California contemplates water for struggling fish

In an unprecedented move, the state may require upstream users to cut water use to improve water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

 

Billions of gallons of water once flowed out of California’s San Joaquin watershed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta each year, helping sustain salmon, Delta smelt and steelhead and a vibrant fishing industry. But in recent years, water demand from agriculture and the state’s burgeoning cities has, at times, reduced the river to as little as 20 percent of historic flows, hurting fish populations.

Now, the state has proposed moving more water from farms and cities to the Delta. In an unprecedented move, the Water Resources Control board voted in December to require water users to leave more water in the lower San Joaquin River to improve water quality and help fish. “This decision represents the water board taking its job to protect the public trust and our fisheries more seriously,” said Regina Chichizola, salmon and water policy analyst for the Institute for Fisheries Resources.

The San Luis Reservoir, located in Merced County, California, stores water taken from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.

Past cutbacks have focused on users who drew directly from the Delta. Now, for the first time, limits would reach far upstream, hitting water diverters who have never faced such restrictions, even though their usage greatly reduces the Delta’s supply.

The San Joaquin Valley’s powerful irrigation districts would have to reduce the amount they pull from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, tributaries of the San Joaquin, by about 15 percent. Increased river flows would lower the Delta’s salinity, helping salmon and other Delta species, proponents say. But the water users, many of whom hold powerful century-old water rights, argue that such a large cutback would harm both farmers and urban residents. San Francisco’s water agency says the city could lose nearly half its supply during droughts.

The state’s plan would require major regulatory changes and is sure to spark legal battles. California Gov. Jerry Brown offered a compromise agreement in December shortly before he left office, urging cities and farms to voluntarily give up water and requiring water agencies to pay for improving habitat and spawning grounds. The deal would increase the flow reaching the Delta by up to 1 million acre-feet — roughly one-third the amount specified in the water board’s plan. Many environmental groups panned the governor’s proposal, saying it doesn’t do nearly enough to help vanishing fish populations.

The water board has yet to accept or decline the compromise; it has until March to study its potential effects. And no vote’s been scheduled on the second part of the state plan, which involves the Sacramento Valley’s rivers. Whatever decision is reached, California faces years of court challenges; five irrigation districts and the city of San Francisco have already launched lawsuits against what they view as a “water grab.”

Jodi Peterson is a contributing editor at High Country News. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....