SWRCB's Flow Recommendations Signal the Way to a Healthy Bay-Delta Estuary

Only a few days after California’s eight-day commercial salmon fishing season came to an end, the State Water Resource Control Board today released preliminary flow recommendations for the health of the Bay-Delta estuary. These flow recommendations are based on abundant scientific evidence that demonstrates the need for California to better protect the Delta, its water quality, and its fisheries and wildlife. The State Board issued its recommendation in response to a requirement in the historic water policy reform legislation adopted last year, and obtained the input of stakeholders and scientists from across California. These recommendations reflect the scientific expertise of state and federal wildlife agencies, academic researchers, the Delta Independent Science Board, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the environmental and fishing community. 

The State Board’s recommendations recognize that adequate water flows into and through the Delta are one of the most important factors affecting the health of the estuary and its populations of fish and wildlife, from tiny zooplankton to majestic Chinook salmon.  The report also documents how much we have fundamentally altered the hydrology of the Delta, by dramatically reducing how much water flows into San Francisco Bay and shifting the time of those flows.  As a result, the report recommends substantially increasing flows into and out of the Delta, particularly in the winter and spring months, and limiting the reverse flows in the Delta that result from pumping by the state and federal export pumps (high pumping levels results in net Delta flows towards the pumps, rather than towards the ocean as water naturally would flow).  The report also recommends complementing these increased flows by cleaning up water quality and restoring natural habitats. 

The report is also yet another confirmation that federal wildlife agencies used sound science in recent protections for the Delta and its imperiled fish and wildlife. Recently, the eminent group of scientific experts that comprise the National Research Council concluded that flow recommendations to protect the Delta’s endangered species, which are incorporated into the State Board recommendations, are “scientifically justified.”  Numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers, peer reviews, and scientific workshops support the conclusions in the State Board’s report. 

Unfortunately, in recent years populations of numerous fish species in the Delta have collapsed, resulting in the complete closure for two years of the state’s 150-year old salmon fishery, thousands of lost jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income. Water quality has also continued to deteriorate, degrading drinking water for millions of Californians. The Board’s draft flow recommendations would help restore the health of the estuary, the jobs and communities that depend on its health, and the water quality on which so many of us depend.

This proceeding is focused on the science: what water flows and water quality necessary to restore the health of the estuary, and the fish and wildlife that the State holds in trust for the public. Future proceedings will determine how best to integrate these Public Trust protections into the Board’s decisions about governing the Bay-Delta system to ensure adequate water supplies for farms, cities, fisheries and wildlife.  And it is clear that California can create millions of acre feet of new water supplies each year by investing in water efficiency, water recycling, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. Together, these new, environmentally friendly water supply solutions can provide enough water each year for millions of households, millions of acres of farmland, and hundreds of thousands of salmon and other restored fish populations.

Today's report is focused on the science, and while we're continuing to review the report, it sounds like the Board’s staff got the science right. That’s good news for salmon, commercial and recreational fishermen, and for everyone else who depends on and cares about the health of the Bay-Delta estuary. NRDC, along with other environmental organizations, salmon fishermen and businesses will be encouraging the Board to adopt these flow recommendations at their meeting on August 3rd.