PCL Insider – May 2020

Tracking California’s Water Issues During the Pandemic

Even during this pandemic, bad actors in California’s water politics do not take the day off. Using the current state of the world as a cover, the Trump administration launches a power grab to roll back California’s environmental protections. Even at the state level, problematic water policy persists as Governor Newsom moves forward with a new vision for a Delta Tunnel. In these troubling times, the Planning Conservation League is working to shed a light on these currently overlooked water policy crises facing California and work to prevent these disastrous proposals.

The Trump administration recently approved biological opinions (BiOps) that would allow the federal Central Valley Project to pump more water from the Delta. Despite the Newsom administration suing the feds for that, his own State Department of Water Resources has applied for approval to increase the State’s own pumping from the Delta.

Last year, the SWRCB under then Chair Felicia Marcus did adopt a new plan for the San Joaquin River watershed and had begun the process of adopting a plan for the Sacramento River watershed. But last Spring, Governor Newsom did not reappoint Marcus to the Board. Instead, Newsom’s administration continued to pursue so-called “voluntary agreements.”

These would allow virtually endless levels of pumping in exchange for money (largely from State taxpayers). It would rely on undefined “adaptive management” to make everything okay. This is akin to EPA asking polluting industries to voluntarily agree to air quality measures instead of setting enforceable standards.

But it does not stop even there. Like Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, Gavin Newsom sees his manifest destiny as pursuing a Delta Tunnel. This time instead of two 34 foot diameter tunnels there would be one 40 foot diameter tunnel.

Paradoxically that could be even worse than the two tunnels. The two tunnels were being sold to enable a “Big Gulp – Little Sip” operation, i.e. they would divert Delta water only in times of very high flows in the Delta. If there is only one tunnel, those who pay would insist they be used even in times of lower Delta flows.

However, not all is as dark as it seems. PCL is actively working with other environmental, environmental justice, tribal, and other groups to fight many of these proposals.

In particular, we are currently developing a “Water Threats Tracker” to track litigation and regulations that could threaten the water resources in California. By compiling all of the information into one spot, we believe the tracker can be used by water advocates to effectively address issues on the list and ensure that no water threat goes unchallenged. In addition to the tracker, we are also documenting videos of important water hearings that later could be used as evidence in future court cases. All of this and more will be made available to the public later this year.

Just as the virus is causing the world to think about and do things in previously unimaginable ways, perhaps we can collectively rethink our societal approach to water management. As we settle into a “new normal”, perhaps we can develop a system where water is diverted in a way that does not cause irreversible damage to our aquatic ecosystems.