Voluntary Settlements Are Disastrous for Fish and the Ecosystem – and Are Not New

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Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled what he describes as a “comprehensive solution for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta” through a series of voluntary agreements in an opinion piece at Cal Matters, “Gov. Newsom: California must get past differences on water. Voluntary agreements are the path forward.”

In the tradition of the failed CalFed, Delta Vision, Bay Delta Conservation Plan and California Water Fix processes, Newsom presents a “new path forward” that supposedly engages an array of stakeholders to supposedly resolve their differences, seek common ground and work for the coequal goals of water supply supply reliability and ecosystem restoration as they move past “the old water binaries.” Newsom writes:

“Historically, disputes over water, or what some call ‘water wars,’ have pitted stakeholders against one another: urban vs. rural; agriculture vs. conservation; North vs. South.

Today, my administration is proposing a path forward, one that will move past the old water binaries and set us up for a secure and prosperous water future.

Guided by science, this new framework will provide the foundation for binding voluntary agreements between government agencies and water users with partnership and oversight from environmental groups. 

These agreements will require adaptive, holistic management of enhanced water flows and habitats to protect, restore, and enhance California’s largest rivers and the Delta.”

Newsom claimed that the voluntary agreements “will significantly increase the required amount of water flowing through rivers and the Delta.” He also  touted a “historic addition of 60,000 acres of critical habitat and provide certainty to strengthen the health of our economy and our environment.”

However, scientists and salmon and Delta advocates say the agreements would be disastrous for fish and wildlife – and are really nothing new.

In a tweet, Dr. Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist for the San Francisco Baykeeper, criticized the “framework” for being developed without input from river ecologists.

“Today, a new VA ‘framework’ was released (developed without input from river ecologists) that would treat ALL the Delta’s environmental flows as an annual block. Water quality 💦, endangered species 💦. All flexible; no underpinning of natural hydrology + evolutionary history,” said Rosenfield.

“This is a bear hug of the Trump administration extinction plan by the Newsom administration,” Rosenfield told the Sacramento Bee, referring to the Trump water plan to maximize water exports to San Joaquin Valley contractors at great expense devastate Central Valley and Bay-Delta fish populations.

In his apparent lack of knowledge of both the failure of previous voluntary agreements and the California Fish and Game Code, Governor Newsom proudly proclaimed in his piece, “Today, I am committing to achieving a doubling of California’s salmon population by 2050. These agreements will be foundational to meeting that goal.”

Actually, there is nothing “new” about this commitment to “achieving a doubling of California’s salmon population by 2050.

In reality, the Governor, Legislature, Fish and Game Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife 32 YEARS AGO formally committed to doubling California’s salmon numbers by 1999, as written in Fish and Game Code Section 6902. In addition, the doubling of naturally spawning salmon and other anadromous species by 2002 was required under federal law, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

Of course, we all know what happened; Central Valley Chinook salmon numbers collapsed in 2008-2009 and have never fully recovered, due to massive water exports of water to corporate agribusiness interests on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water agencies, combined with the mismanagement of Central Valley dam operations by the state and federal governments and other factors including ocean conditions. Meanwhile, the Delta smelt, an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta, moves closer and closer to extinction every year.

“The state’s rationale for its new framework yesterday demonstrates that they have no intention of satisfying legal requirements to protect fish, wildlife and water quality in San Francisco Bay,” explained Rosenfield. “There is a state and federal requirement for the doubling of naturally spawned salmon populations. This voluntary agreements plan won’t achieve its goals for 30 years, which means that they will never be achieved.”

“State officials said that the flows and habitat in the framework were intended to produce a 10 percent improvement in fish populations in the estuary, but a 10 percent improvement won’t come anywhere close to even what the populations of those fish were when they were listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts,” he concluded.

Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research said the framework “will likely decimate Fall run Chinook populations and the West Coast salmon fishery, because fall run typically outmigrate in April, May, and June, which is peak irrigation season for rice crops in the Sacramento Valley.”

“This is a rice doubling plan, not a salmon doubling plan,” she observed.

On the other hand, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, lauded the agreements, claiming they would “resolve a pending update” of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan before the State Water Resources Control Board.

“This is a promising step that will result in additional water for the environment, habitat restoration and improved science, preparing California for a sustainable water future. While more work lies ahead, Metropolitan is committed to finding a workable solution,” said Kightlinger. “A shared, voluntary approach to balancing the beneficial uses of water from the Sierra is far better for California’s people and environment than years of litigation.

Last year, Patrick Porgans of Planetary Solutionaries called Newsom’s voluntary agreements the “Munich Agreement on California Water” in his piece on the Daily Kos website: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/9/16/1885850/-The-Munich-Agreement-on-California-Water.

In his article, he exposes the “disastrous track record” of voluntary agreements. He points out that the voluntary agreements all have one thing in common: “they find that restrictions on Delta export pumping to protect fish aren not needed.” Porgans writes:

“We’ve been here before – Voluntary Settlement Agreements in California water are not new. They have a disastrous track record. The 1994 Bay-Delta Accord, signed 25 years ago, espoused the same hoopla that collaboration and habitat restoration and voluntary efforts to increase flows in the Delta would restore fisheries and increase reliability of water supplies.”

Over $8.4 billion in taxpayer borrowed money ($13.5 billion with interest) was spent under the CalFed program, while fish populations in the Delta crashed. Adaptive management under CalFed also failed. Joe Grindstaff, former director of CalFed acknowledged: ‘Fundamentally, the system we devised didn’t work’ Felicia Marcus, former chair, State Water Resources Control Board stated in 2018 that ‘Some native fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction in an ecosystem on the verge of collapse.’

Recommendations by independent and agency biologists to increase flows to restore fish populations have been blocked for decades by the water export contractors’ opposition, effectively delaying the Water Board actions. On the eve of the Water Board’s finally taking long needed regulatory actions, the Voluntary Settlement Agreements were championed by the Brown administration and supported by the Newsom administration.

Instead of being based on the Water Board’s independent 2017 Scientific and Technical Basis report, the Voluntary Settlement Agreements are based on studies paid for by the water export contractors. Such studies are not new. The water contractors have been producing them for decades. The studies all have one thing in common: they find that restrictions on Delta export pumping to protect fish are not needed. The studies are also contrary to decades of scientific consensus by fish agency and independent biologists that water exports are a major contributing factor to the decline of pelagic and anadromous fish populations in the Delta.”

It’s very clear that the “voluntary agreements” are designed by the water contractors to serve the water contractors, not fish, the ecosystem or the people of California. Yet In all of the media reports I’ve seen on the voluntary agreements, there is sadly no mention of the apparent reason WHY the Governor is pushing the voluntary agreements, as well as the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir: the big campaign contributions that Newsom has received from agribusiness.

Governor Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in 2018, based on the latest data from www.followthemoney.org. That figure includes $116,800 from Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoons Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the largest orchard fruit growers in the world and the sponsors of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.

By supporting the voluntary water agreements, vetoing SB 1, backing the Delta Tunnel, hiring grower William Lyons as a special “agriculture liaison” to the Governor’s Office, overseeing the issuing of a new draft EIR that increases water exports for the state and federal projects rather than reducing them, and releasing a controversial water portfolio that includes fast tracking the Sites Reservoir, Newsom is apparently bending to the will of his agribusiness donors.