Delta Flows 8/12/22: On Governor Newsom’s “Hotter, Drier” Water Supply Strategy

– Tim Stroshane, RTD policy analyst

We got the news early Thursday when the Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Gavin Newsom had released a plan to deal with California’s aridification. Might be a new approach! 

Newsom, however, did not anticipate the same day the institutional death of 21,000 captive fish under study at the University of California, Davis. Ironically, it appears scientists there were studying these fishes’ response to “environmental stressors.” Chlorine introduced into their “environment” was apparently the cause of their death en mass. “An example of research that was being conducted at CABA involved the investigation of bioenergetics and environmental stressors on fish species, which included green and white sturgeon, as well as endangered Chinook salmon,” reads the university’s media statement.

One of my Twitter followers reports that Delta smelt were not affected, since they were housed in a facility separate from where the Davis fish kill occurred. Still, the university has not directly acknowledged to the public which fish species were killed. We are left to assume, until further notice, that sturgeon and Chinook salmon were the victims. Green sturgeon and winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon are listed species. It is a serious breach of trust that the public and government agencies and water managers place in scientists—we trust them to protect the lives of the species they study. As RTD tweeted Thursday in response to this story, these fishes’ deaths reinforce the truth that “Science cannot take the place of natural processes.”

In light of the news out of Davis, however, we quickly realized Newsom’s hype is merely for a campaign document, and that Newsom’s appearance with Antioch’s brackish-water desalination plant as backdrop was a chance for him to shift the narrative about water and drought in California—just with 21,000 fish corpses at his metaphorical feet. These fish were in the UC Davis tanks in the first place because of how devastating to their Central Valley river and estuary habitats state and federal water storage, diversions, operations, and management has been since at least the 1970s. 

To Newsom’s credit, “California’s Water Supply Strategy: Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future,” (which I’ll refer to as “Hotter, Drier”) makes clear that “Our climate has changed….This is our new climate reality, and we must adapt”—in large print so no one will miss it. On the next page, the governor boldly announces, “We know now that hotter and drier weather could diminish our existing water supply by up to 10% by 2040. So we are taking action.” The good thing here is that he confronts climate deniers. Newsom really wants to be seen as bold on water, though he is not.

As Newsom put it in his visit to Antioch Thursday morning to plug “Hotter, Drier,” “The hots will be hotter, the dries will be drier,” to which his Natural Resources secretary Wade Crowfoot added, “the wets will be wetter.” But that doesn’t mean the wets will be frequent, only that California should be as prepared as possible to capture as much of the “wets” as it can.

Many of Newsom’s “implementation steps” are simply pledges to “formalize a process currently underway…continue to provide…will continue robust coordination…continue to implement….continue to support…” In other words, Newsom publicizes what the state of California already does to address climate change, drought, atmospheric rivers (flooding), drinking water problems, and agricultural water supply problems, as well as redoubled efforts to streamline permitting for desalination plants by the California Coastal Commission, incentives and grants for water conservation, ocean desalination, and recycling. Streamlining permit processes is as old as permit processes here, if not as old as the golden hills of California.

Newsom also inherited the mess of subsiding San Joaquin Valley canals from his predecessor, Governor Jerry Brown. What is new is just the packaging for Newsom’s campaign. His team has carefully assembled and repackaged all of these problems and state programs as “this year’s model.” The state is active in many areas that it needs to engage, especially failing drinking water systems for small and disadvantaged communities throughout the state. 

Also not new: the Governor wants the canals collapsed from groundwater over pumping by industrial agribusiness—the California Aqueduct, Delta Mendota Canal, and the Friant-Kern Canal—fixed to maximize their capacity to deliver whatever water California captures in our desiccating future. These canals, in addition to his beloved “Delta Conveyance Project,” will provide “flexibility” to California “to move water from where it is to where it isn’t,” Newsom said. Apart from the Delta project, the question of how to pay for the Valley’s canal and aqueduct repairs remains vexing as long as Valley farmers fail to take responsibility for their role in destruction they caused. 

Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe graciously hosted Newsom, Crowfoot, Assembly member Lori Wilson (representing Antioch), state water resources director Karla Nemeth, and Antonio Villaraigosa—and he stated Antioch’s gratitude that Nemeth’s agency, the Department of Water Resources had provided 93 percent of the funds for the Antioch desalination plant. But Thorpe provided a moment of Delta Realpolitik for Newsom, Nemeth, and Crowfoot when he looked over his shoulder to the governor and said, “But we continue to oppose more diversions from the Delta.” 

KTVU investigative reporter Tom Vacar (at least it sounded like him) asked Governor Newsom how his aridification “plan” would deal with salinity from sea level rise and tides reaching the pumps in the Delta at Byron. This is the ultimate problem of “losing control of the Delta” that the Delta Stewardship Council held a two-day symposium on last April, while coming up with NO answers. 

This question proved to be the hottest, driest potato for Newsom, Nemeth, and Crowfoot, each of whom took a crack at demurring and deferring. Newsom deferred to the “experts” behind him. Crowfoot strove to balance a contradiction—on one hand that the Delta tunnel project would “capture big storms for export” and convey them to the aqueduct heads bypassing Byron, and on the other he promised the state would “protect Delta communities too for drinking water,” without explaining how Delta communities would in fact face down salinity contamination of their water supplies (ultimately affecting nearly a million water drinkers). 

DWR director Nemeth did a rhetorical face-plant to reporter Vacar’s question by claiming “there is a lot of work under way with habitat restoration,” citing a 3,000 acre restoration site in the north Delta, while failing to connect that project to potential salinity catastrophe at Byron. Wherever it is, habitat restoration needs water and flow. It needs retreat land space upslope to adapt to sea level rise. Meanwhile, as the sea level rises, so will salinity. Vacar pressed the issue a bit more when Newsom returned to the microphone, who in effect said, “we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.” That was advice my mother always taught me. Newsom is hoping that loss of Delta salinity control does not occur on his watch. But we’re talking about a fresh water supply for millions of Californians in and beyond the Delta that, had the water board not approved waivers to Delta water quality standards in April, would have suffered catastrophic salinization from tides tides when the big upstream reservoirs ran low on water this summer. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it” does not qualify as a plan to deal with aridification as it affects the Delta nor does it match the urgent tone “Hotter, Drier” tries to strike in its opening words.

Magical thinking is not confined to Governor Newsom and his supposedly crack team of experts, Nemeth and Crowfoot. It abounds in the San Joaquin Valley. A reporter from the Los Banos Enterprise, from the land of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, suggested helpfully to the governor that the state resurrect the Auburn Dam. Newsom laughed off the suggestion, saying his father appellate justice William Newsom “chained himself to rocks to stop it—you’re talking to the wrong guy.” Plus, the reporter is apparently unaware that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had its water right permit for Auburn Dam revoked by the State Water Board in 2008. That is about as dead as a project can get in this day and age. No streamlining THAT implementation step.

Speaking of water rights, Restore the Delta has urged reform of the priority approach to water rights—the idea that the first-come, first-served approach to allocating water in a 21st century economy like California is wrong-headed and needs to be replaced with a system where water is allocated equitably among all users. “Hotter, Drier” speaks of “modernizing” California’s water rights system to be more nimble like our neighbors in Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. This will take better data, says Newsom’s document, so that water and diversion curtailments can be better managed in real time—meaning that water theft will not be tolerated under the appropriative rights system; otherwise this preserves the status quo allocation of water. 

Water Board Chair Joaquin Esquivel, who was also present in Antioch Thursday (speaking passionately about urban water conservation), told a Capitol Weekly reporter that he feels his biggest accomplishment so far is “data work.” This will translate into “better data available to leaders so they can make better decisions,” wrote the Weekly. “We have an opportunity to be a 21st century regulatory agency,” said Esquivel.

We respectfully submit that Chair Esquivel has set a very narrow and low bar for himself and his agency, as recent ex-Board employee Max Gomberg expressed. This appears to confuse technology applications with better regulation, when in reality, better water regulation has at least as much or more to do with regulating for equity and justice in the allocation of both water rights, water for drinking in all kinds of human communities, water for the health of rivers and estuaries, and water for growing food. So far, the Water Board’s Racial Equity Resolution is looking rather performative. But this is the kind of low and narrow bar that his appointing governor, Gavin Newsom, appears to want. And so we fight on.

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