Yuba River accord won’t end West’s water wars, but it’s a start

Lower Yuba River Accord honored at Schwarzenegger’s Global Climate Summit. The pact settled a 20-year fight over water use.

Reed Saxon/AP
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks during the second Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angles on Wednesday.

Jake Gittes would be proud.

The protagonist played by Jack Nicholson in the movie “Chinatown” uncovers one of the most heinous plots in the history of US water wars – the illegal diversion of water to Los Angeles that decimated the Sierra-Nevada paradise of Owens Valley in the 1920s. The story is based on the dirty dealings typical of high-stakes water management across the US West.

Enter a new model for determining who gets how much water in the arid West. The Lower Yuba River Accord, which received the 2009 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award at the Global Climate Summit Wednesday, ended 20 years of infighting among 18 agencies and private groups by establishing a way to mete out the water in the California river to benefit farmers, fisheries, and city-dwellers.

“Historically in California, water wars have been the most contentious resource battles imaginable,” says Linda Adams, head of the California Environmental Protection Authority. “The fact that these organizations were able come up with an agreement that met all their needs at once is phenomenal – and an example that sneaky, back-room competition doesn’t have to be the norm.”

Under the agreement, water flows will be increased during critical periods along 24 miles of the Yuba, one of the state’s signature salmon streams. California last year had halted salmon fishing statewide in a preservation effort.

The new flows exceed any state or federal requirement and result in up to 170,000 acre-feet of water annually for salmon and steelhead trout. (One acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to flood a football field one foot deep. The typical California household uses between 0.5 and 1 acre foot each year.) The water then moves south and is available to cities and the Central Valley farmers, who produces half of America’s fruits and vegetables.

The Yuba County Water Agency's water transfers are key because they provide the YCWA with funds to invest in flood control projects in a region of high flood risk. Floods devastated the area in 1950 and 1955.

Parties in other water feuds won’t be able to replicate the specifics of the Lower Yuba River Accord, because rivers and competing interests are different. But what can be emulated is the cooperative, creative approach, says Gary Bobker of The Bay Institute. Rather than agree upon gross yearly or quarterly water allotments to each interest group, agencies calculated the monthly egg-laying and hatching cycles of fish, temperatures of snow melts, and migration patterns, and then developed ways for the YCWA to send water into the system when farmers needed it least and fish needed it most.

To do this regularly, a much more refined system of communication and river control is needed.

“The precise water-mapping formulas are not something you can transport to anywhere, but the model of working together and trying to develop much more sensitive water flows is one they can use in other places,” says Mr. Bobker.

The key was commitment and interaction in place of old-style infighting and competition.

“The history of these kinds of interactions is more like a bunch of kids in a playground fight,” says Chuck Bonham, California director and senior attorney for Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest fisheries conservation group.

The decision to come together to design more precise water flows for the river – based on an understanding of each party’s interests – is preferable to the alternatives: litigation, or kicking the issue to the state.

“This didn’t suddenly happen because we all looked at each other and said, ‘Gee, what a lovely bunch of guys,’ ” recalls Bobker. “We were lucky enough to simultaneously realize that there was an equity of risk and dissatisfaction.... We had more to lose – including time – if we left it to the courts.”

By settling long-standing disputes, the accord provides all parties with certainty. Local farmers can make capital investments, hire workers, and make sure crops are not devastated by sudden cutoffs of irrigation water.

“The Yuba accord shows that you can improve salmon and steelhead habitat and protect water rights at the same time,” says Curt Aikens, general manager of YCWA.
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