As the record drought in California and the West continues and the Sacramento River watershed already begins to see die offs of endangered Chinook salmon, Governor Gavin Newsom on March 29 announced that state, federal and local water leaders had reached “broad agreement” on a package of controversial voluntary agreements purported to provide additional water flows and new habitat to help improve conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Sacramento Valley parties, from the American River watershed all the way up the Valley, signed a 34-page memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a State Water Resources Control Board update of the Phase II of the water quality control plan.
“Since my first days in office, I have sought to reject old binaries and find new solutions to problems – we don’t have to choose between healthy ecosystems or a healthy economy, we can choose a path that provides for both,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “This is a meaningful, hard-earned step in the right direction. I am thankful to our partners on this historic agreement and look forward to continued collaboration as we adapt for the future.”
Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conant echoed Newsom’s comments about the “virtues” of collaboration.
“Today marks a key milestone in California water – a step that symbolizes the importance of working together to address the challenges that come with a changing climate,” he stated. “Reclamation welcomes this partnership opportunity to move towards a more comprehensive approach to improving the health of the environment and water supply reliability for the cities, farms, and refuges we serve.”
According to the CalEPA, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) “outlines terms for a transformational eight-year program that would provide substantial new flows for the environment to help recover salmon and other native fish, create new and restored habitat for fish and wildlife, and provide significant funding for environmental improvements and water purchases. It also outlines a governance and habitat monitoring framework with clear metrics and goals to allow state, federal and local partners to analyze progress, manage adaptively and decide whether the program should be continued, modified or ended after eight years.”
However, salmon advocates, environmentalists and Tribes strongly disagree with proponents of the voluntary agreements, arguing that there is nothing “transformational” about the MOU.
“These voluntary agreements were created by the most powerful water users in California and usurped a scientifically informed, democratic process meant to protect water quality and salmon that was open to all Californians,” stated Regina Chichizola from Save California Salmon.
“Only about half of the water that is needed for water quality and salmon in the Delta will be provided. It is telling that Tribes, scientists, fishermen and even most cities that rely on clean water in the Sacramento River and Delta were left out of these negotiations. Restoration activities are no substitute for clean water,” she said.
“The agreements exemplify California’s commitment to maintaining its archaic and undemocratic water rights laws. These laws were created during a time when people of color and women could not vote or own land, and California policy supported the genocide of native people. These agreements seem to also put the needs of large landowners and crop exporters above fish and cities despite our drying climate,” Chichizola explained.
On the same day, federal and state agencies along with Sacramento River Settlement Contractors (SRSCs) announced that they had agreed this week on an approach to addressing Central Valley Project operations on the Sacramento River this year (mid-April through November).
In a statement, the CalEPA said “this approach seeks to maintain winter-run Chinook salmon habitat for the longest period possible and creates a target for an average water release schedule of 4,500 cubic feet per second from Keswick Dam below Lake Shasta and a target for Wilkins Slough on the Sacramento River of more than 3,000 cubic feet per second. Given this, Shasta would have a projected end of September storage greater than a million acre-feet.”
Chichizola criticized this Temperature Management Plan (TMP) for the Sacramento River for being “too little too late.”
“The proposed 2022 Sacramento River water operations agreement between State and federal agencies and Sacramento River settlement contractors is too little too late,” Chichizola said. “Save California Salmon submitted an alternative plan for water operations in 2021 that was rejected by the State Water Board. If adopted, it would have resulted in an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water stored in Shasta and Trinity reservoirs in 2022.”
“Our temperature management plan would have also protected the Trinity River’s salmon, which were not protected in 2021 and surely will not be protected in 2022. Trinity River salmon are important for tribal, commercial and sport fisheries and are totally ignored by the state and federal government,” she added.
Vice Chairwoman Malissa Tayaba from the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians joined Chichizola in criticizing the water operations agreement.
“We know that water temperature and water quality has direct impacts on the condition of everything the water touches,” she stated. “If temperatures are too high, the salmon, which is a traditional food sources for our tribal people, cannot survive.”
"We know their numbers are dwindling. We know the salmon are endangered. If the water is not adequately managed, the salmon are at risk of dying off and if that is allowed to happen, a part of our culture will be killed off as well,” she continued.
“I hate to use the term cultural genocide, and I do not use it lightly, but I can think of no other term to describe the reality if we continue to mismanage our water systems. Beyond the endangered salmon, water quality is connected to many other aspects of our culture –Ceremony, regalia making, traditional foods and traditional medicine to name a few,” she concluded.
Restore the Delta challenged the MOU in a statement, explaining that the Water Board is expected to consider the voluntary agreements as an alternative in its Phase II Sacramento River update of the Bay-Delta Plan that regulates water quality in Delta waterways.
The process is facilitated by the Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation, also parties in the agreement. The announcement is “timed to facilitate further spending by the state for the voluntary agreement process in the May revised budget,” the group said.
“This is an agreement to agree—nothing is certain about the proposal at this time. It is a repeat of prior voluntary agreement frameworks that have amounted to no new plans. We are told that it will lead to a new scientific basis report by the State Water Board that will be released this summer. The scientific basis report will also be reviewed by the Delta Independent Science Board and an independent peer-review panel,” RTD stated.
The group said environmental documentation for the agreements will appear this fall, and a hearing and adoption could occur as early as winter 2023. The draft Substitute Environmental Document will be available for public comment when it's released.
Approximately in mid-June 2022, a draft environmental impact report for the Delta Conveyance Project (single tunnel) will also be released for public comment by the California Department of Water Resources, the group noted.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director, Restore the Delta said:
“Clearly timing the voluntary agreement process to unfold at the same time as the EIR for the Delta Conveyance Plan is an attempt by the Newsom Administration to jam the Delta community, environmental justice communities, environmental NGO's, fishing groups, and California tribes so that they cannot respond to major water planning decisions. It reveals the lack of regard this administration holds for public process, the public trust, the Delta, and appropriate climate data driven water planning.
“Restore the Delta maintains that the voluntary agreement framework process violates the legal principles of environmental justice inclusion and does not serve the public trust, or the human right to water. Governor Newsom continues to serve the interests of the top 2% of agribusiness across California at the expense of Northern California Tribes, Delta communities, commercial fishing interests, and communities in need of improved drinking water conditions.
“Fishery declines and extinction, harmful algal blooms, poor water quality conditions in the Delta, and the increasing possibility of Delta salinity intrusion into Stockton and Contra Costa drinking water systems. Drought mismanagement by the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation cannot be fixed by the elite few working on a backroom deal with the Governor's office at the expense of millions of people. The environmental burden caused by mismanagement continues to fall on the most impacted communities.
“A plan that calls for even less flow from the Sacramento River is simply unacceptable as the Delta is in serious decline. A cash giveaway for water to the top 2 percent of water rights holders to increase Delta exports for other irrigation districts, like Westlands, at the expense of vulnerable communities is a continuation of a water rights system built on institutionalized racism and discrimination.
“Governor Newsom's mismanagement of the Delta and California's water future is a deep disappointment for anyone who loves the Delta and California's rivers.”
The mismanagement of the Delta and California water by the state and federal governments resulted in massive fish kills of endangered salmon in the Sacramento River system last year. Only 2.6 percent of endangered winter run Chinook juveniles survived the lethally warm water temperatures below Keswick Dam last year, according to a CDFW letter released on December 31, 2021.
Another state and federally listed species, the spring run Chinook salmon, perished in huge numbers before spawning because of disease spurred by warm and low water conditions on Butte Creek in August and September. Over 14,500 spring Chinooks out of an estimated run of 18,000 to 20,000 died before PG&E finally released more cold water from their hydroelectric facilities on Butte Creek to cool the temperature down.
This year the fish kills have already begun in the Butte Creek watershed. An estimated 200 endangered spring-run Chinook salmon died on March 13 in Drumheller Slough below Five Points Dam after irrigation flows drew the fish from the creek into the slough. The fish were left high and dry after the flows went down.
News of the fish kill went viral after Chris Tocatlian released an alarming video on March 13. Dozens of dead fish can be seen in this video. For more information, go to: sacramento.newsreview.com/...
To learn more about the neglect of Delta tribal and environmental justice communities by the Newsom Administration read this op-ed by Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, and the amicus brief recently filed by a coalition of tribes and environmental justice groups.