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CALmatters Op-Ed
19 March 2019

Finally, a new path toward managing water, rivers and the Delta

By Jennifer Pierre, Special to CALmatters

"For people who closely follow California water, here are headlines in the paper or tweets in your feed that you never see about water operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta:

“Pumping curtailed during next storm due to nearby migrating salmon”

Or:

“Storm opens water supply window as few fish conflicts detected”

Why?

Our rules, cobbled over time from various state water right decisions or federal biological opinions, are too rigid. Pumping rules in the Delta on Nov. 30, for example, are very different than those 24 hours later, regardless of the weather.

Things are done by an aging book.

We are not adapting our management based on testing new hypotheses collaboratively advanced by stakeholders who are willing to celebrate the results regardless of outcome.

Simply put, we are stuck in yesterday’s way of regulating things.

And deep down, I think everyone close to the matter knows that this is a recipe for failure for the environment and water supply reliability–and an outright disaster in the coming decades with climate change.

But there is an opportunity to begin to change our ways. Perhaps the most important opportunity on the horizon is the ongoing review of the rules that govern the Delta and our river watersheds by the State Water Resources Control Board and a voluntary way to improve the use of resources for the environment.

The fundamental question, as this pivotal chapter unfolds, is this:

Will we merely tinker with the rules? Or will we have the courage to explore a more fundamental reset so that future management is based more on adaptation and collaboration?

Here is a case for a reset.

The current system has us all in silos. Absent any process that has us collectively studying, testing and resolving anything, we have our stables of scientists. We have our own legions of lawyers. And being in our own silos, over time, we have developed wildly different baseline perspectives of what is wrong with the Delta and how to make things right.

People managing other treasured ecosystems have managed to break out of these silos:

  • I marvel when I hear that on the Missouri River, as one example, there is a remarkable, programmatic approach to management embraced by dozens of stakeholders in even a large number of states.

  • Another example is on the Platte River in the heart of the Midwest. There, groundwater management is the norm after a years-long struggle and surface water management evolves with new knowledge about conditions.

Our best chance to mimic the success of others rests with a proposal by the Newsom Administration with a coalition of federal agencies, water districts and some environmental groups.

To resolve the state Water Board’s review of Northern California water uses, the administration is proposing a block of water for the environment—750,000 acre-feet. That’s more than the annual water use in the city of Los Angeles. This water and new restoration efforts would be collaboratively managed and studied for 15 years.

It would be among the largest adaptive management effort of its kind in the nation.

Embracing an adaptive way of managing our water does not mean renouncing one’s beliefs that the water for the environment is vitally important. Or that the water to grow our food or sustain our communities is important. Rather, we share in a victory that comes from managing our precious water supply by structuring how we share and learn together.

We who are part of the California water community and who work every day from one perspective or another are paralyzed and in our respective bunkers.

It will take nothing short of a leap of faith from each of us to admit that the current rigid rules fail all of our missions. And that only together can we do a better job managing our water resources going forward."

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Jennifer Pierre is the general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies       that receive supplies from the State Water Project, Jpierre@swc.org. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.