A brief history of the water wars — comments to the Delta ISB

On Thursday March 10, 2022, the Delta Independent Science Board received presentations from Brooke Jacobs of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Incidental Take Permit, and from Cathy Marcinkevage of the National Marine Fisheries Service and Kaylee Allen of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on the Biological Opinions on the Long-term Operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

These were my comments, which were based in part on written comments made with California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and California Water Impact Network on the Draft EIR for the Department of Water Resources’ Long Term Operations of the State Water Project.

I wanted to provide some historical context that is extremely important. In 2000, the state and federal agencies signed the CALFED Programmatic Record of Decision. The cornerstone of the CALFED Record of Decision was an environmental water budget of 1.18 million acre-feet.

The water budget included 800,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project Yield dedicated in perpetuity to the environment by the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act. It also included an innovative state Environmental Water Account that used bond money to purchase 380,000 acre-feet of water annually from willing sellers. This was the basis of the finding by the Water Board that the public trust would be protected.

But in subsequent years, the federal and state environmental water budgets basically vanished. And in 2002 pelagic fish populations crashed. The result was intense litigation under the state and federal endangered species acts, which has been described as “the water wars.”

To deal with the crisis, the legislature passed the Delta Reform Act in 2009. A cornerstone of the Delta Reform Act was a mandate for the development of flows needed to restore fish populations. The Delta Reform Act required the following of the three fish agencies:

The Department of Fish and Game, in consultation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and based on the best available science, shall develop and recommend to the board Delta flow criteria and quantifiable biological objectives for aquatic and terrestrial species of concern dependent on the Delta.

Following an extensive public proceeding including a peer-review process, CDFG issued a report titled “Quantifiable Biological Objectives and Flow Criteria for Aquatic and Terrestrial Species of Concern Dependent on the Delta.” The report found that “recent Delta flows are insufficient to support native Delta fishes in habitats that now exist in the Delta” and recommended numerous biological goals and objectives and specific recommendations for instream flow necessary to protect public trust fisheries.

I worked with environmental and fishing groups to review and comment on the draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed long-term operations of the State Water Project. Our comments stated in part:

The DEIR fails to acknowledge, discuss or analyze the findings and recommendations in the legislatively-directed CDFW report. None of the alternatives in the DEIR incorporate the findings and recommendations in the report. Failure to consider the report and the scientific findings buttressing the report renders the DEIR deficient with respect to reasonable alternatives, fair disclosure and environmental setting.

The lawsuit by environmental and fishing groups is currently proceeding through the courts.

This post was updated to add references.

Further Reading:

California Department of Fish and Game (now Wildlife.) 2010. Quantifiable Biological Objectives and Flow Criteria for Aquatic and Terrestrial Species of Concern Dependent on the Delta. November 23, 2010.

Cummins, K., Furey, C., Giorgi, A., Lindley, S., Nestler, J., Shurts, J. 2008. Listen to the River: An Independent Review of the CVPIA Fisheries Program. Prepared for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. December 2008.

Des Jardins, D. 2020. The disappearance of the CALFED environmental water budget. California Water Research blog. February 11, 2020.

Natural Resources Defense Council. 2007.  Conservationists Threaten to Sue Feds, Appeal to State for Emergency Action as Delta Smelt Spiral Toward Extinction: Meltdown in the Delta: Agencies Allow Business as Usual While Juvenile Smelt Population Crashes Another 92 Percent From Historic Low of 2006. Press release. May 24, 2007.

Obegi, D. 2020. Why Is DWR Helping Trump Weaken Bay-Delta Protections? NRDC expert blog. Jan 17, 2020.

Planning and Conservation League. 2010. DFG Report Finds Delta Ecosystem and its Species Thirst for More Water. Press release. Sept 25, 2010.

Renda, M. 2020. California State Water Project Draws Ire of Environmentalists. Courthouse News Service. April 29, 2020.

Vogel, D. 2015. Listen to the River. California Fisheries Blog. July 13, 2015.



One thought on “A brief history of the water wars — comments to the Delta ISB

  1. Excellent work on this (“A brief history of the water wars — comments to the Delta ISB”) by California Water Research. Work of this kind is extremely important because we need constant reminders how we got into the mess in which we find ourselves–in order to eventually extricate ourselves from it.

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