The San Joaquin River below Friant Dam in Fresno County. Photo by Dan Bacher.

July 10, 2018 – The State Water Resources Control Board on July 6 released its final draft plan to increase water flows through the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — a move praised by fishermen and environmentalists, but criticized by agribusiness representatives.

Citing nine years of research and extensive public outreach, the Board announced the increased water flows were designed to “prevent an ecological crisis, including the total collapse of fisheries,” according to a statement from the Board. 

“The San Francisco Bay-Delta is an ecosystem in crisis. The Board’s challenge is to balance multiple valuable uses of water—for fish and wildlife, agriculture, urban, recreation, and other uses,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture, and healthy communities, not one at the expense of the others. That requires the water wars to yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife through voluntary action, which the proposed plan seeks to reward.”

Ironically, the same board that released the draft plan to increase water flows thorough the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries is also continuing with the evidentiary hearings for the change in point of diversion petitions by the California Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation to build Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels.

If these tunnels are built, tunnels opponents say they would greatly counteract the fishery and ecosystem benefits resulting from the draft plan released today because they would divert more Sacramento River from flowing into the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary.

The Board said the release of the third and final draft of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta, and an accompanying Substitute Environmental Document, “comes after a nine-year process during which the Board studied and analyzed options, conducted extensive public outreach, including public hearings in the area, and reviewed more than 1,400 comment letters.”

On the same day, the State Water Board also announced “further progress” on its effort to update flow requirements for the Sacramento River, its tributaries, and the Delta and its tributaries, including the Calaveras, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers. This update is at an earlier stage procedurally than the Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta plan update; a draft proposed plan and staff report analyzing alternatives will be released later this year for public review and comment, according to the Board.

“The two Bay-Delta Plan updates are aimed at addressing an ecological crisis in the Delta and preventing further collapse of Bay-Delta fisheries,” the Board stated.  “A dramatic decline in the populations of native fish species that migrate through and inhabit the Delta has brought some species to the brink of extinction.”

Approximately 70,000 fall-run Chinook salmon adults returned to the San Joaquin Basin in 1984. The number of returning adults dropped to approximately 40,000 in 2010 and again to 8,000 returning adults in 2014, the Board noted.

“While multiple factors are to blame for the decline, the magnitude of diversions out of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and other rivers feeding into the Bay-Delta is a major factor in the ecosystem decline,” the Board added.

The draft final Lower San Joaquin River/Southern Delta update includes improved instream flows February through June, the critical months for protecting migrating fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, according to the Board. These flows are measured as a percentage of “unimpaired flow,” the amount of water that would come down the river if there were no dams or other diversions.

Here are some of the specifics of the draft plan:

• A 40 percent of unimpaired flow requirement, within a range of 30 to 50 percent, is proposed as an appropriate balance for this plan update because it can improve conditions for fish and wildlife considerably without more challenging impacts on other water users.

The Board said currently, flows remaining in the rivers can run as low as 10 to 20 percent of unimpaired flow at critical times of the year and range from 21 to 40 percent on average for the three tributaries.

“The unimpaired flow requirement is not intended to be a rigid and fixed percent of flow. The proposal provides for and encourages collaboration to use the flows as a block of water or ‘water budget’ that can be allocated to “shape” or shift flows in time to better achieve ecological functions such as increased habitat, more optimal temperatures, or migration cues,” the Board said.

• The draft plan recognizes that other “non-flow” factors, such as habitat loss, predation and pollution, affect survival rates of fish and other species. The plan would allow reduced river flows if stakeholders step up to pursue non-flow measures to improve conditions for fish and wildlife. Negotiations for voluntary agreements are taking place between stakeholders and the California Natural Resources Agency and its departments.

• The draft final update also includes a revision of the salinity standard for the southern Delta. Maintaining an adequate amount of fresh water in the southern Delta is critical to protecting agriculture in the region. The year-round salinity standard in the draft final update increases slightly from the current seasonal standards, based on salinity tolerance studies of sensitive crops. 

John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, welcomed the board’s release of the plan. 

“No one can deny we’ve heavily damaged the natural function and benefits of the rivers by over-diversion. Salmon runs in the three major San Joaquin River tributaries have fallen from 70,000 in 1984 to 8,000 in 2014.  This has hurt fishing families and coastal communities,” said McManus.

“Any proposal to increase water for fish is really a proposal to increase water for fishing families and communities downstream that rely on salmon,” he said. “Most Californians don’t want to see our state rivers dammed and diverted to the point where everyone else downstream is left high and dry and driven out of business.  Basic fairness requires the upstream dam operators to share with others downstream that rely on the state’s natural resources historically provided by these rivers. The State Water Board has taken a historic first step to address this problem.” 

Doug Obegi, lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), noted that the Board’s recommendation that winter-spring Delta outflow should be 55% of unimpaired flow, is “significantly less than what the best available science shows is needed.” Unimpaired flow is what would flow naturally in the absence of dams and diversions.

“The Board also recommends incorporating existing federal restrictions on the operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, to ensure that fish and wildlife – and the thousands of fishing jobs that depend on them – are protected. These recommendations come just as the Trump Administration seeks to weaken those federal protections in the Delta,” he stated.

Obegi also said this State Water Board framework “also has important implications for the California WaterFix, including the re-vote next week by the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).”

“MWD staff have sold the tunnels as a way to maintain or increase water diversions from the estuary, despite the fact that WaterFix would worsen Delta outflows compared to today and worsens conditions for native fish and wildlife.  However, by proposing significant increases in Delta outflow and reduced diversions from the estuary, the State Water Board’s framework provides a clear signal that WaterFix will not maintain current levels of diversions, and MWD Board members should not be surprised when WaterFix yields significantly less water supply than MWD staff has claimed,” said Obegi. For more information, go to:…

The Farm Water Coalition responded to the board’s decision by claiming that it “will leave thousands of acres of farmland with zero surface supply in certain water year types, stripping the Central Valley of over 6,500 jobs and $1.6 billion in economic output.” 

“Despite dozens of meetings, testimony from experts representing public water agencies, cities, farms, school districts and more, as well as mounting scientific proof that their approach is wrong, the State Water Board has not budged an inch, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“The State Water Board’s unimpaired flow strategy does nothing to address major stressors in the system, such as the loss of habitat for native species and overwhelming predators that have gained a problematic foothold on the Delta. What is needed, instead, are functional flows, which can meet multiple needs from farming to habitat protection, recreation, and urban water supply needs,” said Wade. 

The draft text of the Proposed Final Amendments for the flow plan was modified after consideration of public input. Those revisions can be found in Appendix K of the Draft Final Substitute Environmental Document here.

The State Water Board is accepting written comments on those changes until 12 p.m. (noon) on Friday, July 27, 2018. The hearing notice and instructions for submitting comments on the revisions can be found here.

A summary of the modifications and discussion of the changes can also be found in Volume 3, Master Response 2.1, Amendments to the Water Quality Control Plan  here. Board consideration of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta will begin in August.