4 posts categorized "California Water Policy"

January 30, 2013

End the Drought Now

The longest running drought in recorded California history is happening right now, and it isn’t caused by climate change or nature. This drought is the result of the average annual diversion of half the fresh water flowing from the Central Valley watershed before it reaches San Francisco Bay. The severe, permanent drought this diversion creates for the Bay-Delta’s endangered species and habitats is caused by the ever growing amount of water that is captured behind massive reservoirs, siphoned off into diversions along the rivers, and exported by giant pumps from the Delta.

The most dismal part of this picture is the fact that in a typical year less than a third of the water flowing in the San Joaquin River watershed - a geographic area containing the second longest river in the state and its tributaries - makes it downstream to our Bay-Delta estuary. 




Snapshot SJ
The San Joaquin drains the southern Central Valley. The river basin's water flows through the Delta into San Francisco Bay and then out the Golden Gate.

The San Joaquin has been called the “hardest working river in America.” Given the downward trend for many of its species, including the destruction of the largest spring Chinook salmon run in the state, it's clear that the San Joaquin is being worked to death.

Is this any way to run a river? Is this any way to protect an international treasure like the Bay-Delta estuary?

In 2010, responding to a mandate from the California legislature, the State Water Resources Control Board – the agency that regulates water use and diversions in order to ensure fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters and protect the public trust – re-evaluated the flow needs of the Bay-Delta. Relying heavily on the technical analysis provided by scientists at The Bay Institute and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Board found that at least 60% of the natural runoff in the San Joaquin watershed must be left in the river in order to fully protect the endangered species and habitats of the Bay-Delta. (Independent scientists and our own experts think the number may be even higher). This year, the Board plans to adopt new regulations for how much San Joaquin basin flow must reach the estuary, followed next year by new regulations for flow from the Sacramento River Basin to the Delta and from the Delta into San Francisco Bay.

So now that the time has come for action on San Joaquin inflow to the Delta, what is the Board proposing to do? Surely they are proposing to keep at least half of the river flowing into the estuary?

Not even close.

The Board’s proposal, released on New Year’s Eve, would set San Joaquin inflows at 35% – a very modest increase above the current, unsustainable levels and far short of the level of improvement needed to avert ecological collapse. Worse, depending on how the Board’s proposal is implemented by water users, the amount of water that actually flows in the San Joaquin river in the future may be less than what’s being proposed.

Thirty-five percent isn’t enough to prevent the continued decline of fishery populations on the basin’s rivers. It isn’t enough to ensure good water quality in the San Joaquin or the southern Delta, which are already plagued by a high level of salts and contaminants in local runoff. It isn’t enough to double the numbers of Chinook salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and other fish species that migrate through the lower San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta on their way to and from spawning grounds in the Sierra, as required under existing state and federal laws. And it isn’t enough to help rebuild the commercial coastal salmon fishery that was closed down for the first time in recent years, or the once thriving fishing communities that depend on healthy salmon runs. 


Freshwater flow in the February through June period (dotted line -- left axis) and the corresponding production of wild Chinook salmon (columns -- right axis) in the San Joaquin River basin over the past 60 years.  Horizontal lines indicate the average salmon production during the 1967-1991 period (black, solid line); the target for doubling production over the 1967-1991 baseline mandated by  federal and state law (blue line); and the actual production in recent years (red line).  

The strong response of aquatic species and habitats to freshwater flow conditions is one of the best documented facts about the Bay-Delta estuary, and it’s clear that better flow conditions are needed to save these species and habitats than what the Board is proposing.

Of course, the prospect of giving up any water for the environment is already leading San Joaquin water users to predict the end of civilization, a regulatory dust bowl in the valley. These kinds of claims aren’t new; they're made every time those responsible for protecting the public trust are faced with the need to restore the balance toward our flow-starved aquatic ecosystems, and are shown up as hyperbole after the fact every time. (Just look at how Los Angeles has adapted to reduced diversions from Mono Lake, for instance).

The truth is that water users in the San Joaquin basin have many options for improving how they manage their water supplies to leave more water in our rivers: re-operating reservoirs, storing more water in the aquifers, changing cropping patterns, using water more efficiently. In contrast, the salmon and other instream users of the San Joaquin’s waters have run out of options.

It takes more than a third of a river to make a healthy estuary. It’s time for the State Water Board to take the first step toward ending this human-made drought now and require a serious increase in flows from the San Joaquin River to restore our declining salmon runs and other natural treasures. And it’s time for Californians to let the Board know that half a river or more is not too much to ask to revive the San Joaquin watershed and the Bay-Delta.

To get involved, please sign The SalmonAID's Coalition petition Restore the Lifeblood of San Francisco Bay: End the Man-made drought in the Bay-Delta.

Links provided for additional reading on the upcoming Water Board decision:




January 24, 2013

Governor, You Can Do Better in the Delta

In his annual “State of the State” address today, Governor Brown was clear about his solution to the environmental crisis in the Bay-Delta estuary. “My proposed plan is two tunnels 30 miles long and 40 feet wide,” he said, “designed to improve the ecology of the Delta, with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration.”

The governor inherited the project known as the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan from his predecessor, but has since adopted it as his own. To its credit, the administration recognized the following problems with that inherited project from the beginning:

  • the proposal would take even more water from the flow-starved Bay-Delta estuary;
  • failing to include water management practices like conservation that could reduce the need to export Delta water;
  • substituting wetland habitat restoration (a good thing) for improving the amount and timing of ecologically vital flows into, through and from the Delta to San Francisco Bay (an even more important thing); and,
  • the fact that this plan would actually increase the chances of extinction for species it is required to help recover.

While improved in some ways from the old plan, unfortunately the project Governor Brown called for today serves at best to perpetuate the status quo. The project would still allow as much or more water to be exported from the Delta than the current amounts that are both unsustainable AND driving the collapse of the Bay-Delta ecosystem. The project would  also leave out the part of the plan that reduces exporter reliance on the Delta through aggressive implementation of water recycling, reuse and other measures.

The status quo is not acceptable in the Delta and the proposed project could make things even worse. There is a better way to solve our environmental and water supply problems. A week ago, The Bay Institute, other environmental groups, business interests, and major urban water suppliers in both northern and southern California like the San Diego County Water Authority, East Bay Municipal Utility District, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, released an alternative to the governor’s plan that represents a far more environmentally, politically and economically feasible approach to solving the Delta problem. The main elements of that plan:

Building a single, more affordable diversion and tunnel – one-third the size of the governor’s proposal – to guarantee that vital drinking water supplies are never interrupted in the event of a major seismic or flooding event.

Providing more flow to San Francisco Bay, in conjunction with large-scale floodplain and wetland restoration, to ensure that endangered species and habitats and our economically valuable sport and commerical fisheries can recover and thrive.

Investing up to $5 billion in water conservation, recycling, reuse and other approaches, along with developing additional storage capacity south of the Delta. Together, conservation and smart storage can generate far more water for Californians than increasing the amount of water taken from the already oversubscribed Bay-Delta system.

California has a history of building water projects that worsen the problems they’re supposed to solve. We still have a chance to get this one right before it’s finalized, permitted and constructed – if the governor would only listen.








January 14, 2013

Fall Midwater Trawl

Results Point to the Obvious: Less Water Means Less Fish

During the last months of 2012, we nervously awaited two close calls with disaster: the Mayan (Not)pocalypse and the federal government’s “Fiscal Cliff.” Ultimately, neither of these dire predictions came to pass and, hopefully the terms themselves are headed to the same historical scrap heap as past non-events like “Y2K”.

But the end of the year also revealed increasing evidence that our Bay-Delta ecosystem is currently experiencing an unprecedented environmental collapse, one I hereby dub “The Physical Cliff.” Unfortunately, we’re already over the edge of this cliff, and the prediction that we’re going to hit the ground below the cliff’s edge is based in science much more sound than that used by Mayan doomsday cosmologists or modern-day political prognosticators. Fortunately, we can still reverse course of this trajectory and end our freefall from the Physical Cliff, but only if we respond quickly.

The Data
Government agencies have been performing aquatic community sampling programs for years in the Bay-Delta estuary. One of these programs, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl, has caught fish and zooplankton (things that fish eat, like shrimp) at dozens of stations in the estuary’s upstream reaches between September and December annually since 1967. This program makes available one of the best long-term records of aquatic species abundance to be found anywhere in the world.

The Fall Midwater Trawl results from 2012 reinforced frightening patterns that indicate that we have already exceeded the Bay-Delta’s limits – we are falling off the Bay-Delta’s Physical Cliff. Last year, abundance of once common native species such as longfin smelt and Delta smelt – both of which are at-risk of disappearing entirely – declined substantially from levels detected just one year earlier and close to all-time record lows experienced in the past few years. Other fish and fish prey species have declined dramatically as well; even non-native fish species like threadfin shad and American shad were at record or near-record low levels providing further indication of the seriousness of this widespread problem. The Fall Midwater Trawl’s results are confirmed by results from other long-term sampling programs.

Figure 1: Trends in abundance of four fish species as recorded by Midwater Trawl from 1967-2012. On each graph, each of the horizontal lines represents abundances 10x that of the line below it. The fact that both native (smelt) and non-native (shad) have also declined precipitously in recent years is added evidence of the Bay-Delta ecosystem's collapse.

Horses of the Apocalypse
There are many drivers that have contributed to the disappearance of what were once truly staggering numbers of Central Valley fish and wildlife. More than 95% of riparian, wetland, and floodplain habitats were destroyed by the early part of the 20th Century (see TBI’s report Sierra to the Sea), and restoring them is both feasible and a key component of working our way back up the Physical Cliff. But success in recovering native species and functional habitats will also depend on reining in another driver of ecosystem decline in the Bay-Delta and its watershed: the large scale diversion and impoundment of fresh water resources.

Increasing amounts of water have been diverted from Central Valley rivers and streams since at least the mid-1800’s. After World War II, diversions escalated rapidly when the gigantic federal Central Valley Project came online in the late 1940s. Two decades later the State Water Project began exporting directly from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Despite growing environmental concerns, those diversions reached historic peak levels in the past decade, perpetuating a pattern of nearly permanent and extremely severe drought for the past three decades.

Not surprisingly to those of us who study aquatic ecology, many fish and wildlife species in the Central Valley respond positively to the volume and timing of freshwater flow. (See TBI's report Gone with the Flow for detailed discussion about the strong, durable and ubiquitous relationships between flow and species' abundance.) So, the widespread declines in species abundance reflected in 2012’s Fall Midwater Trawl results were entirely foreseeable.

Freshwater flows into and through the Delta were extremely poor since the early 2000’s (10 of 12 years were “critically dry” or “super-critically dry." In 2011, wet conditions returned to the Central Valley – wet enough that the Delta experienced what would historically have been a "below normal" year, i.e., not good but not cataclysmic. Most of the fish species in the Delta responded positively and in a few years from now, we expect better returns from the ocean of salmonids that migrated to sea during 2011. But last year was drier than 2011 and, because of the extremely high rates of water diversion throughout the Central Valley, Delta outflows looked unpromising: most of our native fish populations declined to near their lows once again, as a result.

Figure 2: Winter-spring freshwater flows out of the Delta as they would have been without diversions (unimpaired) and as they were (actual) over the past eight decades. Colors indicate hydrological categories for each year from wet (W, wettest 20% of years, blue bars) to super-critical years (SC, driest 2.5% of years, black bars). In the last 45 years, human water diversions have created a nearly permanent and severe drought. Super-critical dry years occurred only once during that period but, for fish in the estuary, 18 years were that dry. Nature provided 10 wet years during this period, but fish in the estuary only experience 4 years with wet conditions.

The simple take home message from last year is the same one we've been hearing repeatedly over the past 45+ years: when there is more water, there are more fish; less water, less fish. Humans are the real engineers of this Physical Cliff; in all but the wettest years we divert so much water from the Bay-Delta and its watershed that the estuary suffers a severe drought. Beneficial conditions for our native fish and wildlife occur only during the wettest years, when precipitation exceeds our ability to divert water.

We can stop the ecosystem’s freefall and actually re-scale the Physical Cliff by simply leaving enough water in our rivers and Delta to ensure adequate habitat conditions occur more frequently. Pending decisions by the State of California and the federal government about the amount of flow required for Bay-Delta ecosystem protection could make the difference, if decision makers do the right thing – but the bottom of the cliff is rushing towards us very quickly.

December 05, 2012

Rain, Rain, Rain

Moving salmon SalmonAid imageConservation biologist Jon Rosenfield responds to news about unusual salmon sightings in a Stockton drainage canal.

Rain, Rain, Rain! Nothing makes an aquatic biologist happier, especially one who lives in dry climates, than rain. And rain makes fish happy too. Most of our Bay's unique and economically valuable fish species respond positively to improved freshwater flow conditions in the estuary and the rivers that feed it.

So it is with Chinook (a.k.a. king) salmon. It's a simple rule on the Pacific coast of northern North America: where freshwater flows unimpeded to the ocean, wild Chinook salmon will migrate and attempt to spawn. A recent article in a Stockton paper documenting the discovery of two Chinook salmon in "an overlooked drainage canal in the middle of a busy city" is the latest evidence of that maxim.

Columnist Michael Fitzgerald writes:

"High flows of stormwater flushing out of the city system evidently created an 'attraction [flow] that confused the salmon," said Kari Burr, a fisheries biologist with the Fishery Foundation of California.

Burr had good news and bad news. The thwarted salmon will seek spawning ground in the canal and die. Even if they managed to spawn, their progeny will not escape the drying creek.

On the bright side, "It just lets us know how many fish are in the system right now for this to be happening," Burr said.

The presence of salmon in the ditches highlights the tremendous potential to restore this tenacious (and tasty) fish to its former home in the San Joaquin River valley. But the appearance of salmon in this atypical location does not mean that Central Valley salmon populations are healthy and stable. In fact, salmon from the SJR basin and other wild spawning populations in the Central Valley are far from the doubling standards mandated in federal and state laws. And, the typical locations preferred by salmon are cut off by dams, inadequate or reverse flows, and salty runoff that confuses migrating fish.

If we restore flows to the San Joaquin River - upstream AND where it enters the Delta – AND restore suitable spawning grounds - we can restore wild Chinook salmon to the southern Central Valley. On the other hand, if our plan for ecosystem restoration is simply "pray for rain," we'll occasionally find salmon in a ditch – and nowhere else.

Photo courtesy of SalmonAid