Eye of the storm

AquAlliance, allies prepare for next wave of water fights

The Sacramento River is home to an array of wildlife.

The Sacramento River is home to an array of wildlife.

CN&R File photo

Barbara Vlamis is smiling. Often, the executive director of the Chico-based advocacy group AquAlliance wears a steely expression, as her work involves David-versus-Goliath battles against powerful interests—namely, government agencies and water brokers. Now, she’s satisfied, even a bit celebratory.

Last spring, Vlamis and groups allied to AquAlliance notched a legal victory regarding environmental impacts of transferring water from the northern Sacramento Valley into the Delta for 10 years. (See “Marching on,” Newslines, March 28, 2018.)

The past few weeks have brought more good news—and grins.

“[For] different reasons,” Vlamis said gleefully.

First, she and colleagues in two partner groups, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the California Water Impact Network (CWIN), met with officials in the administration of the new governor, Gavin Newsom. They left feeling heard and, as validation, found issues they discussed in an executive order issued by Newsom 11 days later.

That decree, signed April 29, directed four state departments to “develop a water resilience portfolio”—in other words, a sustainable plan factoring in climate change—“that meets the needs of California’s communities, economy and environment through the 21st century.”

The first action Newsom ordered echoed a point in the aforementioned meeting: assess supply versus demand. CWIN has conducted this analysis, as has UC Davis, but the state government has not. Carolee Krieger, executive director of CWIN, said both studies determined that legal rights to northern Sacramento Valley water exceed the amount available by 550 percent. The water advocates shared this data with the governor’s officials.

“We’re very pleased we’re being accepted as valuable people to talk to,” Vlamis said.

Days later, Newsom really pleased the alliance. May 2, he confirmed a policy shift announced in February by officially abandoning the twin tunnels his predecessor, Jerry Brown, had championed for the Delta. That project, formally known as California WaterFix, would have taken Sacramento River water south through two massive diversion tunnels. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California pledged to defray much of the $19 billion construction cost.

Newsom withdrew permit applications and instead called for officials to evaluate the feasibility of one tunnel, which Vlamis said the L.A. water district “has always claimed was not viable.” May 7, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) further sealed the twin tunnels’ fate by rescinding bonds to finance the project.

These actions rendered moot three lawsuits AquAlliance and its partners had pending.

“That’s another victory, waiting out Gov. Brown essentially,” Vlamis said. “We have to see what they come back with, what their analysis is, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Krieger also is bullish about the latest developments. Speaking by phone from Santa Barbara, where CWIN is based, she voiced even more enthusiasm than Vlamis.

She, Vlamis and Bill Jennings of the fishing association met with two top officials at the California Natural Resources Agency: then-Undersecretary Thomas Gibson (now deputy secretary and special counsel for water) and Deputy Secretary for Communications Lisa Lien-Mager.

“I was absolutely elated by the end of the conversation,” Krieger said, “because I felt like they actually listened to what we were saying, heard what we were saying and took us seriously. [It’s the] first time that I’ve had that experience with anyone in government, and I’ve been doing this [advocacy work] for 30 years.”

The water accounting work conducted by CWIN found an average of 29 million acre-feet flowing unimpaired through the watershed and 153.7 million acre-feet worth of claims—“5 1/2 times more claims than water [that] exists,” Krieger said. “Of course, when they can’t get it out of the rivers, they’re going to try to get it out of the ground” through pumping aquifers.

“That’s why what Barbara is doing with AquAlliance is so critical. Even the state agencies that we’ve talked to don’t quite understand how the contractors south of the Delta are gaming the system with water claims because they haven’t done the quantification work to show it’s so oversubscribed.”

Vlamis said the Natural Resources Agency officials got a clear picture of the water transfers already taking place and existing groundwater conditions in the north valley.

“It’s awfully nice to have an administration interested in listening to engaged voices that have not been welcome in the past,” she added.

The possibility of a Delta diversion, via a single tunnel, seems remote because both Krieger and Vlamis estimate a feasibility study taking several years to complete.

That doesn’t mean their fights are over.

After winning in court last year over the 10-year water transfers, the state unexpectedly restarted the process by releasing an environmental report for public comment Feb. 1. Vlamis had comparable concerns with the new plan—namely, how it addresses impacts associated with pumping water from underground during dry years. AquAlliance submitted its comments during the 45-day period and awaits the state’s response, prepared to sue if necessary.

“What Barbara has done is put [officials] on notice that they can’t just suck the Tuscan aquifer dry like what’s happened in the San Joaquin, the Kern and the Tulare basins,” Krieger said. “We can see the results, the subsidence, where that has happened.”

Meanwhile, in November, they expect another suit against the state to have its hearing. AquAlliance and its partners have challenged the California State Water Resources Control Board on its practice of granting waivers of environmental rules to allow for more water during drought years.