As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform how we live, there has been one aspect in California that appears immune to change: the federal and state water wars. The United States’ Bureau of Reclamation is poised for another showdown against the state’s Department of Water Resources over who controls the vital water supply.
Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation issued new operating criteria for the Central Valley Project in the form of an 871-page “biological assessment”. Within this document were details on how the water was to be maximized for water supply and delivery while also maintaining adequate protections for fish and other wildlife. Shortly after being released, the state Department of Water Resources issued its own draft of operational guidelines that disagreed with the Bureau’s. The DWR Director, Karla Nemeth, said their guidelines would implement “a more sophisticated and nimble way to manage the State Water Project to improve our ability to protect species and operate more flexibly.”
By releasing their own operational guidelines, the state DWR made official a historic split between federal and state water officials. For decades, the sides have worked cooperatively while managing their separate but intermingled water systems. These bureaucratic actions have now compromised that working relationship and potentially disrupts a future of sustainable water management in the state.
Both operating plans contain a few similarities such as using the dams and reservoirs on major streams to capture water and release into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which merge into the Delta. Pumps would pull water from the Delta into canals that deliver the water to San Joaquin Valley farmers as well as cities in the Southern California region.
The competing demands between the agricultural and urban users and the environmental advocates for the limited supply of water in the Delta have been taking place in political and legal arenas for decades, but in recent years, there have been efforts to create “voluntary agreements” in order to end the battles. With the most recent split being between the state and the federal government, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is concerned that “California is facing a real risk of a fundamental breakdown of our water delivery system” if negotiations fail between both sides.
 Walters, Dan. “Commentary: California Water War Re-Ignited.” CalMatters, 16 Apr. 2020, calmatters.org/commentary/california-federal-state-water-war-trump-newsom/.
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