Seeking a better way to share rivers among people, wildlife

Many users have competing interests in water from the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River, background.
Many users have competing interests in water from the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River, background. Sacramento Bee file

California’s rivers work hard. Besides their scenic beauty, rivers provide critical services to a wide variety of people. They irrigate crops, generate electricity and supply drinking water. They support a commercial fishing industry that extends along the North American coast and attracts recreational anglers and boaters from California and beyond. They connect us to the wonder of nature and to ourselves.

But sometimes our rivers are asked to do too much. And then it is the State Water Board’s duty to balance water use among the many people and wildlife that are dependent on the rivers.

This is now happening with the San Joaquin River. It is the longest river in California, the second largest in the state, and a critical piece of the Bay Delta puzzle. The San Joaquin is an overburdened river.

The lower San Joaquin is fed by the flows of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. On each tributary salmon are born, migrate through the Delta to the ocean, and return about three years later to that same tributary to start the cycle over again. But their odds of survival are decreasing and will continue to decrease unless action is taken.

At critical times of the year, well over 60 percent – and in some cases and times more than 80 percent – of the flows of the tributaries are diverted for other purposes. That’s not sustainable. The salmon and steelhead are in serious decline.

On Thursday, the state water board’s staff is releasing a draft proposal to update minimum flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River to the Delta. The draft and supporting documents can be found on the State Water Resources Control Board’s website as well as at public libraries in the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area.

San Joaquin River flows have not been updated since 1995. Needs in the individual tributaries have never been addressed. Flow is not the only factor. But we’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the importance of flow to the overall health of fish and the aquatic ecosystem that is our shared heritage as Californians.

The proposal, which soon will be taken up by our board, aims to strike a better balance among competing uses of water. This will not be easy, but is necessary. While the science tells us that we have taken too much out of the river for it to remain healthy, people have come to rely on that diverted water to build farms and communities.

So there are costs to continuing to divert so much of the river, and there are costs to keeping it in the river. The issue is not about choosing one over the other. It is about sharing the river because Californians need and want healthy communities, healthy agriculture and a healthy natural environment.

The state water board staff is recommending more water be left in the river. However, the staff proposal also includes flexibility for the board to work with water users on the tributaries, scientists and others to adaptively manage those flows in thoughtful ways and to substitute on-the-ground restoration or other measures that help the species in lieu of flow. That is not something a regulation can direct, but it is something that we can accept if people come together to propose a suite of actions that truly help fish and wildlife in other ways.

These are tough decisions. Maintaining adequate flows for California’s natural resources can have significant costs for water users and local economies. But with creativity in how we manage each drop, including saving more water above and below ground in wet times for the dry times, we can minimize the costs and maximize the benefits.

That requires people coming together to solve problems rather than just saying “more,” or just saying “less,” or by dismissing each other’s legitimate interests. We’ll be listening for people’s best thoughts and proposals in the coming weeks and months before making our decisions.

Felicia Marcus is chairwoman of the California State Water Resources Control Board.