Voluntary Agreements FAQ

The agreements are a suite of commitments among state, federal and local water leaders that create new measures to integrate additional water flows with the physical landscape to help improve conditions for native fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, their tributaries, and the Delta to which they drain. The agreements – sometimes referred to as the “Voluntary Agreements” because parties proactively stepped up to participate – encompass an integrated program to improve the health of rivers more quickly and more holistically than the traditional regulatory proceeding underway by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems drain about 40 percent of California’s land mass and much of the Sierra Nevada mountain range through a series of tributaries that flow into the Sacramento River and San Joaquin rivers. These two rivers then flow into a large Delta, and together create the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. This Delta is an estuary connected to San Francisco Bay that serves as a home for native fish and wildlife, a migratory corridor for salmon and birdlife, and its many islands feature small, historic communities and farms. Water supply for 27 million Californians also flows through the Delta and is exported to serve needs across Northern and Southern California and the Central Valley. The agreements aim to improve conditions and help change the trajectory of declining native fish species in the Delta and the rivers that flow into it.

No. Parties reached agreement on a term sheet and memorandum of understanding in March 2022. Additional parties have signed onto the MOU since then. The agreements are now being translated into a legally enforceable framework that will be studied by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) through an environmental review, evaluated through independent scientific peer review, and considered for adoption by the State Water Board following a robust public process.

Given the importance of improving environmental conditions in these rivers, some agencies that came together and signed these agreements are already taking actions to restore environmental habitat.

Science shows improved habitat that integrates flows with the physical landscape benefits ecological health and helps native fish, birds and other animals.

Under the agreements, local water agencies have committed to implementing a multi-year program to restore habitat with additional flows, participate in a watershed-wide shared governance and science process, and contribute funding to support implementation of these actions. Implementation of the agreements is estimated to cost $2.6 billion, to be shared by water users and the state and federal governments. Water agencies will self-assess fees to support implementation of the agreements. Water users and the state will make flows available through significant water purchases and voluntary reductions in diversions.

The agreements outline a transparent and inclusive governance and habitat monitoring framework with clear metrics and goals to allow state, federal and local partners to: 1) analyze progress, 2) manage adaptively, and 3) decide whether the program should be continued, modified or ended after eight years.

The agreements have been developed by numerous parties. They include representatives of the state Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Natural Resources Agency, and California Environmental Protection Agency; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; dozens of public water agencies that contract to receive water from the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project; and public water agencies that divert from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds. Representatives of environmental and fishing groups have been invited to participate in this process and previously provided critical input to the governance component of the plan. Several representatives participated in the first several years of negotiations and interested parties have been invited to participate in the shared governance and coordinated implementation.

Yes. Water suppliers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed not covered by an agreement are subject to the regulatory requirements developed by the State Water Board as part of its update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which would include a mix of flow and potentially other measures to provide reasonable protection of fish, wildlife, agricultural, municipal, and other water uses.

The State Water Board’s regulatory authorities have been and will continue to be used to protect fish and wildlife, but its most robust tools are process intensive, focused mainly on requiring additional water, and result in protracted litigation and uncertainty. The State believes that improved habitat—a mix of flow and landscape improvements--can best protect and restore the condition of native fishes. While the regulatory pathway for updating water quality standards in the Bay-Delta depends mainly on directing water agencies to make flows available, the voluntary agreements offer a broader set of tools than the strictly regulatory path to improve ecological function. These tools can be deployed more quickly than under a purely regulatory approach.

No. Under the agreements, additional Delta outflow in January through June would depend upon how a year is classified in terms of hydrology:

Critically dry – 155,000 acre-feet (af)

Dry – 825,500 af

Below normal – 750,000 af

Above normal – 824,500 af

Wet – 150,000 af

The flows must be additive to the Delta outflows required by the State Water Board’s Revised Water Rights Decision 1641 and resulting from the 2019 Biological Opinions, which are water project operation rules issued by federal wildlife agencies to protect endangered species. The 2019 Biological Opinions are referenced because they are part of the current regulatory authorizations for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project when the term sheet and memorandum of understanding were signed in March 2022, but the MOU does not commit to those criteria. Rather, it includes the reference as a way of measuring the additive commitments of flow that would be made available under the agreements. The 2019 Biological Opinions have been remanded and new Biological Opinions are being crafted at this time.

The agreements propose an entirely new way of managing ecosystem health and water supplies in the Sacramento River and Delta—in essence a paradigm shift. The issues addressed by the agreements are complicated and involve many parties with different assets, challenges, and interests. The negotiations necessarily have involved fisheries science, water law, reservoir operations, and local, state, and federal funding discussions. Each issue is complicated in its own right, each party has its own priorities and management style, and there are many parties involved. Coming to agreement had to be a careful, iterative process.

The state negotiated the terms of the agreements based on what the best available science tells us imperiled fish species need and when they need it. The proposal will be studied and vetted by the State Water Board and independent scientists, including through the State Water Board’s Draft Scientific Basis Report released in January 2023.. Once agreements are implemented, the state will monitor closely and adjust as necessary. But under this approach, water suppliers will more quickly make arrangements to restore habitat with increased flows to the Delta.

Parties are currently working to ensure the agreed-upon term sheet can go to the State Water Board for its analysis as an alternative pathway to implement an updated Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. However, early implementation provisions of the MOU mean that habitat restoration will not wait the approximately two years it will take for the Board to complete its process. These improvements are already underway. Signatories have begun creating the shared governance structure that will guide adaptive management under the agreements, and the state and water suppliers have already begun coordinating habitat restoration with flows.