Garamendi, Congressman Josh Harder and Congressman TJ Cox strongly urged the governor to amend SB1 because it threatens the science-based approach in the VAs for ecosystem and water management in the future.

“We oppose section 3(c) of the bill as drafted as it would prevent the State from incorporating the latest science and other information in permitting decisions.”

The VAs are bringing warring factions together to improve the ecosystem while at the same time, working toward more water supply reliability for people.

But not everyone is in love with the Voluntary Agreements. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) chose not to participate in discussions last year that hammered out the VA framework among public water agencies, farmers, other members of the conservation community, and the leadership from state and federal agencies.

Why is that?

One can speculate that NRDC, which helped lead the legal charge for the 2008 and 2009 Delta smelt and salmon biological opinions (BiOps), is clinging to the past because to do otherwise would be an admission of failure. Look at overall Delta smelt and salmon populations since then. Have they improved under the BiOps? No, and in fact, things have gotten worse.

Fall and Summer Delta smelt population monitoring (Source: California Water Blog)

On the other hand, local projects to improve stream bed spawning grounds, restoration of side channels on the Sacramento, Tuolumne, and other rivers, and the voluntary removal of impediments to salmon migration, show significant promise to fisheries. The science from two or three decades ago told us one thing but we’re learning now that much of it was wrong or marginally effective.

Chinook salmon landing by weight (Source: NMFS)





New science is showing us a better path forward, a more progressive way for water users and environmentalists to work together to solve a multitude of problems. Unaltered, SB 1 will chain us to the regulatory shackles of the past.

That may be what NRDC wants for California, but it isn’t a healthy future for California’s environment, quality of life, or the people living here who seek to enjoy it.


Guest Blog: The Unintended Consequences of Laws

August 29, 2019 in CFWC Blog

by Don Wright

Laws are imperfect. They are written, passed and enforced on imperfect people by imperfect people. According to the internet should you detonate a nuclear device in Chico you’ll receive a $500 fine. Best not wear cowboy boots in Blythe unless you own at least two cows or you’ll be in violation of the law. And in Fresno, it’s illegal to sell permanent markers within the city limits. I don’t know about Chico or Blythe but I live near Fresno and know the ordinance was part of an effort to reduce graffiti. A worthy goal but unenforceable and ineffective. While Chico hasn’t had a nuclear explosion it’s doubtful the $500 fine has been the true deterrent.

The State of California has had its share of strange laws; some of which apply to agriculture and labor. Thanks to past lawmakers, sheep herders must now be provided two, 15-minute breaks each day. Sheep are usually tended in remote locations without a Starbucks in sight. I suppose a shepherd could turn around and not face the flock twice. Bills written with the best of intentions often carry unintended consequences and that’s why there is an amendment process – to help winnow out as many faults as possible.

Senate Bill 1 is in need of amendments. It was introduced by Senator Toni Atkins, the senate pro tem of San Diego. SB 1 is a powerful bill by a powerful person in a powerful position in a state bent on resisting the current federal administration. The bill’s intent is to protect California from any changes of environmental protections by the federal government. While it doesn’t name President Trump it refers to “Beginning in 2017, a new presidential administration . . .” and directs state agencies to adopt as baseline standards the federal rules in effect on January 17, 2017 the last day President Obama was in office. The problem is the regulations governing how environmental matters are dealt with are best when informed by the best science and science doesn’t care who is or isn’t president.

If the state freezes its standard to January 17th of 2017 it misses out on new developments when trying to improve the environment. In this case the habitat in the Delta, that much talked about key to the water needs of every Californian south of Sacramento.

Based on older scientific information the State Water Resources Control Board thought the ecological health of the Delta would improve if the businesses, communities and people in the San Joaquin Valley who depend on water from tributary rivers of the San Joaquin River would use less water and send more through the Delta and out the Golden Gate into the Pacific Ocean. Former Governor Jerry Brown and then governor-elect Gavin Newsom wrote well publicized letters urging the State Board to instead enter into voluntary agreements with the people on the tributaries. The State Board declined and chose to flush water through the Delta. When Newsom took office there was a shakeup at the State Board which is made of governor appointees. As a result the Voluntary Agreements are now back on the table.

SB 1 could dismantle these agreements by sticking to the older opinions. For instance a few years ago it wasn’t known that the salmon populations were being decimated by non-native species introduced into the Delta as sport fish. Biologists now know 90 percent of juvenile salmon are eaten by striped bass and other non-native predators before they can even migrate through the Delta, let alone reach San Francisco Bay or the ocean. Turning off the water for the communities, farms and families of the San Joaquin Valley (and for that matter the Los Angeles Basin) may not be the best science when trying to save the Delta but you wouldn’t know that unless you continue to incorporate new data when making decisions.

Agriculture is the economic engine of the San Joaquin Valley. Chances are the food and fiber produced there has impacted your life. Most of the ag leaders were surprised by SB 1. Senator Atkins has been considered one of the most reasonable, thoughtful and knowledgeable people about ag in the capitol. And it’s not just the ag industry opposing SB 1. There is a diverse coalition of more than 60 organizations ranging from the California Chamber of Commerce to the African American Farmers of California urging changes to SB 1. There is hope an amended SB 1 doesn’t have so many unintended consequences. Otherwise it will be like the law that prohibits shooting whales from a moving vehicle while on California roads.

Don A. Wright is a freelance journalist from Clovis, California who covers irrigation water in the San Joaquin Valley. You can read his reports at



(Photo credit: California Ag Today)