The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Bay-Delta Water Quality Release would mandate a minimum of 40 percent of “unimpaired flow” along the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers each year from Feb. 1 to June 30 for fish. Look for the same percentage or more on the Sacramento River system and tributaries.
“Unimpaired flow” is a hydrology term for natural runoff of a watershed or waterbody that would have occurred prior to anthropogenic or human influences on the watershed. This proposed application is fantasy, as not only do we have a highly altered watershed with dams and diversions, we have a highly altered Delta waterway that includes dozens of islands and over 1,000 miles of levees and diversions that will never return to pre-anthropogenic or human-influenced conditions.
That said, a critical element missing from this “flow” discussion is the science developed by the Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB), created by the Delta Stewardship Council, a state agency established by the 2009 Delta Reform Act.
In August 2015, the Delta ISB reported that “flow is but one factor affecting fishes and its effects are confounded by other drivers of fish production in the ecosystem.” The report went on to say that “five major drivers are considered as agents of change in any given ecosystem. These are habitat alteration and loss, resource use and exploitation, invasive species, pollution and climate. All these drivers have played a role in the Delta and affected fishes.” The report reads, “It is almost impossible to assess how flows affected fishes historically in the Delta because the ecosystem has undergone, and is still experiencing, dramatic alterations in habitat, species composition and interactions, channel morphology and water quality.”
Rightly so, there is much interest to save and enhance the life cycles of endangered species in the Delta. However, the proposed plan would strip the mountain counties region of its water resources. The plan is flawed and should be retracted. There has been little or no regard for the impacts to the Sierra ecosystem and endangered aquatic plant and animal species, including endemic and migrating species already stressed by extensive forest fires and drought above foothill dams. If the Delta is to thrive, we cannot sacrifice its watershed, plain and simple. Until the “drivers” in the Delta have been fixed to provide food and cover for endangered fish, and until upstream water quality issues are resolved, more flow must be deemed a waste and an unreasonable use of water, particularly when the science says, “flow is but one factor affecting fishes.”
Not understood by many of those who do not live or work in the Foothills and headwaters of California, this draconian decision will penalize disadvantaged rural communities in the mountain counties, increase fire-prone vegetation, exacerbate tree mortality and the risk of catastrophic fire in the Wildland Urban Interface, degrade air quality, and increase ground temperatures. As presently constituted, this framework will harm the residents, wildlife, aquatic plants and fish species, endangered species and the overall health of the Sierra Nevada environment. A wrong decision that results in curtailing rural water usage, which is inextricably integrated within the natural environment, is a failure to understand the value of this water being kept in circulation, its role in decreasing the risk of catastrophic fire and the potential long-term costs to the state for impairing its water sources.
The state can ill-afford to sacrifice the watershed if it plans to have a sustainable Delta!
John Kingsbury is executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association. Contact him at email@example.com.