State water regulators announced plans earlier this week to implement unimpaired flow requirements along the San Joaquin River, unless water users can establish voluntary agreements with state water and fish and wildlife agencies.

The changes were part of the State Water Resources Control Board’s update to its Water Quality Control Plan for the greater Bay-Delta watershed as a way to improve conditions for struggling salmon populations and increase inflow into the Delta. While the action at the moment only establishes flow standards for the San Joaquin River, the board plans to roll out a similar plan in 2019 for the Sacramento River Basin, which includes the Yuba River and Feather River.

The change has been on the Yuba Water Agency’s radar for a few years. Over the last month, the agency worked with Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration on a restoration strategy that, if approved by the control board, would allow the agency to meet the state’s increased flow requirements while also providing water to its customers.

“This is a good step toward solidifying our water supply reliability, while also providing the right solutions for fisheries and ecosystem needs,” said Willie Whittlesey, project manager for the Yuba Water Agency.

Whittlesey said the proposed plan would ensure that farmers who rely on water from the Yuba River wouldn’t have to fallow any land – something farmers along the San Joaquin River expect to happen now that the state wants 300,000-acre feet of supply, or roughly 15 percent of their total diversions.

“Our proposal for the lower Yuba River includes releasing more flow to the Delta, habitat restoration and new funding to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead,” said Brent Hastey, chairman of the YWA board.

Under the terms of the agreement with the Brown administration, the agency committed to releasing up to 50,000 acre-feet of water from New Bullards Bar Dam annually for fisheries, restoring up to 100 acres of habitat at a cost of up to $10 million, and making an annual $520,000 contribution for a new Bay-Delta watershed science program. 

In exchange for making flows available to the Delta for inflow and outflow, the agency would receive an estimated $80 million over the term of the proposed agreement, which is 15 years. 

“Managers in each tributary have to look at their resources to see if they are providing enough for the Bay-Delta,” Whittlesey said.

Voluntary agreements

One of the most important components of the state water board’s plan is the fact that it allows water users and agencies to negotiate voluntary agreements with entities like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and state Department of Water Resources.

The Yuba Water Agency says the negotiated settlements will allow for the integration of measures beyond just flow requirements, which will result in benefits for both water supply and ecosystem management, and allow restoration work to begin sooner.

“A vast majority of water users and government agencies are committed to voluntary agreements because they provide a quicker, more durable solution that will improve flows and restore habitat, while avoiding lengthy litigation. We appreciate that the State Water Resources Control Board’s action today creates space for work to continue on agreements that can deliver real benefits for the environment while protection all beneficial uses of water,” according to a joint statement issued by DWR Director Karla Nemeth and Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham. 

Whittlesey said the state water board will still need to sign off on the proposed restoration strategy between the water agency and the Brown administration before it is made official. 

“I think we have a good agreement set up but it will take more time to work through it. The idea is for the entire Sacramento Valley to come together to make this work,” Hastey said. “I think there is hope that we can have a settlement that will be a win-win for the entire state.”

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