Here’s how to move beyond the water wars and save the Delta

Delta smelt are among the fish species struggling for survival in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. President Donald Trump’s plan would increase pumping and possibly hurt fish.
Delta smelt are among the fish species struggling for survival in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. President Donald Trump’s plan would increase pumping and possibly hurt fish. Sacramento Bee file

The San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary and watersheds improve the lives of nearly everyone in California, and many far beyond.

They put food on the table, put tens of thousands of people to work and deliver drinking water to more than 26 million Californians. These waters are a precious, shared resource. But there is a serious problem.


The ecosystem that the water supports is in crisis. Native fish, such as chinook salmon and steelhead, are on the brink of extinction. Populations of fall-run chinook returning to the San Joaquin River basin have plummeted 90 percent in the last 35 years. And the crisis is affecting other species that depend on fish for survival.

Simply put, these waters are no longer healthy and they need our help to survive. There are many reasons for the decline, including loss of floodplain habitat, pollution and predation from non-native species. But the key factor is inadequate flow remaining after farms and communities take their sips or gulps. Without adequate flow, floodplains don’t flood, migrating fish can’t avoid predators and pollution and salts don’t get diluted and flushed through the ecosystem as efficiently. It’s a cascading problem that is difficult to fix, particularly as climate change causes increasing extremes in precipitation.

Fortunately, we have the ability to restore some balance to this system through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta Plan. But this plan is now more than 20 years old and must be modernized for today’s conditions.

The State Water Board staff has just released its final draft of the Lower San Joaquin and Southern Delta update for final public comment. It addresses flows on the three main tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River, and south Delta salinity standards to protect agriculture.

Felicia Marcus

The staff also released an update on the Sacramento/Delta part of the plan to help the Sacramento River and its tributaries and the Delta and its tributaries, including the Calaveras, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers. Together, these plans detail the actions we must take to fix the problems in the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

Yes, leaving more water to flow into the Delta from both the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds will be challenging for water users, which is why the proposal sends more water but still less than what is optimal for fish and wildlife. Water users can adapt – by switching crops, becoming more efficient and storing more water in wet times. In contrast, species pushed to the brink of extinction have few options.

While the State Water Board has authority to address water flow and quality issues, it cannot order people to restore fish habitat or remove invasive species or take other actions that can help restore fish and wildlife with potentially less water.

But the board can reward such voluntary efforts through lower required flows, providing an olive branch to those who would leave water wars behind in favor of real action.

The public will have additional opportunities to comment on both plan updates. Meanwhile efforts are underway between stakeholders and other state agencies to design voluntary agreements.

Californians need, want and deserve a healthy environment, agriculture and communities. That happens best when people rise to the occasion together.

Felicia Marcus is chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. She can be contacted at

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