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San Francisco, farmers team up to fight California’s ‘water grab’

The liberal city of San Francisco and conservative farmers in the San Joaquin Valley don’t have much in common politically. But they do agree on one thing: California regulators are going to take too much of their water and give it to endangered fish.

On Thursday, San Francisco joined a cadre of irrigation districts that pull water from the tributaries that flow into the Lower San Joaquin River in filing a lawsuit against a plan by the State Water Resources Control Board to take billions of gallons of their water.

Last month, the water board voted 4-1 to go ahead with a proposal that would require that the “unimpaired flows” of the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries increase substantially. The board shelved, for the time being, an alternative plan proposed by San Francisco and the irrigation districts that would surrender less water while making investments in spawning grounds and other habitats to help Chinook salmon and other fish populations improve.

The board’s vote would reduce the amount of water available to farms and cities, including San Francisco, by 14 percent in a typical year and twice as much in a dry year. The board’s leaders did pledge to re-examine the alternative plan, championed by top officials in former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, in the coming months.

San Francisco and the agricultural districts, however, weren’t willing to wait. Their lawsuit, filed in Tuolumne County Superior Court, says the state board’s vote will mean “substantial adverse impacts on irrigated agriculture.” As for the city of San Francisco, the suit predicted “increased rationing throughout the service area.”

The litigation spells more trouble for a grand compromise plan brokered by Brown’s administration in December in an effort to calm the state’s longstanding water wars. Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, said Thursday he plans to scrutinize the compromise plans as well as conduct a reassessment of the membership of the state board. The five members of the board are all gubernatorial appointees.

A water board spokesman declined comment on the litigation.

San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission has been fighting the plan and, along with farm-irrigation districts in Modesto and Turlock that have called the board’s plan a blatant “water grab,” arguing that their alternative proposal makes more sense for helping fish.

“The state water board started the legal clock ticking and forced us to make this move,” said John Cote, spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney’s office, in a prepared statement. “San Francisco proposed a deal that struck the right balance, but unfortunately the plan the state approved on December 12 would result in severe water rationing in drought years.”

San Francisco and many of its suburbs get 85 percent of their water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, in the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park about 148 miles east of the city. The water that doesn’t get piped to the Bay Area flows through the Tuolumne River, one of the San Joaquin’s main tributaries and home to struggling salmon and steelhead populations. Some years as little as 11 percent of the Tuolumne’s flow stays in the river, and the state water board says it must increase that figure to stave off an “ecological crisis.”

State scientists say farms and cities take as much as 90 percent of the natural flows on some of the tributaries, leaving salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt on the brink of extinction. To revive the species, scientists say more water needs to follow its natural flow to the Pacific.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.