Settlement Reached in Long-running Putah Creek Water Dispute

Putah Creek will soon be a much wetter place under terms of a new agreement that should give greater security to both native fish living in the creek and to Solano County cities and growers who depend on its waters. The agreement resolves a 10-year dispute over Putah Creek water rights. Beginning this month, water releases into 23 miles of lower Putah Creek will increase by about 50 percent in non-drought situations. The new releases represent the first time that permanent flows designed for environmental purposes will be required in this section of the creek. The new flows should benefit the creek's unique community of resident native fish like tule perch, Sacramento suckers and sculpin, and ocean-going steelhead and salmon. The agreement also addresses the water needs of Solano County farmers and cities. It sets forth detailed steps to minimize illegal pumping from the creek and preserve the water for legitimate users. And it specifies measures to be taken during any prolonged droughts to ensure that hardships caused by reduced water availability will be shared by all water beneficiaries. The new accord resolves a lawsuit and other legal efforts against Solano County water agencies that were begun in 1990 by the environmental group Putah Creek Council and joined in 1993 by UC Davis and the city of Davis. The central Solano party is the Solano County Water Agency, which manages releases into Putah Creek from the Solano Project. That project consists of Monticello Dam, which creates Lake Berryessa, and the Putah Diversion Dam, which creates Lake Solano and diverts water into the Putah South Canal and releases water into lower Putah Creek. The water agency supplies water to cities and irrigation districts in Solano County and to UC Davis under a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the builder and owner of the project. "With this accord, Putah Creek is guaranteed flows to protect its valuable resources, and Solano County water users gain a much greater degree of water security for the future. We look forward to a new era of cooperation and restoration on Putah Creek. All water interests in Yolo and Solano counties should be proud," said David Okita, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency, and Joe Krovoza, chair of the Putah Creek Council, in a joint statement. "The accord is more comprehensive than the original 1996 court judgment," said UC Davis environmental planner Sid England. "It not only increases flows in the stream and protects the Solano Project water supply, but also creates a management program to maximize the benefits to fish, wildlife and their habitats." Lois Wolk, a member of the Davis City Council and city mayor during most of the term of the lawsuit, is now a Yolo County supervisor but has continued to help the city work on the Putah Creek issues. "This historic accord works for agriculture, the environment, the cities and the university," Wolk said. "It's an excellent example of how water disputes can and should be resolved in California in the 21st century: by regional cooperation." The settlement includes the following elements: o Monthly instream flow requirements below the Putah Diversion Dam for the native fish of Putah Creek; o A process to monitor and control illegal water pumping from Putah Creek; o Funding of $160,000 per year for creek restoration and monitoring, including fish and wildlife studies, salary for a streamkeeper to monitor the creek, and grants for native vegetation enhancement and riparian land conservation; o An additional one-time grant of $250,000 for projects that benefit the creek; o Establishment of a Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee composed of Yolo and Solano representatives that will oversee implementation of the settlement, monitor and study the creek, and promote restoration projects on the creek; o Payment of a portion of the Yolo County parties' legal fees. Putah Creek flows from its origin on Cobb Mountain in Lake County to the Solano Project and on to the San Francisco Bay Delta through the Yolo Bypass. When full, the Solano Project stores 1.6 million acre feet of water. The water agency delivers 200,000 acre feet a year to its members, 75 percent of which is used by farmers in the Solano Irrigation District and the Maine Prairie Water District and by UC Davis for crops and animals. The remainder goes to urban uses in Vacaville, Fairfield, Suisun City and Vallejo. Falling stream levels during the 1987-92 drought, the region's worst on record, triggered the dispute. The Putah Creek Council claimed that the reduced flow in the summers of 1989 and 1990 in particular had seriously threatened the health of the creek's native fish, violating the California Public Trust Doctrine and state protections for fish living downstream from dams. The water agency said that the Solano Project was releasing water to the creek in full compliance with its water-rights permits and that the water was needed for urban and agricultural consumption. Furthermore, Solano parties contended that the problem was aggravated by farmers downstream of the Putah Diversion Dam illegally pumping water from the creek. In 1996, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard Park ruled that more water should be released from the Solano Project for lower Putah Creek and ordered that flows should be increased by about 50 percent, from approximately 22,000 acre feet to 31,000 acre feet. The Solano water agencies appealed. The settlement, which was worked out this spring before the appeal was heard, requires an annual flow of 31,000 acre feet except during extended droughts, when flows may be reduced to about 25,000 acre feet. The additional water for lower Putah Creek will not affect the 200,000 acre-feet allocation. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was instrumental in helping the parties reach settlement, Okita said. The university derives many benefits from the creek. It uses its 4,000 acre feet per year from the Solano Water Project for agricultural teaching and research and also considers the 5 1/2 miles of creek running through the campus to be an important resource for teaching and research. Peter Moyle, a UC Davis professor of wildlife, fish and conservation biology who is the foremost authority on California native fishes, worked throughout the years of debate to determine the quantity and timing of water releases needed to maintain the creek's native fish in good condition. "What is special about Putah Creek is the diversity of native fishes it supports: pikeminnow, sucker, hitch, blackfish, tule perch, prickly sculpin, riffle sculpin, stickleback and rainbow trout, as well as the three sea-run species: Chinook salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey," Moyle said. "The permanent flows will improve their conditions, as well as ensure that there will be enough bass, bluegill and catfish in the lower reaches to support fishing, even though these fish are not native." The city of Davis' interests in the creek focus on recreation and open-space preservation. It conducts an annual summer children's camp, Camp Putah, on the creek, and owns the 200-acre South Fork Preserve just downstream from the Mace Boulevard bridge.