We Can Have a Vibrant Economy AND Healthier Ecosystems

The State Water Resources Control Board is in the process of updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan as required by the Clean Water Act. The State aims to achieve the co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and ensuring a reliable water supply. Phase 1 of the Plan focuses on the San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries –the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers –and southern Delta salinity standards.

The Bay Delta Plan calls for requiring a percentage of unimpaired flow –what would occur in the absence of dams and diversions –to flow down the three main tributaries and into the San Joaquin River between February and June. The current recommendation is 40% of unimpaired flow, with flexibility to adjust it between 30% and 50%, depending on whether biological and environmental goals are met.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) manages the Hetch Hetchy Water System, which provides water to 2.7 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties. The SFPUC has opposed the revised Bay Delta Plan, claiming it would severely impact the Bay Area economy. This is not the case.

Could the SFPUC run out of water?

The Tuolumne River Trust (TRT) has modeled what would happen if the six-year drought-of-record (1987-92) were to reoccur and the revised Bay Delta Plan were in effect. Even assuming water demand rebounded to pre-drought levels, the SFPUC could manage the drought with water left over in storage. This means that if the last 100 years of precipitation repeated, the SFPUC would not run out of water.

TRT 6-Year Drought Model

(223 mgd baseline, 40% unimpaired flow Feb-June)

TRT 6-Year Drought Model[1]

Note that the model assumes there would be no rationing in years 1 and 2 of the drought (since we wouldn’t know we were in a drought yet), rationing would be 10% in years 3 and 4, and 20% in years 5 and 6, for an average of only 10% rationing.

Why is the SFPUC concerned?

The SFPUC has not challenged TRT’s drought model, and in fact, its own modeling has accepted the outcome. However, the SFPUC is planning for what it calls a “Design Drought” –an 8.5-year drought that arbitrarily combines the drought-of-record (1987-92) with the driest two-year period on record (1976-77).

Regardless of how much water the SFPUC has in storage, it considers every year to be the beginning, or middle, of its Design Drought. The SFPUC states:

Our Level of Service objective for water supply is to survive the drought planning scenario (1987-92 followed by 1976-77) with no more than 20% rationing from a total system demand of 265 MGD [million gallons per day]…We need to plan for each year as if it is the beginning of our drought planning scenario.[2]

In anticipation of the Design Drought, the SFPUC claims that under the Bay Delta Plan’s 40% unimpaired flow, with demand at 223 MGD, rationing would have to begin at 39% for the first three years, and then increase to 49% for the next three years. This would leave 576,000 acre-feet in storage at the end of the six-year drought –enough to last more than two years. If history repeated, all of its reservoirs would refill after the drought. The excessive rationing would have been unnecessary.

When lobbying others, the SFPUC has mislead influential people and groupsby not explaining its extremely conservative 8.5-year Design Drought, nor that it’s figures are based on 2040 demand projections aimed at accommodating aggressive development as forecast by Plan Bay Area, leaving the impression that the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan would have a much more severe impact than under a realistic scenario.

What if we did experience a longer drought?

In a worst-case scenario, the SFPUC could purchase water from an agricultural irrigation district for about the same amount as it charges its customers. According to a recent study by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments:

Additionally, while all agriculture contributes significant value to the regional economy, specialty crops generated around $2,700 per acre annually –more than three times the value per acre than non-specialty crops.[3]

It takes about 3.5 acre-feet of water to produce an acre of crops, so according to the figure above, one acre-foot of water would generate $771 in income. Then there’s the “multiplier effect”–revenue generated through processing and distributing agricultural products.

Specialty Crop Cluster Direct Output Value

Specialty Crop Cluster Direct Output Value[4]

Using the above percentages for the multiplier effect, one acre-foot of water used to grow specialty crops generates $2,659. Lower value crops generate considerably less. The SFPUC currently charges its wholesale customers about $2,200 per acre-foot.

In other words, the SFPUC could purchase water from an agricultural irrigation district at a price that could allow farmers, processors and distributors to make as much money as if crops were being produced, but they wouldn’t have to do any work. During an extended drought, Irrigation districts would line up at the door for this opportunity.

What are the SFPUC’s water rights on the Tuolumne?

The Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, which share the Tuolumne with the SFPUC, have senior water rights on the River dating back to 1887. As the junior water rights holder, the SFPUC is required to let the first 2,400 cubic feet per second (cfs) (imagine 2,400 basketballs full of water) flow past its dams to satisfy the Irrigation Districts’water rights. Between mid-April and mid-June, the Irrigation Districts are entitled to the first 4,000 cfs.

Tuolumne River Water Entitlements

The SFPUC’s water rights are poor in dry years, but exceptional in normal and wet years. According to the Substitute Environmental Document (SED) for Phase 1 of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan:

The 1922-2003 average calculated volume of water potentially available to CCSF [City and County of San Francisco] under the Raker Act was about 750 TAF/y [thousand acre-feet per year].[5]

The SED explains the SFPUC’s water demand as follows:

According to a SFPUC planning document, an average of 244 TAF/yis diverted from the Tuolumne River…based on data from 1989-2005.[6]

In other words, in an average year the SFPUC has the right to capture three times as much water from the Tuolumne as it uses. This allows storage to replenish quickly after a drought. At the height of the recent drought, the SFPUC had enough water in storage to last three years. 2016 was an average water year, and the SFPUC was able to rebuild its storage to 80%. Then came 2017 –the second wettest year on record in the Tuolumne River watershed –and the SFPUC had the right to capture enough water to last 12 years. Obviously, they didn’t have enough storage capacity to capture even a fraction of that water, so most of it had to be “dumped”into the River to prevent future flooding downstream.

SFPUC Tuolumne Storage

SFPUC Tuolumne Storage Graph[7]

You’ll note that the largest block of water in the above graph is labeled “Water Bank.”This is water the SFPUC can “pre-pay”to the Irrigation Districts when its reservoirs are full and it still has the right to capture more water. The SFPUC helped pay for the construction of Don Pedro Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Irrigation Districts and is downstream of the SFPUC’s reservoirs, in exchange for the ability to “bank”water there. The SFPUC cannot directly access this water, but the set-up allows it to capture water at Hetch Hetchy that it otherwise wouldn’t be entitled to, and subtract an equal amount from its water bank. The water bank got low during the drought, but the SFPUC’s reservoirs remained close to full.

Knowing that its water supply depends on storing water during normal and wet years for future use during a string of dry years, the SFPUC has invested in storage. When full, the SFPUC’s reservoirs and water bank can store enough water to last six years.

SFPUC Storage Capacity

SFPUC Storage Capacity

To increase water supply even further, conservation groups have proposed that the SFPUC partner with the Irrigation Districts to capture excess water in very wet years and use it to recharge groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley for future agricultural use during dry years. Like the Don Pedro water bank, the SFPUC would not have access to this water, but could benefit from a groundwater water bank.

How does the SFPUC’s policy of hoarding water harm the environment?

During the recent drought, the SFPUC released only as much water from its reservoirs into the Tuolumne River as was required by a 1995 flow schedule. This schedule is based on baseflows –a minimum amount of water that must remain in the River, depending on water-year type (how wet) and the time of year. While people were inconvenienced by the drought, fish and wildlife experienced extreme conditions for five years.

In 2017, all of the water we conserved during the drought had to be “dumped,”providing one excessively good year for the environment at the expense of five terrible years. Had the Bay Delta Plan been in effect, the Tuolumne River would have benefitted, and the SFPUC still would have been able to replenish all of its reservoirs and much more.

 

Prepared by Tuolumne River Trust, June 21, 2018.

[1]Storage measured in thousands of acre-feet (TAF). One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.

[2]SFPUC Board meeting, January 10, 2017

[3]“Food System Multipliers for Specialty Foods,”Sacramento Area Council of Governments, July 25, 2016.

[4]Ibid.

[5]750,000 acre-feet equals 670 million gallons per day.

[6]244,000 acre-feet equals 218 million gallons per day.

[7]This graph, courtesy of the SFPUC, does not include Bay Area storage.

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.

San Francisco’s water conservation can flow to salmon

As published in the San Francisco Examiner on May 9, 2018

Article by Robyn Purchia

California’s commercial salmon season opened last week, but feasting on the fatty fish is still an upstream battle for many San Franciscans.

Already-low populations of salmon were further decimated by the drought in 2015. This means smaller catches for local fishermen and higher prices this season for The City’s consumers.

“The fishery we see today is based on what happened three years ago,” explained Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Too much water got taken out of the rivers for too long, and the situation was exacerbated by drought. Right now, salmon habitats are miserable.”

Conditions could improve. This summer, the state may finalize its proposal to increase water flow in the San Joaquin River’s tributaries: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. According to the state, the recommended flow will improve conditions for salmon and other wildlife and still provide enough drinking and irrigation water.

But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission disagrees. Approximately 85 percent of The City’s supply comes from the Hetch Hetchy watershed, which collects water from the Tuolumne River. The SFPUC is concerned the state’s proposal would put The City in a precarious position.

While the SFPUC’s concern is understandable, it may also be unwarranted. Regional demand for water has declined remarkably over the past 10 years. Protecting salmon isn’t perilous for San Franciscans, even in times of drought. Our conservation efforts should benefit California’s rivers and the wildlife they support.

Preston Falls on the Tuolumne River. 

“I think there’s a win-win,” Peter Drekmeier of the Tuolumne River Trust told me. “The SFPUC can protect and restore the Tuolumne and San Francisco Bay-River Delta region, as well as make sure we have an appropriate water supply.”

Drekmeier pointed to the SFPUC’s own data for evidence. In 2008, the SFPUC delivered a total of 257 million gallons per day. In 2017, deliveries dropped to 180 million gallons per day. That’s a major reduction as the region’s population grew and economy expanded.

San Franciscans deserve a hearty pat on the back for our conservation work.

The Water System Improvement Program, a $4.8 billion program to upgrade the SFPUC’s regional and local water systems, has also enhanced the agency’s ability to provide water in an environmentally sustainable manner. The SFPUC has diversified its supply with groundwater and plans to use recycled water for irrigation and lake-filling soon.

Heat, dry spells and climate change will continue to challenge our growing population. The California drought, which lasted from 1987 to 1992, was a painful lesson for the SFPUC. Officials had not planned for a drought worse than any experienced to that date. The lack of foresight created a situation where San Franciscans were forced to ration their water use.

Fortunately, better planning saved city residents from mandatory rationing during the latest drought. At the height of the dry spell in 2015, the agency had enough water supply to last three years. But that doesn’t mean the SFPUC is ready to give up the resource.

(Source: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)

“One thing we can’t do is run out of water,” Steven Ritchie with the SFPUC told me. “We have to be appropriately conservative.”

In comments to the state, the SFPUC urged regulators to let water users and other stakeholders negotiate their own solution to California’s water woes. Currently, California is sponsoring settlement discussions among stakeholders. The discussions have lasted more than a year.

“Water users have had decades to try to solve these problems,” Doug Obegi with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told me. “Without the state stepping in and determining what kind of flow is needed to restore the rivers’ health, stakeholders will talk themselves in circles.”

Environmental organizations, like NRDC and the Tuolumne River Trust, assert the Bay Area can get by with less water. The Trust analyzed the impact of the 1987-1992 drought using current demand and the state’s proposed flow increase. Assuming no rationing the first two years, 10 percent rationing in years three and four and 20 percent rationing in years five and six, the organization determined the SFPUC would have enough water to meet demand.

The state’s flow proposal also includes an emergency provision to protect water users during another historic drought.

“There’s no way the state would allow the Bay Area to go dry,” Drekmeier assured me.

As the state prepares to finalize its proposal this summer, San Franciscans should envision the future we want. If we want to see affordable, local salmon on the menu and support the fishermen who make that possible, The City shouldn’t oppose efforts to restore habitat in California’s rivers. San Franciscans can contact the commission to voice support for healthy rivers and the state’s proposal.

If we don’t need the water, the SFPUC shouldn’t take it.

 

For more by Robyn Purchia visit the SF Examiner’s Green Space

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: http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article198194059.html

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.

Conclusion

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).

TRT and DACA

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 7, 2017

For more information, contact:
Patrick Koepele
Executive Director
209-588-8636
patrick@tuolumne.org

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.

Groundwater recharge – solution for both farmers and fish

If every year were an average water year, the Tuolumne River could provide enough water to sustain a vibrant agricultural economy as well as a healthy river ecosystem. The problem is there are good years and bad years, and when a number of dry years line up we experience water shortages, often pitting economic interests against the environment.

This year we experienced the opposite, as torrential storms dumped near-record precipitation on the Tuolumne River watershed. The reservoirs filled quickly and, beginning in January, maximum allowable releases from Don Pedro Dam were required to prevent future flooding downstream.

More water in excess of flow requirements was released into the Tuolumne River than what the three water agencies operating on the Tuolumne – the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) – use in about two years.

While it’s likely there will always be a debate over how much water should flow down the river to protect fish and wildlife and maintain water quality, few would argue that there wasn’t a considerable excess of water this year.

So, what could be done to capture and store some of the excess water in wet years for future use during dry years?

The answer lies right under our feet.

Stanislaus County is blessed with excellent soils for groundwater recharge, and sits upon two large groundwater sub-basins – Modesto and Turlock, on either side of the river – with many times the storage capacity of Don Pedro Reservoir. While neither sub-basin is classified as over-drafted, there are concerns that pumping could increase as a result of higher in-stream flows required by the State Water Resources Control Board to help revive the San Francisco Bay-Delta and rivers that feed it. Over-pumping of the aquifer could reduce its reliability and possibly lead to land subsidence, threatening important infrastructure.

It would be prudent to explore potential new recharge opportunities to ensure the continued viability of groundwater pumping without causing harm to the aquifer. Such a program would help meet the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (passed in 2014) requirement that levels of pumping and recharge be in balance.

The Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers Groundwater Basin Association and Turlock Groundwater Basin Association have done a good job establishing Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, as required by SGMA. The next step is to create Groundwater Sustainability Plans. We are hopeful these plans will include active recharge programs during wet years, and look forward to engaging in the process.

The viability of recharge programs has already been demonstrated. For example, a 20-acre recharge basin managed by the Merced Irrigation District replenishes 25 acre-feet of groundwater per day. The State is eager to support similar projects, as funding for earthwork and infrastructure is available through the California Water Bond, which allocated $2.7 billion for water storage projects.

Another option is for the Irrigation Districts to partner with the SFPUC, which might be interested in establishing a groundwater bank similar to its water bank in Don Pedro Reservoir.

With further study and implementation of groundwater recharge, we could capture more water during wet years, improve in-stream river flows every year, and continue to support a prosperous agricultural economy during dry years.

Peter Drekmeier is Policy Director and Zarine Kakalia is a Summer Fellow with the Tuolumne River Trust.

 

This article appeared in the Modesto Bee. See the original post at http://www.modbee.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/article168890667.html

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 http://www.ppic.org/blog/video-building-bay-area-drought-resilience/