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.”