Does the Bay Area Have Enough Water for Economic Growth and Salmon?

A final draft of the state’s plan to increase flows in key tributaries of the Bay-Delta will mean more water for fish but less for urban areas like the San Francisco Bay Area.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 12 minutes
Traffic crawls along Highway 101 near San Francisco International Airport.George Rose/Getty Images

California’s economy is thriving and its population is growing. San Francisco County alone added more than 120,000 jobs in five years – a huge leap in economic productivity that owes itself largely to the lucrative worlds of finance, technology and biotechnology. As people from around the country and the world continue clamoring to find their place in one of the most expensive and most congested cities, an important question is emerging in public discussions: Does California have enough water to go around, or will natural resources be sacrificed for economic success?

“That’s a question of carrying capacity and social values,” said Peter Drekmeier, policy director of the environmental organization Tuolumne River Trust, which lobbies to protect the main waterway from which San Francisco receives its water.

Drekmeier is one of many who believe that California can grow as an economic powerhouse while maintaining productive aquatic ecosystems resembling their natural and unimpacted character – if, that is, water is divided fairly and consumed efficiently. Others, however, feel that the state’s economy – including agriculture but also urban elements – will need more water in the future, even if this drives some fish species extinct.

These differing perspectives are at the heart of a current policy battle in California as the State Water Resources Control Board works to finalize a plan that will determine how much water should be left in critical rivers feeding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It’s a decision that will impact not just fish and farms, but urban areas like the San Francisco Bay Area where strongly held environmental values may be challenged by economic aspirations.

Trouble for Fish

The Tuolumne River is a major tributary of the San Joaquin River, which feeds into the Bay-Delta, the linchpin for California’s statewide water delivery system. It’s also the place from which the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission draws the majority of its water to serve 2.7 million people in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

As recently as the 1940s, more than 100,000 fall-run Chinook salmon spawned annually in the Tuolumne. In 2015, a little more than 100 of the fish swam up the river. Today, the river, studded with several dams and heavily diverted for human use, is considered by many to be in critical condition, and scientists and river advocates say what the Tuolumne and its native fishes need more than anything else is increased flows of water.

“Water is just one component of habitat, but it’s a very important one,” said Rene Henery, a biologist with the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

A worker holds a net as thousands of young fingerling Chinook salmon are released into a holding pen in the San Pablo Bay in June 2015 in Rodeo, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

State agencies agree, and early in July the State Water Resources Control Board released its final draft of a plan to increase the amount of water left in the Tuolumne and two other San Joaquin River tributaries to about 40 percent of their historic, or “unimpaired,” winter and springtime flows. This Bay-Delta Plan Update was announced on July 6 and would allow for flows as low as 30 percent and as high as 50 percent between February and June, a key period for juvenile salmon migrating toward the ocean.

“While multiple factors are to blame for the decline [in the Central Valley’s Chinook salmon runs], the magnitude of diversions out of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and other rivers feeding into the Bay-Delta is a major factor in the ecosystem decline,” the board said in a statement.

The water board will formally consider adopting the proposed amendment in late August, and if approved, the flow increases would be implemented by 2022. Proposed flow increases for the Sacramento River and its major tributaries, which also feed the Delta, are coming but have not yet been announced.

Supply Impacts

Eighty percent of the Tuolumne River is diverted before it reaches the San Joaquin for at least five months of the year, according to the Bay-Delta Plan. About 60 percent of the diverted water is used by farmers, with the rest going to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The proposed flow increases would in most years double the amount of water that remains in the Tuolumne River and the lower reaches of the San Joaquin.

However, the water board’s proposed plan appears to be a compromise that leaves both sides unhappy. Scientists and environmental advocates say the river would still need significantly more water than what is being suggested with the proposed flow increase in the Bay-Delta Plan. They want 60 percent of unimpaired flows. Water agencies and irrigation districts, though, oppose the proposal, for it would require them to give up a significant share of the water they currently use.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for instance, is concerned it will not have enough water to get through an extreme drought if the water board’s proposed target is realized. The commission aims to enforce water rationing of no more than 20 percent during an extended drought – a goal it claims is not achievable under the flow cuts proposed by the water board. According to the commission’s assistant general manager for water, Steve Ritchie, the SFPUC currently uses an average of about 205 million gallons per day for its customers. Usage dipped to about 175 million gallons per day during the last drought.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park is the main storage area for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which serves water to 2.7 million people the Bay Area. (Giuseppe Di Rocco, Getty Images)

Ritchie said the water board’s proposed flow increases in the Tuolumne will impose severe hardships on his agency and its customers.

“We’d be looking at 50 percent cuts from where we are now,” he said.

The average San Franciscan uses, on average, 44 gallons of water per day, he said. Half of that would amount to, by far, the lowest per capita water consumption rate of any city in the country – what Ritchie feels would be an unreasonable burden. The 60 percent flow desired by river advocates would strain water users even further. Ritchie noted that most of the conservation gains made during the last drought came from reductions in outdoor landscaping, both on public and private land. That means the additional water conservation that would be necessary under the water board’s flow plan, combined with a drought, would place rationing burdens on indoor use, which could potentially have a harder economic and quality-of-life impact.

Nicole Sandkulla, chief executive and general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents SFPUC’s wholesale customers in Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, said her agency’s customers reduced their water use by 27 percent on average during the last drought. The new flow regime would require permanent use reductions of 25 percent or more beyond current consumption rates. That, she said, could threaten the region’s urban economy. While water agencies would likely impose as much of the rationing as possible on residents, businesses – like restaurants and breweries – might face hardships, too.

“We strongly support the objectives of the Bay-Delta Plan, but it’s our responsibility to raise the question of how this will impact the core of the Bay Area,” she said.

Drekmeier argues that the intensive cutbacks described by water agencies would not be necessary. That’s because, throughout the last drought, the SFPUC’s main reservoir – Hetch Hetchy Reservoir – remained mostly filled. At the end of the five-year dry spell, in fact, the commission had enough water in storage to last another three years. Ritchie explained this strategy is a necessary conservation measure to buffer against even more extreme droughts. If the last drought had lasted eight years, he pointed out, the commission would have been essentially out of water.

“In Australia, they had a drought that lasted 15 years,” he said.

If, in an unlikely worst-case scenario, the utility commission’s reservoirs did run dry, the agency could potentially buy water from farmers, though Ritchie said this idea – advocated by Drekmeier and others – has been tried already without success.

“In 2012 we offered $700 per acre-foot for water that farmers were buying for $7 an acre-foot, and they said no,” he said. The farmers declined, he said, “because a lot of them have orchards. They need an ongoing water supply. They can’t just fallow their fields.”

Ecological Needs

It isn’t just environmental advocates calling for more water. Research from state and federal agencies, in fact, shows that the water board’s proposed target of 40 percent, with the flexibility to go as high as 50 percent, simply isn’t enough to maintain large and self-sustaining salmon runs – a goal that environmental mandates require.

In a 2010 report on flow requirements in the delta, the State Water Resources Control Board itself concluded that the Sacramento River must be left with 75 percent of its unimpaired flows and the San Joaquin drainage with 60 percent during most of the winter and spring to protect public trust resources, like fish and other wildlife. That figure, however, was calculated without considering other needs, like municipal and agricultural, according to the board’s Division of Water Rights Bay-Delta Team.

“The proposed updates to the Bay-Delta Plan are … meant to achieve reasonable protection for fish and wildlife considering these other needs for water,” the board said in an email.

In a March 2013 report submitted to the water board, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stated “that approximately 50-60 percent unimpaired flow is the minimum necessary to re-establish and sustain fish and wildlife beneficial uses” in the San Joaquin River system. It also warned the water board that existing allocations to farms, cities and environmental needs would lead to the deterioration of the rivers’ ecosystem. “[T]he San Joaquin River and its tributaries have been tasked to provide more services than are sustainable,” the department wrote.

More than any other component of habitat, salmon need water. Strong correlations exist between high-flow water years – like during El Niño events – and abrupt and dramatic spikes in adult salmon numbers two years later, when fish born in the river have grown to spawning size. In 1985, in the wake of the 1982–1983 El Niño, the Tuolumne’s fall-run Chinook return jumped dramatically to 40,000 fish. By the early 1990s – right after a major drought – the Tuolumne’s returns shriveled away, hovering in the low hundreds for several years. In 2000, after the 1997–1998 El Niño, almost 18,000 adult Chinook swam up the Tuolumne. Since 2005, the returns have averaged several hundred fish, jumping to 1,926 in 2013 – two years after the high-rainfall year of 2011.

On the other hand, when flows fall below a critical threshold, survival of young fish declines, said Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute. Temperatures increase to intolerable levels for eggs and smolts, the adjacent floodplain habitat dries up and the overall time period in which salmon will find favorable conditions is shortened from both ends.

The Tuolumne River winds though Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The river is the main source of water supply for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But water isn’t the silver bullet for keeping native aquatic ecosystems alive, farm lobbyists and other water users argue. They have long called for alternative actions, like controlling invasive aquatic plants, eliminating non-native predator fish like striped bass, eliminating levees to restore natural floodplain habitat and reducing water pollution as ways to restore crumbling salmon runs.

“There are hindrances to salmon survival and out-migration that are not flow-related,” said Sandkulla.

This approach began in earnest in 1995, when a settlement between water users – including the SFPUC – and environmental groups and fishery agencies mandated that dam operations on the Tuolumne be modified to help increase salmon numbers. The settlement has resulted mainly in measures that don’t involve sacrificing water rights, and in the decades since, salmon returns on the Tuolumne have overall declined.

“They’ve had 23 years to show that non-flow measures will work, but they just don’t,” Drekmeier said.

Ritchie countered that the non-flow measures were not adequately applied in that time due to state funding shortages. In other words, he said, salmon recovery tools other than extra water haven’t been given an honest shot yet.

Living With Less

As both sides scrap over the last dregs of what was once a robust and thriving river, the question arises of whether or not the rapid growth of the Bay Area, a generally left-leaning region with an environmentally conscious population, is driving a slow but steady series of extinction events just to the east.

Robert Lackey, a fisheries scientist at Oregon State University, said economic growth – often accompanied by human population growth – has historically correlated to drastic declines in wild, naturally reproducing salmon runs, and he expects the same to eventually be true of California.

“By the end of the century, California will have European population densities – salmon don’t stand a chance,” he said.

He said the fish are not likely to go extinct – just dwindle in number.

“We’ll always have boutique runs – museum pieces,” he said, describing minuscule runs of wild spawning salmon that are too small to be fished but can become popular tourist attractions.

Henery, at Trout Unlimited, is working on a number of research, restoration and lobbying projects aimed at restoring wild salmon runs. He is hopeful there may be enough water in California’s rivers to support both human needs and thriving fish populations.

“I think it’s still totally possible to meet the doubling goals of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act,” he said. That 1992 law mandates that actions be taken to restore self-sustaining, naturally spawning fish populations in the Sacramento and San Joaquin systems. The law has hovered almost lifelessly over water discussions ever since, while salmon numbers have generally declined.

Henery thinks the water board’s proposed targets for flows could possibly lay the foundation for rebuilding the Central Valley’s salmon runs if applied in tandem with aggressive habitat restoration work.

“Water goes further when you have intact habitat,” he said.

For example, water that is allowed to flow downstream and across restored floodplain habitat will have more of a positive effect than water that is released from dams into river channels contained within levees. A great deal of research has shown that salmon smolts that have access to inundated riverbank habitat are several times more likely to survive their downstream journey to the sea than young fish contained within a fast-flowing channel of water. In other words, sufficient water must be combined with appropriate habitat for each of the various inland life stages – spawning, incubation, emergence, rearing and out-migration – of salmon.

Henery said he is pleased that the water board has suggested targets for increased flows but said he is disappointed that the proposal has not been accompanied by detailed restoration project plans.

Salmon remain relatively plentiful in California only because fish hatcheries release millions of baby salmon each year. Without these facilities, the state’s Chinook runs – largest in the Sacramento and Klamath basins – would collapse in just several years.

When it comes to water, humans in California do not face existential threats.

“The water board would never actually let San Francisco run out of water – that won’t happen,” Rosenfield said.

He discounts claims from the SFPUC that San Francisco is threatened by drought. The city, he said, could reduce its current demands for water through more water recycling, mandatory or subsidized installment of efficient toilets and showerheads, improved irrigation efficiency on public and private lands and fixing its own system’s leaking pipes.

“There is so much low-hanging fruit,” he said. “San Francisco is way behind the curve.”

The commission is, in fact, looking at the possibility of potentially investing in a desalination plant and a potable reuse facility – projects that Ritchie said, if implemented, could take 10 years to build. He is reluctant to impose further hardships on the agency’s customers but recognizes challenges ahead for preserving river ecosystems in California.

“We’ll need to be really creative and efficient in how we use water,” he said. “Regulatory difficulties aside, nature is likely to become a problem for us as the climate changes.” He foresees long droughts and the occasional disastrous flood as future climate realities.

Henery believes there is room in California for salmon if people make a little space, and probably sacrifice some water.

“Fish do absolutely everything they can to survive in the wild,” he said. “Are people in California doing everything they can to use water more efficiently and get by with less? I don’t think so.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency supports the overall objective of the plan, but opposes the Water Board’s current plan for the Tuolumne River.

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