State regulators proposed sweeping changes in the allocation of California's water Friday, leaving more water in Northern California's major rivers to help ailing fish populations — and giving less to farming and human consumption.
By limiting water sent to cities and farms and keeping more for fish, the proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board's staff likely will ignite a round of lawsuits and political squabbles. Critics immediately pounced on the plan, saying it will take some of the nation's most fertile farmland out of production and harm the Central Valley economy.
But the state board said more water must be devoted to fish to prevent environmental disaster. Several major species of fish are nearing extinction, and increasing river flows will help them survive, the board said.
"We've simply taken too much water out of the system for the natural ecosystem to survive," said board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus in a conference call with reporters. She said the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state's elaborate water-delivery network, "is on the verge of collapse."
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The board, made up of five regulators appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, plans to vote on the proposal in August.
The proposal could put California on a collision course with the Trump administration, which earlier this year released a plan to "maximize water deliveries" from Northern California to the south state. President Donald Trump has promised to bring more water to San Joaquin Valley farmers, who supported him during the 2016 election.
At the same time, the water board's proposal raises new questions about Brown's controversial $17 billion plan to build two tunnels beneath the Delta. He says the tunnels would fix the estuary's plumbing, enabling water deliveries to the south to proceed more smoothly and with less harm to fish.
Tunnels opponent Doug Obegi, of the National Resources Defense Council, said the state board's proposal undermines the governor's promises of what the tunnels could accomplish. Because of the proposal, much more water will have to flow naturally out of the Delta and into the ocean, reducing the amount that can be pumped to the south state.
As the latest tug-of-war unfolds, the water board's proposal is a stark reminder of how California's water supply, a year after the historic drought officially ended, remains stretched perilously thin. Even in good years, when rain and snow are plentiful, there isn't enough to meet all of the state's needs.
The state water board, which referees California's complicated water-rights system, also is in charge of policing the quality of the water that goes through the Delta. Several years ago, the board began studying water flows into the Delta from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, saying standards hadn't been updated since 1995 and were long overdue.
The plan released Friday addresses flows in the San Joaquin River system. The San Joaquin is perhaps California's most overused river system, and state officials say as little as 20 percent of the river even reaches the Delta. The proposal released Friday would increase those so-called "unimpeded flows" to a range of 30 percent to 50 percent.
That could reduce water deliveries to a wide range of water users that pull water out of the San Joaquin and its tributaries, including the cities of San Francisco, Modesto and Merced and hundreds of farms in the San Joaquin Valley. According to a staff report, the board's proposal would take an average of 288,000 acre-feet of water away from those users. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
Separately, the state board released a preliminary plan for re-allocating more of the Sacramento River watershed's flows to fish. That plan calls for increasing the unimpeded flows to 45 percent to 65 percent. Currently, less than half the water on the Sacramento reaches the Delta because of diversions by farms and cities along the way. A more detailed proposal on the Sacramento River will come later this year.
Marcus said some irrigation districts are talking with top state officials about alternatives to the higher flows, such as restoring fish habitats or eliminating the predators that are wiping out endangered species. However, she acknowledged that those talks, which are being brokered by the California Natural Resources Agency, might fail.
"It may be wishful thinking that California's storied water wars could yield to collective efforts," she said.
Re-allocating the flows on the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds is aimed at restoring fish populations that have struggled mightily in the past decade or so. The numbers of Chinook salmon haven't rebounded since the drought was declared over, and the tiny Delta smelt continues their possibly irreversible march toward extinction.
In its plan for the San Joaquin, the board said it "recognizes that reduced diversions can create financial and operational challenges for local economies." It estimated that the Valley could lose up to 1,300 jobs.
But farm groups said the state doesn't grasp the enormity of the problems. The California Farm Water Coalition said the job loss would total 6,500.
The state's plan "is just not achievable without staggering human costs," said Chris Scheuring, counsel at the California Farm Bureau Federation. "This ... is just going to break the system at some point."
Scheuring said the proposal will almost certainly lead to farmland being taken out of production — just as farmers are trying to figure out how to comply with new state-imposed rules regulating how much groundwater they can pump.
"We're hit from behind and we're hit from the front," he said. "Obviously there's not enough (water) to go around here."
Commercial fishermen, however, welcomed the proposal.
"No one can deny we've heavily damaged the natural function and benefits of the rivers by over-diversion," said John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. "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. The state water board has taken a historic first step to address this problem."