Statement by Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director: California has always prided itself on cutting-edge ideas. It is the place others turn to for new solutions to old problems. We are currently faced with a choice to continue that tradition of innovation with a fresh approach to water and environmental management or chain ourselves to outdated practices of the past.
Last fall, in a historic first, competing water interests came together to produce a voluntary agreement (VA) that will govern water use, habitat projects, and implement new science-based management practices. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the VA would, “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.”
This agreement is the result of years of collaboration between government agencies, water users and environmental interests, conducting scientific studies and projects that put the new science into practice. The VA takes us out of the slow grind of the existing regulatory process and allows us to use scientific structured decision-making to address problems as we go.
The California Legislature is considering a budget this week with funds specifically earmarked for the VA that could provide additional momentum to this progress. Funding from the voter-approved Proposition 68 will help jump start this science-based process. That would mean choosing science-based rules and voluntary, holistic approaches to problems rather than the outdated regulatory status quo. The PPIC says, “What’s clear is that negotiated solutions to water conflicts are fairer and longer-lasting than top-down regulatory solutions or, worse yet, litigated solutions where judges end up trying to manage water.”
And there’s no reason to cling to the past. It’s clear that the current outdated system isn’t working for anyone. Endangered fish populations continue to struggle; farmers face dwindling water supplies; urban users make continuous cutbacks; groundwater supplies are dangerously depleted; and current policy does not address new challenges we face from climate change.
One of the many things this process has revealed is that helping struggling fish populations takes more than water, which is important, but not the only habitat feature fish need. It takes a combination of water at the right time plus attention to habitat, food supply and predator control.
There are other ingredients essential to this agreement. Under the VA, change happens now. Additional water for environmental purposes and habitat restoration begins immediately. That means we reap the benefits today. The regulatory approach could take decades. Plus, in another important first, agricultural water users will pay fees to implement ongoing environmental projects. While there is a need for initial Prop 68 funding, user fees are critical to long-term success because they are an ongoing source of funding.
In a letter to legislators in support of the VA, a group of statewide organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, summed it up this way: “The Voluntary Agreements provide a tremendous opportunity to provide more water for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration and a more reliable water supply for a growing state with climate and water supply challenges. The Voluntary Agreement will replace the policy and legal conflicts that have defined the last three decades. Instead, they rely on a collaborative and adaptive management process that will move the state substantially closer to the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.”
California must choose. The Voluntary Agreement represents the future and a new path away from a failed regulatory approach.