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Newsom intervenes in dispute over San Francisco’s water rights

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Lt. Gov. and former SF Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks at an event at City Hall that kicks off a week of campaign stops throughout the state as he runs for California governor on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In one of his first acts after securing the gubernatorial election, newly-minted Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom waded into a years-long dispute in California that could affect San Francisco’s water rights.

Newsom and outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown sent a joint letter to the State Water Resources Control Board Tuesday night asking it to delay voting on a water plan to give the parties more time to negotiate a voluntary settlement.

At their regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday morning, the board voted 3-0 with two members abstaining to postpone voting on amendments to the Bay-Delta water plan, which must carefully balance the needs of farmers, municipalities and the environment.

“Voluntary agreements are preferable to a lengthily administrative process and the inevitable ensuing lawsuits,” the governors wrote. “During this time, we pledge to actively and meaningfully engage to bring this vital matter to a successful closure.”

“I’m authorized to testify before you this morning that the Brown administration will not seek another delay,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the meeting.

“You ought to take me at my word. I know that’s a leap of faith and relies on trust,” he said. “Maybe you’re skeptical, maybe some of us are cynical. I’ve been around this rodeo a long time, like you.”

Bonham said there had been more progress made in negotiations in the last two months than in the prior two years combined.

“Compromise makes the world go around – especially in our infamous water wars,” he said.

Some commissioners expressed skepticism about incurring yet another delay, although in the end none voted against the continuance.

“I know there is a genuineness to his commitment to be personally engaged,” said Steven Moore, vice chair of the board, “but the governor-elector has a lot on his plate.”

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has opposed the proposed plan over concerns it would limit the amount of drinking water The City can access from the delta. That opposition has drawn criticism from environmentalists, and last week the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution expressing support for the state’s plan.

However, that resolution was vetoed Friday by Mayor London Breed, who said it would be “deeply irresponsible for San Francisco to take a position that would jeopardize our water supply.” The mayor on Wednesday said she supported the move to delay a vote.

“By delaying a vote today to pursue these alternatives, we can avoid lengthy and costly litigation that would significantly harm efforts to strengthen the Bay-Delta environment,” she said in a written statement. “I look forward to continue working with our state and local leaders on a solution that restores the vibrant fish and wildlife habitats of the Bay-Delta while ensuring water reliability for 2.7 million Bay residents who depend upon this vital natural resource.”

Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of SFPUC, said during public comment Wednesday that his agency supports the delay and he remained hopeful about the ongoing closed-door negotiations.

“Everyone needs to give a little, and no one will feel in the end that they got the best deal possible,” he said. “I think we’re getting to that point.”

The State Water Board’s next meeting is set for Dec. 11.

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