State Still Releasing Water to Save a Few Fish
Gov. Jerry Brown met with San Diego civic leaders last Tuesday, where they discussed the state’s water-conservation standards as the drought grinds on. The governor “hinted” at giving the region’s water users “some flexibility in complying with California’s rigorous … mandates,” according to a Union-Tribune report.
We’ll likely see flexibility for urban water districts that are trying to conserve scarce resources — and come up with new sources. But 450 miles north of San Diego, local officials are accusing the Brown administration of being inflexible in a bitter spat between farmers and the environmental-oriented State Water Resources Control Board.
In April, this column reported on a decision by officials to lower the water level of the massive New Melones Reservoir and small Lake Tulloch in the foothills east of Modesto. As the governor was threatening fines for people who over-water their lawns, the state and feds wanted to lower these reservoirs to protect a handful of fish.
This was a complex debate involving the state, federal agencies and local irrigation districts, each of which controlled a different part of the area’s water infrastructure. They approached civil disobedience — with local district board members threatening to defy the government’s water-release orders — when a deal was reached.
But that was temporary. “Fish concerns will force Tulloch Lake to drop sooner than water agencies had announced in a milestone spring accord,” reported the Modesto Bee this week. “State and federal agencies have deemed water temperatures in the Stanislaus River dangerously high for fish and lowering Tulloch is part of a strategy to cool the river.”
It’s easy to assume the state is releasing so much water to save entire species. In reality, the Lake Tulloch water releases are designed to, literally, save a dozen or so fish. The officials say they are operating under rules set by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Environmentalists say those fish are harbingers of broader environmental problems, but critics note such fish aren’t necessarily endangered — and will be eaten by invasive species (such as striped Bass) any way. They question whether this is a wise use of water reserves at a time when urban users and farmers are fighting over limited water.
Another recent Modesto Bee article focused on a proposed project to help 500 to 1,000 salmon a year swim around the Don Pedro Reservoir near Turlock. Depending on the ultimate cost of the project (estimated at between $70 million and $150 million), the “per-fish figure” would range between a whopping $70,000 and $300,000 per salmon.
Furthermore, the state water board continues its plan to significantly increase the number of “unimpaired flows” on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. That means releasing water at the rivers’ full flow, which is the amount of water that would run through them without any of it diverted to farms, homes or reservoirs.
Irrigation districts don’t question the importance of the Endangered Species Act, but argue for “off ramps” in the midst of drought — e.g., ways to prioritize human needs when there’s not enough water. Even state officials have admitted publicly the results of these policies on groundwater supplies will be “significant and unavoidable.”
“The unimpaired flow policy is definitely justified by the state as a rationale for protecting fish,” said Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “The science doesn’t support this, so you have to question what the rationale really is.” He fears the state is diverting his region’s water to the Delta, where the governor wants to build his twin-tunnels project.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, introduced AB 1242, which would have required the board to mitigate losses to groundwater storage caused by unimpaired flows. It’s still an active bill, but has been amended to simply require the water board to consider the impact of its water-quality plans on groundwater.
In reality, the fight shouldn’t be between “fish” or “people.” It is about how to balance all those needs in a reasonable manner. Despite the governor’s words in San Diego, state officials don’t seem to grasp the reasonable part.
Steven Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune’s California columnist. Write to him at steven.greenhut@