It’s fitting that the Bay Area was named after Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment. After all, the San Francisco Bay Delta was historically one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth.
Sadly, the estuary is now on the brink of ecological collapse. Starved of fresh water flow from rivers that feed the Bay, the salt balance has been altered dramatically, affecting everything from plankton to marine mammals and leading to toxic algae blooms that can make people sick and kill pets and wildlife. Problems extend up into the rivers that flow into the Delta.
The Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan – which goes before the State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday – offers our last best hope to revive the estuary that defines our region.
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While a state study determined that 60 percent of the San Joaquin River’s natural flow between February and June would be necessary to protect fish, the plan proposes a modest 40 percent. This amounts to a mere 14 percent increase in flow in the Tuolumne River over the course of a year, but it’s a start.
The Tuolumne once hosted more than 100,000 salmon, but in recent years, the population has plummeted to a few thousand or even hundreds due to dams and diversions. Regrettably, only 21 percent of the Tuolumne’s natural flow is released from its dams. A once fast-moving, cold river has been transformed into a slow-moving, warm stream, creating ideal conditions for non-native bass and other species, which are a symptom of the problem.
California’s Fish and Game Code is clear: “The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass over, around, or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.” Water agencies have clearly failed to comply with that law. Conditions were so miserable in 2008 and 2009 that the commercial salmon fishing seasons had to be canceled.
Fortunately, we can have a healthy environment and a vibrant economy by using water wisely. Tremendous opportunities exist in agricultural regions. A recent pilot project found that replacing open canals with pressurized pipes can increase crop yields by 30 percent, while decreasing water use by 30 percent. Over-drafted aquifers could be recharged in wet years for use during dry years. With these tools, we can maintain a strong farm economy while leaving more water in our rivers.
The Bay Area is not at risk of running out of water. Modeling has demonstrated that the region could manage a repeat of the record six-year drought with a modest average of 10 percent rationing, even with the revised Bay Delta Plan in effect.