How climate change altered a longstanding Central Valley water reform

November 07, 2022

Thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed an ambitious California water reform known as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, or the CVPIA. The bill responded to a drought, crashing salmon runs, threats to Central Valley wetlands and antiquated water policies.

California is again suffering from drought and low fish counts. The CVPIA’s successes and failures provide lessons to help ensure a healthy environment and more reliable water supplies. It is time to take the next steps.

The CVPIA dedicated water to salmon and created a restoration fund to support salmon rebuilding projects. Unfortunately, rather than rebounding, salmon populations have declined since the law was enacted. In recent years, high water temperatures have led to salmon kills on the Sacramento River, which are in turn caused by drought and excessive water diversions. Other fish species are also on the brink. And in the Bay-Delta estuary, harmful algae blooms threaten fish and people alike. 

Although the CVPIA funded habitat restoration, it failed to provide the river flows salmon needed. This was partly because the law applied to the federal Central Valley Project, not other diverters. The State Water Project, for example, increased pumping in the 1990s, offsetting the benefits of the CVPIA. 

It is clear now that the 27-year-old State Water Board Bay-Delta flow standards adopted after the CVPIA’s passage must be strengthened. The state board is moving at a glacial pace – paralyzed by empty promises of a water-user led “voluntary agreement.” 

The board must adopt new science-based standards for all water diverters. Similarly, federal agencies should write new requirements for endangered Bay-Delta fish, rather than continue failed Trump-era rules

The future of salmon and other fish will be determined by whether we give them enough water to survive. The same is true for California’s wetlands. 

One of the successes of the CVPIA was its water supply requirement for Central Valley wildlife refuges that are critical for migratory birds. The law’s minimum refuge water supplies have largely been met and have successfully protected bird populations. However, the CVPIA also established programs to purchase water to meet the full needs of these refuges. Those market-based approaches have largely failed. Thirty years later, the Bureau of Reclamation has never delivered full refuge water supplies.

The CVPIA also included reforms to water contracts. Prior to the law, it was illegal for some Central Valley farmers to sell water to Southern California. The CVPIA changed that. The law reduced (but did not eliminate) wasteful agricultural water subsidies, required water metering for Central Valley cities and more. It reformed some federal water contracts, but failed to update some of the largest in the state. 

The need to reform outdated agricultural water contracts is back in the headlines. In some years, half-century-old contracts promise a few privileged Central Valley growers more water than the entire natural flow of the San Joaquin and the Sacramento Rivers. These sweetheart deals must be revised to reflect the world we live in today and the reality of climate change. 

While many of the challenges the CVPIA responded to are still with us, a warming climate threatens our environment and water supplies in ways the law did not anticipate. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that the Bay-Delta, salmon and wetlands – and people – have the water they need to thrive. Reducing reliance on the Bay-Delta, through water recycling, conservation and other tools, has been state policy since 2009, and Congress has provided billions of dollars to help make California more drought-resilient. 

The CVPIA transformed the Central Valley Project, but only the State Water Board can tackle these problems statewide in response to our climate crisis. Although some of its promise remains unfulfilled, the CVPIA pointed us in the right direction. Now we need to take the next step.

By:  Jared Huffman & George Miller
Source: Cal Matters