Water & Drought

California eyes more Sacramento River water for fish, less for farms, cities

Rice farmer Don Bransford looks over a field in Williams, Colusa County, in May 2015. He said a proposed cutback in water supplies to help fish “would be disastrous.”
Rice farmer Don Bransford looks over a field in Williams, Colusa County, in May 2015. He said a proposed cutback in water supplies to help fish “would be disastrous.” Sacramento Bee file

Signaling a cutback in water supplies for farming and cities, California regulators on Wednesday issued a new scientific analysis that proposes overhauling the management of the Sacramento River and devoting more water to Northern California’s dwindling fish populations.

The State Water Resources Control Board, in a widely anticipated report crafted by its staff, said it’s considering allowing much more of the flow from the Sacramento River and its tributaries to wash out into the ocean.

The board avoided issuing a specific recommendation on how much additional water should go to fish. Instead, the agency is analyzing the impact of allowing anywhere from 35 percent to 75 percent of the flows from the Sacramento River watershed to wash out to sea. Currently about half of the flow from the Sacramento and its tributaries, including the American and Feather rivers, is allowed to flow unimpeded to the ocean for the benefit of fish.

Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus cautioned that Wednesday’s staff report is merely a draft. She said her agency wants various groups to submit comments before it makes a decision, sometime next year. She said the board will take into account human needs before adopting any comprehensive plan.

“This is not a proposal to require those flows at all,” she said. “That is down the line. This is just putting out the science for folks to comment on, so that we can revise it and get it reviewed by more people and have the scientific basis from which we would know what fish and wildlife needs are, and then we balance from there.”

The proposal comes a month after the water board called for people to take far less water out of the San Joaquin River system. Marcus said the process governing the San Joaquin system is much further along than for the Sacramento watershed.

Taken together, the two proposals could dramatically alter the balance of power in the endless fight among cities, farmers and environmentalists over California’s water supply – a fight that already has been intensified by the 5-year-old drought.

If more of California’s river water flows unimpeded to the ocean, that would likely leave less water for Sacramento Valley farmers, who enjoy some of the most powerful water rights in all of California, and for urban areas like Sacramento. It could also mean less water flowing into the massive government-run pumping stations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which deliver billions of gallons of water each year to Southern California, the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley.

Tom Gohring of the Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of urban agencies and environmentalists, said the state’s plan could disrupt a 15-year-old compromise for allocating water in the Sacramento area. Urban water managers “will be absolutely watching (their) back,” Gohring said.

Sacramento Valley rice grower Don Bransford, president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, said diverting a lot more water to fish “would probably be disastrous for a lot of people.”

The head of the California Farm Bureau, Modesto almond grower Paul Wenger, called the twin proposals “a one-two punch aimed at rural California.”

The water board first floated the concept of dedicating more of the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds to the environment in 2010, triggering feverish warnings from a coalition of water agencies that up to 1.7 million acres of farmland would be idled as a result. With the proposals now taking on greater urgency, water users are responding with renewed alarm.

“It’s both predictable and troublesome,” said Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents urban and rural districts. He argued that the state should also examine other measures to help fish, such as habitat restoration.

Jonathan Rosenfield, a biologist with the nonprofit Bay Institute in San Francisco, said he’s pleased that the board is finally taking steps to address the long-standing problem of too much water being diverted from California’s rivers for human use.

But he said he’s disappointed that the water board didn’t propose allowing even more to flow out to sea to benefit the numerous imperiled fish and wildlife species that inhabit the network of waterways that eventually feed San Francisco Bay. Two species in particular have been pushed to the brink of extinction by years of drought and decades of Delta pumping and upstream diversion for human needs: the Delta smelt and the winter-run Chinook salmon.

He said that in 2010, the board acknowledged that at least a 75 percent ocean outflow was necessary to ensure the species’ survival.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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