Organizing for Community-Driven Land and Water Decisions

Written by: Niketa Kumar for the Water Foundation

As part of an ongoing series on broadening who makes water decisions and how, we spoke with Edgar Garibay, community relations manager at the Tuolumne River Trust. Edgar is working with residents in Modesto, CA, to grow the communities’ power in land and water decision-making.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and reading ease.

Water Foundation (WF): Thanks for chatting with us, Edgar. Can you share how you got into this type of work?

Edgar Garibay (EG): Prior to working at the Tuolumne River Trust, I worked a little over two years at Catholic Charities in their environmental justice program. That’s how I began doing regional land use planning and advocacy for Stanislaus County, working with statewide networks, and working with the faith community and the community in general.

WF: What are you working on in Modesto?

EG: We work with community residents in West and South Modesto and stakeholders to advocate for the development of the Tuolumne River Regional Park — Carpenter Road Park (TRRP). The TRRP covers a 7-mile-long continuous area, but there are still some parts that need to be developed, including the project we’re working on right now. The whole park will be 500 acres. The TRRP Carpenter Road Park part is 70 acres, 35 of which are a former landfill. We’re making steps on this adventure of getting our entire river parks connected from the west side of Modesto to the east. There is still some ways to go, namely in the West Modesto and South Modesto areas.

Map of West Modesto, South Modesto, and the Airport Neighborhood. Image from Tuolumne River Trust.

Tuolumne River Trust map of West Modesto, South Modesto, and the Airport Neighborhood.

West Modesto majority is Hispanic/Latinx, but it’s also the neighborhood that has the most ethnicities, races, and languages in Modesto. It is known as the melting pot of Modesto. It’s great to be working with such a diverse community.

This project will utilize the Safe Routes to Parks Action Framework, which consists of four areas: 1) Assessment, 2) Planning, 3) Implementation, and 4) Sustainability and was developed by the National Recreation and Park Association and the Safe Routes Partnership. Community engagement and equity will be included in each area of the framework, which has a goal to “create safe and equitable access to parks for all people.” To engage a broader audience, the virtual meetings and workshops are bilingual.

WF: What are the river park project’s goals?

EG: The TRRP Carpenter Road Park is a multi-benefit project with four main components: The first is on-land and on-water recreation for residents, including trails and river access. Flooding has also been an issue in this neighborhood. A big flood in 1997 flooded many homes in the area. This project can help provide flood protection for the community. The third benefit is habitat areas for fish like trout and salmon that are native species to the Tuolumne. Finally, it can capture and filter stormwater [before it reaches the river] so that we have a healthier river and healthier ecosystem for people and wildlife.

Many families from the neighborhood visit the area. Young people participate in the Stanislaus Youth Soccer League (SYSL). There’s a lot of benefit that could exist for a riverside community.

We definitely want to take this river to the next level and have that be very community driven.

WF: As you’re organizing in the community, what are you hearing about outdoor recreation?

EG: Right now, the huge challenge that we are currently experiencing is the COVID-19 pandemic. The response from community organizations, businesses, schools, and public agencies is focused on the needs of the riverside communities that have resulted from the pandemic, including unemployment, food, housing, internet connection, and distance learning. The hardest impacts have been felt in underserved communities such as the riverside communities in Modesto. For example, the highest rates of positive cases in Stanislaus County have been in the riverside communities of Modesto.

We’re beginning to have conversations on outdoor recreation too. In the riverside communities in Modesto, such as West and South Modesto, our local jurisdictions do not offer recreation programs at the TRRP parks. Those barriers stand in the way of an outdoor culture, but we’re hoping to build this. Other challenges pre-COVID include: public safety issues, such as access to community and open spaces, loose animals, and illegal dumping; lack of adequate sidewalks, lighting, and other infrastructure in county pockets within West and South Modesto; and environmental justice issues like air and water quality.

Tuolumne River Trust slides from community meeting.

Slides from recent Tuolumne River Trust community meeting.

TRT believes that youth play an important role in the riverside communities. We established the Tuolumne River Adventure Club (TRAC) program which helps youth develop outdoor recreation and leadership skills, such as learning how to fix their bike, or how to fish, and the opportunity to share these experiences with their families. For them, recreation is also an advocacy tool to engage with broader stakeholders.

In the Central Valley, there are lots of different opinions about how river flows. In the communities we work in, river flows are an environmental justice issue because when you have lower flows in the river, residents in the riverside communities are not able to swim or fish or spend time on the water.

We’re growing an outdoor culture that wasn’t there due to a lack of investments in people’s safety and programming. We’re partnering with a lot of the schools along the river on youth programs, and we’re working with the community and stakeholders on a pedestrian and bike network within the river park system, including trails and bridges. This system will connect the communities to and from the river park system by identifying safe routes and addressing infrastructure issues along these routes. We hear from residents that they want opportunities to spend time outdoors locally, rather than having to go other places that they are not able to afford.

WF: Where else are you supporting communities in local decision-making?

EG: The General Plan for Modesto, which we recognize as a once-in-a-lifetime plan. It’s a comprehensive look at the big picture and goals for the Modesto region until 2050. We’re working with local groups to help communities get involved with the three-year process so that the plan addresses environmental justice issues, such as public safety, transportation, housing, water and parks.

We meet monthly to discuss the language and policies for water, land use, open spaces, watershed protection and other issues in the General Plan.

With COVID, a lot of this has moved to video conference. There’s a digital divide in many environmental justice communities like Modesto. This means that many communities are not able to connect for various reasons: they cannot afford internet services, do not have access to a computer or tablet, or don’t know how to use video and electronic communication tools like email, Word, or Google products. This makes it difficult for community members to participate in live online community and public meetings.

So, we’re asking community members to tell us what topics they want us to talk about to help them learn about the General Plan and what it could do before the city starts its process, which will begin next year. We’re creating a bilingual online digital library with presentations, video recordings, and civic engagement and leadership resources so that people can go read and listen to them.

It’s important people get involved. This is about setting a vision for the community until 2050. It’s hard to participate over a three-year period, and so it’s important that local groups support people and their capacity. That’s where we see the best impact, with team efforts that are getting things done.

WF: What should public agencies and philanthropy do to help community members participate in things like the General Plan?

EG: The easiest thing is going to where people live or where they are meeting already.

We’ve been able to work with community members by meeting at the river parks and the family resource centers at some elementary schools along the river. We’ve built relationships with these schools and work alongside parents to address school and community issues.

Two of the best things public agencies can do are work with established community-based organizations or neighborhoods groups and hold public meetings, as is the case with the General Plan, where the communities gather, and not always at City Hall.

Philanthropy can support community organizations that are doing this work locally. For example, Stanislaus Community Foundation is working with broader stakeholders and public agencies to address community capacity building gaps.

One initiative that began this year is the Latino Initiative, which is a program that will strengthen the number of Hispanic/Latinx and minority nonprofit and community leaders to serve on nonprofit boards, join citizen boards and commissions, and run for public office.  They have six month cohort where people develop skills to participate on public sector boards and commissions like the Citizens Housing and Community Development Committee, Culture Commission, Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustment, the Tuolumne River Regional Park Citizens Advisory Committee, and others. This is an initiative of a local nonprofit, City Ministry Network.

WF: Thanks for sharing all of this. Is there anything else we should talk about?

EG: Community members see what is tangible where they live. By participating on planning processes like the General Plan, we’re making strides so that people can see the decisions and policies that aren’t always tangible, like air, water, and land use decisions. There’s a lot of interest in how land use relates to water. With different community-led projects we’re striving to create a healthy watershed for everyone.

Celebrating 36 years of Wild and Scenic Status for the Tuolumne

On this day 36 years ago, Congress designated 83 miles of what was then ‘the most endangered river’ in America as part of the National Wild & Scenic River System. Thanks to the determination of a great group of individuals, the Tuolumne River Trust had our first major victory. In the wake of our first-ever virtual Fall Gala on October 1, 2020, Marty McDonnell, long-time outfitter, TRT board member, and recreationist shared his reflections on how this iconic river and the people inspired by it have shaped his story.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with you all as well as the many outstanding teams that have previously cared for the waters of the Tuolumne. It is noteworthy that today is not only the night of the full moon, but it is also the eve of Lyndon Johnson signing the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act Into Law on October 2, 1968. Just a month before, Bryce Whitmore made the first raft run of the T! Bryce took me on my first river trip in 1962 on the Sacramento River. It was on that trip he suggested that when I got a bit bigger I could guide for him. He is like a second father to me… taught me how to most efficiently and effectively deflect the river’s currents to successively move my craft with his paying guests. I am exceptionally lucky to passionately love my work and sport since I was 15.

I have been training my son Tom to take the lead in managing my river rafting operations since he was five. Now at 6’7” and many T trips under his belt he does well at the helm leading our river rafting tours. I still have my hands on the sticks, rowed the Grand Canyon of the Colorado last fall on Tom’s permit with four 70-year-olds on my raft.” Marty McDonnell of Sierra Mac River Trip was the first outfitter on Yosemite’s Tuolumne & Merced Rivers. He is a pioneer on the Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne and a long-time board member of TRT.

Marty’s Son Tom, age 5 on the Tuolumne

Don Moyer and Barbara Boxer rafting the Tuolumne as a part of the Wild and Scenic campaign

Celebrate with us today and relive the wonderful memories of the campaign that set the stage for an era of river preservation across America by watching some of these historic videos about the Wild and Scenic Rivers act:

Let’s Talk About Equitable Access to Green Space

“Parks are lungs of the city—they bring life to urban space, allowing people opportunities for play, physical activity, recreation, social interactions, and personal and spiritual growth.” – Ewelina M. Swierad

If parks are the lungs of a city, then parks also determine the health of the people who live there. We could also say that cities with more green spaces and parks have healthier residents who enjoy a higher quality of life. Unfortunately, many cities do not have parks and green spaces that are easily accessible to everyone.

There is significantly less public green space in low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. “One-third of California residents don’t have access to safe, welcoming outdoor places — not just during emergencies — but all of the time.” Guillermo Rodriguez notes in his opinion piece for Cal Matters. As we enter the fourth month of the global pandemic with many still sheltering-in-place, the ability to go outside and get fresh air has become a lifeline. Yet access to green space is not the same for everyone.

In Modesto alone, people living in the Eastern part of the city are expected to live 5 years less than those who live in the more affluent neighborhoods in the Northern part of the city. This is deeply unjust, and speaks to the environmental injustices and inhumanity communities of color are faced with every single day.

No one’s life should be cut short because of the neighborhood they live in.

Having equitable access to the outdoors offers members of our communities the chance to combat social isolation, maintain physical and emotional health, establish healthy habits, and participate in stewardship activities that protect and restore the environment. There is much evidence that demonstrates the relationship between urban green spaces/parks and public health.

Parks have been shown to be associated with increased physical activity, improved physical and mental health, lower body mass index (BMI), and reduced stress and anxiety (click each link to learn more). Green space also protects people from the detrimental effects of stress on their health by decreasing heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers. Communities that do not have the same access to outdoor spaces are disproportionately facing related health issues as a result of this disparity.

Safe access to green space and parks should be a human right. This is why we have made it part of our mission to work with the city of Modesto to ensure safe and equitable access to local parks for our riverside communities.

With your help, we will continue our work to improve equitable access to parks in the Central Valley through programs like Charlas Comunitarias, partnership with Operation 9-2-99, and TRAC (Tuolumne River Adventure Club).

As we raise awareness around Environmental Justice in these times of change, we will continue to work in partnership with community leaders to improve parks and outdoor spaces in Modesto.

Will You Join us?

Other reads on environmental justice and safe access to parks:

Being Black While in Nature
Keep the Parks Open
Connecting Children and Families to Nature During the Pandemic

Let’s Talk About Environmental (In)Justice.

Ongoing racial injustice in this country, paired with a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting communities of color and a rapidly changing climate, has contributed to a rise in awareness about the links between racism and environmental degradation – a concept known as environmental racism.

Here at TRT, we are committed to doing our part to address environmental racism and injustice through our work. As we educate ourselves, we will share resources and information with you, our community. We hope that this will provide more context for our upcoming emails that will expand on the topic of environmental justice throughout the watershed.

The California EPA (one of our generous funders) defines environmental justice as:
“A call for fairness, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, in the development of laws and regulations that affect every community’s natural surroundings, and the places people live, work, play and learn.” Fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.

Throughout American history “fairness” has NOT been a reality.

Environmental justice is not a new concept. Indigenous people and tribes have been fighting against environmental injustices since the first colonizers arrived on this continent. Communities of color have been fighting against environmental racism for decades, even if it was not formally recognized as such.

In the 1960’s, Latinx and Filipino farmworkers in the Central Valley organized for their rights, which included protection from harmful pesticides. Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta were three prominent leaders of the movement, which lives on.

In 1982, “North Carolina announced a plan to move soil contaminated with PCBs from alongside 210 miles of the state’s roadsides to a landfill located in Warren County, one of only a few counties in the state with a majority black population.” The community protested by lying down on the roads that led to the landfill in order to stop the trucks from bringing in the contaminated soil. Following that, six weeks of marches and nonviolent protests drew national attention, despite their ultimate loss of the battle for their community. “The protests and legal challenges mounted by the people of Warren County to fight the landfill are considered by many to be the first major milestone in the national movement for environmental justice” (Source: NRDC).

Around the same time, Dr. Robert Bullard is credited with coining the term environmental justice. He states, “Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastations in the nation.” This can also be linked to NIMBYism (an acronym for the phrase “not in my back yard”), which continues to this day.

The movement for environmental justice recognizes the direct link between economic, environmental, and health issues. It is a movement that focuses on the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

We must be agents of change to stop the environmental injustices that plague our communities of color. Understanding and addressing environmental racism as a complex and systemic issue is imperative in creating a better, more just future for our communities and planet.


Resources on Environmental Justice and Racial Equity:

Last week the New York Times shared a wonderful list of articles on Environmental Justice. Below are a few of our favorites from the New York Times list, plus other resources and articles that we found to be insightful.


The Green Movement Is Talking About Racism? It’s About Time! “The same people and organizations we admire for protecting our wild places also have a history of being apathetic—or plain antagonistic—toward issues of race and social justice”

I’m a Black Climate Expert. Racism Derails Our Efforts to Save the Planet “Stopping climate change is hard enough, but racism only makes it harder”

Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism “Racial and economic inequities need to be tackled as this country seeks to recalibrate its economic and social compass in the weeks and months to come. Racism, in short, makes it impossible to live sustainably.”

“Two different realities”: Why America Needs Environmental Justice “One thing we know is that environmental enforcement does not happen the way it needs to happen in communities of color and low-income communities.”

TED Talks:

Environmental Justice: A Ted Talk by Peggy Shepard

Greening the Ghetto: A TED Talk by MacArthur-winning activist Majora Carter

Environmental Racism: A TED Talk by Van Jones

The Danger of a Single Story: A Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you would like to keep the conversation going
or share additional resources, feel free to email us at

There is No Environmental Justice Without Racial Justice

Written by: Shanley Mitchell
Edited by: Lauren Barnum

There is no environmental justice without racial justice. The systems of power and privilege that destroy the environment also deprive Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) of their humanity – and too often, their lives.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 Black individuals have been shot and killed by the police. We are outraged by the racist murders of, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Reason, Dominique Clayton, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. 

Here at the Tuolumne River Trust we stand in solidarity with Black and BIPOC people everywhere. All too often racial justice is left out of environmental action. It is no secret that communities of color are disproportionately affected by every climate crisis. Fighting for a healthy Tuolumne River is not only necessary for the health of our environment, but it is necessary for the survival of our communities who depend on the Tuolumne for clean drinking water, growing food, and safe spaces for recreation. 

Because of violent and racist acts, our friends of color often do not feel safe recreating outdoors. In fact, Ahmaud Arbery was outdoors doing what he loved, running when he was murdered by three white men simply because of the color of his skin. Enough is Enough. Safe access to the outdoors as a refuge for recreation and play should not be determined by race. Sheltering in place comes with its own set of challenges, and no one, under any circumstance, should feel unsafe to leave their house for a few hours of nature and fresh air. 

Our environment can’t survive without biodiversity, in the same way that we can’t survive or thrive without racial diversity. Our mission at TRT is to protect and restore the Tuolumne River and its watershed for present and future generations. We want the communities who benefit from the Tuolumne’s clean drinking water and world-class recreation to reflect the beautiful diversity that makes up our country. This is one reason why racial equity and decreasing social and economic barriers to river access is important to us. 

We will hold ourselves accountable as we dedicate resources toward a more intersectional approach to our work. To us, accountability means having the difficult but necessary conversations about white privilege as a majority-white team, uplifting stories told by people and communities of color, dedicating more time and financial resources to our programs for underserved communities, educating ourselves about systemic racism, continuing equitable hiring practices, and diversifying our team. Standing in solidarity is not just the right thing to do, it is our responsibility.  We will hold ourselves accountable for our shortcomings and put in the work to help create more just and inclusive movement. 

EDIT: In honor of transparency and growth, we would like to make an edit to the sentence: “In fact, Ahmaud Arbery was outdoors doing what he loved, running when he was murdered by three white men simply because of the color of his skin.” We recognize that systemic racism runs deep in our country. The wrongful murder of Black people is due to insidious systems of oppression and white supremacy that hold power over this country and us as people. It is not “simply because” of the color of someone’s skin. Simplifying this is equivalent to erasing the deep systemic racism that we must collectively face head-on. We are sorry for our oversight and derivative language. We are committed to learning alongside you, and that means admitting when we make a mistake.

Should we care about conservation during a pandemic?

Written by: Shanna Edberg 

Published by: The Hill

Now, more than ever, we need nature and the benefits it provides. COVID-19 has both revealed and exacerbated deep inequities in access to green space. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be at home, away from the frontlines, appreciate the mental and physical health boost provided by walks and nature views even more.

Those in less privileged communities find themselves in a double whammy of air pollution making the disease more severe, while lacking the green space that is so necessary to resilience, health and wellbeing.

A lot of things have changed with the pandemic and many of us are gleaning a sliver of hope from the news of cleaner airlower carbon emissions and the resilience and rebound of nature and wildlife in the face of human retreat to our homes. But one thing hasn’t changed: Even with vehicle and industrial emissions falling, the climate crisis remains as huge of a threat as ever.

Another way to protect and expand our green spaces is with the movement to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. This “30×30” initiative could take its first step with state-level bills and programs, like the ones that have been introduced in CaliforniaSouth Carolina and Hawaii, to conserve 30 percent of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. Seventy-three percent of Western voters support the national initiative, as do 82 percent of Latinos.

COVID-19 will not be the last disaster we face as a society. But we can lessen its effects, and those of future disasters, with holistic conservation policies that include pollution reduction and land and water protection and restoration, with equity and access for all.

Shanna Edberg serves as the director of conservation programs for the national nonprofit Hispanic Access Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @shannaedberg. 

Parks for the People: Safe Routes to Recreation in Modesto

Written by: Edgar Garibay

Edited by: Lauren Barnum

Living in a safe community and being able to access family spaces such as parks are priorities for many families. Maybe you have a favorite local park or special outdoor place that holds your family’s memories like birthday parties, quinceañeras, or your annual camping trip. What do you remember about that special place? Was it clean and safe? Were there amenities like bathrooms and picnic tables for you to use? Unfortunately, that’s not the reality many of our communities face when they go to their local park. 

“When we first arrived to the neighborhood five years ago”, Noemi Baylon shares, “my family and friends told me that I was putting my family in the wolf’s mouth by living in that community.”

“That community” is Modesto’s Airport Neighborhood. This underserved community is faced with crime, loose animals, illegal dumps, and lack of access to open spaces. Despite this, leaders and youth from the Airport Neighborhood in Modesto have worked hand-in-hand with TRT to change the negative perception of this community and our shared open spaces and parks.

In other words, they have been leading a community transformation.

The grassroots community transformation commenced 10 years ago in collaborative partnerships with community leaders, TRT, and Orville Wright Elementary School. Griselda Manzo recalls the early days: meetings were organized in the homes of community members and formal presentations from community-based organizations or public agencies were conducted at Orville Wright. Through consistent planning and organizing, the first major project in the neighborhood was the construction of the Airport Neighborhood Community Center.

Building off of that success, TRT launched the Charlas Comunitarias (Community Chats) meetings, where resident leaders can collaborate with pubic agencies and TRT to develop community projects that improve safety and access to places like parks and schools. The Safe Routes to School effort resulted in road re-pavement, sewer infrastructure, installation of stop signs, and lighting in the neighborhood – major safety improvements that help parents get their kids safely to and from school. 

Now, we are focusing our efforts on safe routes to parks. Future infrastructure projects such as sidewalks, paved paths, bicycle lanes, a learning theater pavilion, and an outdoor education classroom are part of the guiding vision we are working toward to create safe routes to outdoor spaces in the community. These outdoor places are important for residents’ physical and emotional health. We’ve all felt the benefits of being outside during this new era of sheltering-in-place. 

In light of the rapidly changing circumstances caused by COVID-19, community leaders have been motivated and energized to continue their work virtually. While we practice social distancing, the leaders in the community are quickly learning how to use available technology and public data tools that inform how we continue this work. 

Thanks to the support of Safe Routes Partnership (through the initiative of the JPB Foundation) and the continued generous support from donors like you, we can continue the decade-long legacy of building safe and equitable access to our community parks together. 


Equitable Community Engagement in the Time of Social Distancing

Read the original blog post written by Natasha Riveron here.

While traditional community engagement activities like neighborhood walk audits are not possible during COVID-19, there are creative ways to continue equitable community engagement during the time of social distancing.

We spend a lot of time talking about what equitable community engagement looks like. (For some examples, check out these community engagement cards with arts-based activities, a factsheet about community engagement’s core role in equitable Safe Routes to Parks, a checklist for facilitating equitable engagement in the park visioning process, and a webinar about how youth can support policy change.) However, most of the best practices we usually recommend are not feasible in the time of coronavirus. For example, a community meeting with lots of face-to-face conversation, hands-on activities, and a shared meal is the last thing we should be doing right now. We imagine that many of you are asking yourselves the same question: How do we meaningfully and equitably engage communities in planning and decision-making processes in the time of social distancing?

Technologies like video conferences and online surveys are great tools, but simply moving planned content to an online platform isn’t going to be effective at engaging the folks who are already left out of traditional approaches: older adults, non-English speakers, immigrants, people living unsheltered, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income service workers, and other people who don’t have reliable access to the internet. These are the people who are continually excluded from the traditional decision-making process, and sticking with go-to methods in an online format, perpetuates the status quo. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us an opportunity to re-center equity in our work and maintain our commitment to dismantling the systems that continually disregard and oppress these groups.

This is easier said than done, but to offer some concrete suggestions for how to equitably engage community members in the time of COVID-19, we consulted our staff and our 2020 Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities grantees. Based on those conversations, we have outlined three general themes to guide how we are thinking about engagement and contributed to a crowdsourced collection of engagement strategies that you can also share and add to.


We may be tempted to move projects forward by doing basic virtual engagement and then circling back later for engagement with specific populations. That is not enough if we are truly concerned about incorporating equity into these processes. Community engagement and community voice are an essential part of projects that are meant to serve the community. Consider adjusting your timeline and deliverables if you can. If that isn’t possible, focus on going above and beyond to reach out to underrepresented populations.

Throughout the process, emphasize and help community members understand the value of their experiences as important data for planning and decision-making efforts. Their stories and experiences are qualitative data that should carry weight in how we decide to move projects forward. Show that in your approach to engagement as well. We usually advise against community meetings where community members are just talked at for an hour, so why would we do that now on a digital platform?

Think about how you can share power during meetings; co-create agendas using google docs, ask community members what they want to do right now and implement what they choose, and hand over facilitation to different community members. Reach out to residents early through multiple channels to make sure they are informed about remote options for public meetings, topics that will be discussed, and how they can participate. Send any relevant preparatory materials before the meeting so people are ready to participate. This also allows people to submit questions and comments before the meeting.


Tuolumne River Trust in Modesto, California was trying to figure out how to reach community members virtually, but first needed to understand whether their community members had access to the internet at home and the technical knowledge for engaging on digital platforms. They used this survey to assess the number of people with home internet access, their level of comfort using online engagement platforms, and the tech skills they would like to develop. They also asked community members whether this still felt like an appropriate time to be working to improve park access, or whether that needed to be placed on the backburner for now. This first step meant that they knew what resources to provide to make sure that they brought as many people as possible into their ongoing work to increase safe and equitable access to parks. As a result of that survey, they are now holding meetings twice a month with a core group of community advocates. For each meeting, half of the time is focused on building technical skills and the other half is dedicated to working on park access projects.

To apply this in your community, figure out how people can and want to connect, whether it is via zoom meetings or phone trees. If you settle on a more technically challenging medium, consider doing phone calls to walk people through setting up their computer or other device for video conferencing so that they feel comfortable and ready to fully engage. For public meetings, consistently provide an adequate telephone option and ensure that comments can be shared via phone. Give ample time and opportunities for the public to submit comments before the meeting’s start time, such as via email or by leaving a voice message at a dedicated phone number. Read these comments aloud on the record during the meeting for the whole group.

Take steps to specifically accommodate people with disabilities in your virtual engagement. Check out this page from the University of Minnesota to see ways to make virtual meetings and presentations accessible to people with vision or hearing impairments.

For people who will not be able to connect via the internet, consider sticking with phone calls to build relationships, hear people’s stories, and simultaneously connect them to any resources they may need. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, advocates who are working on Safe Routes to Parks are also using this time to call older adults to check if they are feeling isolated and if they have enough food and medication. Community engagement is about relationship; showing up for people when they need help is part of an equitable process.


Active transportation and public space may not be top of mind for most people right now. Be sensitive to people’s needs and concerns; it may not be the time for asking them to fill out a survey. However, mobility and public space advocates can use their specific skills and resources to support communities during this time while also building relationships and momentum that support further work aligned with their advocacy goals.

For example, this time can be a great opportunity to help community members build technical and community advocacy skills that can organize and sustain mutual aid networks right now while also building skills for people to advocate for their community’s needs and desires in future planning and decision-making processes. In Flint, Michigan, Crim Fitness Foundation is holding live-stream “community conversations,” digital lunches, and teaching people how to use Zoom and other remote technologies.

This time of crisis has highlighted and exacerbated issues of access and equity that have been there all along. Now is a great time to acknowledge those interconnections. Here is a blog post where we list out pressing issues like getting people to fill out the census and supporting access to food and how active transportation advocates can be allies to those causes.

Now is the time to act on our commitment to equity, support the communities we work within the ways they need it, and not rush the process of community engagement to create Safe Routes.

The 2020 Great Race for Saving Water: A Trip Down the Memory Trail

Palo Alto Baylands – April 25, 2020

By Peter Drekmeier

Despite our disappointment the Great Race for Saving Water had to be cancelled this year due to the coronavirus, Amy, Aidan and I were not deterred. Donned in face masks, we set out early to walk the 5K Great Race course in the spirit of Earth Day. The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve was closed to cars, but open to hikers, joggers and cyclists. We were optimistic we finally had a chance of placing in the Race.

As with past events, we started our adventure walking down the levee trail along San Francisquito Creek, reminding us of its rich history. The Muwekma Ohlone tribespeople were the first human inhabitants of the area, hunting, fishing and enjoying life in the watershed for thousands of years. In 1922, a Stanford student dug a human skull from the bank of San Francisquito, and carbon-dating proved it to be more than 4,000 years old. The skull belonged to the oldest known human to have lived on the San Francisco Peninsula – although it’s believed people have inhabited the region for much longer.

In 1769 – seven years before the Declaration of Independence – Gaspar de Portola and his expedition camped beneath the famed El Palo Alto redwood tree along San Francisquito Creek shortly after “discovering” San Francisco Bay. The stretch of creek between El Palo Alto and the Bay has become very familiar to me after 30 years or organizing clean-ups and habitat restoration projects. To this day, the Creek continues to provide important habitat for threatened steelhead trout, red-legged frogs, western pond turtles and myriad other species.

Interestingly, San Francisquito had once been considered a source of drinking water for the City of San Francisco. Searsville Dam was constructed by Spring Valley Water Company in the late 1800s, and was later purchased by Stanford. The water smelled bad due to a high concentration of organic material, so the water has only been used for campus irrigation.

 As we approached the confluence of San Francisquito Creek and the Bay, the trail turned sharply to the right with a southeast heading. It was along this stretch that we came across the “Unnamed Slough.” Here, an outfall releases about 20 million gallons per day (mgd) of treated wastewater from the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

I recalled a conversation I had about a dozen years ago with a hero of mine, Phil Bobel, who operates the wastewater plant. He asked me to remind him how much additional water the SFPUC wanted to divert from the Tuolumne River at the time. It was 25 mgd. “That’s interesting,” he responded, “because we release about that much treated water into the Bay” (it was higher then due to less conservation).

Thanks to the leadership of Phil and others, last fall the Cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View entered into an agreement with Valley Water to build two new facilities at the wastewater plant, one to produce 9 mgd of advanced-purified water for human consumption, and the other to produce 2 mgd of desalted recycled water for irrigation. The 2 mgd project will take a little pressure off the Tuolumne, because that water will be used in the SFPUC service area. The 9 mgd project will serve Valley Water customers, so it might take some pressure off the Delta, unless it’s just used to offset population growth.

We saw all sorts of wildlife during our stroll, including wild hares, Canada geese and too many ducks and other water fowl to name (not that I’m an accomplished birder). A mocking bird reminded me that I’m not very good at bird calls either. We had no problem identifying the swallows that utilize the dedicated nesting boxes under the eaves of the Nature Center.

As we approached the Lucy Evans Nature Center (named after “Baylands Lucy” – a pioneer in the fight to protect the Baylands from development), I was reminded of the time I caught my first gopher snake right there along the levee (I loved snakes when I was a kid, and still do). I took it home, built a cage, added soil, plants, a small log and a tray of water, and then headed to the pet store to buy a feeder mouse. The gopher snake, which I had yet to name, took refuge under the log, but the mouse was very active, tunneling around and keeping busy. I decided to return the snake to the Baylands, and keep the rodent. My dad named him Marcel Mouse (after the famous French mime), and that launched my small mammal phase of pet husbandry. 

When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of time at the Baylands. We loved the Nature Center with its catwalk traversing the pickleweed (habitat for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse) to the bay shore. We also enjoyed feeding the ducks at what had once been a salt water swimming pool, but had been converted into a bird refuge. Palo Alto also had a yacht harbor, but it was closed in the 1980s after a passionate battle between boaters and conservationists.

Historically, San Francisquito Creek flowed out through the yacht harbor, naturally moving sediment out to the Bay. But around the 1930s, the Creek was relocated to its current location to the north to make land available for an airport and golf course. Without the Creek’s inflow, the harbor began to silt up, and the public no longer wanted to fund the dredging necessary to keep it viable. Plus, the dredged mud had been piling up on marshland, which was not popular with the electorate.

As we passed the old yacht harbor site, I recalled the time my old group, Bay Area Action, had organized a habitat restoration project in the area for Earth Day 1996. That day I was looking out over the old harbor site and saw two large animals swimming in a circle. At first I thought they were seals, but on closer inspection they turned out to be salmon. They were likely hatchery fish that had strayed into the small estuary looking for a creek to spawn in.

Across from where the yacht harbor had been is a pleasant little picnic area shaded by trees that until recently had served as a rookery for black-crowned night herons. I checked to see if the birds had returned, but without luck. We did notice a large number of rabbit droppings on the road, suggesting wildlife was enjoying the absence of cars, as were we. Perhaps the night herons will return to a more peaceful refuge.

We then passed the old Sea Scout building where I had spent a lot of time in my high school years. Our troop was known as Ship Intrepid, but the Intrepid – a 120-foot long former navy vessel – had since been retired and replaced by The Boxer – a 65-foot former mine sweep. We spent many days out on the Bay, and it was through Sea Scouts I first discovered the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta during our annual week-long Summer Cruise.

After the yacht harbor closed, the Sea Scout building – designed to look like a ship – fell into disrepair, and was close to being condemned. Environmental Volunteers – a wonderful environment education organization – stepped up and raised an impressive amount of funding to give the historic building new life, converting it into their EcoCenter.

As we entered the final leg of our trek, we passed the wastewater treatment plant, an underappreciated community asset. It reminded me of a 2008 campaign in San Francisco to rename the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant the “George W. Bush Sewage Plant,” as a lasting insult to the departing President. Activists qualified an initiative for the ballot, but after receiving an education on the critical role such facilities serve for the health and welfare of our communities and the environment, the electorate voted the measure down. They didn’t want to bestow such an honor on Mr. Bush.

In 2011, 65% of the Palo Alto electorate voted to make 10 acres of the former landfill adjacent to the wastewater plant available for a facility to convert sewage sludge, and possibly food waste, into biogas and compost. The proposal was controversial because it pitted park advocates who wanted the entire landfill site to be converted to parkland against sustainability advocates who wanted to convert organic waste into environmentally-beneficial resources. Palo Alto has yet to determine whether to move forward with a waste conversion facility, but as a result of the awareness raised by the citizens’ initiative, last year the City retired its sewage sludge incinerator – the largest contributor of local greenhouse gas emissions.

As we approached the finish line, we reflected on how fortunate we were to live in such an environmentally-aware community. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! And to cap it all off, guess who won the 2020 Great Race for Saving Water?

Special thanks to Catherine Elvert from the Palo Alto Utilities Department for spearheading the Great Race for Saving Water and Earth Day celebration since 2013.

TRT Proposes Near-Term Relief for the Tuolumne

By Peter Drekmeier

In December 2018, the Tuolumne and several other rivers received a promising holiday gift from the State Water Board when it adopted higher instream flow requirements for waterways in the San Joaquin Basin. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the water to materialize.

Lawsuits and the State’s focus on Voluntary Agreements have delayed implementation of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. A State lawsuit over the Trump Administration’s bogus “scientific” study that concluded more water could be pumped from the Delta without harming endangered species has added to the stalemate. Relief for California’s aquatic ecosystems is essentially on hold.

Disappointingly, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has been one of the staunchest opponents of the Bay Delta Plan. Despite the strong environmental values of their customers, they have refused to accept the critical role instream flows play in ecosystem viability. At the crux of their opposition is a fear that they might not be able to manage their Design Drought – an 8.5-year fictional drought that arbitrarily combines two of the worst droughts from the last century. Interestingly, analysis of historic tree-ring data has revealed that the 1987-92 drought was the driest six-year period over the past 1,100 years, and the 1976/77 drought was the second driest two-year period during that timeframe.

Adding to their extremely conservative planning scenario, the SFPUC assumes water demand will increase to 265 million gallons per day (mgd), despite evidence to the contrary. Demand last year was just 192 mgd – 28% below their assumption – and the SFPUC’s 10-Year Financial Plan forecasts demand will continue to decrease over the coming decade.

To provide near-term relief for the Tuolumne, TRT recently introduced an interim proposal that would enhance instream flows without threatening the SFPUC’s water supply. Using a water supply calculator we created, we demonstrated that the SFPUC could voluntarily contribute their share of the 40% of unimpaired flow adopted by the State Water Board for at least two years, and if those years are dry, followed by a third dry year, the SFPUC could revert back to current baseflows and make it through their Design Drought.

We’re gaining traction on our proposal, and could always use more public support. If you’re interested in getting involved, please email

How to Stay Active Outdoors During Shelter-In-Place

By Tom Stienstra

As Bay Area residents observe the government order to shelter in place as a means of containing the coronavirus outbreak, many who love the outdoors are looking for an escape from the monotony of being indoors at home all day. There is some respite out there if you know where to look.

Shelter-in-place requires people in six Bay Area counties to stay in their homes at all times, barring exceptions like grocery shopping, health care visits and getting exercise. Park trails are providing a refuge, even as visitors centers at state parks, national parks and national forests close to the public.

Health officers encourage short trips for fitness, as long as hikers do it alone or with close family members and keep 6 feet away from others, and make no stops driving to and from trailheads. With a few major exceptions, trails at national, state, county and regional parks, and open space, are still open for hiking, running and mountain biking.

“All outdoor state park spaces remain open and accessible to the public,” said State Parks director Lisa Mangat in a policy that most park districts are following.

Many open space areas are suspending docent-led activities and closing picnic areas. However, in many, rangers remain on duty to respond to emergencies.

In the East Bay hills Tuesday morning, field scout Brian Murphy of Rossmoor showed how to stay active within the order. From near his home, he hiked alone out of Tice Valley and into the hills to photograph blooming California poppies.

“It’s a nice opportunity to get out of the house to take the camera for walks in the peace and quiet, open space, and get in some good exercise as well,” Murphy said. “Sorry, enjoying the snow up at Tahoe is off the table.”

Ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe region announced over the weekend that they would shut down for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic.

Park officials recognize that fitness leads to health that can build strong immune systems. “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” is a global movement that “harnesses the power of parks and public lands as a health resource,” according to the U.S. National Park Service, which supports the movement.

The East Bay Regional Park District also operates a major program around the theme and links its annual “Trails Challenge” to the idea.

“I hike to stay healthy,” said my brother, Bob Stienstra Jr., “and you never know what you might see when you’re out there.” He lives on the South Peninsula and said he planned a short trip and hike to a local preserve operated by the Midpeninsula Open Space District.

Murphy and brother Bob said they would both heed the warnings: Keep travel to a minimum, do not engage others, avoid traveling in groups and keep the interior of your vehicle and surfaces you might touch sanitized. Go to the nearby trailhead, get your hike done and then return home.

While most park trails remain open, there are some new major exceptions across the region at areas where people might congregate.

In San Francisco, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area suspended tours on Alcatraz Island until April 8. The GGNRA also closed the Fort Point National Historic Site and the Lands End Lookout.

In Marin, the GGNRA also shut down Muir Woods National Monument, including all parking there, the Point Bonita Lighthouse and the Kirby Cove and Bicentennial campgrounds. Marin County Parks also closed all of its parks through April 7.

On the other hand, Marin County Open Space, where hundreds of trails and ranch-style roads are available for hiking and mountain biking, remain open, rangers said.

Most park districts have closed visitors centers, museums, group gatherings and programs, swim facilities, and anyplace where groups might gather. East Bay Parks also closed its two most popular campgrounds, at Anthony Chabot and Del Valle regional parks, and ordered all campers out on Monday.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Loch Lomond Recreation Area and its beautiful lake opened as scheduled on March 1, but closed Monday until at least well into April, said ranger Gar Eidam. “Hopefully we’ll still have a season,” he said.

For most, a common sense approach can solve most issues regarding park use, Murphy said. He has no wish to get sick or spread the illness, he added, and like many, “wants to stay active and maintain fitness.”

Tips for Connecting to Tuolumne

A Message from Our Director of Partnerships: 

To Our Tuolumne River Trust Community: 

I hope this message finds you in good health and positive spirits despite the challenges we are currently facing. It’s likely that you’ve been receiving multiple emails a day about how the organizations and businesses you support are handling COVID-19. The last thing I want to do is add to that noise. Instead, I’d like to offer some ideas and resources for how to cope with the challenges ahead. 

We’ve been having a lot of conversations at the staff level about how to best continue our work during this difficult time. Some of the questions we’ve been grappling with are about how we’re going to deliver our programs when we can’t show up in person, what types of messages we should send, and how to mindfully fundraise so that we can continue this work. 

While we don’t have immediate answers for all of those questions, one thing remains certain: nature, and the Tuolumne River Watershed, will continue to provide us with inspiration and peace. They will continue to be a refuge for us when times get tough, but only if we continue to take care of them too. 

We hope that you will find some solace (and maybe even escape) in the resources we’ve compiled for you below. 

If you’re in need of a breath of fresh air on your congested social media feed, we are posting daily photos and inspirations on our Instagram account that we hope bring you a few moments of reprieve. We’ll be featuring stories from our staff over the next few weeks and hope you’ll tune in. 

If you love the river and our work to protect it, please support us by making a contribution to our Great Race for Saving Water (virtual) fund-racer. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way for grassroots organizations like ours. Thank you for your support – we appreciate you! 

From my river-loving heart to yours,


Lauren Barnum

Director of Partnerships

TRT Response to COVID-19 

To Our Tuolumne River Trust Community: 

In light of the rapidly changing circumstances caused by COVID-19 and recommendations from national and state officials, we are canceling all TRT-sponsored public events through May 31, 2020. 

This measure is taken in an abundance of caution for our communities. Guidance from our public health agencies has made it clear that avoiding crowds and social distancing are key to reducing transmission, especially among the most vulnerable. 

The following events are canceled: 

  • Modesto Rec Fest – March 21, 2020 
  • Tuolumne Jamboree – May 30-31, 2020 

The events scheduled for tomorrow, March 14, 2020 will continue as planned: 

  • Wildflower Hike at Red Hills 
  • Operation 9-2-99 River Clean-up – for more information, please contact organizer Chris Guptill by clicking here

We are not canceling our annual “fund-racer” in conjunction with the City of Palo Alto’s Great Race for Saving Water and Earth Day celebration. This is a virtual fundraiser that raises money to support our restoration, education, and advocacy programs. Climate change remains a serious threat to our communities, economy, and natural environment. We must continue our work to protect and restore the Tuolumne River, especially in these difficult times, and that work requires funding. 

We know that there is a lot of uncertainty and fear circulating right now, but this community of river lovers is strong, and we will get through the challenges we currently face. We are grateful to you, our supporters, for your unwavering support over the past 39 years. 

Be well,
Patrick Koepele

Executive Director
Tuolumne River Trust

Don’t be fooled, Modesto farmers — Trump’s California water plan doesn’t help you.

By The Modesto Bee Editorial Board

President Donald Trump promised in a Central Valley visit on Wednesday that his new water edict would benefit farmers, drawing applause and adulation from a Kern County crowd. But the brash move is more likely to hurt than to help growers, whether in Bakersfield or Modesto.

That’s because his plan may blow up delicate negotiations among all interests receiving water from rivers flowing to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, especially those here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

These on-life-support negotiations, called voluntary agreements, present our best chance at finding peace after decades of water wars. Such a truce would provide respite and certainty not only to our farmers, but also to the fish industry and environmentalists aligned with it. And, to the city of Modesto, whose water customers rely in part on treated water from the Tuolumne.

Former Governor Jerry Brown and his successor, Governor Gavin Newsom, see the value in voluntary agreements; we applauded when Newsom in September quickly vetoed misguided state legislation, Senate Bill 1, because it threatened to derail these all-important negotiations. Newsom risked severe political blowback but stuck to his guns because he knows that compromise, in the long run, is preferable to protracted court battles.

The water agencies in our area with the most at stake — the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — have championed the voluntary agreements. They long ago accepted that giving up some of their Tuolumne River water would be far better than the state Water Resources Control Board’s much-maligned “water grab” proposal, which is anything but voluntary.

One might expect the irrigation districts and our local farmers to applaud Trump’s move on Wednesday — rolling back environmental restrictions to make it easier for Delta pumps to send a lot more water to farmers in the south Valley, and potentially to Southern California cities. With typical hyperbole, Trump told the cheering crowd that they are “going to be able to do things you never thought possible.”

Let’s be honest: Some of the president’s rationale rings absolutely true. For example, his administration’s biological opinion (enabling more water to move south) is based on recent science that is head-and-shoulders above outdated data that the state Water Board relied on to propose the hated water grab. The legislation vetoed by Newsom would ignore this sound science as well.

But the country’s negotiator-in-chief has zero interest in negotiating California’s water wars. His only goal is a complete and crushing victory for his political base. That’s why he signed the rollbacks in Kern County, which favored him by 13 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And that explains why he was accompanied by fawning, loyalist office-holders such as U.S. Representatives Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and Tom McClintock.

Also in attendance was David Bernhardt, who previously lobbied Washington legislators on behalf of the powerful Fresno-based Westlands Water District before joining Trump’s cabinet as Interior secretary. Westlands stands to gain as much or more than anyone under Trump’s water management plan, shepherded by Bernhardt.

The president’s Wednesday visit, coming just before the March 3 Primary, was calculated to help his cronies, not our farmers.

The next day, Thursday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit challenging the president’s plan. Westlands previously indicated that such a lawsuit could prompt it to pull out of the voluntary agreements, threatening complete collapse just as we were nearing a healthy and sustainable compromise that might have been good for all.

Had Trump not inserted himself into the issue, Becerra would not have sued and negotiations would have stayed on track.

A resolution to this mess may await the outcome of the fall presidential election.

Meanwhile, if the voluntary agreements do blow up, California’s water future will be decided in courts over the next decade or so. In that case the only winners, as they say, will be the lawyers.


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.”

Newsom pledged to fix California water politics. Now he’s bogged down in the delta

Soon after taking office last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to break through the “status quo” of California water politics, plagued by decades of litigation and impasse.

“We have to get past the old binaries, like farmers versus environmentalists, or North versus South,” the governor said in his 2019 State of the State address. “Our approach can’t be “either/or.” It must be “yes/and.”

One year later, the Newsom administration appears to be a house divided on water, as competing interests pull it in opposite directions.

The main flashpoint is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a threatened estuary and source of water for a majority of Californians. In an unusual public disagreement with a sister agency, the California Fish and Wildlife Department said proposed state rules for pumping water supplies from the delta would worsen conditions for delta smelt and other fish on the brink of extinction.

Newsom has also pledged to stand up to the White House on environmental issues. Yet two months after state officials vowed to sue the Trump administration to block a rollback of federal endangered species protections for imperiled native fish, no lawsuit has been filed.

And the state’s high profile attempts to negotiate a settlement with major water users over tough new flow requirements for delta tributaries have stalled.

“A lot of people are wondering what’s going on,” said Kim Delfino, California director for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group. “It’s a huge mess.”

In interviews, Natural Resource Agency officials rejected suggestions of internal conflict and disarray.

“I don’t think there’s a divorce, I don’t think there’s a major split,” fish and wildlife director Chuck Bonham said of his department’s polite, but highly critical comments on the Department of Water Resources’ delta pumping proposal.

Rather, he said, two departments with different authorities are working their way through a complicated environmental review process in an unprecedented situation.

The State Water Project, which supplies Southern California with delta water, has historically adhered to federal Endangered Species Act protections for delta smelt, chinook salmon and other imperiled species.

But in the face of the pending Trump rollbacks, the Newsom administration decided to do something California has never done before — develop its own set of delta fish protections under the California Endangered Species Act.

That has set the resources agency down a path strewn with political and practical potholes.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other state project customers want the administration to go along with the Trump rollback and relax pumping restrictions that have cost them delta deliveries.

But embracing the Trump plans would not be good optics in a state that considers itself a leader of the Trump resistance.

Moreover, in formal comments filed Jan. 6, the fish and wildlife department argued that delta protections need “strengthening, not weakening.” It added that “any diminishment of existing protections could worsen these species conditions.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has further complicated matters by signaling that its delta pumping operations would not comply with stricter state endangered species rules.

That would create a practical nightmare in the Northern California delta, which serves as the center of the state’s vast water supply system.

Tougher state standards, for example, could mean that federal irrigation customers of the Central Valley Project gain supplies at the expense of Metropolitan and other state customers. On the other hand, if federal pumping violates state protections, California could block the reclamation bureau from using state canals it sometimes needs to deliver supplies to San Joaquin Valley farms.

That scenario has kept state and federal water managers talking.

“I think all the agencies involved are open to finding a way forward to meet their concerns without lawsuits,” said Natural Resources Sec. Wade Crowfoot. “There is a lot of constructive discussion happening on a daily basis between the federal and state agencies on all manner of management questions.”

“We think litigation should be the last resort,” he added. “But if needed, we will pursue that.”

In a delta face-off with the Trump administration, California has some powerful weapons. It controls state pumps that can export more water than the federal facilities. And both reclamation law and the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act dictate that the federal water project meet state water quality standards.

“We’re not powerless. The state has some leverage,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. But “nobody benefits from this kind of standoff — I get why the administration hasn’t pulled the trigger on the lawsuit.”

Environmental attorney Doug Obegi doesn’t. Noting that California has filed dozens of lawsuits against Trump policies, Obegi said he is optimistic the state will sue “and that fish and wildlife will stick to its guns.”

“I think fish and wildlife’s letter highlights their consistent and ongoing concerns with weakening protections for salmon and endangered species in the delta. What’s unusual is that this dispute between the state agencies has seen the light of day,” said Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To operate delta exports under the state Endangered Species Act, the water resources department must obtain a permit from fish and wildlife, which appears to be scoring some points.

In draft environmental documents released in November, the water resources department estimated that its proposed pumping rules would boost the State Water Project’s annual delta exports by an average of roughly 200,000 acre feet — enough to supply 400,000 households for a year.

But the department’s December permit application outlined a less aggressive pumping approach. Water resources “considered the feedback from parties, including fish and wildlife, and have come back with a permit application … that commits to no net increase in exports,” Crowfoot said.

More changes are possible before fish and wildlife issues the permit this spring, said water resources director Karla Nemeth.

“I don’t think DWR was surprised by the fish and wildlife comments … because those are all the issues we’re talking about,” she said. “There’s more work to do and we expect to keep going.”

Fish and wildlife biologists also rejected a premise of the Trump rollback and the initial water resources proposal. Both would rely on real-time monitoring of where imperiled fish are swimming in the delta to dictate pumping levels instead of the strict seasonal guidelines that have been in place for the past decade.

Given that the numbers of delta smelt and longfin smelt have plummeted to record lows in recent years, fish and wildlife said such an approach could create “a bias toward concluding that fish are not in the system when, in fact, they are.”

In a separate but related matter, the Newsom administration has been trying to negotiate a settlement with major water users to avert a legal war over new flow standards that would make cities and farms leave more water in delta tributaries — and eventually the delta — to support migrating salmon.

Major river users upstream of the delta have already filed a slew of lawsuits to block the first set of flow standards, which were adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in late 2018.

Westlands Water District, California’s biggest irrigation agency, walked away from the settlement talks after the state declared it would sue to stop the federal rollbacks in the delta.

Crowfoot said his agency would soon release an assessment of whether proposed settlement terms would satisfy the water board’s environmental standards.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan water district, said his agency is still involved in the flow talks, but is unsure of the outcome.

The governor’s office, he observed, is “trying to strike a balance — and that’s very hard with these thorny issues.”

“I’ve seen them be pretty realistic that, ‘Yes, we’re going to have a lot of unhappy people.”


Trump Removes Pollution Controls on Streams and Wetlands


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday will finalize a rule to strip away environmental protections for streams, wetlands and other water bodies, handing a victory to farmers, fossil fuel producers and real estate developers who said Obama-era rules had shackled them with onerous and unnecessary burdens.

From Day 1 of his administration, President Trump vowed to repeal President Barack Obama’s “Waters of the United States” regulation, which had frustrated rural landowners. His new rule, which will be implemented in the coming weeks, is the latest step in the Trump administration’s push to repeal or weaken nearly 100 environmental rules and laws, loosening or eliminating rules on climate change, clean air, chemical pollution, coal mining, oil drilling and endangered species protections.

Mr. Trump has called the regulation “horrible,” “destructive” and “one of the worst examples of federal” overreach.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the United States rule,” he told the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Texas on Sunday, to rousing applause.

“That was a rule that basically took your property away from you,” added Mr. Trump, whose real estate holdings include more than a dozen golf courses. (Golf course developers were among the key opponents of the Obama rule and key backers of the new one.)

His administration had completed the first step of its demise in September with the rule’s repeal.

His replacement on Thursday will complete the process, not only rolling back 2015 rules that guaranteed protections under the 1972 Clean Water Act to certain wetlands and streams that run intermittently or run temporarily underground, but also relieves landowners of the need to seek permits that the Environmental Protection Agency had considered on a case-by-case basis before the Obama rule.

It also gives President Trump a major policy achievement to bring to his political base while his impeachment trial continues.

“Farmers coalesced against the E.P.A. being able to come onto their land, and he’s delivering,” said Jessica Flanagain, a Republican strategist in Lincoln, Neb. “This is bigger news for agricultural producers than whatever is happening with the sideshow in D.C.,” she added.

The new water rule will remove federal protections from more than half the nation’s wetlands, and hundreds of thousands of small waterways. That wouldfor the first time in decades allow landowners and property developers to dump pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers directly into many of those waterways, and to destroy or fill in wetlands for construction projects.

“This will be the biggest loss of clean water protection the country has ever seen,” said Blan Holman, a lawyer specializing in federal water policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This puts drinking water for millions of Americans at risk of contamination from unregulated pollution. This is not just undoing the Obama rule. This is stripping away protections that were put in place in the ’70s and ’80s that Americans have relied on for their health.”

Mr. Holman also said that the new rule exemplifies how the Trump administration has dismissed or marginalized scientific evidence. Last month, a government advisory board of scientists, many of whom were handpicked by the Trump administration, wrote that the proposed water rule “neglects established science.”

But farmers and fossil fuel groups supported the change.

“This is a big win for farmers, and this is the president delivering what he promised,” said Donald Parrish, senior director of regulatory affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had lobbied for years to weaken the Obama administration’s water rules.

Karen Harbert, chief executive officer of the American Gas Association, said the new rule “would restore the proper balance between federal and state regulation of our nation’s waters and protect our rivers, streams and lakes without stifling construction of important infrastructure.”

The Obama rule protected about 60 percent of the nation’s waterways, including large bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River and Puget Sound, and smaller headwaters, wetlands, seasonal streams and streams that run temporarily underground. It limited the discharge of pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides and industrial chemicals into those waters.

The new rule, written by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, will retain federal protections of large bodies of water, as well as larger rivers and streams that flow into them and wetlands that lie adjacent to them. But it removes protections for many other waters, including wetlands that are not adjacent to large bodies of water, some seasonal streams that flow for only a portion of the year, “ephemeral” streams that only flow after rainstorms, and water that temporarily flows through underground passages.

Legal experts say that Mr. Trump’s replacement rule would go further than simply repealing and replacing the 2015 Obama rule — it would also eliminate protections to smaller headwaters that have been implemented for decades under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

“This is rolling back federal jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act further than it’s ever been before,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School. “Waters that have been protected for almost 50 years will no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act.”

That could open millions of acres of pristine wetlands to pollution or destruction, and allow chemicals and other pollutants to be discharged into smaller headland waters that eventually drain into larger water bodies, experts in water management said. Wetlands play key roles in filtering surface water and protecting against floods, while also providing wildlife habitat.

Ean Thomas Tafoya, a Colorado-based clean water activist with the group GreenLatinos, said the new rule could harm the quality of the water in the Colorado River, which supplies water to 17 western states.

“We are a headwater state,” he said. “This rollback will affect almost every single stream that flows into the Colorado River.”

Mr. Tafoya said about 90 percent of the streams that supply the Colorado River run only after rainfall or snowmelt. Under the new Trump water rule, many of those streams will not qualify for federal pollution protection. But Mr. Tafoya said pollutants such as chemical pesticides that end up in those dry stream beds could nonetheless be swept into larger bodies of water when the streams begin running after the spring thaw of mountain snow.

“The toxics or poisons that lie dormant will still be there when the streams are reactivated,” he said. “They will still get into the larger bodies of water.”

Government scientists, even those appointed by the Trump administration, say those concerns are justified. The E.P.A.’s Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of 41 scientists responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency’s regulations, concluded that the new Trump water rule ignores science by “failing to acknowledge watershed systems.” They found “no scientific justification” for excluding certain bodies of water from protection under the new regulations, concluding that pollutants from those smaller and seasonal bodies of water can still have a significant impact on the health of larger water systems.

Those scientific findings, although they are not reflected in the administration’s policy, could still play a role in the fate of the new rule. Several state attorneys general are expected to join with environmental groups to sue to overturn the Trump water rule, and those groups are likely to cite those findings as evidence that the rule is not legally sound.

“The legal standing all has to do with whether you have a rational basis for what you’re doing,” said Mr. Parenteau. “And when you have experts saying you’re not adhering to the science, that’s not rational, it’s arbitrary.”

Backpacking The Canyon

Written by Lauren Barnum: Director of Partnerships 

We were halfway through our trip when we decided, over breakfast and a topo map, to completely change course: we were going to hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

Our adventure started 4 days earlier on the trailhead of the JMT. We’d scored last-minute Half Dome permits and, despite some unexpected route changes, were optimistic about getting to Tuolumne Meadows with enough time to explore different sections of the river in the days that remained. 

As we began this second half of our journey, I was giddy with excitement. We had arrived to “my” watershed, and I was eager to explore and experience the landscapes I work to protect from my desk. This was my first time in Tuolumne Meadows and would become my first descent into the Grand Canyon of the “T”.

The meadows were clearing out when we hopped on the trail: 6 miles until Glen Aulin and a few hours until sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement and knew that we’d have to hustle to make camp before dark. As the river picked up speed rushing toward Tuolumne Falls, I, too, was running to catch a glimpse of this gateway to the canyon before darkness fell.

When we arrived at the bridge crossing at the top of the falls, I was overcome with glee: something special was waiting just around the bend. 

My first glimpse of Tuolumne Falls evoked a feeling in me I can’t quite describe. It’s akin to the feeling you get when you finally find the puzzle piece you’ve been looking for. The one you thought maybe hadn’t been printed, fell out of the box or was eaten by the dog, but you find it and you click it into its place and a slow wave of satisfaction and completeness envelopes you – you’ve found it. 

I had finally found what the Tuolumne evokes in me: pure joy, renewal, and a sense of belonging. The days to come would be full of all three. 

After setting up camp in the starlight, we fell asleep to the gushing White Cascade. The next morning, we began our descent into the canyon, taking our time at Waterwheel Falls to feast our eyes upon the lavish display of aquatic theatrics. The heat of the day continued to build with each downward step we took. “I’m sure glad I’m not going the opposite direction,” I thought to myself, knowing full well that in a couple days’ time it would be our turn to hike out of the canyon, sweaty, heat-stricken, and forsaking the extra weight in my pack (did I really need to bring along that copy of My First Summer in the Sierra?).

The descent continued with spectacular views of the canyon as we traversed the river-adjacent trail. We passed one last solo hiker before dropping into solitude and didn’t see another soul on the trail for two days. Those two days were full of all the reasons I believe we venture out into nature. The palpable quiet, pure water and potent sunshine helped me connect deeply with myself and everything around me. Not only was my spirit rejuvenated, but my reverence for this place, this river, multiplied. 

The magic of the Tuolumne doesn’t just lie in the way it changes color depending on how the light hits it, the way it gracefully fluctuates between raging rapids and majestic waterfalls to meandering currents and still shallows, nor the way it carves granite so old you can hear the whispered stories of the canyon if you stop long enough to listen. 

It’s the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger than myself. It’s a reminder that we are supported by nature’s systems in quantifiable and simultaneously indescribable ways. It’s a reminder that we need nature, and nature needs us.  

I know many of you have found joy in its waters, thrills on its rapids, and peace along its banks. Just like you, I find refuge in the Tuolumne. It is my hope that you’ll take time this season to slow down and appreciate what’s important to you, whether that be the Tuolumne, time with loved ones, or a little bit of both. If you feel inspired to give back and support our work to protect this magical place, I invite you to send in a contribution today.  

Recreation is Flourishing in Modesto’s Riverside Communities

Written by Edgar Garibay and Lauren Barnum

Recreation events bring the community together. What were once underutilized outdoor spaces are becoming important community hubs for recreation and camaraderie outside of the house. On an early Saturday morning in August, 50 riverside community residents, youth and community partners gathered at the picnic area in the Tuolumne River Regional Park for California’s Free Fishing Day. Participants learned the history of the park, how to be safe near and on the river, wildlife of the Tuolumne River, and fishing/casting basics. For a majority of the participants, it was their first time learning about the fish that inhabit the Tuolumne, fishing rod anatomy, and how to put a line on the fishing rod. Between getting the fishing lines stuck to plant life and trees, Ismael Delgado mentioned being, Nervous and bad because I need to practice fishing more.”

Thanks to the support from Teichert Foundation, Youth Outside, Ride for Mom and Boyett Make Dreams Real, and the George H. W. Bush Vamos a Pescar Education Fund through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we have facilitated 55 outings and activities for riverside communities – that’s over one per week! Recreation events include bicycle rides through the Tuolumne River Regional Park, canoeing on the Dennett Dam-free lower river, fishing, orienteering, and nature walks to get to know the outdoor spaces available in their community.

These recreation activities connect residents to the Tuolumne and instill an appreciation of nature and the river. As Alvaro Davalos, a youth participant in our Central Valley programming, puts it, “I like outdoor activities because I get to learn new things like how to fish/cast. I like to see what fishes are out there in the river.” 

Most of you have experienced the joy of being outdoors in nature. Whether you spend your summers camping in the foothills, fishing in Central Valley, or rafting the Wild & Scenic section, there’s something for everyone. Joanna Carcamo comments after a day spent in the Tuolumne River Regional Park — the largest urban park in Stanislaus County, covering 500 acres along 7 miles of river — ,“I love being outdoors because it involves being out in nature and I get to see the wildlife at the parks and the river.”

The TRRP’s bicycle and walking trails along the river offer scenic views, some of the region’s oldest Valley Oak trees, great fishing, and the occasional squirrel scavenging for acorns. If you haven’t visited the TRRP, we encourage you to get outside and enjoy it this holiday season.

The State of Our Forests

Written by Byron P. Krempl: Headwater Forests Program Manager

As a recent California transplant, I was blown away by the beauty and splendor of the Tuolumne River Watershed. From the Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park to the Sierra Nevada foothills, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with a sense of awe and wonder. But even in all of that wonder, I noticed ominous undertones. The legacy of the 2013 Rim Fire, the sheer number of standing dead trees that succumbed to drought and beetle kill, the overstocking of the forests, and the rapidly changing climate.

We are stewards of our natural resources, and it is our job to restore our natural landscape. But how? Restoring our natural landscape won’t be quick, and it certainly won’t be easy. But it can be done. We must recognize the inherent factors that make nature resilient and learn to work together, federal agency and environmental nonprofit alike, to work with nature instead of against it. Just like our landscape, solving this problem is bigger than any one of us. It requires an array of management approaches to yield a suite of environmental conditions and outcomes that benefit not only us, but the environment and future generations.

We can produce timber and wildlife habitat, sequester carbon and filter water, reduce fuel loading and increase old-growth forests all at the same time. But only if we come together and begin to seek out solutions rather than focus on problems. TRT is poised at the epicenter of a swirling storm of diverse stakeholders, objectives, and beliefs about what landscape-level forest planning should look like within the Upper Tuolumne Watershed. TRT is diligently working with an array of stakeholders to develop a common-ground approach to restoring our forests. Can it be done? Yes. Not quickly, not easily, and certainly not without your support. But together, we can save our forests. 

Forestry and Natural Resources Program

Written by Seth Connolly

Students from the Forestry and Natural Resources program at Columbia College have been an invaluable component of our Rim Fire recovery efforts in the Upper Tuolumne watershed over the past five years. Serving with the Trust through summer internships, fellowships, and seasonal positions, these students have played an essential role in helping to develop our programs and leading our efforts in the field.

Columbia College students come from diverse backgrounds, but all share a passion for healthy forests and the technical skills to carry out a wide variety of restoration projects that we perform throughout the year in partnership with the Stanislaus National Forest. In addition to helping us to recruit and manage volunteers for our tree planting and trail restoration service events, they have worked closely with contractors and Forest Service staff to ensure that our meadow restoration projects are performed according to professional standards.

Several of the students who have worked with the Trust have since gone on to continue their studies as they pursue careers in various environmental fields. Military veterans are well-represented in the Forestry and Natural Resources program at Columbia College, and the Trust is proud to have played a role in helping two combat veterans build the skills and experience necessary to land permanent positions with National Forests here in California. In addition to their wealth of forestry knowledge and skills working in the field, these students have collectively embodied a strong work ethic and character that helps to serve as the backbone for our programs in the Upper Tuolumne watershed. We are grateful for all of their hard work and look forward to seeing them continue to grow into future leaders in the stewardship of our forests and watersheds.

Remembering Don Briggs

Written by Patrick Koepele

A movement to protect a river, like any movement, doesn’t materialize from the ether. Atoms don’t self-assemble to form words on the paper of a piece of legislation. Elected officials don’t think up these ideas themselves. It takes regular people working together towards in common cause. And usually, it takes many, many people. The Tuolumne’s protection as a Wild & Scenic River is no different. Many people toiled for many years to move the legislation through Congress and finally to President Reagan’s desk in 1984. Among the many inspiring activists from the Tuolumne Wild & Scenic Campaign was Don Briggs who passed away on September 14th. Don was an artist and photographer who was passionate about river protection and gave his time, skills, and efforts to fighting to protect the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and other rivers.

Don wielded his photographic skills like a weapon. He had a keen eye for framing a landscape photograph and was able to capture the form and beauty of flowing water. I’ve been told many would sit next to him in a raft and try to mimic what he was doing and looking at it, but they never really could duplicate it. These photographs brought the beauty of the river to the public and to decision-makers, even making opponents of wild and scenic protection pause to absorb what had been captured in on film. Don was also a prankster who know how to draw attention to the issue with humor. Notably, Don talked to the famous actor Richard Chamberlain to take a trip down the river. Richard Chamberlain was a much sought after interview subject at the time, and after his Tuolumne trip, he would only agree to do interviews if he could talk about his beloved Tuolumne River. This brought high-level attention to the outstanding and remarkable values of the Tuolumne to the general public and further increased broad grassroots pressure for the protection of the river.

Don’s story is an inspiring one for all of us. Don combined his passion with his talents and dedicated his time to ensure the protection of the river. Though we may not all have the same talents as Don did, we all have a voice that we can bring to a conversation about our environment. This is perhaps more important now than ever. Without people taking the time to speak up for a river, an endangered animal, or a favorite landscape, we will not have any additional environmental victories. In fact, there is a very real danger that we will backslide and environmental protections will be removed. I have heard many of you speak in support of a healthy and vibrant river teeming with fish and wildlife and that continues to provide many benefits for generations to come. We have many important decisions that will be made in the coming months and years that will either advance that vision or set it back. At the Tuolumne River Trust, we will work to help you channel your voice to the right decision-maker or elected official. And we take inspiration from Don in doing so.


The images above are subject to copyright and are property of the Tuolumne River Trust.
For inquiry, please e-mail Shanley Mitchell at 

Dos Rios Restoration

Victoria Martinez: USDA Intern in partnership with CSU Stanislaus

The Dos Rios Ranch has become the largest floodplain restoration site in California. With the support of River Partners, we organized a series of public workdays to allow communities near and far to participate in restoring this ranch into a natural floodplain habitat, where the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers meet. As our tree planting days quickly approached, our Dos Rios restoration sites were flooded due to a particularly wet winter. While disappointed by the cancellations, we were thrilled to see our project sites acting in the way they were intended – flooded floodplains!

As warmer weather approached, we were eager to return to the ranch and continue the restoration. Despite the inevitable valley heat, 70 individuals attended our work days to participate in any way they could. With tree planting season passed, we dedicated our efforts to maintain valley oak trees already planted by removing weeds competing for their space. In addition, milk weed was planted at one of the nesting sites to create habitat for the monarch butterfly. Despite all the setbacks, we shared some of our most successful restoration days yet with members of our community.

We are also very excited about the addition of a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) for our water quality monitoring program. This document ensures that all data collection will be carried out under the same sampling methods, regardless of who participates. We’re excited for this new aspect of the monitoring program as it will allow more individuals from riverside communities to participate in our water quality monitoring program. The QAPP will also validate our data collection allowing it to be used for research purposes by not only the trust, but members of the community and universities interested in watershed research.

Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance Pays

By Patrick Koepele

Back in 2009, the State Water Board initiated an update of the Bay Delta Plan. Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and the iPhone had only been around for about 1 ½ years. We are now 10 years in to the Bay Delta Plan process, and although Phase 1, which dealt with the San Joaquin River and its tributaries was completed late last year, Phase 2, which deals with the Sacramento River and Delta outflows, is still ongoing, and Phase 3, during which the board will actually implement the plan and require new river flows, has not yet begun.

Back in 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) began the process of relicensing the Don Pedro Dam. Jerry Brown had just begun his second stint as Governor and Siri become the voice of iPhones. We are now 8 years in to what is supposed to be a 5 year process. FERC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was issued in February of this year but when a Final EIS will be released is unknown. The date of a new license for Don Pedro Dam is even more nebulous, since it depends on receiving approval from the State, which the State is unlikely to do until it has completed the Bay Delta Plan update!

When I began working for the Trust, one of my first projects was the Big Bend Project, which took about 6 years to work through acquiring the property, planning and permitting, and the actual restoration work. Working to buy the Dos Rios Ranch took us 10 years to complete; restoration work has been ongoing for the past 7 years and will likely continue for several years more. Removing Dennett Dam was a 9 year process, soup to nuts.

The point is not to depress you, but to impress upon you how long restoring a river can take. As Mary Oliver admonishes in her poem At the River Clarion, “Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.”

As I have experienced so many times while raising kids, the house can get pretty thoroughly turned upside down in seemingly minutes, and then we spend many hours putting it all back together. While I exaggerate somewhat, if this ratio of destruction to restoration time applies to the river, we are looking at many years of work ahead of us!

I am so grateful that so many of you are dedicated to the river! And so many of you are persistent and determined to see it protected and restored despite the seemingly endless policy proceedings and permitting processes required to enact real restoration. Together we have accomplished many good things and together we will have many more victories ahead of us!

Rivers aren’t restored in a few weeks, days, or months, but we can be the generation that took a bold stand to protect these incredible places and resources. Thank you for standing by TRT’s side as we continually work to improve the health of the river!

For the river,


From the Tuolumne to the Sea

By Maya Akkaraju

The world’s water systems — from lakes to rivers to the open ocean to the clouds — are deeply interconnected. The Tuolumne River is no different, and these connections only strengthen the case for preserving our beautiful waterway.

The Tuolumne begins in the Sierra Nevada and winds its way down to the Central Valley where it meets the San Joaquin River. From there, the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River come together to form the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where they feed into the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean. These connections are crucial, and life in the watershed — including us — relies on river-to-ocean networks. The nature of this network means that protecting the Tuolumne has a bigger impact than on the river alone — it helps protect the health of the river’s wildlife and the ocean. 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is rich with wildlife. According to The Nature Conservancy, over 750 species of plants and animals rely on the habitats in and surrounding the estuary, including the Tuolumne’s fall-run Chinook salmon. 

After hatching in the river’s gravel beds, where the water is shallow and oxygen-rich, these salmon spend around half a year growing in floodplains (like the ones we’re helping restore at Dos Rios Ranch in Modesto). Once they become smolt, the salmon are ready to migrate out to sea. As a part of their migration, the fish utilize the brackish Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to acclimate to a saltwater environment before moving through the bay and out to the Pacific Ocean. 

During their life cycle, Chinook salmon play an important role in the flow of nutrients between the ocean and river. While in the ocean, salmon are a critical food source for important species, such as Orca whales. Salmon spend about two and a half years maturing in the ocean before returning to the river to breed. After making the long journey back upstream — and spawning in the Tuolumne in the fall, the male and female fish both die.

The death of adult salmon is an essential part of what makes them a keystone species in this ecosystem — they fuel the food web, supporting a multitude of species and distributing nutrients they brought back to the river from the ocean. 

When Chinook salmon die, some act as an important food source for bears and scavengers. Others are eaten by aquatic insects, which ultimately become food for the baby salmon once hatched. In this way, the lifecycle of fall-run Chinook salmon is set up in the most beneficial way possible for the propagation of their species and to continue the flow of nutrients between oceans and rivers.

Although salmon aid in nutrient flows from the ocean to the river, in many water systems nutrients primarily flow the opposite way. The nutrients that rivers deliver to oceans include nitrogen and phosphorous, both of which are commonly limited in oceanic surface waters but are necessary for the growth of phytoplankton, or microalgae. This means that when delivering nitrogen and phosphorous to the ocean, rivers are fueling the growth of microorganisms, which are the base of the ocean’s food web. Through photosynthesis, microalgae play an imperative role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

The delivery system of nitrogen and phosphorus from the rivers to the ocean is important. But this also means that how we treat our rivers directly impacts the health of estuaries and the sea. 

Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, or eutrophication, in our water system, can lead to the overgrowth of algae. When the algae dies, it’s broken down by decomposers. The excessive amount of algae requires more decomposers to break down, who use the ocean’s oxygen in the process. This leads to low-oxygen conditions that can suffocate fish, and create “dead zones.”  

This problem is the result of an upset in the balance of the world’s natural cycles. The issue extends from the poor treatment of our rivers that happens when we allow excessive amounts of nutrients to be carried into our waterways, from sources like agricultural fertilizer runoff and wastewater treatment facilities. While the nutrients that are naturally carried to the ocean are important, the human inputs exceed natural levels to a dangerous point.

When we opt to protect our rivers, the impacts are not isolated. Our actions towards the river ripple and spread to the ocean, and affect the entire water system and the life it supports, including yours and mine. The Tuolumne River provides our drinking water, supports wild salmon fisheries, and supports our agricultural system. In addition to all of this, it plays a role in keeping the Pacific Ocean healthy, which is why it is so important to keep it flowing. Join us in protecting our river and our ocean.




Riverside Community Work

Written by Edgar Garibay and Lauren Barnum

Modesto’s riverside communities are disproportionately burdened with environmental injustices that diminish quality of life and exacerbate socioeconomic disparities.

Simply stated, where you live determines how long you live. On average, residents in the East Central Modesto (Airport/La Loma neighborhoods) riverside communities can expect to live 5 years less than those who reside in the Southeast side (e.g. Waterford and Hughson). This is due to air quality, access, and infrastructure issues.  In the absence of sidewalks and bike lanes (active transportation) that connect residents to open spaces, schools, or stores, residents opt for sedentary activities that contribute to high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart risks. Another contributing factor is unhealthy air quality — Stanislaus County has one of the most severe air pollution problems in California and Modesto ranks 7th in the nation for ozone pollution.

To address these environmental injustices, we have been working alongside leaders from the Airport Neighborhood and various community partners through a variety of forums that encourage and support residents as they get involved in public processes to improve their neighborhoods and quality of life.

A major victory came to fruition last year, when the Airport Neighborhood received a nearly $5 million Active Transportation grant from the State that will provide much needed sidewalks and safe bicycle and pedestrian routes in the neighborhood and the river parks. This grant also includes $500,000 for a new river pavilion, learning theater, and trail leading to the Tuolumne River.  

These types of successes in the Airport Neighborhood provide an opportunity to expand our collaborations that will bring much needed investment and positive change for riverside communities. It takes collaboration, trust, and determination to keep fighting for these victories. We could not continue this work without the many partners we work with daily, and are grateful for the foundations, businesses, organizations, and individuals that support this work.

Voluntary Agreements

By Peter Drekmeier

On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. In the real world of competing interests for water, we were pleased the Board approved the staff recommendation of 30-50% unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. This culminated many years of hard work.

Also at the December meeting, the Water Board left the door open for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) to continue exploring voluntary agreements (VAs) between the State, water agencies and a few environmental organizations. If the Water Board determines the VAs could achieve the environmental objectives they are obligated to enforce, they could adopt them in lieu of the unimpaired flow approach.

In March, the state agencies released a framework for the VAs that relied heavily on non-flow measures, such as habitat restoration and predator suppression. In response, TRT joined several other environmental and fishing groups in releasing an analysis of the proposal. Among other things, we found that the VAs:

  • Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds.
  • Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary.
  • Fail to include restrictions on Delta pumping that are necessary to prevent the Central Valley Project and State Water Project from diverting additional flows from the San Joaquin’s tributaries.
  • Fail to include investments in water supply reliability that would help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta estuary.

To read the NGO analysis, type “Smoke and Mirrors” in the search bar on our website. 

The VA proposal for the Tuolumne relies heavily on the suppression of non-native predators, such as bass. However, in licensing proceedings for Don Pedro and La Grange Dams – which are happening in parallel with the Bay Delta Plan – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined, “We do not recommend the permanent barrier/counting weir or implementing a predator control and suppression plan because they would not likely be effective and could have adverse effects on federally listed steelhead. Similar predator removal efforts by the California Department of Water Resources did not noticeably reduce salmon mortality, and the permanent barrier/counting weir could act as a migration barrier to salmonids.”

Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done.

From The Desk Of The Executive Director

By Patrick Koepele

As I reflect on the progress TRT has made since its founding in 1981, I see wonderful people dedicated to ensuring that the Tuolumne River remains healthy with abundant fish and wildlife; and a river that is able to provide unique recreational experiences to diverse communities. As a world-class river that transects world-class regions from the sublime wilderness of Yosemite to the most dynamic and productive farmland in the Central Valley, to the world’s tech-hub in the San Francisco Bay Area, this river binds us together despite our differences.

TRT has been working hard to engage communities across this landscape in river stewardship. One such group are residents of riverside communities in Modesto, including the Airport Neighborhood, South Modesto, and West Modesto. These are the people who live closest to the river and, arguably, have most to benefit from its health. Despite their physical proximity to the river, these communities have not been well-represented in discussions about river protection and restoration. We have been working tirelessly for more than 10 years to change that dynamic.

In 2005, TRT commissioned a focus group of residents of these neighborhoods to better understand their views of the Tuolumne River and how they feel connected or disconnected from it. While many participants in the focus groups described the river as a dangerous place, most could envision it becoming a vibrant and important focal point for the community, given enough time and care.

A walkable and bikeable trail system has been constructed from Gateway Park to Carpenter Road. Dennett Dam has been removed. And importantly, residents from these neighborhoods are speaking up in support of the river! They have argued for better parks, improved sidewalks, and bike lanes to connect to the park, and better policies to care for the river through the Bay Delta and dam relicensing proceedings.

We believe that these neighborhoods have a symbiotic relationship with the river: the health of one depends on the health of the other. Thus, we must continue to bridge the connection between residents of riverside neighborhoods and the river and its parks. As the river and its parks improve, residents will have better places to enjoy with their families and friends. As the neighborhoods improve, safety and other concerns will subside. Not to mention youth from these neighborhoods are becoming tomorrow’s river stewards and protectors by engaging in this work through our various programs.

Fast-forward to today and, thanks to TRT supporters like you, we see a river and neighborhoods that are changing. Monthly river cleanups by volunteers and local businesses are encouraging citizen stewardship through the Adopt-Our-River program.

We look forward to strengthening this work – it’s essential for the health of the river and our communities. I hope you’ll join us at a river cleanup, tree planting workday, or for a bike ride along the beautiful Tuolumne River to see how far we’ve come!

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.

Tuolumne River Dam Licensing

Please Submit Written Comments by April 12
Draft Environmental Impact Statement

About FERC Licensing

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is responsible for licensing dams that generate hydroelectricity. On the Tuolumne River, Don Pedro Dam – owned and operated by the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts (MID/TID) – received its original license in 1966. 50 years later (2016) it was scheduled to be relicensed. The process has taken longer than expected because in 2012 FERC determined that La Grange Dam also required a license. La Grange is a smaller, older dam two miles downstream of Don Pedro. The licensing of La Grange is important because MID/TID had previously argued that studying fish passage (moving salmon and steelhead above Don Pedro Dam to spawn in the upper Tuolumne) should not be required since La Grange Dam is what actually blocks their migration.

Problems with the DEIS

FERC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the two dams is very disappointing for the following reasons:

  • It does not address problems caused by the construction and operation of the dams. Instead, it focuses on not making conditions worse moving forward vs. improving existing conditions.
  • It does not acknowledge the California Water Resources Control Board’s recent adoption of new flow standards for the Tuolumne and other rivers through the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The Water Board is required to issue a water quality certification in the licensing process, so the DEIS should plan for the new standards.
  • It fails to respond to many issues raised by resource agencies and conservation organizations and does not adequately study alternatives presented by those groups.

Submitting Written Comments

Your written comments will help build a case for requirements that will actually help restore the Tuolumne River. The biggest flaw in the DEIS is that it fails to incorporate adequate instream flows.

Written comments are due by 2 pm on Friday, April 12, 2019. For instructions on how to file comments, please click here.

Getting Started

Begin by introducing yourself. Why is this issue important to you? Perhaps you enjoy boating, fishing, swimming or bird watching in or along the Tuolumne River. Do you have information to share about fish and wildlife, recreation, water quality, personal observations or related issues?

Consider including some of the following talking points.

Talking Points

  • Since New Don Pedro Dam was first licensed in 1966, major federal environmental legislation has been enacted. The new license should require dam operations to conform to modern laws. These laws include a revision to the Federal Power Act that now requires that recreational and aquatic uses get equal treatment with power and water supply. The new license must also meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
  • The FERC staff alternative falls short of what science tells us is necessary to protect and restore the Tuolumne. In 2010, the California Water Resources Control Board issued a report titled Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem that determined that approximately 60% of unimpaired flow between February and June would be fully protective of fish and wildlife in the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new instream flow standards of 30-50% of unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. The Irrigation Districts, San Francisco and FERC propose just over 20%.
  • Low flows in the populated areas along the lower Tuolumne River have a negative impact on recreation. Many residents are low-income and don’t have the luxury of traveling long distances to enjoy rivers. Low flows make the river ugly and unpleasant to be near. Low flows create poor conditions for swimming, fishing, and boating. The growth of invasive water hyacinth during low flows makes these problems worse.
  • Low river flows make it hard for fish to swim upstream and downstream. Low flows concentrate pollution, raise water temperature, decrease dissolved oxygen, and make it hard for salmon coming from the ocean to find the river.
  • Spring flows should be high enough to get water onto floodplains. Small salmon grow faster and more safely in floodplains. Higher flows in the spring also are necessary for juvenile fish to survive their swim to the ocean.
  • Before New Don Pedro Dam was constructed, the Tuolumne hosted well over 100,000 spawning salmon. In recent years, the number has dropped to just a few thousand, or even as low as a few hundred.
  • Current management of the Tuolumne favors non-native species over native fish. Bass evolved in ecosystems featuring slow-moving, warm water, similar to current conditions in the Tuolumne. Salmon and steelhead depend on faster-moving, cold rivers. Until we address the extreme habitat shift humans have created, non-natives will continue to outcompete (and eat) native fish.
  • The commercial salmon fishery in California is on the brink. The salmon population was so low in 2008 and 2009 that the commercial fishing season had to be canceled, resulting in the loss of more than 2,200 jobs and $255 million in annual revenue.
  • The FERC staff alternative embraces non-flow measures like gravel placement similar in scope to measures that failed in the past. The settlement agreement negotiated by the State of California, water agencies and conservation groups in 1995 failed to improve conditions in the Tuolumne. In fact, conditions have gotten worse. What is needed is greater investment in non-flow measures combined with adequate flows.
  • The construction of New Don Pedro Dam and Reservoir left an excellent whitewater boating take-out for the upper Tuolumne River under water. The current take-out at Ward’s Ferry Bridge is crowded and dangerous. The federally-designated “Wild and Scenic” Tuolumne River deserves a safe and efficient take-out.
  • Higher flows and a strong local economy can be successful together. Through better management of snowmelt, water-efficient irrigation practices, and better crop selection, farmers can grow more food with less water. A pilot pressurized irrigation system implemented by the South San Joaquin Water District— just north of the Tuolumne – reduced water demand by 30% while increasing crop yields by 30%.
  • In the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) service area, water use decreased by 30% between 2006 and 2016 as a result of water conservation. New technologies and practices are becoming available every year that can increase water use efficiency and bring new water supplies online.

For more information, email

So Long, Dennett Dam!

After nearly a decade of hard work by TRT staff and partners and immeasurable help from supporters, Dennett Dam was finally removed from the lower Tuolumne River in September of 2018. This defunct structure threatened the lives of swimmers, obstructed fish and wildlife passage, and rendered the area useless for recreation for any kind for over 60 years. Check out the video below for more information about the removal of the dam and how TRT is continuing to improve access to the river for local communities.

Prioritizing San Francisco’s Water Supply

As published in the San Francisco Examiner on August 16, 2018

Results from a recent public opinion poll commissioned by the Tuolumne River Trust were clear — San Franciscans conserve water largely to benefit the environment, and dramatically less so to enable more commercial development.

Of the 400-plus voters surveyed, 93 percent said they conserved water during the recent drought. Of those, 94 percent said improving the environment was a motivating factor, with 71 percent citing environmental concerns as playing a major role.

When asked if they would be more likely to conserve water if they knew it benefitted the environment, 72 percent responded yes. Conversely, only 21 percent said they would be more likely to conserve if it only enabled more development.

Unfortunately, the water we conserved during the recent drought did not benefit the environment. Instead, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages the Hetch Hetchy Water System, hoarded it behind dams, only to have to “dump” it during last year’s storms when all of its reservoirs were full.

The Tuolumne River, which fills the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, experienced one excessive year of high flows at the expense of five terrible years.

The survey also revealed a clear distinction between support for housing versus commercial development. 88 percent were supportive of creating more affordable housing, and 69 percent supported the creation of more market-rate housing. Only 40 percent were supportive of creating more office space.

Water is a limited resource, and San Francisco officials need to be more strategic in how it is allocated. Unfortunately, the trend of adding jobs much faster than housing is placing a huge burden on our community. As reported in the Examiner, according to the Planning Department’s Housing Balance report published in May, about 154,000 jobs were created in San Francisco between 2009 and 2016, but only 25,600 homes were added in a similar time period between 2007 and 2016. Not only did this exacerbate the housing crisis and traffic gridlock, it also hardened demand on water from the Tuolumne River.

The SFPUC now opposes the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which is overseen by the State Water Resources Control Board. The Plan is being updated to help restore the Bay-Delta estuary and rivers that feed it by improving instream flows. The SFPUC’s opposition is based largely on its perceived need to accommodate a rapid increase in commercial development in the coming years — a vision that is not embraced by a vast majority of San Francisco voters.

When asked about Plan Bay Area — a government-initiated roadmap that forecasts the addition of 1.3 million new jobs and 2 million more people to the Bay Area between 2010 and 2040 — 85 percent of those who had an opinion believed Plan Bay Area would make their quality of life worse.

A good example of misplaced development priorities is the Flower Mart Project, which is part of the Central SoMa Plan. This single project would create 8,000 new jobs without producing a single unit of housing.

The SFPUC’s Water Supply Assessment for the Flower Mart Project makes it clear that the water we conserve will be needed to enable this and other major development projects. The document states, “The ability to meet the demand of the retail customers is in large part due to development of 10 mgd [million gallons per day] of local [water] supplies, including conservation, groundwater, and recycled water.”

In other words, we are being asked to conserve water, drink groundwater and support recycled water to facilitate more commercial development.

The way the SFPUC manages our water supply is clearly out of sync with the environmental values of its constituents. 97 percent favored protection of San Francisco Bay, and 92 percent supported restoration of the Tuolumne River.

One would think we could just elect SFPUC Commissioners who are more responsive to their constituents. However, unlike every other major water agency in the Bay Area, the SFPUC Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, so there’s little public input.

When asked if they would favor changing the way the SFPUC Commissioners are appointed, more than twice as many people favored making them elected positions.

If We’re Smart, We Can Find Enough Water for All of Us

As published in the Modesto Bee on August 14, 2018

The Modesto Bee has expressed a strong negative opinion of the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to require additional water to be left in the Tuolumne River and other San Joaquin tributaries to improve water quality and the environment.

Regrettably, what has received little attention in this debate are the opportunities for improving water management to meet the agricultural and environmental demands placed on these rivers.

A coalition of conservation groups has proposed that Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, working with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, establish a 90,000 acre-foot groundwater bank. Such a partnership has a precedent in the Tuolumne watershed, where San Francisco paid for just over 50 percent of the construction cost of Don Pedro Dam in exchange for the ability to bank up to 570,000 acre-feet in the reservoir.

A groundwater bank could be similarly financed and would be a much more efficient means of protecting groundwater supplies than the current aquifer recharge system, which relies heavily on inefficient flood irrigation. Recharge by flood irrigation requires over-application of water to agricultural fields. Flood irrigation requires heavy application of water even in dry years and it is unknown how much of the excess water applied actually is recoverable for later use. It also moves nitrates and other pollutants into groundwater, which creates many other problems.

It is a system we believe people on all sides could support.

Another promising tool for water efficiency has been tested in our own backyard. In 2012, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District implemented a cutting-edge project on 3,800 acres of irrigated district lands. In the SSJID, like in its sister districts to the south, water has been delivered through miles of gravity-fed canals, which are inefficient and difficult to manage. In this pilot project, the SSJID converted the canals to 19 miles of pressurized pipeline.

The project reduces water use by 30 percent, reduces energy use 30 percent and increases crop yield by up to 30 percent. The benefits are clear and should have growers throughout the region demanding that all distribution systems be converted. Assuming similar efficiencies could be achieved by TID and MID, this approach could produce about 300,000 acre-feet of conserved water on the Tuolumne alone.

This water would go a long way to meeting the needs of the river and animals that depend on it and provide benefits to farmers

Finally, Stanislaus County and the water districts have a responsibility to ensure the region doesn’t pump and divert water beyond its means. The unfettered drilling of new wells, particularly in the eastern foothills, has led to a proliferation of orchards on ground that historically had been grazing land. The annexation of new areas by Oakdale Irrigation District to plant more and more orchards and other permanent crops compounds the problem.

These newcomers to irrigated agriculture are adding stress to an over-tapped system and threatening those within the irrigation district boundaries who have been farming for generations. Our water supplies can take no additional demands, and this expansion of cropland must be checked.

While no single strategy will meet water demand, a combination of approaches will help us ensure a healthy agricultural economy, restored rivers and a healthier environment.

Instead of dismissing the water needs of the environment as unachievable, the water districts have an opportunity to lead us successfully into a new era of water management. This is a future that will support a more robust economy, a restored river system and a vibrant quality of life.

What a Week!

It’s been a busy week for our work on the Bay Delta Plan, but before we get into the details, please note that there are two important meetings next Tuesday where the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan will be discussed. If you can attend either meeting, please send a note to

  • August 28, 1:30pm — SFPUC meeting at SF City Hall, Room 400. Agenda available here.
  • August 28, 6:00pm — Santa Clara Valley Water District meeting at 5750 Almaden Expressway, San Jose. Agenda available here.

This week’s Bay Delta Plan progress:

On Monday, people opposed to the Bay Delta Plan rallied on the north steps of the State Capitol Building while environmental organizations, fishing groups and tribes assembled around the corner on the west steps for a press conference. That evening, after hearing from both sides of the debate, the Palo Alto City Council voted unanimously (9-0) to support the Bay Delta Plan. You can read about it here.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the State Water Board held a much-anticipated hearing on the Bay Delta Plan. We were notified in advance that a decision would be postponed to a future date to give the Natural Resources Agency more time to negotiate a voluntary settlement. We are not optimistic this will result in any breakthroughs, but there is always hope. The State Water Board is expected to take up the issue again on November 7.

The Los Angeles Times published an excellent editorial — Letting California’s rivers run isn’t a water ‘grab’

KQED published a comprehensive article — San Francisco is Fighting California’s Plan to Save Salmon. Wait. What?

We’re making great progress, and the fight continues next Tuesday. It would be great if you could join us!

S.F. water agency opposes plan to save local salmon, cries ‘drought’

As published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 18, 2018.

Article by Robyn Purchia

About 150 miles beyond the Bay lies the Tuolumne River. Many San Franciscans visit the area to fish, raft, attend music festivals and see the bald eagles, beavers and river otters that call the area home. The river also visits us. Every time we turn on the tap, we welcome Tuolumne water collected in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir into our home.

It should come as no surprise that taking water from the river impacts wildlife. Historically, the fall Chinook salmon run numbered 100,000. The number has declined to only a few hundred in recent years. While there are multiple reasons, the amount of water diverted is a major factor.

Thankfully, the state is closer to improving conditions for salmon and other wildlife. Following almost a decade of research, the State Water Resources Control Board released its final Bay Delta Plan earlier this month. Environmentalists and fishing associations label it a modest measure to increase the amount of water flowing in the Tuolumne.

But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in partnership with the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts still oppose the plan. Officials say the plan could leave users vulnerable in times of drought.

Of course, we need clean water to survive. But taking water away from the environment unnecessarily doesn’t reflect San Francisco values, according to a recent survey. Before the SFPUC responds to the Bay Delta Plan, the agency should give San Franciscans an opportunity to learn more and offer their opinion.

The SFPUC isn’t in an easy position. Along with providing water to a growing population in the era of climate change, it is also obligated to support the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts. These districts not only share Tuolumne water with San Francisco, they have senior rights to the resource. Unlike the SFPUC, the districts also represent farmers and more conservative Californians.

“It’s a good relationship with them, but not always perfect,” Steven Ritchie, the SFPUC’s assistant general manager for water, told me. “We have to be very close to them on technical issues.”

In partnership with the irrigation districts, the SFPUC funded research into the Tuolumne River ecosystem and health. Unsurprisingly, the studies recommend other measures to restore fish habitat, instead of limiting diversions. In the final Bay Delta Plan, the State Water Resources Control Board acknowledged the research, but didn’t find grounds to change its proposal.

Now the SFPUC and irrigation districts must decide how to respond. If the agencies litigate, the SFPUC may be violating the values of its customers, according to the Tuolumne River Trust.

In May, the environmental nonprofit worked with researchers at California State University, Fullerton to assess San Franciscan voters’ attitudes on water conservation. The survey found an overwhelming majority of San Franciscans conserved water during the most recent drought. Of those, 94 percent cited environmental concerns as a motivating factor.

Measures to protect and restore the Tuolumne River also received support from 92 percent of respondents.

“We think San Franciscans will be disappointed to learn the water we all conserved during the drought did not support the environment,” Peter Drekmeier, policy director at the Tuolumne River Trust, told me. “Instead, it was impounded behind dams and had to be dumped in one season last year during the near record storms.”

The SFPUC does not dispute that at the height of the most recent drought it had enough water in storage to last three years, and that it dumped the surplus. But collecting the resource was necessary according to agency officials. They are looking for ways to sustainably plan for a historic drought.

“Smart water supply planning and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive,” Ritchie said. “We can balance a healthy environment with a reliable water supply at the same time, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

If this is right, the SFPUC must make the case to San Franciscans. As a customer, I don’t want to fund litigation that would further push salmon down the path to extinction. When I turn off the tap, I want the water I save to flow to Californians – either human or non-human – that need it. What’s the point of conserving, if the water is going to get dumped?

Before the SFPUC responds to the Bay Delta Plan, it should hold a meeting to educate the public and take comment. To date, the agency has only discussed the matter in closed session. But the fate of such a vital resource deserves more sunshine.

“The Bay Delta Plan will have a major impact on the environment and the 2.7 million customers who depend on our drinking water every day,” SFPUC Commissioner Francesca Vietor told me. “The impact warrants a robust public discussion at the state and city levels to ensure all stakeholders understand the issue and the impact and have an opportunity to voice their concerns.”

State Water Board plan would help restore the Tuolumne

As published in the SFChronicle on June 14, 2018

To improve the quality of our water and the health of our rivers and the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the State Water Resources Control Board is updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The board is considering requiring higher in-stream flows between February and June, which are critical months for baby salmon growth and migration. For the Tuolumne River, this would increase flows from an anemic 21 percent to a modest 40 percent of unimpaired flow.

During the recent drought, Bay Area residents and businesses stepped up to the challenge of conserving water and dramatically reduced their water use. In the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System service area, water use declined by 30 percent between 2006 and 2016. But the Tuolumne River, which fills Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, rarely saw any of the water we saved, and it shows. The river is much lower and warmer than it should be, and salmon populations are barely surviving. Where well more than 100,000 salmon used to spawn, the salmon population has plummeted to the low thousands or even hundreds.

Some 2.7 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties get most of their water from the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which is managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The commission opposes the state board’s proposal to keep more water flowing in the Tuolumne River for three reasons:

Its policy and practice focus on human consumption, not environment or water quality. A 1995 agreement with the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — the senior water rights holders on the Tuolumne — that committed the commission to support the districts’ political position on in-stream flow requirements for fish and wildlife, regardless of what the best available science tells us. Irrigation districts are notorious for opposing environmental safeguards, yet the commission gave up its right to think and act in accordance with the environmental values of its constituents.

It wants to maximize stored water in case of drought. This policy of hoarding compromises the future of salmon and the entire ecosystem they support. While it has been demonstrated that the commission could manage a repeat of the drought years even with the revised Bay Delta Plan in effect, it is planning for an extreme scenario that arbitrarily combines the two worst droughts from the latter part of the last century. In a worst-case scenario, the agency could purchase water from an agricultural water district for less than it currently charges its customers.

The Bay Area is projected to grow in the coming years. Plan Bay Area, a road map for growth prepared by Bay Area Metro, forecasts the addition of 1.3 million jobs between 2010 and 2040, attracting 2 million more people to the region. Between 2010 and 2015, half of those jobs were already added, far outpacing the creation of new housing. As a result, the housing crisis and traffic gridlock have worsened, while our environment continues to suffer.

During the recent drought, the Public Utilities Commission released only as much water from its dams as was required by a 20-year-old flow schedule. The rest was impounded for future use. At the height of the drought, the agency had enough water in storage to last three years.

Then came 2017 — the second-wettest year on record — and the dam operators on the Tuolumne had to dump massive amounts of water to prevent future flooding. The river flowed at capacity from early January through May, and stream flows remained high throughout the summer. Had more water been released into the river during the drought, fish and wildlife would have benefited, and the agency still would have had enough water to refill all of its reservoirs twice over.

Without safeguards in place to require more water to flow down our rivers, there’s no assurance the water we conserve will benefit aquatic ecosystems. The Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan is our best hope to restore a balance between human needs and those of the natural environment that makes our region so special.

Light at the End of the Trail

As far as back as I can remember, I’ve never enjoyed being outdoors. My childhood choices of sports ranged from soaking in the four-color pages of The Uncanny X-Men to studying every single Bruce Lee move in Enter the Dragon. Whether it was reading, watching, or even drawing my favorite fictional heroes, I spent more of those times envying the athletic around me, rather than indulging in aerobics for myself.

Twenty years later, I’m an AmeriCorps member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). Considering how most manual labor happens outside, I’ve spent more of my time tending to the Tuolumne area than I do catching subsequent viewings of Days of Future Past. So what could have possibly transformed a nerdy Texan into someone willing to apply civic responsibilities through physically demanding service?

Taken in 2014, Preston chose to get in shape about three years later. Facebook

From that point, I made the goal of losing fifty pounds by the following year — igniting my desire to eat healthier and exercise regularly. Within a month into AmeriCorps, living on my new regimen, I took this rare opportunity to see what I was really made of. Without Southern culture. Without popular culture. Without anything resembling my comfort zone of old.

In October, I was welcomed into NCCC by a team of thirteen incredibly supportive people and a friendly campus. Since I’m the only person on my team from the land of George Strait and plateaus, several teammates delighted in introducing me to the wonders of beaches, Cuban cuisine, and the Golden Gate Bridge. But one common tradition I still couldn’t ascertain was the outdoorsiest of them all: camping. A few days of our training at Camp Lodestar, where I slept only 90 minutes on our first night, gave me reason enough to keep hating living in a tent.

However, my team’s Round 2 assignment necessitated putting such misgivings aside since we would spend three months deployed in the wilderness near the Tuolumne River. Although we planned to live at the luxurious Rush Creek Lodge, much of our manual labor would put us in direct contact with dehydrating elevations, poison oak, and parasitic ticks. Not exactly ideal compared to my usual activities.

Learning about the Tuolumne River’s importance to its community was enough of a reason to stick around. I found it difficult to pass up the chance to help an entire area by clearing its mountains of precarious debris and inspiring the youth to take action long after we left. We have recently begun planting trees, which my team loved doing for Luther Burbank High School last October.

If I could make the life-changing decision to leave everything I knew for ten months – forcing myself to adapt to new communities – who was I to dismiss the notion of facing some of my strongest grievances to help others in need?

I’ve found that a month into our project has done wonders for my health, my team, and the area we occupy. Although I’ve never been much of a runner, jogging distances over 4,500 feet above sea level has vastly improved my endurance and physicality. Taking into account how the only things in Texas rivaling elevation are the sizes of our bargains, hiking recreationally has allowed me to surprise myself and find gratifying incentives within the service we’re undertaking.

Preston digging for weeds at the San Jose Family Camp in Tuolumne County, California. Laura Schneider.
Preston digging for weeds at the San Jose Family Camp in Tuolumne County, California. Laura Schneider.

While there are certainly times I succumb to homesickness or Whataburger cravings, I wouldn’t trade these new experiences for the world. As I continue to explore the West Coast wilderness, mainly everything around the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, I learn and grow every day. Instead of reading about fictional heroes, I’m surrounded by real heroes who don’t need an Indiana Jones fedora to survive rattlesnake confrontations. When all else fails, I’m reminded that even on the gloomiest days or the darkest hours, there’s still light to be found at the end of the trail.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Preston Mitchell is a media representative and member of Team Blue 4. He plans to pursue a journalism career after his NCCC program ends in July. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

How can fire promote forest health?

We firmly believe that, in addition to proper planning and management, controlled burns can greatly reduce the risk of large, dangerous wildfires in California’s forests. A recent report by the Little Hoover Commission details the changes that they believe should be made to make this strategy happen. The Sacramento Bee has done a fantastic job of summarizing the debate in their article Future Forest Health Needs Fire to Fight Fire.

More background about this issue can be found here:

Special thanks to TRT advisor John Amodio for working with the Little Hoover Commission and the Sacramento Bee’s editorial staff to raise awareness of the changes that need to be made in forest management!

TRT Responds to SFPUC Misinformation

The State Water Resources Control Board is in the process of updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan to help restore the estuary and rivers that feed it, including the Tuolumne.

Comments submitted by the City and County of San Francisco, the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), many of BAWSCA’s 26 member agencies, and several other entities exhibited a number of misconceptions about potential impacts of the Plan. Many of the figures cited were based on misleading information provided by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

For example, eight members of the Bay Area Legislative Caucus wrote, “If approved, the SWRCB’s current plan would substantially cut water supplies to 2.6 million Bay Area residents in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the East Bay by up to 50% at the first sign of any future drought.”

Comment letters from 16 of BAWSCA’s member agencies were virtually the same. The agencies were provided with a form letter and encouraged to fill in a few blanks. Among other things, these letters stated, “As a wholesale customer of SFPUC … water supply available to (city or agency) under the SED proposal could be reduced more than 50% under drought conditions for multiple consecutive years.”

Objective modeling demonstrates the SFPUC could manage a reoccurrence of the drought of record, even with the 40% unimpaired flow requirement in place.

TRT has modeled the impact of a reoccurrence of the 1987-92 drought under the SFPUC’s current baseline demand – 223 million gallons per day (MGD) or 250,000 acre feet/year (AF/Y) – and 40% unimpaired flow between February and June. We found that the SFPUC would not run out of water under such a scenario. We based our model on a modest average of 10% rationing during the six-year period. We assumed there would be no rationing in the first two years of the drought, 10% rationing in years three and four, and 20% rationing in years five and six. For comparison, water demand in FY 2015/16 was 175 MGD – 21.5% below the 223 MGD baseline. Demand in FY 2016/17 was 180 MGD – 20% below the baseline.

The SFPUC has not challenged our model, and in fact, their own modeling demonstrates they would not run out of water if the drought of record were to reoccur and the SED were in place. However, they base their planning on a “Design Drought” (see below).

During the height of the recent 4-year drought (2012-2015), the SFPUC had enough water in storage to last more than three years. Had the Bay Delta Plan’s 40% unimpaired flow between February and June been in place during the drought, the SFPUC still would have had at least 2-years-worth of water in storage at any given point.

Following the normal water year in 2016, the SFPUC’s Tuolumne River storage rebounded to 85% of capacity by December 11. By early January of 2017, it was clear that all the reservoirs on the Tuolumne would easily fill, so water had to be released from Don Pedro Reservoir at the maximum amount allowed by flood control rules for months. Had the SED been in place during the drought, all of the Tuolumne’s reservoirs would still have filled in January, and any previous storage deficit would have been erased.

SFPUC figures are based on an arbitrary 8.5-year “Design Drought.”

While the SFPUC has not challenged our modeling, they assert that their much more extreme rationing scenario is based on an 8.5-year “Design Drought,” which includes the 1987-92 drought of record, followed immediately by the driest 2-year period on record – 1976/77. They assume every year is either the beginning of, or middle of, this Design Drought, and thus factor in much higher levels of rationing than would have been required at any time in the past.

The SFPUC does not explain its Design Drought when sharing information with others, leaving the impression that impacts would be much greater than should be reasonably expected. Furthermore, the scenario they share is based on Plan Bay Area 2040 demand projections (265 MGD) vs. the current baseline (223 MGD) or internal SFPUC 2040 demand projections (250 MGD).

The SFPUC model assumes rationing would begin in the first year of drought, and would be 39% for the first three years (under 223 MGD demand) and 49% for the remaining years. This policy would leave 576,000 acre-feet remaining in storage at the end of the six-year drought of record if it were to reoccur. This is enough water to last more than two years at pre-drought demand, and almost three years at FY 2015/16 demand. All of the projected job losses and socioeconomic impacts associated with excessive rationing would have been unnecessary, making the Design Drought a very expensive insurance policy.

The SFPUC has projected jobs and economic losses from such a conservative rationing scenario to be 445,905 annual full-time equivalents and more than $116 billion. Again, these impacts would have been unnecessary. These socioeconomic impacts are based on a 2017 Brattle Group report commissioned by the SFPUC.

The 2017 Brattle Group report is flawed.

Along with its SED comments, the SFPUC submitted a document entitled, Bay Area Socioeconomic Impacts Resulting from Instream Flow Requirements for the Tuolumne River, prepared by The Brattle Group. This report states, “The method used to estimate these impacts is described in the report Socioeconomic Impacts of Water Shortages within the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System Service Area, prepared by The Brattle Group in 2014.”

Shortly after the 2014 report was issued, a coalition of NGOs submitted extensive comments that identified a number of flaws in the Brattle Group analysis.

The recent drought proved that prior Brattle Group studies were seriously flawed (see TRT presentation). For example, their 2014 report projected that 30% rationing would result in the loss of 25,000 jobs and $7 billion. However, between 2006 and 2016, water demand in the SFPUC service territory decreased by 30%, with no job losses and no negative economic impacts. In fact, 125,000 jobs were added in San Francisco alone between 2010 and 2015, and the regional economy improved to its strongest position ever.

SFPUC drought planning harms the Tuolumne River ecosystem unnecessarily.

During the recent drought, releases into the lower Tuolumne were critically low, and fish and wildlife suffered. Had the SED been in place, river conditions would have been improved, and SFPUC storage would currently be the same as it is today. This graph shows that under the current flow regime, the SFPUC needed to capture 373,000 acre-feet coming into Water Year 2017 to fill its reservoirs on the Tuolumne. Actual water available to San Francisco was 3.1 million acre-feet – enough water to fill all of the SFPUC’s reservoirs, including those in the Bay Area, more than twice. In other words, during Water Year 2017, the SFPUC had the right to capture enough water from the Tuolumne (if storage were available) to last more than 12 years.

Click here for a series of graphs that compare unimpaired flow, actual flow, and 40% unimpaired flow between February and June between 2012 and 2017. The difference between 40% unimpaired and actual flow is additional water that would have benefited the Tuolumne River ecosystem had the SED been in place. Rather than releasing this water during the drought, it all (and much more) got dumped in 2017, providing much less benefit to the river ecosystem than had it been apportioned over the dry years of the drought.

TRT has attempted to correct the record.

The Tuolumne River Trust and other NGOs have attempted to convince the SFPUC to correct the record, with limited success. The SFPUC issued a brief, to which we responded with our critique, and finally the SFPUC responded to our critique. We believe these documents make it clear that information distributed by the SFPUC has been extremely misleading.


The Delta Reform Act of 2009 established a State policy aimed at achieving the co-equal goals of ensuring water supply reliability and restoring the Bay-Delta ecosystem. Unfortunately, many water agencies have chosen to ignore the second of the goals. This is unfortunate, because under a reasonable scenario, both objectives could be achieved.

A Salmon-eye View of the River

Despite having been with the Tuolumne River Trust for over 10 years and having spent much of that time on the Tuolumne River or in its watershed, I still get excited every time I head to the river, wondering what will amaze me this time. And the river never disappoints. In the heat of the Central Valley summer, the lower Tuolumne greets me with cooling shade, inviting swimming holes and lush green tangles of riparian habitat surrounded by an otherwise dried up landscape. Winter fills the sky with welcoming rains and thousands of migrating birds, many of which stop to refuel or winter over at places like our Dos Rios Ranch restoration site at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. In the spring the river bursts with new life from snow-fed flows to wildflowers to wildlife. But what happens in the river this time of year, often while we are sleeping or simply caught up in our busy human world, is a wonder of nature that blows my mind every time I experience it – the return of the Chinook salmon.

Beginning as early as September, mature Chinook salmon that have spent several years out in the ocean gorging themselves (and growing to a size they could never achieve in the freshwater rivers where they are born) begin to gather in the brackish waters of the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta waiting for signs to begin their journey back to their natal rivers to spawn. Between October and December, hundreds, even thousands, of Chinook salmon make their way from the Delta, up the San Joaquin River to the Tuolumne where they will continue their journey as far upstream as La Grange before being stopped by one of many human-made barriers, in this case the La Grange Dam. In the gravel beds of this reach of the Tuolumne, female salmon will use their broad strong tails to dig out gravel nests called redds in the rocky riverbed. Each female will make several redds and lay anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 eggs before she is done. Brightly colored males hang out at the river’s edge, jockeying for position to be the first to reach a redd to fertilize the eggs. Battered and exhausted from their long journey back from the ocean and from the energy expended during spawning, these powerful fish spend their last 24 to 48 hours protecting the redds that hold their future offspring before giving them one final gift by dying and releasing a plethora of rich nutrients and energy from the ocean into the waters and soils of the Tuolumne River – a gift which sustains the ecosystem and, in turn, the juvenile Chinook salmon.

One of my first, and still most memorable, experiences with the Tuolumne River Trust was a staff canoe trip during the salmon spawning season. The day started with me arriving about 30 minutes early to our take-out for that day, the Turlock Lake Recreation Area. Within minutes of walking over to the river the show began with my first sighting of river otters frolicking in the water and chasing each other over fallen trees. I remember looking around to see if anyone else was witnessing this amazing sight, sure that nobody would believe me if I didn’t have backup. The second act was headed by a bald eagle keeping watch on an old snag a few hundred feet downstream. Again, I felt a wave of excitement and disbelief travel through my body at seeing such an iconic bird overlooking the river I had recently signed on to steward through education and outreach. I remember the beauty of that stretch of the river between Old La Grange Bridge and the Turlock Lake Recreation Area as being intoxicating and so different from the stretches in and around Modesto that I was familiar with. It’s hard to put into words the thrill of seeing that first salmon, for me, a female “working a riffle”, her arched back exposed as she fought her way upstream then flipped onto her side and pumped her tail up and down to remove a little more gravel from the redd until satisfied that it is ready to receive her eggs. I remember jumping when taken by surprise by a male Chinook shooting out from his hiding place in a shaded spot near a bank in an effort to “win” a redd to fertilize. Finally, I remember seeing my first carcass, not washed up on shore by the current or dragged out by a lucky predator but lying on the river bottom like a white ghost, giving itself up to the river and associated ecosystems.

For two weekends in November (11/4, 11/5 and 11/12) the public has the opportunity to join the Tuolumne River Trust for our annual Paddle with the Salmon canoe trips. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that never gets old. Our trips are led by experienced river guides and knowledgeable staff who know how to share this amazing natural event while taking precautions to keep the salmon and the redds safe. These half day paddles are leisurely, perfect for beginners, and take participants through the heart of the Chinook salmon spawning grounds as well as some of the most scenic stretches of the lower Tuolumne River. While viewing a salmon is not guaranteed, gaining new knowledge, insight and appreciation for this amazing resource is! I hope you will consider joining us for this amazing event, the return of the Chinook salmon to the Tuolumne River.

  • Sunday November 12th –  Half day – Space Available!

For full details on each trip, including start time, meeting location, what to bring, what to expect, etc, please visit the registration site by clicking the button below. Register to reserve your spot today – space is limited.We look forward to seeing you on the river!

Register Now



If a pop-up window doesn’t open upon clicking the “Register Now” button above, please complete your registration here (you will be redirected to Flipcause, a secure platform).


September 7, 2017

For more information, contact:
Patrick Koepele
Executive Director

The Tuolumne River Trust issued the following statement:

As a nonprofit conservation organization, we work tirelessly to ensure we have a healthy and safe environment for current and future generations. Much of our work is focused on clean and safe water, land, and air so that people of all races, cultures, ethnicities and income levels have the best chance to live a healthy and prosperous life so that they may best contribute to a vibrant American society.

Much of our work is conducted by, and directly benefits, those who immigrated to the United States as children and have grown up in this country as Americans. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals- DACA- program has allowed them to remain in this country without fear of deportation, until now.

The Tuolumne River Trust stands with these young people whose parents brought them here to pursue the American dream. They were granted permission to live and work legally in America. They have passed background checks. They are our neighbors and co-workers, our friends and family.

We are a country of people who help one another in crisis. We don’t turn our backs. We don’t close our doors. We need Congress to stand up to the president and do the same.

To our Congressional leaders we say that DACA should be upheld, continued, and expanded. This is both a moral imperative and a national necessity. America needs talent – and these people, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community and are American in every way except on paper. They represent what is best about America, and they are essential to our future.

Building Bay Area Drought Resilience

On Tuesday, July 18th, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) hosted leaders from local water resource management and conservation organizations for a discussion about building drought resilience in the Bay Area.  Our Policy Director, Peter Drekmeier, was featured on the discussion panel as the voice of the environmental perspective on these issues for a diverse audience of elected officials, policy experts, NGOs, college students, and interested citizens. Their discussion centered around the findings published in PPIC’s new report which reviewed water usage and conservation efforts during the recent drought, including lessons learned and potential courses of action for the future.

According to PPIC, the “essential takeaways” from the panel discussion included:

  • Regional diversification of water supply is key to getting through dry times.
  • Mandated conservation from the state was a blunt instrument; targets based on utilities’ local water conservation plans are more appropriate for such decisions.
  • Planning for “conservation rates” is essential for water districts’ fiscal resilience and maintenance of reserves to pay for fixed costs.
  • Aquatic ecosystems took a hit during the drought. Even though Bay Area cities embraced water conservation throughout the drought, flows to the Tuolumne River and Delta were inadequate. Addressing this before the next drought hits is key to maintain ecosystem health and at-risk species.

You can watch the entire panel discussion here:

For more resources and information, please visit

TRT Critique of SFPUC Brief

Response to the SFPUC’s Document Titled: “State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Revised Substitute Environmental Document (SED): Potential Impact on San Francisco Bay Area”

Response prepared by the Tuolumne River Trust
Contact: Peter Drekmeier, Policy Director,, (415) 882-7252
Date: February 2, 2017

We believe that increasing unimpaired flows on the Tuolumne River to help revive the San Francisco Bay-Delta can be achieved without negatively impacting the Bay Area economy.  The point-by-point critique below will show that the SFPUC’s claims of potential economic impacts are based on a seriously flawed analysis, and did not come to pass during the drought.  Instead, at the height of the drought, the SFPUC had multiple years of water left in storage, and the Bay Area economy grew, both in jobs and economic prosperity.

We encourage the SFPUC to follow the best-available science and play a leadership role in balancing environmental needs with a reliable water supply.  Bay Area residents have repeatedly demonstrated their concern for the San Francisco Bay-Delta, with 70% voting to tax themselves in June (Measure AA) to restore the Bay’s wetlands.

SFPUC Statement:
Our analysis of the 2012 recommendation (35% unimpaired flows) shows a significant economic hit to our service area:

  • 50% shortage of water due to rationing during droughts.
  • Economic impact of 188,000 jobs lost.
  • $49 billion annual cost to the local economy.

TRT Response:
Please view a brief video slideshow about the SFPUC’s socioeconomics analysis at

The figures cited above were produced by economist David Sunding in 2009.  In 2014 he produced an updated draft study with much more detail.  It reduced the worst-case scenario for projected economic impacts significantly, yet the SFPUC continues to cite the 2009 figures.

Even the 2014 figures are extremely inflated.  Had they been correct, we should have seen a loss of $6.5 billion in sales and 25,000 jobs last year when rationing was at 30%.  On the contrary, the economy grew and jobs were created.  According to the CA Employment Development Department, San Francisco added more than 125,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015, despite the drought.

In reality, it is unlikely the SFPUC service territory will ever suffer economic losses as a result of releasing more water into the Tuolumne River to restore the ecosystem.  This is because the SFPUC has so much storage (almost 1.5 million acre-feet) that it buffers the system from extended droughts.  For example, after the recent four-year drought, the SFPUC still had enough water in storage to last three years.  During water year 2016, which was a normal water year, the SFPUC captured enough water to last two-and-a-half years, and the system filled to 80% of capacity.  This January, the Tuolumne reservoirs were so full that water had to be released into the River to create space in the reservoirs for flood control, and the entire system will fill this year.  There will be enough water in storage to last six years.

While providing some environmental benefit, excess water released into the Tuolumne could have benefited the ecosystem over the past few years.  Furthermore, it would have offset any water supply deficit that might have occurred during those years had the Bay Delta Plan been in effect.

Regarding the SFPUC’s claim that the Bay Delta Plan could result in a 50% shortage in water, please see our response below.

Again, please view our much more thorough analysis at:

SFPUC Statement:
Without a predictable water supply, we are jeopardizing growth and development across the Bay Area including much needed housing projects from San Francisco to San Jose.

  • East Palo Alto has already halted 11 development projects because the city cannot guarantee water supplies.

TRT Response:
This statement suggests that East Palo Alto’s water shortage is a result of limited water supply, which is not the case.  East Palo Alto’s shortage is a result of an unfair water allocation.

Individual Supply Guarantees (permanent water supply allocations) for the SFPUC’s wholesale customers (represented by BAWSCA) were first established in 1984.  The SFPUC allocated a perpetual supply assurance of 184 million gallons of water per day (mgd) to its wholesale customers, and those customers together determined how the water would be allocated amongst themselves.  East Palo Alto’s allocation was set at a ridiculously low 1.96 mgd.

During the 2015/16 fiscal year, BAWSCA’s member agencies used 126 mgd, far below their 184 mgd cap.  There’s plenty of water available, it just isn’t allocated equitably.

The Cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View are currently exploring transfers of some of their excess water allocations to East Palo Alto, and these are likely to happen this year.

SFPUC Statement:

  • For example, if San Francisco had to reduce water use by 40%, that would limit us to 25 gallons per person, per day.

TRT Response:
This statement suggests that San Francisco might have to reduce its water use by 40%, which is not the case.  According to the SFPUC’s Water System Allocation Plan, the SFPUC would be entitled to 98.1% of its water allocation during multiple dry years.[1]

SFPUC Statement:
The 2016 SED concludes incorrectly that San Francisco would not have major impacts because we could obtain additional water through other means:

  • Water transfers: Especially during times of drought, it is unrealistic to expect other parties who need the water themselves would sell us their water.

TRT Response:
As explained above, it is unlikely the SFPUC would need to purchase water from other agencies because it has enough storage to buffer the system against droughts.

The alleged $49 billion figure for economic impacts cited by the SFPUC suggests that for every acre-foot of water lost, the economy would lose more than $400,000.  SFPUC customers currently pay about $1,500 per acre-foot, and the Modesto Irrigation District charges farmers about $15 per acre-foot.  It’s ludicrous to suggest there wouldn’t be a willing seller for less than $400,000 per acre-foot, or even a small fraction of that amount.  For comparison, recycled water costs a little more than $2,000 per acre-foot.

SFPUC Statement:
Solutions must include both flow and non-flow measures to improve habitat conditions on the Tuolumne River while providing customers with reliable water supply.

TRT Response:
For more than two years the environmental community has attempted to engage the Tuolumne River water diverters in a Scientific Evaluation Process (SEP) that would bring together biologists from water agencies, state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and non-governmental organization to assess biological goals and objectives for the Tuolumne and establish a roadmap to achieve them.  We’re still waiting for a response.

The State Water Resources Control Board has clear jurisdiction over instream flows.  It’s jurisdiction over non-flow measures, such as habitat restoration and controlling non-native predators, is less clear.  Habitat restoration, for example, depends on willing land owners, so the State Water Board has not included non-flow measures in the Bay Delta Plan.

However, the Bay Delta Plan does acknowledge that non-flow measures could play a role in the recovery of native fish species, and a key component of the Plan is an adaptive management framework.  Phase 1 of the Plan proposes starting with 40% of unimpaired flow on the San Joaquin River’s three major tributaries between February and June, but allows flexibility to go as low as 30% or as high as 50%, depending on whether biological goals and objectives are met.

The challenge with non-flow measure alone is that water diversions on the Tuolumne River have reduced the actual flow on average to just 21% of annual unimpaired flow, dramatically altering the ecosystem.  The lower Tuolumne is now slow-moving and warm, creating ideal habitat for non-native species, such as bass and water hyacinth, that thrive under such conditions.  Native species, which evolved with faster-moving, colder water, are now at a competitive disadvantage.  Without addressing the altered ecosystem, recovery of fish species with non-flow measures alone is not possible.

SFPUC Statement:
Instead of adopting a flawed plan, we believe the best solution is a voluntary agreement with the SFPUC and other affected stakeholders including the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts.

TRT Response:
Pursuing a voluntary agreement is fine, as long as it’s not just a stall tactic.  In fact, settlement negotiations for the Tuolumne have been underway for two-and-a-half years.  The reality is that any solution must include higher flows.  The best available science makes it clear that flows are the most important factor in reviving the Bay-Delta and rivers that feed it.  Flows affect fish migration, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, water quality, floodplain inundation (critical habitat for juvenile fish rearing) and even predator avoidance.

Please view a video slideshow at

SFPUC Statement:
Our analysis of the 2012 recommendation (35% unimpaired flows) shows a significant economic hit to our service area:

  • 50% shortage of water due to rationing during droughts.

TRT Response:
This statement is false.  According to the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan environmental document:

“The 1922-2003 average calculated volume of water potentially available to CCSF under the Raker Act was about 750 TAF/y (thousand acre-feet per year, or 670 mgd)…According to a SFPUC planning document, an average of 244 TAF/y (218 mgd) is diverted from the Tuolumne River…based on data from 1989-2005.”[2]

The amount of water potentially available to the SFPUC on the Tuolumne is three times the amount it has diverted historically.  Last year water use was 30% lower than in 2005.  15% of the SFPUC’s water comes from the Bay Area – a supply that will not be affected by the Bay Delta Plan.  Between 2010 and 2014, the SFPUC’s 2.6 million customers used between 220 and 225 mgd.  In 2015 they used 195 mgd.  In 2016, they used 180 mgd.  During droughts SFPUC customers step up and conserve.

As explained above, the SFPUC has enough storage to last six years.  Right now, even after the recent drought, the SFPUC has enough water in storage to last longer than 1987-1992 drought.

The SFPUC’s basis for analysis since 2009 has been to assume a worst-case economic scenario during droughts and argue that this is the only possible outcome.  A contract between the SFPUC and the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, known as the Fourth Agreement, obligates the SFPUC to produce 51.7% of any increase in Tuolumne River flows required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  However, the State Water Board is not a party to the Fourth Agreement, and has no authority to enforce it.  The Fourth Agreement is silent on flow increases that might be required by the State Water Board, but each iteration of the SFPUC socioeconomics analysis is founded on the assumption that the SFPUC will be responsible for 51.7% of increased flows, and that SFPUC will find no replacement water if needed.

In testimony to the State Water Board, the SFPUC stated, “In presenting potential water supply and socioeconomic effects from certain interpretations of the Raker Act and the Fourth Agreement, San Francisco does not thereby waive arguments it may have about how the Raker Act or Fourth Agreement should or will be interpreted in future proceedings.”  Obviously, the SFPUC intends to challenge any application of the Fourth Agreement if necessary.

[1] SFPUC Urban Water Management Plan, Table 8-2 —

[2] Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, Substitute Environmental Document, Appendix L, Page L-4.

The SFPUC’s Socioeconomics Study Is Flawed

The Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan aims to achieve the co-equal goals of protecting fish and wildlife and ensuring a reliable water supply. Phase 1 of the Plan proposes to require 40% of unimpaired flow (what would naturally occur in the absence of dams and diversions) to be released into the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, down into the lower San Joaquin River and out to the San Francisco Bay-Delta between February and June. Adaptive management would allow flows to be increased or decreased by up to 10% depending on whether biological goals and objectives are met.

In an OpEd published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 9, 2016, the General Managers of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) stated, “Our initial economic analysis of the first iteration of this plan forecast up to 51 percent rationing, resulting in 140,000 to 188,000 jobs lost in the Bay Area. These same forecasts also show between $37 billion and $49 billion in decreased sales transactions.”

The Socioeconomics Study referenced in the above quote was seriously flawed. Had it been accurate, we should have expected to see a loss of $7 billion and 24,510 jobs during the last fiscal year when water use in the SFPUC service territory was 32% below the SFPUC’s average year water supply. Obviously, that did not happen.


On March 13, 2014, the SFPUC released its draft Socioeconomics Study, and on April 9, 2014 a coalition of environmental groups submitted comments that pointed out a number of flaws in the Study. To date, the SFPUC has yet to respond, but continues to cite the Study.

We found the following flaws:

  • The Study confused water demand with supply. Instead of calculating reduction percentages based on supply, it worked off of demand. This failed to credit the role conservation plays in allowing demand to be met when supply is reduced. Reductions would come from supply, not demand.
  • The Study assumed reductions in water supply would be imposed on the SFPUC’s entire Regional Water System, and not just the Tuolumne portion of supply. In an average year, 15% of the SFPUC’s water supply comes from Bay Area sources. The Bay Delta Plan will not affect this portion.
  • The Study failed to sufficiently analyze the important role storage carryover and replenishment play in the SFPUC’s water supply. For example, after five years of drought, with the Tuolumne watershed receiving normal precipitation last year, total SFPUC storage is currently at 80% of capacity. We have enough water in storage to last four-and-a-half years at pre-drought levels of use.

Furthermore, after the Socioeconomics Study was released, BAWSCA (which accounts for two-thirds of system demand) revised its 2040 demand projections downward by 20%. Therefore, future demand projections cited in the Study are no longer accurate.

Water Use Was 32% Below Supply in FY 2015/16

During the 2015/16 fiscal year, water demand in the SFPUC service territory was 180 million gallons per day (mgd) – 32% below the average year supply of 265 mgd. The following charts from the SFPUC’s Socioeconomics Study suggest that a 30% reduction in supply would have resulted in $6.5 billion in sales losses, $570 million in welfare losses, and 24,510 lost jobs. This did not happen. In fact, our economy was stronger than ever.




Even before the drought kicked in, water demand was down around 225 mgd. The graph below shows that water use in FY2015/16 was lower (180 mgd) than during the 1997/98 drought, despite a large increase in population and jobs in the SFPUC service territory.


Source: SFPUC

Future Demand Projections Have Decreased

The top chart below from the Socioeconomics Study suggests water demand from the SFPUC’s wholesale customers in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties (represented by BAWSCA) would be 212 mgd in 2035/36. The bottom graph shows BAWSCA’s revised demand projections reduced by 20%. They now expect to need only 168 mgd from the SFPUC by 2040. The Socioeconomics Study is obviously stale, and should no longer be referenced.


Source: SFPUC Socioeconomics Study


Source: BAWSCA

Water Supply Carryover and Replenishment

The SFPUC owns several reservoirs in addition to Hetch Hetchy and has a water bank at Don Pedro Reservoir that allows them to capture and store water when there’s excess in the system and then borrow off of it in dry years. Total storage equals 1.458 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is 326,000 gallons). After five years of drought, with last year being a normal precipitation year, the system held 1.144 million acre-feet of water on October 2, 2016, and the rainy season had just begun.

Before the drought kicked in, the SFPUC service area used about 250,000 acre-feet of water per year. At 80% capacity, there’s currently enough water in storage to last 4.5 years.


Source: SFPUC

According to the Substitute Environmental Document (SED) prepared by the State Water Board for the Bay Delta Plan: “The 1922-2003 average calculated volume of water potentially available to CCSF under the Raker Act was about 750 TAF/y [thousand acre-feet per year]…According to a SFPUC planning document, an average of 244 TAF/y is diverted from the Tuolumne River…based on data from 1989-2005…” The SFPUC is not short on water.

The SFPUC’s Obligation Under the Bay Delta Plan

At this point it is unclear what portion of increased flow the SFPUC will be responsible for. A contract (known as the Fourth Agreement) between the SFPUC and the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts (which own and operate Don Pedro Reservoir) obligates the SFPUC to provide 51.7% of any increase in flow required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). However, the State Water Board is not a party to the Fourth Agreement, and has no authority to enforce it. The Fourth Agreement explicitly addresses flow increases pursuant to a “Federal Power Commission license requirement” and is silent on flow increases that may be required by the State Water Board.

In its Socioeconomic Study, the SFPUC worked off of the assumption it would be responsible for 51.7% of increased flow, making the economic impacts appear much larger than they will likely be. However, in testimony to the State Water Board, the SFPUC stated, “In presenting potential water supply and socioeconomic effects from certain interpretations of the Raker Act and the Fourth Agreement, San Francisco does not thereby waive arguments it may have about how the Raker Act or Fourth Agreement should or will be interpreted in future proceedings.” Obviously, they intend to argue against being responsible for 51.7% of increased flow.

The Bay Delta Plan SED states, “The State Water Board may assign responsibility for meeting the flow objectives through a proceeding amending the agency’s water rights to require compliance with the objectives. In a water right proceeding amending water users’ rights, the State Water Board generally would assign responsibility for meeting the objectives in accordance with the rule of priority and other applicable law. At this time, it cannot be predicted how such responsibility would be allocated in a future proceeding among the water right holders on the Tuolumne River.”

If the SFPUC’s responsibility ends up being proportional to its percentage of diversions from the Tuolumne, it would be obligated to produce 20% of the increase in flow (80% of diversions are carried out by the Irrigation Districts in Stanislaus County). This would amount to about 45 mgd. Subtracted from its average supply from the Tuolumne (225 mgd), and then adding in 40 mgd of Bay Area water supply, the SFPUC would still have access to 220 mgd.

It’s interesting to note that over the past seven years, the SFPUC service area has averaged less than 220 mgd in water demand. And again, for real impact one must consider carryover and replenishment storage.

Prepared by the Tuolumne River Trust on October 20, 2016.

Waterways project brings science to life at every grade

From There to Here: Why the Environment Matters to One Tree-planting Volunteer

Imagine having an ‘ah ha’ moment about the world and how we live in it several thousand feet above ground over Afghanistan. That’s what happened to Brad Machado.

Brad – while deployed in Afghanistan as a flight paramedic – realized this while staring down at the earth below from his perch above: there was nothing. Particularly striking to him about the vast landscape below was how empty it was in the absence of any sort of resource management. For example, he observed that a total lack of flood mitigation resulted in washing out farms in the rainy season, leaving a barren landscape below and the people who lived there struggling with a general lack of resources.

Fast forward to Brad’s return home to Modesto (where he was born and raised) in the middle of one of the worst droughts California has ever seen – it felt like a strange parallel. It gave Brad what he describes as a “front row seat in how we manage our own resources and how our environment is affected by our actions.”

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