State Water Board Adopts Landmark Bay-Delta Plan

All water diverters expected to help restore salmon, Phase 1 includes San Francisco

San Francisco is responsible for diverting less than 1% of Bay-Delta Inflow, but 100% responsible for flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley

This past Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board voted 4-1 to adopt Phase 1 of its Bay-Delta Plan. The historic vote, taken at the end of a 10-hour public hearing and coming after years of study, hearings and negotiations, was perhaps the boldest action ever taken by the State Water Board.

Under Phase 1, flows in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers will substantially increase. The Tuolumne River is currently required to retain about 12% of its natural flow. If the Bay-Delta Plan is fully implemented, the requirement would roughly triple to about 37%.

 

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Most Californians rely on water diversions from the Central Valley and Bay-Delta system. San Francisco diverts about 225,000 acre-feet of water annually, about 12% of the Tuolumne River, 4% of the lower San Joaquin River, and less than 1% of the total inflow into the Bay-Delta.

 

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San Francisco is 100% responsible for inundating Hetch Hetchy Valley.

 

No one disputes that salmon populations in the Central Valley have crashed. But water agencies contend that the decline is not chiefly due to lack of flow, but that loss of habitat, pollution and invasive species are primarily responsible.

The State Board acknowledges these other problems, at least to some extent, but it only has jurisdiction over water flows. It can, however, approve a plan with lesser flow requirements if the water agencies commit to addressing the other problems. The State Board has asked water agencies to develop their own “Voluntary Settlement Agreements” (VSAs), using a combination of flow and non-flow measures, and submit them for approval.

A proposed VSA for the Tuolumne River, representing agreement between San Francisco and the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts, was presented at the hearing. That plan offered about one third of the additional flow that the State Board was asking for, but also included commitments to improve fish habitat, replenish spawning gravels etc. The water agencies contend their plan will produce more salmon then the State Board’s flow-only plan. The agencies were also clear that if a VSA is approved, it will be implemented, whereas they are likely to challenge the State Board's Plan in court where its fate would be uncertain.

No similar proposal was presented for the Stanislaus or Merced Rivers. Also, even if VSAs for all three rivers had been announced, the State Board had no time to analyze them.

Some at the hearing opined that the Board’s adoption of the Plan would stymie negotiations and simply lead to the aforementioned lawsuits. Others countered that adoption would stimulate negotiations, noting it was commonplace for parties to litigate and negotiate at the same time.                                                                   

It is way too early to tell what plan will go into in effect on the Tuolumne, or other rivers for that matter, or what San Francisco will do to ensure it can deliver reliable supplies to its customers. From Restore Hetch Hetchy's perspective, it is helpful if the City is forced to look at alternatives beyond the Tuolumne watershed, which currently provides about 85% of its supply.

Restore Hetch Hetchy will engage as the Bay-Delta Plan moves forward, and encourage adoption of additional water supplies that will also accommodate restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.