Last December, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopted much anticipated, new flow requirements for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. Under the new regime, 40 percent of river flows, that could be stored in reservoirs, will now flow out to the ocean. The purpose of this new regime, we’re told, is to protect the health of native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary (Bay-Delta), including salmon and Delta smelt. While certainly a laudable goal, the SWRCB’s decision will have a terrible impact on San Joaquin Valley agriculture, industry and residents. The Merced Irrigation District said 50 percent of its water supply will be lost as a result of this decision. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission expects to lose 40 percent of its dry year supply from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
If the tremendous damage facing the agricultural economy of the San Joaquin Valley isn’t enough for state regulators to find a more equitable agreement, consider the effect on the City of San Francisco. Because most of San Francisco’s water use is indoors, a 40 percent reduction in the city’s dry year supply will require residents to cut in-home and business water use by 40 percent in dry years. Combined with new water conservation mandates enacted last year, the result will be a lot of angry, thirsty, and politically-powerful San Franciscans.
Moreover, the benefit to fish is not guaranteed. In fact, the latest science suggests that habitat restoration is much more important to species recovery than simply increasing river flows down sterile, rock-lined channels; and, the United States Geological Survey predicts that sea level rise will eventually make the Bay-Delta too salty for many native species, regardless of how much fresh water from northern California is flushed out to the ocean.
Details of the Sacramento River portion of the SWRCB’s plan are still preliminary, but we expect the required water releases to be higher for the Sacramento River, and its tributaries, than they are for the San Joaquin River. SWRCB staff is currently recommending that between 45 and 65 percent of the natural runoff of northern California rivers be allowed to flow to the ocean unimpeded.
Fortunately for the Sacramento region, our local use of American River water is less than 10 percent of the river’s flow in most years, and more than 50 percent of the river’s natural flow already makes it to the Bay-Delta in most months of the year. Additionally, a new binding agreement between the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources shifts a larger portion of outflow responsibilities to Oroville Reservoir, in dry years, which is good news for water storage at Folsom Reservoir. While all these factors are helpful, it is far from clear how new regulations would be implemented or how they would affect upstream systems like PG&E’s reservoirs on the Yuba River, a major source of water for PCWA customers, or PCWA’s reservoirs on the American River above Folsom Reservoir.
PCWA believes there are ways to maintain a healthy ecosystem and not destroy the state’s economy. In an effort to protect the interests of our customers and the region, PCWA has been working with key stakeholders from river systems throughout the state, including the federal and state government, to find those solutions. Locally-derived, voluntary agreements that address regional ecosystem and water supply needs will prove more durable and more effective over the long term than a top-down regulatory approach espoused by the state government.
Einar Maisch is Placer County Water Agency's general manager.