Body of water falls far short of Delta’s needs, environmentalists say

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California would pay farmers not to plant thousands of acres of land as part of a $2.9 billion plan announced Tuesday to let more water flow through the major rivers and streams in the state to help restore the unique habitat in one of North America. larger estuaries.

The agreement, signed Tuesday between state and federal officials and some of California’s biggest water agencies, would result in about 35,000 acres of unused rice paddies – or about 6% of the state’s normal harvest each year. , according to the California Rice Commission.

The result, combined with other measures, would be up to 824,000 additional feet of water each year flowing through the struggling Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. One acre-foot of water equals over 325,000 gallons, which is usually enough to supply two average households for a year.

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The money will come from state and federal governments and the water agencies themselves, which for the first time have agreed to tax themselves to help pay farmers – who often have water rights. higher water levels – so as not to plant certain crops.

“We don’t have to choose between healthy ecosystems or a healthy economy, we can choose a path that delivers both,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “This is a significant and hard-earned step in the right direction.”

Some environmental groups disagreed. The additional water announced Tuesday would be about half of what state regulators in 2018 said were needed to fully protect the environment, according to Doug Obegi, senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Additionally, the deal was negotiated privately between the Newsom administration and some of the state’s largest water agencies. Environmental groups, Native American tribes and other communities were left out.

“It’s a fundamentally illegitimate and proprietary process, and it’s no surprise the results are bad for fish and wildlife. The old adage, ‘If you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu,’ springs to mind,” Obegi said.

Most of California’s water comes from rain and snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada, the vast mountain range that stretches east of the state. This water once flowed unhindered, creating vast wetlands that fostered a rich environment for birds, fish, and large predatory mammals like bears and mountain lions that supported Native American communities.

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Today, all but about 5% of these wetlands are gone, consumed by a complex system of dams and canals that diverts much of the water to large reservoirs. These reservoirs are then used for drinking water in the state’s major cities and for irrigation for farmers in the Central Valley who provide most of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The deal the state announced on Tuesday aims to rebuild part of that ecosystem by letting more water flow through the rivers to create an additional 28,300 acres of additional habitat for the animals.

“We can never rebuild it exactly as it was,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But there is a strong scientific discipline on the ecology of reconciliation, on recreating enough of this mosaic that we can restore functioning ecosystems. That’s optimism, that’s what’s in this voluntary agreement announcement today.

California water is governed by a complex system of seniority-based water rights. In the past, state and federal regulators set the rules for how much water farmers and others could take from rivers. This prompted numerous lawsuits from water rights holders that sometimes took decades to resolve.

This time, state officials are trying something different. Instead of setting the rules themselves, they have sought to negotiate voluntary agreements with water agencies. The goal was to get everyone to agree from the start on what the rules would be to avoid lengthy and costly lawsuits.

Negotiations have dragged on since 2016, but state officials say the deal announced Tuesday is a breakthrough. The deal still has to go through a lengthy regulatory review process before it can become official. But it includes some of the largest water agencies in the state, including Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides drinking water to 19 million people, and the Westlands Water District, the largest district in agricultural water in the country.

“The governor told us on day one as a team, ‘We need a different way of thinking about water in our state. It only remains for us to put an end to this crazy management through litigation. We need to end the water wars,” said Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a really huge step in moving the system.”

But that doesn’t include everyone. State officials acknowledged on Tuesday that they likely won’t force everyone to sign the agreements. Those who do not sign would have to go through the traditional regulatory process.

For Regina Chichizola, executive director of Save California Salmon, the agreement illustrates “California’s commitment to upholding its archaic and undemocratic water rights laws.”

“These laws were created at a time when people of color and women could not vote or own land, and California politics supported the genocide of Native people,” she said. “These deals also appear to put the needs of big landowners and crop exporters above fish and cities despite our drying climate.”

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