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California Water War Peace Treaty? Not Quite



Aerial overview of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta
Gov. Gavin Newsom is the latest governor to claim progress on settling California's perpetual water rights conflict, says Dan Walters. (GV Wire File)
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The holy grail of those involved in California’s decades-long political and legal battle over how the state’s water supply should be allocated has been some sort of master agreement.

There have been countless efforts at negotiating such a peace treaty and some premature declarations of success. However, California’s water wars have continued with skirmishes in the water bureaucracy, in the Legislature, in Congress, in the courts and even in the White House.

‘Voluntary Agreement’ Omits Some Major Players

The water war involves dozens of specific agricultural and municipal water agencies and environmental groups, each with a particular stake in the outcome — known colloquially as “water buffaloes” — and their perpetual jousting is a lucrative industry for lawyers, lobbyists and public relations operatives.

Dan Walters



Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom became the latest governor to claim progress on settling the conflict, announcing a $2.6 billion agreement between the state and some municipal and agricultural factions to reduce the amount of water taken from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems so that more can flow naturally and thus improve fish habitat.

“We don’t have to choose between healthy ecosystems or a healthy economy,” Newsom said in a written statement. “We can choose a path that provides for both. This is a meaningful, hard-earned step in the right direction.”

Perhaps, but we’ve heard that claim before. The “voluntary agreement,” as it’s dubbed, omits some of the water game’s biggest players, not only some San Joaquin Valley agricultural water districts but the City and County of San Francisco, which is one of the largest diverters of water via its Hetch Hetchy Dam.

It also lacks support from environmental groups, which argue it doesn’t go far enough to protect salmon and steelhead habitat in the rivers and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Long-Running Conflict

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said “the voluntary agreement framework process violates the legal principles of environmental justice inclusion and does not serve the public trust, or the human right to water. Governor Newsom continues to serve the interests of the top 2% of agribusiness across California at the expense of Northern California tribes, Delta communities, commercial fishing interests, and communities in need of improved drinking water conditions.”

Although it’s called a “voluntary agreement,” it is scarcely that, since it was negotiated as an alternative to plans by the state Water Resources Control Board to mandate reductions in diversions from the rivers. Those plans had been on hold for several years while negotiations continued, but environmental groups would prefer the mandatory reductions, which would be larger.

Underlying the process is a long-running conflict over whether the state water board has the legal authority to reduce diversions by agricultural and municipal water agencies with senior water rights. Those that hold the rights argue that they take precedence while environmental activists contend that the state constitution’s “public trust” doctrine on water gives the board sufficient legal power to control water flows.

Peace Treaty or Temporary Cease Fire?

Without a fuller agreement, the water board could proceed with mandatory diversion reductions and that would probably trigger a legal showdown over how much authority it truly has.

There’s another major aspect to the process as well — its effect on long-standing plans to reduce direct diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by building a tunnel beneath the Delta to carry Sacramento River water to the heads of the California Aqueduct and federal canals near Tracy. Barrigan-Parrilla and other environmental activists see the new agreement as an effort to make the tunnel project more acceptable.

Peace treaty? More like a partial and perhaps temporary ceasefire.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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