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Allocating San Joaquin River Water to the Environment Shows Promise

After a California agency proposes a plan to allocate blocks of water for environmental uses in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, researchers write about what works and what could make the plan better.

Written by Jeffrey Mount, Brian Gray, Ellen Hanak, Peter Moyle Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
California rivers overhaul
Gino Celli draws a water sample to check salinity in an irrigation canal that runs through his fields near Stockton, California, in May 2015. California’s Water Resources Control Board released a draft that could double the minimum amount of water flows into Central California’s San Joaquin River system, by reducing water diversions to farms and cities.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

In September 2016, the State Water Board released its draft plan for new environmental flow requirements in the San Joaquin River watershed. The board’s proposal contains a novel – and controversial – recommendation. Instead of following the traditional approach of setting minimum flows to meet specific environmental needs at specific times of the year, the board proposes to allocate a block of water each year to improve habitat for fish and wildlife in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries – the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced.

As we have argued in several recent reports, assigning a block of water to the environment has numerous advantages over the traditional regulatory approach. Done well, it could improve ecosystem performance and the efficiency of environmental water use, while reducing uncertainty for other water users.

Here we outline the essence of the board’s proposal and describe its strengths and areas for improvement. We conclude with some suggestions for how these ideas could be incorporated fruitfully into settlement negotiations with stakeholders in the watershed.

The Board’s Proposal

Cattle roam along the Eastside Bypass of the San Joaquin River restoration project in September 2016. (Gary Kazanjian, AP)

Cattle roam along the Eastside Bypass of the San Joaquin River restoration project in September 2016. (Gary Kazanjian, AP)

Native fishes in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries – particularly salmon and steelhead – have been declining in number for decades. The board has authority to address this decline by setting flow requirements to protect beneficial uses of California’s waters. This authority derives from a variety of California laws that are not dependent on either the federal Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act.

For fish, the board traditionally sets minimum flow standards tailored to meet the requirements of specific life stages of each of the protected species (for example, pulse flows to facilitate migration up and down the river, cold water for eggs and young fish). These flows are made available through a combination of releases from reservoirs and limitations on diversions by other water users.

The proposed new approach is to allocate a portion of the February-through-June “unimpaired flow” on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced tributaries to native fish. Unimpaired flow is the volume of water that would be present in the tributaries without reservoirs or diversions.

The plan proposes that an average of 40 percent of this flow – with a range of 30–50 percent – be assigned to meet environmental objectives. We have no position on the merits of this proposed share, which is likely to be a matter for negotiation on each tributary.

More important is the flexible way that environmental managers could use this water. Under the proposal, they could shift flows as needed for different hydrologic conditions or locations to meet biological goals for protected species. This could include storing water for pulse flow releases – such as to improve water quality or provide migration cues for fish – and holding water until late summer to bolster cold water releases from reservoirs.

Why This Approach Is a Good Idea

The board’s proposal to allocate a flexibly managed block of water to the environment is an improvement over the traditional setting of minimum flow standards in three ways:

  • Efficiency: The block approach allows for better use of environmental water to benefit fish. Managers can more easily adapt to changing conditions such as droughts and floods, time flow releases for maximum effect, vary the way they apply water from year-to-year and more nimbly respond to new biological and ecological information. This would increase the efficiency of environmental water use while also improving its effectiveness.
  • Predictability: A block of water is simple, transparent and easier to incorporate into environmental and operations planning. Assigning a specific quantity of water to environmental uses would give more certainty to other water users, because they would know the percentage of unimpaired flow available to them.
  • Shared responsibility: Allocating a flexibly managed block of water to environmental uses would ensure that the environment is better integrated into the water rights system. Environmental water managers would have a seat at the table in water management, deciding how best to use their allocation just as other water users do, and the environmental water block would share equally in abundance and shortage along with other beneficial uses.

How to Make This Approach Better

In addition to this novel approach to establishing flow standards, the draft plan encourages stakeholders and interested parties to negotiate settlements that they would submit to the board for approval. Such negotiations are a good way to harness local knowledge, creativity and cooperation.

We recommend that negotiators and the board retain the idea of allocating a block of water to the environment and consider several improvements:

  • Allow carryover: The draft plan requires that all environmental water be used in the same water year. To enhance efficiency and to hedge against drought, it should be possible to store some environmental water in surface reservoirs or groundwater basins (with rules to avoid impacts on other users). A good example of the benefits of integrating groundwater and surface-water storage with environmental flow management comes from the Yuba River watershed in northern California.
  • Allow trading: Environmental water efficiency would be enhanced if the plan explicitly allowed the buying and selling of this water. A good example comes from Australia, where environmental managers regularly lease some of their water to fine-tune flow management in different catchments. Some revenues from leasing are also used to support ecosystem investments.
  • Encourage augmentation: The existence of a well-managed environmental water budget would present an opportunity for better employing conserved urban and agricultural water for environmental purposes. Allowing the budget to be easily augmented with water acquired on a permanent, long-term or temporary basis through voluntary purchases or donations would increase resources for environmental management.
  • Assign responsibility: The proposed governance structure for environmental water management is a large, multiparty committee of regulatory and planning agencies, project operators, water users and other stakeholders (Draft Plan, Appendix K, page 32). This structure is cumbersome and lacks the independence and flexibility needed to administer the block of water in a timely fashion. The revised plan should create an environmental water manager – perhaps similar to the environmental water holder in Victoria, Australia – with authority and staffing to administer the environmental water for defined biological objectives.
  • Improve planning: The long-range biological goals and objectives – beyond improving salmonid populations – are not well articulated in the current plan. Management of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced tributaries needs an overarching biodiversity plan that takes a broader, ecosystem-based approach and defines how the environmental water allocation would benefit salmonids as well as other riverine, riparian and wetland species. The plan should achieve multiple environmental benefits from the water, focusing on different priorities in different types of water years. Such a plan could be developed relatively quickly, based on available scientific information and with input from stakeholders. The biodiversity plan should be revised every 7–10 years, based on improvements in scientific understanding of ecosystem performance. Victoria, Australia provides a model for developing pragmatic, ecosystem-based plans to maximize the benefits of environmental water.
  • Monitor and adapt: It is critical that management of the environmental water allocation be supported by a robust, transparent and science-based monitoring program. This program should report to the environmental water manager, who would use the information to guide annual allocation and use decisions, adaptation and management experimentation and long-term planning and evaluation. Funding this effort may require pooling of resources among agencies and water users.

The board’s proposal to use a percentage of unimpaired flow as an environmental standard and budget for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced tributaries has generated a great deal of controversy in the water-user community. While this is understandable, we encourage all interested parties to carefully examine the merits of this approach and to consider its compensating advantages.

Block allocations of environmental water – flexibly managed and supported by science, sound governance and planning – can be an effective tool for achieving the twin goals of ecosystem protection and water supply reliability. Negotiating settlements that seek to achieve multiple benefits from blocks of environmental flows is a promising direction for using California’s water more efficiently and effectively.

This story first appeared on California WaterBlog, a publication of the Center for Watershed Sciences, U.C. Davis.

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