Sacramento Delta water policies were once negotiated across a dinner table at a small Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland. A dozen leaders from agricultural water districts, urban regions and environmental groups would meet regularly, sharing stories about their kids—and later grandkids—before delving into policy.

Today many describe the state of negotiations as a  “circular firing squad,” with an unprecedented number of lawsuits aimed at the state and federal administrations.

Water policy expert Tim Quinn (pictured above in 2015) calls this the result of a breakdown in coalition building that began 20 years ago and is now putting California’s agricultural economy at risk. Without state leaders driving the difficult and time-consuming collaborative approach, Delta policy regressed into the top-down managerial style of prior eras, with parties returning to their silos. It set the stage for the takeover of warrior coalitions,” as Quinn describes in a new policy paper that looks back on the 40 years of California water managerial that swept up his career.

Quinn wrote the paper as a visiting fellow at Stanford University, having retired as the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) in 2018, after 11 years with the organization. Quinn brokered water deals with the Brown administration on behalf of ACWA agencies, which represent about 90% of the water delivered in California. He had spent the prior two decades in leadership roles at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the powerful agency representing the Los Angeles region.

War is easy; collaboration is hell,” said Quinn in an interview with Agri-Pulse, reciting his mantra to staff at ACWA. Every silo has hardliners. Every silo has warriors.”

Those driving the collaborative approach are always irritating somebody powerful” in their silo. As the collaborations grew weaker, they no longer delivered big successes, aside from smaller, localized agreements. This, said Quinn, empowered the warriors within the silos, in both environmental and agricultural groups.

The scorched earth, all-or-nothing rhetoric has gotten worse from all sides,” said Jeffrey Mount, an expert on environmental management for the Public Policy Institute of California. It doesn't matter where you are on these water issues.”

Mount explained to Agri-Pulse the mission of the warrior coalitions is to identify and defeat the villain.

That has got the priorities in all the wrong places,” he said.

According to Quinn’s paper, water coalitions “try to resolve issues in winner-take-all adversarial arenas, such as the courts, legislatures or regulatory agencies.”

The erosion of trust over time created a vulnerability to external influences as stakeholders were negotiating over voluntary agreements (VAs) for Delta outflows.

I wish that President Trump had not gone to Bakersfield when he did back in February,” said Quinn. It was just too flagrant for the Newsom administration not to want to strike back.”

Trump was signing the federal biological opinions governing Delta pumping operations, a plan that Quinn—along with many water agency managers and agricultural leaders—argued is more science-based than environmental critics have given it credit for. Gov. Newsom followed up soon after with a lawsuit, triggering further lawsuits and stalling the VAs.

Despite the escalated legal battle, the administration and water agencies remain hopeful.

I don't think the VA is necessarily done for,” said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors. There is an opportunity to get back to the table and try to reach an agreement.”

Part of the VA process was to develop several subgroups. Pierre co-chaired the governance group with Steve Rother, then a regional director for the environmental advocacy group American Rivers. Pierres introduction to Rother was actually quite harsh,” but the two ended up being good friends, she said. Together, they were building a governance structure that allowed for open discussion, learning and making decisions together among the parties. This would alleviate the finger pointing and taking credit from others, allowing instead a shared ownership for the outcome.

Even if the voluntary agreement somehow disintegrates, we still have this,” said Pierre.

Pierre explained that the governance would build trust in a way that allows the parties to take risks together. Foundational to this are personal relationships and face time, which have been further strained with COVID-19 limiting interactions to Zoom.

Jeffrey Mount

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow in water policy at PPIC

Yet Pierre, along with Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and many others, is optimistic a deal will be reached soon.

Thad Bettner, the general manager for the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District in the Sacramento Valley, which has been involved in the VAs, told Agri-Pulse a signed agreement could come by the end of 2020. The lawsuits heated up in the spring with temporary injunctions related to flow operations, but now management operations are set for the year, allowing space for talks to continue, he explained. The Newsom administration had released its proposed framework for the voluntary agreements in February, but the litigation and pandemic offered little opportunity to resolve the differences between this and the proposal that stakeholders had submitted a year earlier.

Quinn, who calls himself the biggest optimist in California,” still worried the Newsom administration may be regressing into the managerial approach of the Brown and Schwarzenegger administrations, which delivered only short-term wins and years of litigation. Newsom vowed to go in a different direction with the Delta tunnels plan, but he's doing it the same way that that his predecessor did,” said Quinn, as he explained how the agencies had excluded public involvement in the environmental review until a nearly complete draft was released.

The Delta folks are mad as hell right now,” he said. When you're excluded from the process, then you tend to be dissatisfied with what it does, and you tend to want to fight it.”

A compromise over moving the location of the pump intakes would build trust with fishing groups, Delta farmers and conservation groups, he said. It would also gain broader support for a multi-benefit approach that could bring more water to farmers and the environment, while building climate resiliency for the state.

Environmental organizations involved in the voluntary agreements are now backing away from the process, arguing the VAs were supposed to be completed last year and the recent erosion of trust is cause to reconsider the imperfect” regulatory path proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Hope, I'm afraid, is growing dim,” said Maurice Hall, associate vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a panel discussion for the ACWA Summer Conference last week. There are still significant things to be worked out.”

Lewis Bair, the general manager for Reclamation 108 in the Sacramento Valley, said he was saddened a great deal by Halls frustration.

From a water users perspective, we have folks in the environmental community that are litigators that poke at us,” said Bair. But I don't think they make up the majority of folks.”

He added that the stakeholders working on the VAs need to have thick enough skin to still work together in a positive, honest, constructive way.”

Quinn pointed out that the Nature Conservancy, which has a reputation for working with agriculture on floodplain restoration and other conservation projects, has also been signaling its withdrawal from the VAs and urging the State Water Board to take the lead.

If you don't have the Nature Conservancy interested in your collaborative, you're doing something wrong,” said Quinn.

In a 2019 research paper, Mount found that more leadership could come from the State Water Board, but in a different way. The boards approval of the first phase of its Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan in 2018 put it in the position of being the regulatory backstop in case the stakeholders failed to bring them voluntary agreements.

The board interprets their mandate more narrowly, when the solutions are really more broad,” said Mount.

He explained that, beyond just regulating for flows, the board has the legal authority to urge a more holistic approach encompassing watershed-scale management. This would include habitat restoration, water quality improvement and management of native species.

Voluntary agreements of this sort would find inspiration in the Sacramento Valley, according to Quinn.

Quinn said leaders here have been driving water issues into a collaborative arena, with a big tent” open to all interests that is also transparent. One example was in 2014, when the agricultural Glenn-Colusa Water District recognized the need for river restoration projects to benefit a fishery—and acknowledged they were not environment experts.”

The more we showed that we were committed to see some of these benefits come about, the more we started to gain partners in that effort,” said Thad Bettner. Youve got to do this trust building, and it takes time.”

Quinn recognized that collaborative leadership may be emerging in the San Joaquin Valley as well, with the coalition of water agencies behind the Water Blueprint. Karla Nemeth, who directs the Department of Water Resources, said at the ACWA conference that she has been working closely with the coalition, particularly on coordinating groundwater recharge projects. The coalition has been working to expand its tent to include social justice groups representing disadvantaged communities and drinking water issues.

The San Joaquin Valley needs big thinkers right now,” said Quinn. But if you don't get governance right, you're going to fail.”

Quinn has also noticed the coalition-building efforts of Thomas Esqueda, a water policy expert at California State University, Fresno.

What he sees is something that is like the Sacramento Valley,” said Quinn. A watershed-scale, large geographic area that has a governance mechanism that keeps them communicating and integrating in ways that they never have before.”

At the annual conference for the California Irrigation Institute in January, Esqueda said water issues in California are at a pivotal moment. He said the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) has now split the Central Valley into small tribes, with more than 100 local groundwater agencies fighting each other. Similarly, the governors new Water Resilience Portfolio proposes more than 100 actions, but is missing an ingredient key to the process of implementing the policies, he said.

The brutal truth is we really do need to focus on getting some new leadership established and grown and developed around water issues here in the state of California,” he said. At the end of the day, it's going to come down to people working with people to get stuff done.”

In a recent policy paper, Esqueda elaborated on the importance of a shared vision for water management, saying leaders who let the courts decide the fate of water offer no vision, no courage, no leadership—no change.”

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Leadership is not likely to come from national politics either. Many are watching the November presidential election to see how the biological opinions and related lawsuits will be resolved, assuming a Democratic president would change the rule. PPICs Jeffrey Mount, however, said too much emphasis has been put on the federal government and not enough on the state.

I always chafe at the notion that it matters hugely what happens in the fall during that election,” he said.

Mount pointed out that SGMA had nothing to do with the federal government; that the biological opinions have been disruptive but are no game changers”; and that the federal government is responsible for just 3% of the total water funding in California—when considering operations, maintenance, infrastructure and ecosystem management. The state government delivers about 12% of the cost, according to Mount, and the rest comes from ratepayers.

Like the State Water Board, federal agencies, which have been supportive of the VAs, are leaving room for the stakeholders to decide the path forward.

Quinn said this will inevitably involve collaboration between farmers, environmentalists and social justice advocates.

Get used to the fact that that's how you solve problems in modern California,” he said. If we try to replay the Development Era, when we built all this wonderful infrastructure and nobody could stop us, it felt good at the time, but that's not the future of California.”

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