Voluntary Agreements

By Peter Drekmeier

On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. In the real world of competing interests for water, we were pleased the Board approved the staff recommendation of 30-50% unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. This culminated many years of hard work.

Also at the December meeting, the Water Board left the door open for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) to continue exploring voluntary agreements (VAs) between the State, water agencies and a few environmental organizations. If the Water Board determines the VAs could achieve the environmental objectives they are obligated to enforce, they could adopt them in lieu of the unimpaired flow approach.

In March, the state agencies released a framework for the VAs that relied heavily on non-flow measures, such as habitat restoration and predator suppression. In response, TRT joined several other environmental and fishing groups in releasing an analysis of the proposal. Among other things, we found that the VAs:

  • Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds.
  • Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary.
  • Fail to include restrictions on Delta pumping that are necessary to prevent the Central Valley Project and State Water Project from diverting additional flows from the San Joaquin’s tributaries.
  • Fail to include investments in water supply reliability that would help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta estuary.

To read the NGO analysis, type “Smoke and Mirrors” in the search bar on our website. 

The VA proposal for the Tuolumne relies heavily on the suppression of non-native predators, such as bass. However, in licensing proceedings for Don Pedro and La Grange Dams – which are happening in parallel with the Bay Delta Plan – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined, “We do not recommend the permanent barrier/counting weir or implementing a predator control and suppression plan because they would not likely be effective and could have adverse effects on federally listed steelhead. Similar predator removal efforts by the California Department of Water Resources did not noticeably reduce salmon mortality, and the permanent barrier/counting weir could act as a migration barrier to salmonids.”

Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done.