Water & Drought

San Francisco leaders hate Trump enough they voted to limit the city’s water rather than do this

What farmers think about plan to divert more San Joaquin River water

The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two days of hearings on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.
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The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two days of hearings on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus.

For months, San Francisco, a hotbed of anti-Donald Trump sentiment, has found itself in the awkward position of being aligned with his administration over California water policy.

On Tuesday, the city’s leaders said the alliance was unbearable.

In an 11-0 vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed in a resolution to support the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to leave more water in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to benefit struggling fish populations. The supervisors’ vote is subject to veto by Mayor London Breed, although the board could override the veto.

The vote splits the city from the Trump administration and instead moves its support to a state plan that its utilities commission warns could lead to severe drinking water shortages for its nearly 884,000 residents.

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An early version of the resolution explicitly says the city must divorce itself from the Trump administration and its congressional allies such as Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who’s branded the state plan a “water grab.” The Trump administration has vowed to sue the state if the so-called Bay-Delta plan goes forward, saying it would interfere with the operation of key reservoirs owned by the federal government in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Under the cloud of climate change denial and anti-science populism, the debate around the Bay-Delta Plan has transcended the realm of rational, environmental discourse toward a political and populist, anti-conservation rally cry, fueled by the strategic lobbying of a federal Republican administration aiming to destabilize California’s status as a Democratic stronghold,” the resolution says.

The board toned down that language in the final version passed Tuesday afternoon, opting for a resolution that read in part, “President Trump and his administration have overtly politicized matters better addressed through peer-reviewed, relevant science and innovative solutions to regional water use.”

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who authored the resolution, said the rivers’ fish are dwindling in population and added, “It is time not to act like a business enterprise but to realize that the health of our region is at stake.”

At the same time, he expressed hope that some sort of compromise could be forged between all parties fighting over the San Joaquin watershed, as state officials have urged.

The state board is set to vote Nov. 7 on the plan, which would require that the “unimpaired flows” of the lower San Joaquin river and its tributaries increase substantially. That 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 city’s Public Utilities Commission has been fighting the plan and, along with farm-irrigation districts in Modesto and Turlock, has been promoting an alternative that relies more on habitat restoration to revive fish populations. The Modesto and Turlock districts issued statements Tuesday reiterating their support for their alternative plan, and the PUC pushed back on the Board of Supervisors’ resolution at a committee meeting earlier this week.

“The state’s plan would require us to release 100 million gallons of water per day during dry years,” the PUC’s general manager Harlan Kelly Jr. told the committee. “That’s equal to about half of the amount of water we deliver to our customers every day.”

But the city’s Board of Supervisors, which approves the members of the five-person Public Utilities Commission, said it’s time for San Francisco to live with less water.

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.”

Hetch Hetchy is a delicate issue for San Francisco. Congress approved the damming of the river in 1913, and environmentalists have been fighting ever since to tear it out. The group Restore Hetch Hetchy met over the summer with Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Interior secretary.

City officials say replacing Hetch Hetchy would cost billions — and they’re worried San Francisco could face severe shortages if the state’s plan to alter flows on the Tuolumne is approved.

The city’s resolution comes as California’s dispute with the Trump administration over water intensifies. On Oct. 19 the president signed a memorandum directing the Interior and Commerce departments to streamline environment regulations governing water deliveries throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

While not directly tied to the state water board’s plan, the Trump memorandum represents an effort to pull more water out of California’s rivers and pump it to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Trump scolded California officials for allowing water to flow to the ocean, bypassing the big pumping stations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“What’s happened there is disgraceful,” Trump said at an event in Arizona, where he was accompanied by Denham and other congressional Republicans from the Valley.

This article was updated Oct. 30 at 7:28 p.m. to include language from the final resolution passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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