California’s Marathon Trek Towards Smarter Water Policy May be  Stopped in Its Tracks by Shortsighted Legislation (SB 1)

You’re running a marathon that everyone said you’d never complete. But despite many obstacles, you kept moving forward, and now the finish line is in sight. You’re feeling good that the work is going to pay off. And then, at the last minute, race officials insert themselves and announce that once you finish, it won’t count for anything.

California is at this juncture right now. Following marathon-like efforts and negotiations, Voluntary Agreements on water management are on the verge of completion. However, state officials are now considering legislation, SB1, that would negate all that progress.

Before last December’s meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board both outgoing Governor Jerry Brown as well as incoming Governor Gavin Newsom stated their clear preference for a Voluntary Agreements (VAs) approach toward water management in California. Head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, Jared Blumenfeld and Wade Crowfoot, head of the California Natural Resources Agency are actively involved in moving the VAs over the finish line.

However, SB1, if passed, would lock California into the existing regulatory framework, returning us to an endless cycle of lawsuits and delay. While the legislation gives lip service to supporting the VA process, it clearly states any cooperative agreement would exist separately from the existing regulatory structure, rendering the VAs moot. Scientists, farmers, environmentalists, government agencies and other stakeholders have been working together on the VAs to find a better way. Rather than forcing the state to continue policies that are not securing a reliable water supply, everyone came together to try and chart a course towards smarter, more workable policy that will produce a better result for all Californians and for the environment.

Implementing the VAs provides a wealth of benefits. They require scientific studies and put the new science into practice managing our most precious resource. They provide an agreed upon amount of water for river flows as well as new environmental projects and other improvements, paid for by farmers, water districts and other water users, that will help get maximum benefit from the water. And, they address all the stressors that have put fish populations at risk – loss of habitat, decreased food sources and predation. The VAs take us out of the slow grind of the existing regulatory process and allow us to use scientific adaptive management to address problems as we go. In addition, all users will have a certainty of water flow that is simply not a part of our current system.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the VA would, “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.”

And probably most important, because the VAs are the product of compromise and agreement on the part of all water users, we can move forward today, removing ourselves from the endless cycle of lawsuits that has dominated California water policy. Real results will be felt now, not 10 years from now.

SB1 would result in the collapse of the Newsom Administration’s voluntary approach to updating California water policy. We shouldn’t let the Legislature chain us to the past. We can see the finish line. Let’s cross it together.

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