Don't Let the State Kill the SWRCB's Bay-Delta Plan

After 10 years and multiple rounds of public hearings, the State Water Resources Control Board announced yesterday that it would postpone voting on whether to adopt new flow and water quality standards for the lower San Joaquin River and the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers. The Board has not announced a date for a subsequent vote on this first part of the update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, and delayed the vote at the request of the Resources Agency.

Nearly three year ago, in November 2015, the State Water Board wrote a letter to the Resources Agency to explain that while the Board supported the State’s efforts to conclude voluntary settlements by December 31, 2016,

“Given the long delays in completing the planned updates to objectives for the Delta and its tributaries, the State Water Board intends to proceed as planned with the development of updated objectives. I do not anticipate the Board slowing its planning efforts to accommodate delays in the settlements discussed in your letter. Presently, staff expects to complete the objective updates next year for the southern Delta salinity standards and the San Joaquin River, with the board considering the objectives for adoption during the fall of 2016.”

Despite the fact that no voluntary settlements have been negotiated in the past 3 years, and despite the Board missing that fall 2016 deadline to adopt new standards for the lower San Joaquin River, the Board has now agreed to delay the vote on these new standards. These standards are long overdue, yet the Board continues to delay while our native fish species head towards extinction.

The State Water Board’s proposed flow standards for these the Lower San Joaquin River and its 3 tributaries is already too weak to protect salmon and the health of these rivers. While the general framework is scientifically sound, the Board proposed standards are far weaker than the flow volumes that state and federal agency scientists, independent peer reviewers, and scientists with conservation and fishing groups have determined are needed to achieve the plan’s salmon doubling objective. 

Year

Flow Recommendation

Source

2010

60% of unimpaired flow from the 3 tributaries and the Upper San Joaquin River

SWRCB 2010

2013

At least 50% of unimpaired flow from the 3 tributaries

CDFW 2013

2018

40% of unimpaired flow from the 3 tributaries

SWRCB 2018

The best available scientific information demonstrates that inadequate flow in these rivers during the winter and spring months is the primary driver of low salmon survival in these rivers; for instance, this 2014 peer reviewed paper found that the volume of flows in the winter/spring months in the Stanislaus River was the primary factor explaining juvenile salmon survival in the river. Other scientific analyses presented to the Board evaluated the effects of flows on salmon survival based on floodplain habitat inundation, water temperatures, and correlations between flow volumes and salmon survival, and they all demonstrated the need for 50% or more flows. Without increased flows, our native salmon runs will continue to decline and will likely be extirpated, threatening thousands of fishing jobs.   

For the past 20 years, the State Water Board has allowed wholly inadequate instream flows in these rivers, allowing nearly 80% of the flow in the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers to be diverted on average, with even more flow diverted in drier years. More flows are currently required on the Stanislaus River than on the Tuolumne or Merced, but as the National Marine Fisheries Service wrote in 2016, the 40% unimpaired flow proposal is only slightly higher than the flows required today on the Stanislaus, and NMFS continues to be concerned about the poor instream conditions for salmon on all the tributaries under these flow conditions. For 20 years the Board has watched as salmon populations continue to decline as a result of inadequate instream flows, contributing to the collapse of the Bay-Delta ecosystem. 

What’s most troubling is that this wouldn’t be the first time that a Governor and Resources Secretary have intervened to prevent the State Water Board from adopting new, more protective standards for salmon and the Bay-Delta. In the early 1990s, the Department of Water Resources requested that the State Water Board provide a 30 day delay before voting on whether to adopt draft Decision 1630, which proposed new interim Delta standards. Governor Pete Wilson subsequently intervened and directed the Board not to adopt the decision, which was never adopted due to the political interference by the Governor’s office (for more on this history, see pages 20-21 of this link).  

We can make sure that this doesn't happen again. If you care about the Bay-Delta estuary, the future of the salmon fishery, or healthy rivers in California, please contact the State Water Board and demand that they take action now to adopt scientifically sound standards for the Bay-Delta that significantly increase instream flows to protect the salmon fishery, water quality, our native fish species, and the health of the estuary. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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