There are ways to get the 2020 salmon season off to a good start

Contact water officials to ensure supplies meet needs of people and fish.

Written by Robyn Purchia for the SF Examiner

San Franciscans are weeks away from the start of the 2020 salmon season, and the forecast looks fine. Plentiful rain and runoff during the last several years coupled with improved hatchery release practices has created a “conveyor belt” that is moving baby fish from rivers in the Central Valley out to the ocean through the San Francisco Bay.

“We have reason to be hopeful as we look to the start of salmon fishing in 2020 and we’re glad to see that programs supported by the Golden State Salmon Association are apparently resulting in more fish for everyone to catch this year,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

But our somewhat dry winter could hint at trouble for future salmon seasons. San Francisco’s primary water source is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is fed by the Tuolumne River. Even though San Franciscans are conserving water and The City has expanded groundwater and recycled water use, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) still takes the same amount from the Tuolumne in wet and dry years. This means precious water isn’t going to those most in need — the salmon and all those that depend on them.

The fight to get the SFPUC to leave more water in the river has burned since the State Water Board proposed reducing the amount of water municipalities and agricultural users can take from rivers that feed the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Delta. Thankfully, SFPUC Commissioner Francesca Vietor is pushing staff to come forward with a plan to meet The City and the salmon’s water needs.

“I think she is taking her job as representing our environmental interests very seriously,” Peter Drekmeier, policy director at the nonprofit Tuolumne River Trust, told me.

Although the SFPUC joined the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts to oppose the State Water Board’s Bay Delta Plan, the proposal passed in December 2018. The victory for environmentalists was quick-lived. Almost immediately, the SFPUC and irrigation districts convinced state lawmakers to let them finish developing a voluntary agreement to protect fish instead of comply with the requirements.

Unsurprisingly, over one year later, the SFPUC, irrigation districts and environmentalists have yet to come to a voluntary agreement. Then, last month, the federal government made things worse for wildlife and fishermen when President Donald Trump signed an order taking more water from the Tuolumne.

While the federal order throws the state’s efforts into question, it would be prudent for the SFPUC to voluntarily implement the State Water Board’s requirements. Volunteers at the Tuolumne River Trust developed a water supply calculator, to show the SFPUC that it could voluntarily release its share of unimpaired flow from the Tuolumne for two years during a drought. If The City hits a third dry year, the SFPUC could revert back to current diversion rates.

“What the SFPUC plans for is a worst-case drought that would last for eight years,” Drekmeier told me. “With the calculator I was looking for a scenario that could get the SFPUC through its Design Drought.”

Drekmeier presented these findings to the commission in February. In response, Commissioner Vietor asked staff to report on whether the SFPUC could release more water into the river this spring without compromising long-term supply. But the one-page memo staff provided last month didn’t address the issue of water availability. Instead, it discussed the SFPUC’s work to come to a voluntary agreement to protect fish and the need to coordinate with the irrigation districts.

San Franciscans who care about salmon cannot let SFPUC staff continue delaying meaningful action to protect them.

“We can’t keep approving new development when we haven’t approved enough water for the fish,” Commissioner Vietor told me. “I feel a sense of urgency because the fish are not doing well.”

Commissioner Vietor has asked staff to come forward with a plan for how The City can meet our water supply needs and have enough water for the fish. The hope was that SFPUC will have a resolution ready for the March 24 meeting. However, President Ann Moller Caen canceled the meeting in an abundance of caution due to COVID-19.

San Franciscans can email commissioners@sfwater.org and stay tuned for future meetings. If we want to enjoy delicious pink fish in the future, we have to act today.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

THIS JUST IN… 

THIS JUST IN … Newsom administration files lawsuit over biological opinions; Secretary Bernhardt responds

This just in from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra:

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the California Natural Resources Agency, and the California Environmental Protection Agency today filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for failing to protect endangered fish species from federal water export operations.

The lawsuit asserts that biological opinions prepared by federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act to direct water project operationslack safeguards for protected species and their habitat in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, including the Bay-Delta.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the lawsuit requests that the court declare the Trump Administration’s adoption of the biological opinions unlawful.

“As we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency, now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not destroy it,” said Attorney General Becerra. “California won’t silently spectate as the Trump Administration adopts scientifically-challenged biological opinions that push species to extinction and harm our natural resources and waterways.”

“We are challenging the federal biological opinions, which do not currently govern water project operation in the Delta, to protect highly imperiled fish species close to extinction,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “Our goal continues to be to realize enforceable voluntary agreements that provide the best immediate protection for species, reliable and safe drinking water, and dependable water sources for our farmers for economic prosperity. This is the best path forward to sustain our communities, our environment and our economy.”

The lawsuit challenges the actions of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which adopted the biological opinions. The lawsuit also challenges the biological decisions issued in October 2019 by the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which lack sufficient protections for endangered and threatened fish.

The lawsuit argues the agencies’ biological opinions and the Bureau’s decision violate the law because the Trump Administration:

Fails to provide actual analysis of whether the effects of its action applied to current conditions would tip a species toward extinction;

Improperly relies on uncertain plans to mitigate the harms of project operations;

Ignores the requirement that a biological opinion must consider not only the continued survival of listed species, but also their recovery;

Neglects to consider the material decline of the smelt (fish), and provides a limited analysis of climate change impacts;

Disregards the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to comment on relevant information about the proposed action and potential impacts and failing to adequately respond to public input; and

Puts at risk Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, and other fish species. Previous biological opinions by the agencies addressed the risk posed to the listed species’ continued existence by Central Valley Project operations and required measures to limit impacts.

The Bureau of Reclamation adopted new biological opinions that do not adequately protect species and highly sensitive and critical habitat throughout California. This lack of adequate protection would cause long-term and irrevocable damage to protected species in California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

The lawsuit asserts the Trump Administration’s actions violate the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In addition to today’s lawsuit, Attorney General Becerra, the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Natural Resources Agency sent a 60-day Notice Letter to the Bureau that puts the Trump Administration on notice of California’s intent to file additional claims alleging that the Bureau’s decision to approve the biological opinions violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

Attorney General Becerra has unwaveringly defended California’s environment and protected species. On September 25, 2019, Attorney General Becerra led a coalition of 18 attorneys general and the City of New York to file a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s rollback of the Endangered Species Act. Just over a year earlier, Attorney General Becerra, leading a coalition of seven attorneys general, filed a lawsuit challenging the Administration’s decision to roll back protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and endanger millions of migratory birds including bald eagles. In 2019, Attorney General Becerra successfully blocked Westlands Water District from taking unlawful action to raise the Shasta Dam, which would have irreparably damaged the McCloud River and its wild trout fishery and inundated sacred lands of the Winnemem Wintu tribe.

A copy of the lawsuit is available here.

And then this, from Secretary Bernhardt:

“Our team of career professionals did a great job using the best available science to develop new operational plans for the coordinated operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. The governor and attorney general just launched a ship into a sea of unpredictable administrative and legal challenges regarding the most complex water operations in the country, something they have not chartered before. Litigation can lead to unpredictable twists and turns that can create significant challenges for the people of California who depend on the sound operation of these two important water projects.”

Smoke And Mirrors

Voluntary Agreements Purport to Add Water and Habitat, But Might Actually Worsen Conditions for the Bay-Delta Estuary, Rivers, and Native Fish and Wildlife

California’s Bay-Delta estuary is in crisis. Climate change and unsustainable water diversions from the watershed are leading toward the extinction of winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta Smelt, orcas, and other endangered species. This crisis threatens thousands of fishing jobs and decreases water supply reliability. The best available science makes clear that significant increases in water flowing into and through the Delta in most years are necessary to restore our native fish and wildlife. The time to act is now.

Saving the Delta will require a Portfolio Approach that pairs state investments in new water supply projects outside of the Delta to improve water supply reliability, floodplain habitat restoration projects, and significant increases in flow through the estuary and into San Francisco Bay. Many environmental and fishing organizations believe that voluntary agreements (VA’s) can be effective tools to implement new water quality standards and help restore the Bay-Delta. But any durable solution, regulatory or voluntary, must be supported by scientifically credible analysis that it will prevent extinction and achieve the salmon doubling objective required by state and federal law. The VA’s outlined by the Brown Administration in December 2018, and the additional partial project descriptions presented to state regulators on March 1, 2019, purport to be a package of flows, habitat and other measures that will protect the estuary without the need for new regulations.

Unfortunately, these VA’s will not protect and restore the Delta. Our organizations strongly oppose these VA outlines because they:

1. Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds, and that would occur without such an agreement;

2. Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary, its native fish and wildlife, and the thousands of jobs that depend on it;

3. Fail to include any restrictions on Delta pumping and other operations of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP); such restrictions are necessary to prevent the water projects from diverting any additional flow provided from upstream farms and cities and to prevent the Trump Administration from gutting Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Bay-Delta;

4. Fail to include carryover storage requirements in upstream reservoirs to ensure water supplies for future droughts and adequate water temperatures for salmon;

5. Fail to use the transparent approach of flow standards based on a percentage of unimpaired flows, and instead uses the failed approach of State Water Board Decision 1641;

6. Fail to ensure that Bay-Delta standards will be enforced and will respond to new scientific information; and

7. Fail to include investments in water supply reliability and economic development projects that will help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta.

Click here to continue reading.

Water District lawsuit jeopardizes future projects

The Santa Clara Valley Water District made a grave miscalculation in suing the State Water Board over the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. By alienating the remnants of the environmental community who have supported them in recent years, they are jeopardizing future projects and funding measures that will require voter approval.

Santa Clara County residents care deeply about the environment. A public opinion poll conducted by San Jose State University found that environmental protection was the top motivator for people to conserve water.

Similarly, a poll commissioned by the Water District found that 84% of those surveyed believed the following argument was convincing: “Using recycled water is good for our environment. The more recycled water we use, the less we have to take out of rivers and streams and our scarce groundwater supplies. That’s good for rivers, streams, and the fish, plants and wildlife that rely on them.”

In the same poll, statements about the importance of protecting water supply and being prepared for droughts each received 73% – 11 points lower than the environmental argument. The survey also found that environmentalists and medical professionals are the best messengers for delivering the benefits of potable reuse (purifying wastewater to augment drinking water supply).

The Water District had little to gain and a lot to lose by suing the State Water Board. To recap the lawsuit, on December 12 the Water Board adopted new instream flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries, including the Tuolumne River. This was the first of several revisions to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1995. Meanwhile the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem – starved of freshwater inflow – has spiraled into collapse.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) relies on the Tuolumne (which fills the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir) for most of its water. The Water District’s supply, on the other hand, was not directly affected by the Water Board’s decision. However, with the SFPUC providing 15% of the water used in Santa Clara County, the District apparently felt the need to intervene.

Rather than conduct its own analysis, the District simply accepted the SFPUC’s narrative, which is based on false and misleading information. In reality, the SFPUC has little to worry about. At current water demand, the SFPUC could manage any drought on record, even with the new flow standards in place. Yet the SFPUC claims the Bay Delta Plan could lead to 40 to 50% rationing. How could this be possible?

The answer is that the SFPUC has manufactured a “design drought,” which arbitrarily couples two of the worst droughts from the last century. They also assume water demand will increase by 26% to support all of the development projected for the region. Under their policy, every year is either the beginning or middle of the “design drought,” so severe rationing would have to begin immediately. Even if all of their reservoirs were full – enough water to last six years – people would be forced to ration.

The Water District, on the other hand, currently plans for a three-year drought, yet they appear to accept the SFPUC’s 8.5-year “design drought” scenario as prudent. It would be virtually impossible for the Water District to manage such a drought, so they better hope their customers don’t demand similar planning.

When people learn that the water they conserve, or the recycled water they’re asked to drink, does not benefit the environment, but instead just enables more development, they will think twice about who and what they vote for. The Water District must do more than feign concern for the environment. If they want support from the environmental community, they would be wise to drop their lawsuit immediately.

Peter Drekmeier is the Policy Director for the Tuolumne River Trust. He formerly served on the Palo Alto City Council and Santa Clara Valley Water Commission.

 

Original article: Mercury News (January 23, 2019) https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/01/23/opinion-water-district-lawsuit-jeopardizes-future-projects/

Photo Courtesy of Dino Vournas

State Water Board Approves Bay Delta Plan, 40% Flows

The vote is in!

On Wednesday, the State of California Water Resources Control Board approved mandatory flow requirements on the Tuolumne starting at 40% (between February and June). The 4-1 vote came after 10 hours of testimony and deliberation.

Other state agencies used typical bait-and-switch tactics at a glorified attempt of demonstrating good faith “collaboration over conflict” with their proposed “compromise” agreement. Don’t be fooled by this cloying.

As our Policy Director, Peter Drekmeier, shares, “The proposed Tuolumne River settlement is essentially what the water agencies have been offering for the past few years, and we know it won’t work. Similar proposals in the past have always failed due to the lack of adequate instream flows.”

As the “powerful bloc” (and uncanny bedfellows) of SF Water, Power, Sewer (SFPUC) and Central Valley irrigation districts prepare to counter attack with the help of the Trump administration, we must remain vigilant.

Many thanks to our allies and friends Trout UnlimitedNRDCThe Bay Institute, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Friends of the San Francisco EstuaryGolden Gate Salmon AssociationFriends of the RiverSan Francisco BaykeeperDefenders of WildlifePacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s AssociationsAmerican RiversRestore the DeltaSierra Club