In an unexpected turn of events, after receiving a letter from Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, the State Water Resources Control Board again delayed action November 7 on a proposal to amend the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which included changes to the minimum flow standards for the Lower San Joaquin River.
The proposal calls for 40% “unimpaired flows” from February through June with a permitted diversion range of 30% to 50%, depending on conditions for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers through to the San Joaquin River.
The update is part of the final draft Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan and has been the subject of hundreds of letters, extensive public comment and a significant number of one-on-one meetings with various stakeholders and experts regarding the effects of altering stream flows in the San Joaquin River.
In August, the board delayed a vote on the same subject in response to a request from state agencies, legislators, businesses, water agencies, cities, counties and agriculture.
On November 7, the board took testimony and voted to postpone the item until December 12. The goal of the plan is to establish flow and water quality objectives needed to reasonably protect beneficial uses, including fish and wildlife.
The proposal engendered criticism from agriculture, business and water agencies on one side and praise from the environmental community on the other. The proposal leaves business, agriculture, water agencies and other water rights holders scrambling to find alternative sources of water, which could be very difficult in dry and drought years, and very expensive.
California Fish and Wildlife Director Charles Bonham and Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth addressed the board on behalf of Governor Brown.
Since the previous delay, agencies, water districts, farmers, cities and other affected groups have been working to craft voluntary agreements that would satisfy the requirements of the water quality control plan amendments proposed for adoption.
The letter from Governor Brown and Governor-elect Newsom stated that “a short extension will allow these negotiations to progress and could result in a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome. Voluntary agreements are preferable to a lengthy administrative process and the inevitable ensuing lawsuits.”
During the postponement, the Governor and Governor-elect “pledge to actively and meaningfully engage to bring this vital matter to a successful closure.”
The board voted 3-0 for the delay, with two members abstaining. Board members struggled with the decision; there was much conversation and statements by members that they were torn and uncomfortable about agreeing to the delay.