Protecting California’s fish is an important duty of the State Water Resources Control Board, but not the only one.
I am one of five board members and the only one who lives in the San Joaquin Valley. Our board is required to protect all beneficial uses of water. This calls for balancing the needs of fish with the needs of city residents and of agriculture.
On Wednesday, the board will consider adopting a plan that would require 40 percent of flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to remain in the rivers to benefit native fish. That is almost twice as much as currently is dedicated to environmental use, and could mean a 25 percent reduction in agricultural water supplies during normal years.
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In dry years, our staff’s proposal will result in major reductions in surface water supplies in 23 Bay Area cities and near zero supplies for agriculture. This, in turn, will further deplete groundwater aquifers, devastate rural communities and result in water rationing for residents, businesses and industries in the Bay Area.
And unfortunately, the proposal is unlikely to increase fish populations. There are other approaches that would reduce the serious impacts to cities, agriculture and industry.
I intend to propose an alternative that includes targeted increased flows, habitat improvements and other measures.
It is obvious that fish need water, but they also need habitat to spawn, feed and rear. Because these rivers have suffered from historic mining and dredging, they need to be restored. Water agencies throughout the Central Valley have partnered with fish agencies and environmental organizations on habitat restoration projects. The early results are promising.
All of California needs to effectively and efficiently use water, including in-stream flows for fish. All water uses – environmental, agricultural and urban – should be provided reasonable protection. We must base these crucial decisions on the most current science. Unfortunately, the proposal before our board relies on outdated science, which assumes high flows will automatically create habitat, rid the rivers of predators and improved water temperatures.
Gov. Jerry Brown has encouraged the California Natural Resources Agency to work with water suppliers and others to develop voluntary agreements that can offer longer lasting solutions. The water board has applauded the governor for his leadership and has also encouraged parties to present us with these types of voluntary agreements.
However, if we do not receive agreements by Wednesday, the board is positioned to adopt the high-flow plan. That will result in 10 to 15 years of litigation, uncertainty for water users and no improvement for fish.
We can do better than staff’s extremely divisive proposal. Our communities, our rivers and our environment deserve fair and balanced solutions.