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.
“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.
“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.