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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Stage Set for Uncivil War Over Water in California

In the latest chapter of California’s ceaseless war to manage shrinking water sources, regulators are considering drastic changes that would reduce the amount of snowmelt available to San Francisco and farmers during dry years.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – In the latest chapter of California’s ceaseless war to manage shrinking water sources, regulators are considering drastic changes that would reduce the amount of snowmelt available to San Francisco and farmers during dry years.

The State Water Resources Control Board wants more water to remain in the San Joaquin River watershed during droughts in order to improve water quality in the state’s critical water-savings bank. It says the move is necessary to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – the focal point of the state’s water delivery network – and struggling salmon populations.

To get more river water to wind through the Sierra Nevada and into the delta, the plan calls for major cuts to San Francisco’s ability take water over 100 hundred miles away from the Tuolumne River in the Yosemite Valley.

The scheme to shift the amount of water available to humans has ignited groups on both sides of the issue during a public comment session Tuesday: farmers called the plan a “water grab” while environmentalists said it doesn’t go far enough.

Water board chair Felicia Marcus pushed back on the accusation that regulators were picking favorites in the water budgeting plan.

“This is not people versus fish,” Marcus opened the session. “It’s not actually about good and bad; it’s about how to balance competing goods which requires hard work and a healthy dose of empathy.”

Politicians from California’s agricultural heartland on both sides of the aisle also sounded off on the water proposal.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Modesto, led a protest against the water board’s plan Monday at the state Capitol. The elected officials represent districts where agriculture dominates the local economies.

Denham, currently in a tight race for re-election, said the “water grab” is the central issue to his Central Valley constituents. Gray accused the water board of being “completely out of touch with reality” and threatened that lawmakers may consider increasing oversight over the non-elected body for botching the water reallocation plan.

“I recognize this board operates under different rules than the Legislature does,” Gray testified Tuesday. “Frankly I’m going to need to see some action on your part or we’re going to have to question in the Legislature, is this in fact the body that’s appropriate to handle this issue.”

Regulators claim the plan, which updates the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan for the first time since 1995, is based on the best science available. The water board’s proposed amendments are over six years in the making.

Marcus and the five-member board appointed by the governor say the San Joaquin River and its main tributaries – the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers – have been sucked dry. They believe increased river flows will help flush out the delta’s increasingly poor water quality and revive its ecosystem.

The state’s plan would require an average of 40 percent of the tributaries’ natural or unimpaired flow to remain in the waterways and reach the delta during periods when salmon are returning from the Pacific Ocean. At times, over 90 percent of the tributaries’ natural flows are diverted to farms and cities.

Tuesday was the first of a two-day public comment session regarding the water board’s proposal. The water board has postponed acting on the proposal indefinitely in hopes of spurring negotiations between the interested parties.  The regulator is expected to release a draft proposal later this year regarding flow updates to the delta’s upper tributaries including the Sacramento River, which provides the majority of the delta’s water supply.

During normal and wet years, the board says San Francisco and farming irrigation districts would only lose a minor amount of their share of river water. But in dry years, users would face extreme water cuts and millions of dollars in damaged or lost crops.

San Francisco has sourced most of its water from the Tuolumne River since start of the 20th century. The river provides drinking water for millions of San Francisco Bay Area residents through a maze of pipes and reservoirs, starting with Hetch Hetchy in the Yosemite Valley.

Bay Area officials are wholeheartedly against the plan and warn that if the water board gets its way, 2.7 million businesses and residents could be in a pinch. They want the state to focus on fish habitat restoration, not just increased flows.

“Releasing the amount of water required in the state’s proposal – 40 percent of unimpaired flow – would not only have limited benefits for Tuolumne River fish, it would also require up to 50 percent rationing for our customers in drought years,” said Will Reisman, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission press secretary, in an email.

As the war over how to ration and portion the rivers wages on, California’s Chinook salmon populations continue to disappear with slower and warmer delta flows.

According to state data, adult fall-run Chinook salmon numbers have dropped by 85 percent since the 1980s, from 70,000 to just 10,000 in 2016-2017.

Don Marshall, a small boat commercial salmon fisherman, told the water board his industry is down to just a 19-day season. He said California fishermen have been “trampled” and “beaten down” over the last several years because of poor delta water quality.

Environmentalists aren’t fully satisfied with the increased flows and are adamant that the 40 percent goal doesn’t go far enough to turn around the fates of either the delta or the salmon.

“The board should set strong requirements on flow levels and temperature based on the best available science,” said Ben Eichenberg, staff attorney for San Francisco Baykeeper. “And the science definitively shows that the proposed 40 percent flow levels are not enough to protect fish and wildlife in San Francisco Bay.”

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