Without agreements on water, California needs to set new objectives and protections for Delta

Jun 30, 2020 | Cal Matters

In summary

California officials need to come up with new water quality objectives and protections to help restore San Francisco Bay-Delta’s fisheries.

By Jon Rosenfield and

Jon Rosenfield is senior scientist for San Francisco Baykeeper, [email protected].

Jeanette Howard, Special to CalMatters

Jeanette Howard is a science director at The Nature Conservancy, [email protected]

For more than a decade, California’s governors have pushed for “voluntary agreements” to establish rules for water diversions by major urban and agricultural water districts, and to redress their environmental impacts.

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Our organizations joined those discussions to craft a scientifically sound plan that would restore San Francisco Bay’s fisheries and water quality –  and with the understanding that any agreement would satisfy all applicable laws, including the federal and state Clean Water Acts, as part of an update of the State Water Board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

Voluntary agreements crumbled recently, after the state’s largest water districts walked away from the table. Their reason: California sued the Trump administration over its new Endangered Species Act plan because it weakens protections for endangered species, including Chinook Salmon. But the collapse of these discussions doesn’t mean the San Francisco Bay estuary should remain in limbo.

The water districts had hoped to use the Trump administration’s endangered species plan as the basis for an agreement, which was a poison pill. Although the Endangered Species Act is a strong law, it sets a low bar for success – preventing extinction, as opposed to restoring healthy populations of threatened and endangered species. By contrast, building an agreement also informed by the state and federal Clean Water Acts would require it to protect a wealth of public benefits, including water quality and fishing. 

After almost 10 years, negotiations toward a voluntary agreement have not addressed essential issues, such as the inadequate volume of water that makes its way into San Francisco Bay, past diversions like state and federal water export pumps. Scientists from state and federal agencies including the California State Water Resources Control Board agree that many of the Bay’s fish species, including the endangered ones, require major increases in this Delta outflow to survive.

Contrary to some claims that the Delta outflow has increased over the past 25 years, our peer-reviewed research shows that the portion of water that actually reaches the Bay each year has declined for decades, despite existing water quality safeguards. 

The result has been a nearly permanent and extreme drought for species that rely on Delta outflow to survive. This perpetual drought has devastated Central Valley fish populations, including those that are imperiled and those that support California’s commercial and recreational fishing industries. Water quality has suffered as well.

The proportion of Central Valley runoff that becomes Delta outflow has decreased over time because not all of the outflow is protected under existing regulations. Diversions are frequently limited only by physical constraints such as the size of pumps and canals, or available storage. Without comprehensive, science-based rules to protect the Delta outflows that are needed to restore clean water, endangered species and vibrant fish populations, water districts are likely to increase their ability to capture any outflow that is unprotected. 

Finally, the State Water Resources Control Board is required to set water quality standards that safeguard public resources. The board knows its current standards are insufficient and has been trying to update them for 12 years, and new flow objectives adopted in 2018 have yet to be implemented. Instead, everything has been put on hold in favor of negotiating these failed voluntary agreements. 

Our organizations want science-based solutions for San Francisco Bay and its watershed, and the science supporting major increases in Delta outflow cannot be denied. The opportunity for voluntary agreements might emerge again in the future, but relying solely on them now will doom the fish and wildlife, human communities and businesses that depend on a healthy San Francisco Bay.

Gov. Gavin Newsom should encourage the State Water Resources Control Board to implement its new water quality objectives for the San Joaquin River tributaries, and to propose, approve and implement new water quality protections for the Sacramento River, its tributaries and Delta outflow. 

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