The View from Westlands: Voluntary Agreements

Voluntary Agreements (VAs) have been proposed as a collaborative, modern and holistic alternative to the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) staff proposed update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan (WQCP). From August 2018 until early 2020, state and federal agencies, public water agencies, and non-governmental organizations were engaged in robust discussions to identify the best path forward regarding the WQCP update. Westlands and other public water agencies are eager to reengage in the process to finalize the VAs, as they offer the best path forward for California water.

The VAs are aimed at protecting and restoring the Bay-Delta ecosystem while improving reliability for the 35 million people, nearly 8 million acres of farmland, and remaining California wetlands dependent on the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed and water supply.

Westlands supports the VAs, an effort begun by Governor Jerry Brown and continued by Governor Gavin Newsom, as the best path forward for the SWRCB’s Bay-Delta WQCP update. This approach is supported by Governor Newsom’s 2020 Water Resilience Portfolio (Portfolio), which outlines more than 100 policy priorities in support of California’s water future. Of importance, the Portfolio emphasizes the completion of the VAs to manage water flows, restore habitats, and protect California’s largest rivers and the Delta.

Westlands View: Portfolio Underscores the Importance of Completing the VAs 

Westlands Water District commends the work of Governor Newsom and his administration in developing the Portfolio. Among the actions included in the Portfolio, several highlight the importance of completing the VAs:

  • Action 9.3: “Bring together regulators, tribes, water users, public water agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders to develop innovative, voluntary solutions to water supply, water quality, and ecosystem protection.”
  • Action 13.7: “Identify opportunities to meet legal standards in creative, collaborative ways, such as through Voluntary Agreements that enhance flows and habitat.”
  • Action 18.2: “Complete the update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan for San Francisco Bay and the Delta, as required by law, and implement the Plan, potentially through Voluntary Agreements.”

Westlands believes the VAs will ultimately provide the best path for fulfilling these actions. In fact, Westlands has long advocated for solutions that include alternatives to an unimpaired flows approach, which has not only failed to provide reliable water supplies for urban, agricultural, and environmental uses but has also failed to effectively protect native species.

The VAs include a combination functional flow and non-flow measures, including habitat restoration, and adaptive management.  The benefits of functional flows was recently supported by a new study from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which recommends a “functional flows” approach to managing water for the environment. Rather than mandating unimpaired flows, functional flows focus on maintaining the components of a river’s flow (e.g., sediment movement, water quality) that ultimately protect the health of native species.

The VAs will also implement a sound and innovative science program that will provide adaptive management of water supplies to best serve the needs of the ecosystem and will establish a governance program rooted in cooperation and collaboration to manage and deploy flows and habitat.

The stakes are too high to let this moment pass as the state struggles after another dry year.

Through a collaborative, science-based approach, the VAs will help improve the Bay-Delta watershed and its tributaries by creating a comprehensive program of habitat enhancement projects coupled with a robust adaptive management process that will meet the needs of native fish and wildlife species. Importantly, the VAs will provide long-term funding to ensure water is available, habitat is restored, scientific uncertainties are reduced, and collaborative, strategic decision making occurs.  All of which will improve our ability to restore the health of the watershed and improve the reliability of water that California’s people, farms and wildlife depend upon.

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