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Pursuit of Voluntary Agreements to Improve Ecological Conditions in the Delta and Upstream Watershed


About 40 percent of the land in California drains to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There, ocean tides from San Francisco Bay tangle with the outflow of major rivers. The Delta is home or migratory pathway for several endangered and threatened fish species and also the place from which major water projects divert water to supply 25 million people and three million acres of farmland.

As Californians seek to balance competing interests in the Delta, it has become one of the most studied ecosystems in the world. A fundamental ecological principle is that aquatic species and estuarine ecosystems need enough cold, clean water at the right times of year to thrive. Through integrated regulatory and voluntary efforts, we can achieve flows designed to achieve basic outcomes, monitor the ecological response, and adjust flows based upon what we learn.

Improving River and Stream Conditions for Fish and Wildlife

The administration of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. is working on both regulatory and voluntary ways to improve stream conditions for the sake of native fish.

The State Water Resources Control Board oversees water rights and water quality in California. The Water Board is in the process of updating its Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which identifies beneficial uses of the Bay-Delta, water quality objectives for the reasonable protection of those beneficial uses, and a program of implementation for achieving the objectives. The Bay-Delta Plan, when implemented, can determine the amount and timing of water entering and moving through the Delta. The Plan, for example, sets standards for salinity in the Delta and requires water users to achieve seasonal flows of certain levels. More information about the Water Board’s effort is available here.

The Natural Resources Agency is working on a separate but related effort to forge voluntary, stakeholder-based outcomes in the watersheds of the Sacramento River and major San Joaquin River tributaries.

The goal of this effort is described in Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s five-year Water Action Plan, which was released in January 2014 and updated in January 2016:

Voluntary Agreements in Major Watersheds

Since the Water Action Plan was released in 2014, the administration through the State Water Board and the Natural Resources Agency, including its constituent Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Water Resources, have continued to analyze the many different regulatory and voluntary efforts underway in tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. In some regions and watersheds, there are existing regulatory proceedings related to water or federal licensing of privately-owned hydroelectric dams. In other watersheds, stakeholders have begun to organize discussions about collaborative voluntary programs.

The Natural Resources Agency will build on this work done to date and help develop voluntary agreements between stakeholders in the Sacramento Valley, and in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced River watersheds (tributaries that form the Lower San Joaquin River watershed) that, when implemented, will improve instream conditions for fisheries. The agreements may include specific flow and non-flow measures that support fisheries and ecological restoration in the specific watersheds across the Bay-Delta watershed.

The guiding principles for this effort are available here.

In parallel, the Water Board’s process to update the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update process will continue on its own schedule. It is the hope of the Resources Agency that the various agreements will positively inform the outcome of the Water Board’s process, focus stakeholders on effective implementation, and achieve real improvement in conditions for fisheries and the ecosystem.

Additional Background

On September 19, 2016, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. wrote to State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus regarding the Water Board’s effort to update minimum flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River. The Governor urged the Water Board to also move quickly to analyze flow requirements for the Sacramento River basin. He directed the Natural Resources Agency to explore the potential for voluntary, comprehensive agreements on environmental flows in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.

In October 2015, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham, along with Assemblymembers Adam Gray and Kristin Olsen, wrote to State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus and proposed voluntary settlement agreements as a possible mechanism to help implement objectives the Water Board will set in its Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update. The letter is available here.

Chair Marcus responded that the Water Board intends to give careful consideration to any such settlements and will include an express commitment to that effect in subsequent regulatory documents.

Further, in November 2015, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird described his Agency’s shared interest in helping the Water Board in its efforts to update the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. In a letter to Chair Marcus, the Secretary proposed “the goal of voluntary settlement agreements, between appropriate parties, by December 31, 2016, that will help to achieve flow-dependent and related narrative water quality objectives in the rivers and in the Delta.”

Chair Marcus replied to Secretary Laird that completing the update of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan was “the board’s highest priority,” and further, that it would be helpful for the Natural Resources Agency to convene, support, and bring “such agreements to closure.”

In February 2016, State Water Resources Control Board Executive Director Tom Howard wrote to Karla Nemeth, Deputy Secretary for Water Policy at the Natural Resources Agency, to provide guidance on elements of voluntary agreements that will help inform the Water Board’s evaluation of whether an agreement will assist in implementing proposed amendments to Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The letter describes the elements that should be included in voluntary agreements and is available here.