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Tunnel Vision: Who Really Determines California's Water Flow

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The state is deciding how much freshwater should flow into the Delta from tributaries like the Tuolumne River. (Photo: NWS)
The state is deciding how much freshwater should flow into the Delta from tributaries like the Tuolumne River. (Photo: National Weather Service)

This year, all eyes are on Governor Jerry Brown’s $23 billion water plan – what he’s calling a solution to California’s long-standing battles in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Two massive, 35-mile water tunnels would ensure the water supply for 25 million Californians. More than 100,000 acres of habitat restoration would bring back imperiled fish.

At the same time, a different state agency is quietly taking on a planning process that could have a much larger impact on the state’s water supply and wildlife.

The State Water Board is making a controversial determination: is too much water being taken out of the Delta? Over the past 50 years, the Delta has been tapped to meet the needs of a rapidly growing state. Today it supplies cities from Sacramento to the Bay Area and Southern California, as well as millions of acres of farmland in the Central Valley.

If the State Water Board finds that too little water is being left in the Delta for endangered salmon and other wildlife, the agency has the power to get that water by amending what’s long been considered sacrosanct in the state: water rights.

While many say the Governor’s plan, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), will address key environmental factors like the powerful water pumps in the south Delta that harm fish, the plan won’t address the overall balance of water use.


“The water board process is the number one, two and three most important things that could lead to restoration of the Delta,” says Jon Rosenfield of the Bay Institute. “BDCP is a distant fourth or fifth.”

Natural River Flows

The central debate is over the freshwater needed to support fish populations that have declined in recent years, like Chinook salmon. Biologists say the natural river flows they depend on have been dramatically altered by dams and water pumping.

On Wednesday, the State Water Board is holding a public hearing looking at the flows of the San Joaquin River, one of two major rivers that meet in the Delta. In December, the agency released a preliminary draft recommending that at least 35 percent of the river be allowed to flow from February to June.

“It’s closer to natural flow than the current flow regime,” said Les Grober of the State Water Board. “The current regime is: store as much water as possible during the spring months and keep it in storage for release in the summer for agriculture and hydropower.”

Typically, the San Joaquin runs with only about 30 percent of its natural flow, though it varies from year to year. The new requirements would largely affect two of the tributaries that feed the San Joaquin, the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, which currently have spring flows of about 20 percent.

In 2010, the State Water Board released a report recommending that at least 60 percent of the river be allowed to flow, looking solely at wildlife protection. The agency arrived at the current recommendation of 35 percent by including the needs of water users and agriculture.

“Our role is to develop water quality objectives that provide for the reasonable protection, not the absolute protection [of fish],” said Grober. “Reasonable means you have to look at the water supply costs of providing some level of protection to fish. We talk about balancing the competing uses of water.”

The Board will set flow levels for the rest of the Delta, including the Sacramento River, in the next phase of the process. After staff recommendations are made, board members will look at the water rights to determine where the extra water will come from.

Criticism from Both Sides

The State Water Board’s proposal is getting heat from both sides of the debate – wildlife groups and farming communities.

“What it means is very little change from the status quo,” said Rosenfield of the Bay Institute. “Obviously a third of a river is not a whole river, or even half a river. It means that less water is making it to the Delta than needs to.”

Rosenfield and other environmentalists argue that spring flows are crucial to the Delta’s ecosystem. “Juvenile Chinook salmon are migrating out of the rivers and into the Delta and so freshwater flows are helping them do that,” said Rosenfield. “In the Delta itself, Delta smelt and longfin smelt are spawning.”

“You’re going to lose a lot of land to fallowing,” said Allen Short of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, a group representing major water districts that use the San Joaquin River. “The economy is going to spiral downwards because you’re going to lose jobs and you’re going to lose the agricultural base.” The State Water Board estimates a 7 percent reduction in irrigated acreage.

The water districts argue that the invasive species that prey on young salmon, like striped bass and largemouth bass, are a larger threat. “We don’t believe additional flows are going to make a difference in increasing the fish population,” said Short. “You need to fix the other stressors in the Delta and the San Joaquin before you require additional flows to go down the river.”

Short would like to see programs that encourage more bass fishing. “Instead of catch and release, catch and eat,” he said. “The idea is to drive the population down so our fish have a better chance of coming back.”

Rosenfield says some of the economic costs will be offset. “I think the cries that ‘the sky is falling’ is hyperbole in the extreme,” he said. “We have a river that used to be one of great Chinook salmon rivers in the world and if it was even marginally restored, it could support another 100,000 salmon per year. That could be a great boon to our fishing economy up the coast all the way to Oregon.”

Battles to Come

Many expect a bitter fight even before the State Water Board begins looking at water rights. Major water districts, including the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, have pledged to fight any increases in river flow. Even San Francisco could be involved, since the city depends on water from the Tuolumne River. “If additional flows are required, San Francisco does have skin in the game at that point,” says Short.

State Water Board staffers say they’ll be working closely with the state agencies developing the Governor’s water plan. Ultimately, that plan won’t move ahead without approval from the Water Board. In the meantime, the board will continue the contentious process of dividing up California’s water.


“It’s the crux of what’s important to all people in the state of California: how we value water and how do we think water should be used?” Grober said.

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