California Settles Fight Over Hoarded Dam Water

The Shasta Dam across the Sacramento River in California.

(CN) — Resolving an environmental lawsuit hatched during the state’s recent historic drought, California regulators on Tuesday promised new actions intended to ease the demise of endangered salmon populations.

As part of a settlement reached with fishing and environmentalist groups, the California State Water Resources Control Board says it will increase transparency and conduct heightened evaluations when deciding water quality standards and flow limits for the state’s critical waterways. In addition, the water board will lobby the federal government to keep more cold water in the state’s largest river during salmon migration periods.

Led by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the environmentalists celebrated the deal as a “landmark settlement” that stands to boost protections for fish by improving water quality in the Sacramento River and the San Francisco Bay-Delta.

“The water board’s long-standing pattern and practice of inadequately implementing foundational environmental laws has brought the Central Valley aquatic ecosystem to the brink of collapse,” said alliance executive director Bill Jennings in a statement. “This settlement agreement is a major step forward, compelling the State Water Board to fulfill crucial legal requirements it had previously ignored.”

The lawsuit filed in 2015 in Alameda County Superior Court had environmentalists claiming the water board wrongly waived and loosened certain river flow standards during California’s bitter drought.

The plaintiffs argue the water board trampled public trust laws and ignored imperiled wildlife when it granted modifications, known as temporary urgency change petitions, for the State Water Project and the Central Valley Water Project. In essence, the modifications allowed the operators of California’s two largest water delivery systems to keep more water behind dams during the drought and subsequently less water downstream for fish. In addition, temperature criteria at certain points on the upper Sacramento River were moved upstream or reduced.

Instead of protecting fish and water quality during the record dry-stretch that resulted in strict water restrictions on California cities, environmentalists say the state caved to pressure from the federal government which was seeking to maximize deliveries to thirsty farmers and cities despite drought conditions.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources, which manage the state’s largest reservoirs in Shasta and Oroville and jointly operate two massive delivery networks, countered the reduced flows were necessary to keep enough cold water behind dams to be released in the fall. The feds ensured the water board they could keep river temperatures cool enough to allow eggs and juvenile salmon to survive the drought. 

But after the water board signed off on the feds’ plan, temperatures below Shasta Dam near Redding spiked in 2014, frying salmon eggs and killing nearly an entire generation of winter-run and fall-run Chinook salmon. The bureau blamed the warm temperatures and resulting die-offs on failed temperature monitoring equipment and faulty modeling.

Under the terms of Tuesday’s settlement, when considering future temporary modifications the water board will have to conduct enhanced analysis on the potential impacts to public trust resources such as the health of fish below dams. In addition, the water board will have to explain its findings and describe its decision in writing. It additionally commits to following a similar process when evaluating updates to the Bay-Delta Plan, which protects the water quality of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. 

As for the Sacramento River, the water board will request within 30 days that the bureau develop a new protocol for temperature monitoring, modeling and planning for future droughts.

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network and AquAlliance cast the sweeping settlement as a boon for residents and wildlife.

“A transparent process is the only way to ensure the water board complies with the law,” said Barbara Vlamis, AquAlliance executive director. “Backroom deals will be a lot harder when the water board has to explain, in writing, how it is advancing the public’s interests in the public trust.”

By agreeing to the deal, the water board will pay the plaintiffs $175,000 for legal fees; the 11-page deal also includes the following disclaimer: “This settlement agreement does not commit the State Water Board to any particular outcome relating to Sacramento River Temperature Management, temporary urgency change petitions, the Bay-Delta Plan update, or any other related water rights or water quality planning proceedings.”

Water board spokesman George Kostyrko attempted to smother the plaintiffs’ celebration, claiming the settlement was “modest” and “no way landmark.”

“The water board settled the environmental groups’ lawsuit to conserve state resources and avoid protracted litigation-driven expenses. As part of the settlement, the board agreed to a few modest measures to better present and explain analyses it performs as part of its planning and water right processes,” Kostyrko said in an email.

The deal comes amid an ongoing fight between the Trump administration and the state over the future management of California’s most precious resource. The sides are fighting over new limits on how much water can be taken from California’s largest estuary for agricultural deliveries, as well as temperature management standards.

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