Water & Drought

Who likes state’s plan to keep more water for fish in California rivers? Practically nobody

Aerial view of the Delta. San Joaquin river in the middle and the Sacramento River in the background. Taken November 11, 2008.
Aerial view of the Delta. San Joaquin river in the middle and the Sacramento River in the background. Taken November 11, 2008. The Sacramento Bee

California regulators say their sweeping proposal to devote more flows from the state’s major rivers to fish and wildlife is an attempt to balance competing interests for a scarce resource.

So far, all they’ve done is get practically everyone mad at them.

Opponents of the plan came out in force Tuesday, in the first of a series of hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board on the future of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. Environmentalists said the plan doesn’t do enough for California’s beleaguered fish populations, while farmers and elected officials said the changes would dry up the San Joaquin Valley’s already troubled economy.

“We should not be punished for staying in agriculture,” said Diedre Kelsey, a Merced County supervisor. “It’s our economy. ... It funds our schools, it funds our community.” She and others said the drought has already taken a toll on the valley.

The board is charged with overseeing the quality of the water that flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the fragile estuary that is the hub of California’s elaborate water delivery system. The board’s proposal, unveiled in September, would let more water flow unimpeded through the Delta and out to the Pacific Ocean. That would leave less water available to be pumped from the south Delta to farms in the arid San Joaquin Valley and homes in Southern California.

Along with the San Joaquin River, the board is planning to reallocate flows from the Sacramento River and its tributaries, with the same goal in mind: to shore up the Delta’s ecosystems. Decisions aren’t expected until next summer.

While farmers complained about losing water to fish, environmentalists said the additional supplies won’t be enough to protect salmon, steelhead and other fish species whose populations have fallen dramatically over the years.

“It isn’t sufficient,” said policy advocate Kyle Jones of Sierra Club California. He urged the board to adopt “more protective standards that are backed by the science.”

Board officials say a rewrite of the rules governing the San Joaquin River is long overdue. Standards haven’t been updated in two decades, and on average just 20 percent of the San Joaquin’s flow reaches the Pacific unimpeded during critical months when fish are migrating. Sometimes, the unimpeded flow is as low as 5 percent, board officials said.

The board says the unimpeded flow level should be raised to anywhere between 30 percent and 50 percent. Along with proposed changes in the Sacramento Valley watershed, hundreds of thousands of additional acre-feet of water could be left in the rivers for wildlife, subtracting supplies available to farms and cities.

“No one will be happy with the number. It’ll be too little for some, and too much for others,” said Les Grober, the board’s deputy director. “But it’s what we’ve got to do.”

The board said leaving more water in the San Joaquin watershed could translate into a $64 million loss to the region’s economy. Farm groups called that estimate too low.

The plan creates other complications. Board staff members said farmers would pump more groundwater to make up for lost surface water supplies, a scenario that collides with a 2014 state law designed to curb excessive groundwater pumping.

Besides taking water from agriculture, the plan also could affect San Francisco and other cities that rely on the San Joaquin and its tributaries.

A state scientist describes ongoing efforts to keep critically endangered Delta smelt from starving.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler