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Lessons Learned 25 Years After Landmark California Water Reform Law

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act was an ambitious effort toward balanced and sustainable water policy and it holds lessons for today, write Audubon’s Meghan Hertel and Golden Gate Salmon Association’s John McManus.

Written by John McManus, Meghan Hertel Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Great white-fronted geese and northern pintails congregate at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows, Calif., on December 17, 2014.Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

California’s most important federal water reform law – the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) – celebrated its 25th anniversary on October 30. The landmark law, signed by President George H.W. Bush, was a historic effort to protect and restore California’s wetlands, rivers, migratory waterbirds, salmon and other fish species, and also to promote more sustainable water supplies for a drought-prone state.

Before the CVPIA’s passage in 1992, Central Valley rivers, wetlands and salmon runs had been severely damaged by the construction and operation of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), a water system including 20 dams and 500 miles of canals.

The CVPIA was an ambitious effort to move toward balanced and sustainable water policy. A quarter century later, it’s instructive to review the impact of this legislation, what we’ve learned and what these lessons suggest for future efforts to protect wildlife and natural areas.

Let’s begin with some of the CVPIA’s ambitious provisions.

The Act included broad policy reforms, such as establishing “mitigation, protection and restoration of fish and wildlife” as a fundamental “project purpose” of the CVP, in addition to water supply, hydropower and flood protection. In 2009, the state followed suit and passed the Delta Reform Act, making water supply reliability and ecosystem health the state’s “co-equal goals” for managing the Delta.

The CVPIA established a $50 million per year restoration fund, supported by fees paid by CVP water and power users to mitigate for the environmental damage caused by the massive project. It also established a program to provide reliable water supplies for wetlands to reverse damage to wildlife refuges where some wetlands were running dry.

The CVPIA established a goal of doubling the Central Valley’s naturally spawning population of steelhead, sturgeon and four runs of Chinook salmon – to just under a million naturally spawning salmon – a goal the CVP is far from achieving.

The CVPIA also recognized that the federal Friant Dam dewatered the San Joaquin River and destroyed California’s second largest salmon run. As a result, the CVPIA required CVP contractors receiving Friant water to pay a surcharge into the Restoration Fund. In addition, the Act called for an evaluation of the potential to restore the San Joaquin – laying the groundwork for the 2006 San Joaquin River restoration agreement.

The Act also dedicated 800,000 acre-feet per year to the restoration of fish in the Bay-Delta ecosystem. This provision set the stage for the stakeholder-negotiated 1994 Bay-Delta Accord, which facilitated new water quality standards for the Bay-Delta.

Beyond fish and wildlife restoration programs, the CVPIA also included reforms to increase water use efficiency, to meet human needs while reducing environmental impacts. These include authorizing the transfer of CVP water to users throughout California, creating new water conservation and land retirement programs, and beginning to reduce federal water subsidies. Those provisions remain important today.

Lessons Learned

The complex history of this legislation suggests several important lessons.

First, even on the most challenging water issues, solutions that benefit both wildlife and human uses are possible. In the West, water is limited, overtapped and subject to frequent droughts. This water is the life blood of cities in America’s most populous state, of the nation’s most extensive irrigated agricultural economy and of California’s critical wetlands, rivers, fish and wildlife. Yet even in California, the CVPIA shows that it is possible to craft solutions that can benefit people and wildlife.

Second, the Department of the Interior should take steps to improve implementation of the CVPIA in response to the 2008 Listen to the River report, an independent review of the CVPIA in which reviewers called attention to the failure of federal management of the water dedicated to fisheries restoration. For example, under pressure, federal agencies allow water dedicated to fish restoration to be diverted and delivered to CVP users, as salmon and other fish decline. Additional independent reviews could be critical to fix this and other federal fish and wildlife programs.

Third, despite the balanced approach included in the CVPIA, Congress and federal agencies are pursuing policies that represent dramatic threats to California’s wetlands, wildlife and salmon. A quarter century after the passage of the CVPIA, we continue to see legislative threats to repeal parts of the CVPIA, as seen in H.R. 23 (Valadao), which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. Additionally, federal leadership positions are being filled with industry insiders who have long advocated for advancing economic interests at the expense of the environment. Today, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, the largest CVP water contractor, serves as the deputy secretary of the Interior. Perhaps not coincidentally, Interior has begun weakening protections for ESA listed species in the Bay-Delta.

In the next few years, we will need to redouble our efforts at the federal level to protect the balanced policies and programs in the CVPIA.

Finally, and most promisingly, California is pursuing the balanced approach envisioned by the CVPIA. In several areas, California is stepping up to achieve the co-equal goals included in both the CVPIA and state law. Approved and pending state actions to protect Bay-Delta and Central Valley wetlands, rivers and wildlife include:

  • The draft State Water Resources Control Board policy to clarify its authority to protect the waters of the state under state law.
  • State funding for the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Project and the proposal to fund the expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, which will provide water for Central Valley wetlands.
  • $89 million in state CVPIAmatching funds” dedicated to completing the most important remaining conveyance projects to deliver base supplies to wetland areas.
  • The introduction of S.B. 49, which would provide a state-law backstop to protect against rollbacks of federal environmental standards.
  • The State Board’s process to establish new water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay Estuary and its tributaries.

This final lesson is particularly timely. It shows that we can make progress in protecting our wildlife even in the most difficult circumstances. Ultimately, the fate of California’s natural resources is in the hands of Californians.

A longer version of this story appeared on Audubon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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