SF would face new limits under state water proposal
California water officials announced an ambitious plan Friday to revive some of the state’s biggest rivers, a move that seeks to stave off major devastation to wetlands and fish, but on the back of cities and farms.
San Francisco, as well as numerous urban and agricultural water suppliers, under the plan would face new limits on how much water it draws from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries in the Sierra Nevada.
While the restrictions would help move once free-flowing waterways closer to their natural states, providing a boon for the freshwater-starved Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and such threatened fish as coho salmon, the effort comes as cities and farms are already facing tighter water supplies because of changing climate and drought. Many fear they won’t get the water they need or will have to pay a lot more for it going forward.
“We know this water grab will have devastating impacts to our region,” said a joint statement from the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, two large providers of water to Central Valley farmers and ranchers.
Agriculture groups on Friday were already talking about having to pull thousands of acres of land out of production, resulting in fewer jobs and less economic output, even after repeated promises over the past year by the Trump administration to do all it can to bring more water to the fields.
San Francisco officials were still reviewing the plan, but they said they, too, were yet to find improvements from a proposal released last year.
“We commented really extensively and had great concerns about the original draft,” said Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager of water for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “It’s really hard to say what’s changed, if anything, in here.”
The Public Utilities Commission had warned that the initial plan, if left unmodified, would force new water restrictions on city residents or raise customer rates in order to fund additional sources of water, like desalination.
The agency, which serves San Francisco and many Bay Area suburbs, has largely been free of regulation because of privileged water rights at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite. Hetch Hetchy, however, sits on the Tuolumne River, one of the rivers now targeted for higher flows.
The State Water Resources Control Board is calling for 30 to 50 percent of the water that naturally runs in the Tuolumne River as well as the San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced rivers to remain in the riverbeds.
Historically, as much as 80 percent of the water has been diverted for urban and agricultural use.
The rivers sometimes become only a muddy trickle, making it hard on fish and often leaving the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and a pillar of California’s water supply, low on water or with too much salinity from seawater intrusion.
“The Bay-Delta estuary has great significance to much of California, whether you care about agriculture or fisheries, urban or rural communities, or the environment,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Board. “But there is a serious problem, one that perhaps is not as visible as all those benefits: The ecosystem that the water supports is in crisis.”
Marcus acknowledged that the decline is the result of several factors, including pollution and the loss of floodplain habitat. But she said the overarching issue is inadequate flow from rivers.
Environmental groups and fishing interests have been supportive of the state’s push for more water.
“No one can deny we’ve heavily damaged the natural function and benefits of the rivers by over-diversion,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, who praised the new plan. “This has hurt fishing families and coastal communities.”
The State Water Board is accepting public comment on the plan through July 27, after which it will vote on whether to move forward.
State water officials are also pursuing similar restoration efforts for the Sacramento River and the delta, both of which are expected to require water restrictions from additional cities and farms.