3/19/2013: The State Water Board, the Bay-Delta, and the San Joaquin River: What’s at Stake?
One vision of the San Joaquin's future.
Bay-Delta water quality standards are reviewed every three years, in theory, but the reality is that major changes are made only once in a generation. This time around, in the most serious potential update to the standards in eighteen years, the State Water Resources Control Board is proposing that only 35% of the San Joaquin River’s flow must reach the Bay-Delta from February through June. This represents a meager increase from a miserable current status quo. Thirty-five percent of a river is, for many species and ecosystems, the same as no river at all.
We’ve been writing quite a bit about the Board’s upcoming decision regarding water quality in the Bay-Delta (see here and here) (links to end the drought now, and rain rain rain). Our colleagues have are focused on the issue as well (see here and here).
Why so much interest in the San Joaquin River and the water quality conditions it creates as it flows into the San Francisco Bay-Delta? Because there’s SO much at stake.
Here’s a review of what the Bay-Delta has to gain from a decision that restores more than half of the San Joaquin’s winter and spring freshwater flow (and what we will lose if the State Board acts timidly and refuses to consider more aggressive actions to save the Bay-Delta):
Viability for native species
Where we may be headed if State Water Board fails to protect the San Joaquin and our Bay-Delta.
The San Joaquin once hosted some of the largest spawning populations of Chinook salmon in the state of California – both fall and spring run Chinook spawned in the San Joaquin and its tributaries: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers. These fish thrived in the cold waters produced by snowmelt in the southern Sierra. Today spring-run Chinook salmon are extinct throughout the San Joaquin watershed (and a long march to restore them and other runs has just begun on the mainstem San Joaquin). Fall-run Chinook populations on the tributaries are less than 1% of what they were historically. Steelhead (ocean going rainbow trout) still spawn in each of the San Joaquin’s major tributaries – but there numbers are generally in the tens or even single digits. Sturgeon spawning in the San Joaquin River Valley has not been reported for decades, but this watershed’s rivers can provide spawning and rearing habitat for these ancient giants.
By restoring populations of Chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon to the San Joaquin Valley, we can insulate these populations from catastrophes that may occur in their current, highly restricted, Central Valley ranges. When all our native fishes rely on just one river system, the Sacramento River, which feeds the northern Delta, then all of their eggs are in one basket. A chemical spill, disease outbreak, or particularly dry set of years in the northern Sierra can wipe out the entire Central Valley population of species that rely completely on the Sacramento River. By restoring freshwater flows in the San Joaquin River to something resembling their historical patterns, we create insurance against natural and man-made catastrophes that could quickly extinguish our native migratory fish populations.
In the not too distant future, the San Joaquin River Valley may be the only place some of our native fishes can flourish. Paradoxically, though it drains the southern Sierra, the San Joaquin River is expected to become a refuge for California’s coldwater fisheries (salmon, steelhead, hardhead) as the state’s climate warms. This is because the mountains of the southern Sierra are taller (and colder) than those to the north and are thus projected to hold on to their snowpack and cold water supplies in the future. Thus, as California’s climate warms, our hope is that California’s salmonids can persist into the next century in the coldwater refugia that will remain in the high watersheds of the San Joaquin River Valley.
California’s Commercial and Sportfishing Industries
Several state and federal laws require restoration of Chinook salmon populations in the San Joaquin River – in fact, between the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1993 and the San Joaquin Settlement Act of 2009, restoration of the San Joaquin is required to produce more than 100,000 additional salmon each year. That would be a great boon to California’s storied but struggling commercial fishing fleet (see here), the tourism businesses that rely on visiting anglers from across the country, and consumers of delicious, healthy wild salmon everywhere. It’s important to remember that, in addition to Central Valley agribusiness, commercial fishermen are also food producers and they too rely on Central Valley water to produce their “crop”.
The San Joaquin is the 2nd largest tributary to the Bay-Delta. By diverting up to 90% of this River’s flow before it reaches the Delta, we have disconnected the southern Delta from the pulse of life. Historically, the winter and spring flow of fresh water were the lifeblood to our unique Delta ecosystem, helping to transport nutrients, energy, and organisms into and through the Delta to the Bay. Without that flush of freshwater, the southern Delta’s stagnant waters have become home to a variety of lake-dwelling exotic species that make the southern half of the Delta even less hospitable to native species.
Just as importantly, the Board’s decisions regarding freshwater flow conditions on the San Joaquin River are the linchpin for success in other Delta restoration efforts, such as BDCP or the Delta Stewardship Council’s Master Plan. The State Board’s current focus on San Joaquin inflows to the Delta is just Phase I of a larger process to set water quality standards for the Bay and Delta. If the State Board does not provide sufficient freshwater from the San Joaquin (currently, the most overdrafted of the Central Valley’s major rivers), then the chances that it will, in later phases, restore the necessary flow of fresh water through the Delta to the Bay are slim at best. Without a significant and equitable contribution of fresh water from the San Joaquin River to the Delta, restoration of Delta habitats and a diverse suite of organisms is highly unlikely.
Then there is the San Joaquin River itself. This river has long been among the most abused waterways in the country. In most years, its upstream and downstream sections are disconnected by long stretches of dry riverbed because dams upstream store too much water. Even the best restoration prescription currently on the table (published, ironically, as a non-binding finding by the State Water Board itself in 2010) envisions only 60% of the San Joaquin’s flow reaching the Delta – this is far below levels that most of the world would recognize as protective. Although restoring half of the San Joaquin Rivers contribution to the Delta is still not enough, it would at least put us in a position to argue about whether the “glass is half full”. A river that has 2/3 of its water diverted before it reaches its Delta is, for some species and beneficial uses of the river, just an empty glass.
Please join us in telling the State Board that you value the salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon of the San Joaquin Valley, that you value the Bay-Delta as the heart of the largest inland estuary on the west coast of the Americas, and that you value the San Joaquin River, because it’s not too late to make it a healthy river again by signing our petition.