Another View: Valley rivers aren’t being singled out

Assemblyman Adam Gray misrepresents his legislation and the State Water Resources Control Board’s efforts to restore the health of San Francisco Bay, the West Coast’s largest estuary, and the rivers that feed into it (“State is unfairly taking water,” Viewpoints, June 10).

The water board is updating water-quality standards for the Bay Delta estuary and all of the rivers that flow into it, which were last meaningfully updated in 1996. It’s true that the first phase focuses on water-quality standards and flows for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. So much water has been diverted from these rivers that it has decimated native salmon populations and the fishing jobs that depend on them.

But these rivers are not being singled out, as Gray said.

The state board will set standards for the Sacramento River and other tributaries as well. Moreover, everyone in the watershed will likely be asked to contribute their share, including San Francisco, which diverts water from the Tuolumne River.

Only one-third of the natural flow remains in these rivers in key months – far less than the minimum needed to sustain salmon, according to scientists, fishermen, conservation groups, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state board’s analysis showed that keeping more water in the rivers could at worst reduce farm revenue and employment by 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent.

But that doesn’t take into account measures that farmers and cities could take to reduce impacts. For instance, shifting to more efficient drip irrigation could reduce water-supply impacts and increase crop yields.

Existing law already requires the board to consider flow and measures such as habitat restoration to protect water quality for agriculture, cities and the environment. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that we must improve flows, and while restoring habitat is important, it is not a substitute for keeping sufficient, clean water in these rivers. Without improved flows, our native salmon populations – and thousands of fishing jobs – could disappear forever.

Assembly Bill 1242 seeks to limit the board’s ability to fairly balance all users of water, tipping the scales toward agribusiness. His bill would make it harder for the state board to ensure that we leave sufficient water in California’s rivers, attempting to undermine more than a century of state law. The Legislature should reject AB 1242.

Doug Obegi is a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.