Voluntary Agreement framework consolidates power and inequities in California water

inclusion exclusion

The California Natural Resources agency released a Voluntary Agreement framework on Monday, March 29, 2022. The framework has been hailed as a “peace” agreement.

Reading the Memorandum of Understanding, I find Hisham Ziuaddeen’s synthesis of how power operates across hierarchies of caste, gender, sexuality, ableness and class to be profoundly relevant. Ziuaddeen observed that power determines:

    • who determines the frame of reference
    • who is entitled to respect and deference
    • who has episemological and moral authority
    • who is entitled to labour, bodies, and space
    • who is entitled to hold and wield power

These observations also explain how power operates in the Voluntary Agreement framework.  The VA framework excludes environmental, fishing, tribal, and Delta stakeholders from the collaboration space, and also from having any real input into operational decisions. This institutionalizes a power structure that has been profoundly dysfunctional in the past.

The Delta Reform Act encoded into state law that “[t]he longstanding constitutional principle of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine shall be the foundation of state water management policy and are particularly important and applicable to the Delta.” (Water Code section 85023.)

In my experience working with environmental, fishing, tribal, and Delta stakeholders, they have had to fight way too hard to have the public trust even considered in agency processes. And they shouldn’t be having to fight so hard. They shouldn’t be marginalized. Agency processes need to include them. They need to be at the table, and if their viewpoint is that the public trust isn’t being respected, it needs to be listened to.

A true “peace” agreement on operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project would be based on principles of fairness, balance and equity. The MOU fundamentally fails in this respect.

Further reading

Des Jardins, D. 2022. On the framework of power in California water – comments to the Delta Stewardship Council. California Water Research blog. March 20, 2022.

Des Jardins, D. 2019a. Voluntary Agreements on Delta flows have no real backstop. California Water Research blog. September 30, 2019.

Des Jardins, D. 2019b. The fate of the last Voluntary Agreements to restore the Bay-Delta. California Water Research blog. September 23, 2019.

California Natural Resources Agency. State, Federal Agencies Announce Agreement with Local Water Suppliers to Improve the Health of Rivers and Landscapes: MOU a Key Step in Years-Long Effort to Help Recover Salmon While Protecting Water Reliability. Maven’s Notebook, press release. March 29, 2022.

Le Heron E., Logie, J., Allen, W., Le Heron, R., Blackett, P., Davies, K.,  Greenaway, A., Glavovic, B., Hikuroa, B. 2019. Diversity, contestation, participation in Aotearoa New Zealand‘s multi-use/user marine spaces.  Marine Policy 106.

Pierson, R. 1994. The Epistemic Authority of Expertise. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. 1:398–405.

Sabalow, R., Kasler, D. 2022. Gov. Newsom outlines a peace agreement on California water. Will the fighting finally end? Sacramento Bee, March 30, 2022.

Ziauddeen, H. 2020. Power and discrimination: how power operates in societies & systems across the hierarchies of caste, gender, sexuality, ableness and class. Twitter thread synthesizing writings of Kate Manne, Ijeoma Oluo, Angela Saini, and Isabel Wilkerson. October 21, 2020.

One thought on “Voluntary Agreement framework consolidates power and inequities in California water

  1. Assuming these “voluntary agrerments” may have some adverse effect on salmon, navigable waters or fishable waters on state-owned land or formerly state-owned land transferred after 1910, then it seems they may adversely affect a public trust intetest, and so prior to the decision being made the california public agencies involved must consider the effect of entering into the agreement on these public trust interests; and avoid adversely affect those interests so far as feasible to the extent feasible. Further provide this consideration in a public coherent process facilitating public participation. The continued absence of transparency, is worrisome – particularly for those of us who lived in the flood shadow of Oroville Dam in February 2017. As I temember, we were promised transparency after that, and did not get it.

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