1/30/2013: End the Drought Now
The longest running drought in recorded California history is happening right now, and it isn’t caused by climate change or nature. This drought is the result of the average annual diversion of half the fresh water flowing from the Central Valley watershed before it reaches San Francisco Bay. The severe, permanent drought this diversion creates for the Bay-Delta’s endangered species and habitats(Links to Fall Midwater Trawl) is caused by the ever growing amount of water that is captured behind massive reservoirs, siphoned off into diversions along the rivers, and exported by giant pumps from the Delta.
The most dismal part of this picture is the fact that in a typical year less than a third of the water flowing in the San Joaquin River watershed - a geographic area containing the second longest river in the state and its tributaries - makes it downstream to our Bay-Delta estuary.
The San Joaquin drains the southern Central Valley. The river basin's water flows through the Delta into San Francisco Bay and then out the Golden Gate.
The San Joaquin has been called the “hardest working river in America.” Given the downward trend for many of its species, including the destruction of the largest spring Chinook salmon run in the state, it's clear that the San Joaquin is being worked to death.
Is this any way to run a river? Is this any way to protect an international treasure like the Bay-Delta estuary?
In 2010, responding to a mandate from the California legislature, the State Water Resources Control Board – the agency that regulates water use and diversions in order to ensure fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters and protect the public trust – re-evaluated the flow needs of the Bay-Delta. Relying heavily on the technical analysis provided by scientists at The Bay Institute and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Board found that at least 60% of the natural runoff in the San Joaquin watershed must be left in the river in order to fully protect the endangered species and habitats of the Bay-Delta. (Independent scientists and our own experts think the number may be even higher). This year, the Board plans to adopt new regulations for how much San Joaquin basin flow must reach the estuary, followed next year by new regulations for flow from the Sacramento River Basin to the Delta and from the Delta into San Francisco Bay.
So now that the time has come for action on San Joaquin inflow to the Delta, what is the Board proposing to do? Surely they are proposing to keep at least half of the river flowing into the estuary?
Not even close.
The Board’s proposal, released on New Year’s Eve, would set San Joaquin inflows at 35% – a very modest increase above the current, unsustainable levels and far short of the level of improvement needed to avert ecological collapse. Worse, depending on how the Board’s proposal is implemented by water users, the amount of water that actually flows in the San Joaquin river in the future may be less than what’s being proposed.
Thirty-five percent isn’t enough to prevent the continued decline of fishery populations on the basin’s rivers. It isn’t enough to ensure good water quality in the San Joaquin or the southern Delta, which are already plagued by a high level of salts and contaminants in local runoff. It isn’t enough to double the numbers of Chinook salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and other fish species that migrate through the lower San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta on their way to and from spawning grounds in the Sierra, as required under existing state and federal laws. And it isn’t enough to help rebuild the commercial coastal salmon fishery that was closed down for the first time in recent years, or the once thriving fishing communities that depend on healthy salmon runs.
Freshwater flow in the February through June period (dotted line -- left axis) and the corresponding production of wild Chinook salmon (columns -- right axis) in the San Joaquin River basin over the past 60 years. Horizontal lines indicate the average salmon production during the 1967-1991 period (black, solid line); the target for doubling production over the 1967-1991 baseline mandated by federal and state law (blue line); and the actual production in recent years (red line).
The strong response of aquatic species and habitats to freshwater flow conditions is one of the best documented facts about the Bay-Delta estuary, and it’s clear that better flow conditions are needed to save these species and habitats than what the Board is proposing.
Of course, the prospect of giving up any water for the environment is already leading San Joaquin water users to predict the end of civilization, a regulatory dust bowl in the valley. These kinds of claims aren’t new; they're made every time those responsible for protecting the public trust are faced with the need to restore the balance toward our flow-starved aquatic ecosystems, and are shown up as hyperbole after the fact every time. (Just look at how Los Angeles has adapted to reduced diversions from Mono Lake, for instance).
The truth is that water users in the San Joaquin basin have many options for improving how they manage their water supplies to leave more water in our rivers: re-operating reservoirs, storing more water in the aquifers, changing cropping patterns, using water more efficiently. In contrast, the salmon and other instream users of the San Joaquin’s waters have run out of options.
It takes more than a third of a river to make a healthy estuary. It’s time for the State Water Board to take the first step toward ending this human-made drought now and require a serious increase in flows from the San Joaquin River to restore our declining salmon runs and other natural treasures. And it’s time for Californians to let the Board know that half a river or more is not too much to ask to revive the San Joaquin watershed and the Bay-Delta.
To get involved, please sign The SalmonAID's Coalition petition Restore the Lifeblood of San Francisco Bay: End the Man-made drought in the Bay-Delta.
Links provided for additional reading on the upcoming Water Board decision: