Bay Area Water Supply in the Crosshairs of New River Plan

A new state plan would boost the flow of the San Joaquin River. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

State water officials have released a proposal to boost the flow of California’s second-longest river, the San Joaquin. The river plays a huge role in the state’s water supply, which means even San Francisco and other Bay Area cities could be facing cutbacks.

The State Water Resources Control Board says restoring water to the river is necessary to bring back endangered salmon and protect water quality.

In an unprecedented move, the water board will likely take that water from districts with “senior” rights, like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Their water rights have long been considered untouchable because they’re some of the oldest in the state.

Reviving a Dry River

The San Joaquin River isn’t considered a “river” by some. It goes completely dry in places because farms and cities pump so much water out of it.

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“All of this unsustainable diversion of water has led to a collapse of salmon populations that used to be the most abundant salmon populations in California,” says Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with the Bay Institute.

As required by federal law, the state water board must review water quality on the San Joaquin River, but hasn’t substantially updated its plan for the river in 20 years.

Taking recent salmon declines into account, the board is proposing that 40 percent of the river’s flow be restored, including the water flowing down the river’s three tributaries.

Bay Area Supply

The SFPUC and its Hetch Hetchy Water System gets the majority of its water from one of those tributaries, the Tuolumne River. It supplies more than two million people in San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

“It’s a big deal,” says Steven Ritchie, SFPUC’s Assistant General Manager. “It’s not whether or not, but how much of an impact an action like this would have on us.”

The cutbacks could also affect the agricultural water districts on the river.

“This is an all-out assault on the people in these affected communities,” says Jake Wenger of Modesto Irrigation District.

Wenger expects to see fallowed farmland and job losses in his district. State officials estimate $64 million dollars in economic losses statewide, though agricultural areas estimate it to be higher.

The SFPUC’s water supply would be cut before supplies for agricultural areas like Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District, because its water rights are junior to theirs. The state water board will hold lengthy hearings determining where the water cuts should come from.

If cutbacks are implemented, the SFPUC would have to ramp up conservation or look for new water supplies.

“By using water more efficiently, we can continue to have a strong economy while restoring our rivers and the Bay-Delta,” says Peter Drekmeier of the Tuolumne River Trust.

“Urban people tend to have more resources than agricultural people, so urbans have more flexibility,” says Ritchie. “But when the requirements get extreme, you’re pushing that to the extreme and the water rate implications of dealing with this are probably significant.”

Untouchable Water Rights

The water board’s plan marks the first time that many “senior” water districts will contend with cuts for endangered wildlife, which is common for many districts with junior rights.

“It’s going to be huge because it’s going to set a precedent for every water rights holder in the state of California,” says Wenger.

Conservationists are equally unhappy about the proposal, but for the opposite reason. They say it’s not enough water in the river.

“The flows called for are very unlikely to make the San Joaquin into a functioning, viable river again,” says Rosenfield.

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The state is trying to strike a balance between people and wildlife on the San Joaquin River, but no one is happy. The proposal could be approved early next year. Lawsuits will probably follow soon after.

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