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.
A plan to restore rivers and salmon habitat is pitting environmentalists against the city of San Francisco. Originating in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the rivers are diverted to provide water to farms and cities across California. Now, the State Water Resources Control Board has proposed its Bay Delta Plan, which would reinstate 40 percent of the flow to rivers and help the struggling salmon. Critics of the Bay Delta Plan — including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — say it would lead to mandatory water restrictions and raise the cost of water. Meanwhile, some farmers in the Central Valley say the plan will cost jobs. Listen in as TRT Policy Director Peter Drekmeier discusses this latest chapter in California’s water wars with Michael Carlin of the SFPUC, KQED staff, and listeners.
Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter, KQED
Peter Drekmeier, policy director, Tuolumne River Trust
Michael Carlin, deputy general manager, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
Join us for the
4th Annual Tuolumne River Film Festival
We’re pleased to announce that this night of fun and films in celebration of the Tuolumne River and the culture that flows from it will once again feature short films from the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, live music by the Tuolumne River Ukulele Orchestra, a Three Twins Ice Cream social, and much more!
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.
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.