Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | September 23, 2019

The fate of the last Voluntary Agreements to restore the Bay-Delta

Voluntary Agreements to restore the Bay-Delta are a part of the Newsom administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio.  Water agencies have touted these agreements as a “new way forward.” But voluntary agreements to restore the Delta are not new – they just fail and are never discussed again.

This blog post examines the last voluntary agreements in the Delta – the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord — and how they unraveled.

SacDeltaSacramento Delta       Source: Wikicommons

In December 1994, environmental groups joined representatives of the state and federal governments and urban and agricultural water agencies in signing the “historic” Bay-Delta Accord.  The Bay-Delta Accord was described as a “consensus-based framework” to restore the Bay-Delta estuary while ensuring water supply reliability.  The 2000 CALFED framework grew out of the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord.  The major components of the CALFED framework included:

Ecosystem Restoration

Water Quality

Water Supply Reliability

Levee Integrity

Actions under the CALFED framework were negotiated with stakeholders, including environmental, fishing, and Delta groups as well as urban and agricultural water agencies.  But by 2008 the program was widely acknowledged to be a failure.

Failure of the Environmental Water Account

CALFED had an Environmental Water Account program, which provided for purchases of ecosystem water from willing sellers. Environmental groups rapidly became disillusioned with the Environmental Water Account. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council commented:

From 2001-2004, the EWA provided only 29% on average of the expected 195,000 acre-feet of operational assets …. These shortfalls have occurred while exports from the Delta have reached record high levels and the ecosystem has continued spiraling downward.  Clearly, the EWA experiment has not performed as planned.

The agencies have turned the EWA on its head and, instead of using it to supplement the resources needed and required for fish protection, have used it as an excuse to short the environment and avoid committing those mandatory resources.  Unless the agencies make very clear that limited EWA assets cannot be used as a reason not to take an action that would help protect or restore imperiled fish, it should be discontinued.

In 2006, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bay Institute filed an emergency petition to change the listing for the Delta Smelt to “endangered” from threatened.   A period of intense litigation and conflict over federal Endangered Species Act protections in the Delta followed the filings.

Failure of Governance

There were other reasons that the CALFED science-based adaptive management program failed to recover Delta fish populations.

One of the issues for the state legislature was the cost of the CALFED program.   The Ecosystem Restoration Program commitments were $150 million a year, and the Environmental Water Account cost $50 million a year.  With the state’s growing budget crisis, these costs were an issue.   Governor Schwarzenegger directed a review of the CALFED program by the Little Hoover Commission in 2005.   The report included the following recommendation:

Recommendation:  Policy-makers must adopt clear and specific goals for the CALFED program and fortify those goals with budget and legislative authority.

  • Set clear, specific goals for CALFED. The Legislature must put in place goals that communicate to the implementing agencies and the stakeholders the State’s priorities and preferred strategies for restoring the estuary and meeting water needs.
  • Ensure the implementing agencies have sufficient authority and resources to succeed. The Legislature must embed the CALFED goals in the authorizing statutes of the implementing agencies, empower those agencies to achieve their missions, and provide sufficient staff and funding to succeed.

Correspondence by the CALFED Independent Science Board in 2008 showed that there was insufficient funding to even develop performance metrics for progress in the main program areas.

As a result of the Little Hoover Commission report, the Delta Stewardship Council was created in the Delta Reform Act in 2009. The Bay-Delta Authority was dissolved and the responsibilities were transferred to the Delta Stewardship Council.  But the governance problems continued.  The Delta Stewardship Council dropped the CALFED water quality program, leaving consideration of effects of contaminants in the Delta to the chronically underfunded State Water Resources Control Board.   The goals in the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program, which included restoration of at risk native fish populations, were not included in the Delta Stewardship Council’s new Delta Plan.  The new performance measures in the Delta Plan were ruled inadequate by the Sacramento Superior Court in 2016.

Meanwhile, Delta smelt are going extinct.

Delta Smelt FMWT Abundance  1967-2018

Delta smelt abundance

Source: CDFW

Lessons Learned

The Newsom administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio is shaping up to look a lot like the 2000 CALFED program, with its emphasis on collaborative solutions, adaptive management, habitat restoration, and huge state investments. The reasons for failure of the 2000 CALFED program should be examined before any major new commitments.

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