The San Joaquin River is the second longest river in California. Like the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin flows into the bay-Delta estuary.
With its tributaries the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers it once produced hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead. The healthy salmon and steelhead runs produced by the San Joaquin watershed helped create and sustain California's commercial and recreational fishing industry, estimated to contribute tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars per year to the state's economy.
Unfortunately, the San Joaquin River watershed is in poor shape. Returns of salmon have declined to a small fraction of their historical records, and the steelhead population of the watershed is approaching extinction. Reduced flows, a result of the diversion of most of the water from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, have been identified as the primary cause of this decline. Fish need more fish-friendly water, but San Joaquin water is in high demand and short supply.
The State Water Resources Control Board is considering whether or not more water should remain in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries for the benefit of fish and wildlife. The board will then take similar steps for the Sacramento River, which is the main salmon-producing river left in California.
These decisions will determine whether or not salmon and other species including sturgeon, Sacramento splittail and steelhead trout are able to achieve healthy population numbers and support a vibrant recreational and commercial fishing economy into the future.
The board's own scientists and independent experts have already determined that flows in the San Joaquin River are far too low to support healthy salmon and steelhead populations, and that at least 60 percent of the natural runoff in the San Joaquin watershed must be left in the river in order to rebuild the populations and restore the bay-Delta estuary.
In a typical year, less than 33 percent of the natural runoff in the San Joaquin River makes it downstream to the bay-Delta estuary. Despite this determination, the board's current proposal requires that only 35 percent of the natural runoff remain in the rivers from February through June.
This is an insignificant increase from the 33 percent that occurs in a typical year and far short of the 60 percent necessary to recover and restore healthy fish populations.
The board's proposal does not live up to its claim that it strikes a balance between "water for the protection of fish and other competing uses of water, including agriculture and hydropower generation." It merely preserves the status quo and will only perpetuate the unprecedented decline of California's fishery and the collapse of the bay-Delta estuary.
By not adequately considering the benefits that the fishing industry, other businesses, the general public or California's economy receive from healthy fish populations and functioning rivers, the board continues its practice of prioritizing the needs of those who remove water from the system over the needs of fish and wildlife and those that rely on them for recreational, commercial and aesthetic purposes.
The board's proposal overestimates the ability of salmon and other biological resources to survive in Central Valley rivers despite decades of highly altered and worsening habitat conditions while underestimating the ability of water diverters in the San Joaquin basin to increase agricultural water use efficiency, which would allow more water to be left in the river with minimal impact to their operations. The board must adopt a proposal that restores the long-absent balance between those who rely on water left in the stream for fish and those who remove water from the stream for other uses.
Our organizations, along with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Federation of Fly Fishers and the Merced River Conservation Committee, are advocating adoption of a plan that leaves more flow in the San Joaquin River for the benefit of fish and the ecosystem. Without more water, California's declining salmon and steelhead fisheries will collapse.
Moreover, unlike our compromised fisheries, other important needs and businesses can and do adapt. Our organizations and others have worked cooperatively with landowners, farmers and other water users throughout California to find more efficient, reliable and alternative methods of diverting and using water while continuing to run successful, profitable business benefiting all involved.
Keeping more water in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries is vital to reversing the decades-long decline of Central Valley fish species, ensuring that recreational and commercial fisheries are sustained for future generations. It's good for the economy and for all who benefit from healthy, functioning rivers.
Public meeting and comment
A public hearing on the flow proposals for San Joaquin River tributaries started Wednesday and continues today and possibly Friday in the Coastal Hearing Room of the California EPA Building, 1001 I St. in Sacramento. Both hearings start at 9 a.m. You can also read documents and comment until March 29 at: www.waterboards.ca.gov Chandra Ferrari is water policy director for Trout Unlimited. John McManus is executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.