New Year's Hopes and Resolutions for California Water Policy

‘Tis the season to be making resolutions for the coming year.  With a new Governor taking office in California next week, and tons of rain and snow marking a great start to the water year, what more could I ask for?  Well, here’s what I’m hoping for in 2011:

(1)   Fish populations in the Delta rebound, and enough salmon return to have a real salmon fishing season in California. 

After 2 years of complete closure for the first time in the state’s history, in 2010 California’s salmon fishery was open for 8 days for commercial fishing.  It’s been three years since wild California salmon has been found in supermarkets or on most people’s dinner plates. For fishermen and fishing communities, these closures have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income and thousands of jobs.  So far this year, early returns are showing salmon returning in greater numbers than the record low numbers of last year, but the returns are far below those of a decade ago (and some runs, like the winter run Chinook, look to be in very bad shape this year).  Let’s hope that ecosystem protections in the Bay Delta and our rivers, combined with better ocean conditions, will yield enough salmon for a decent fishing season in 2011. 

In addition, in 2010, all of the major indices for delta smelt showed minor improvement from the record low levels seen in recent years.  While the National Research Council warned that recovery would take many years, and while the extremely low population levels make it very difficult to determine whether the fish really are starting to recover, I’m cautiously optimistic that these native fish are starting to rebound.  Let’s hope that 2011 shows continued progress in bringing these species back from the brink of extinction.

(2)   New Governor makes progress in restoring the Bay Delta Estuary and our rivers.

My colleague Barry Nelson has written several blog posts with advice for the new Governor on developing and implementing a 21st Century water policy.  I hope that the new Administration successfully tackles some of the big water policy decisions we face in 2011, including: 

  • Will the new Administration make progress in putting the “conservation” in the Bay Delta Conservation plan, and reform the process so that it includes all stakeholders and can tackle tough issues transparently and effectively? 
  • Will the State listen to its scientists at the Department of Fish and Game, who have concluded that the federal pumping restrictions are necessary to protect salmon and other species? 
  • Will the Delta Stewardship Council develop a Delta Plan that reduces reliance on water exports from the Delta, improves the physical reliability of water deliveries from the Delta, sustains and respects Delta communities, and restores more natural flows and native fish and wildlife? 
  • Will the State Water Resources Control Board improve flows on the lower San Joaquin River, where inadequate flows over many years have resulted in a dramatic decline in salmon and steelhead populations in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries? 

(3)   California finally gets a wet year, after three dry years

Finally, let’s hope that the rain and snow continues well into 2011 -- without major flooding of communities around the state.  That’d be great news for fishermen and farmers, cities and the environment.  It’s a great start to the year, but despite all the rain and snow so far this year, we still need lots more precipitation in order for 2011 to be declared a wet year.  The state and federal water projects have been pumping like mad this month, pumping more than half a million acre feet of water out of the Delta in December, for use later in the year.  The State has already announced that its contractors will get 50% (and likely more) of their maximum contract amounts, and the Fresno Bee reported this week that federal contractors like Westlands may get more than 50% of their maximum contract amounts as well.  That’s good news for farmers and cities alike, providing enough water so that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can meet demands while also storing water for future dry years.

Yet, let’s not forget that these high flows are also critical for salmon, halibut, and other commercially important fish species.  Floodwaters don’t “waste to the sea,” in the 19th century way of thinking.  Quite the contrary: science shows that high flows reduce predation and increase the survival of migrating juvenile salmon, and usually result in big salmon returns a few years later.  These years of higher flows into San Francisco Bay are great news for fish, fishermen and anyone who cares about the health of the Bay Delta estuary.

So… let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!  Have a safe and happy New Year.