One Step Closer to Restoring the Lower San Joaquin River

The State of California took another step towards finally restoring and protecting the health of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, and lower San Joaquin Rivers last month. March 17th marked the end of the public comment period regarding the proposal for improved flows in these rivers (and the environmental review of alternatives and potential impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act). On that day, NRDC submitted detailed comments to the State Water Resources Control Board regarding the need for increased flows in these rivers. In collaboration with The Bay Institute and several other conservation organizations, our comment letter demonstrates that the State must strengthen the flow proposal to protect and restore healthy rivers, the health of the Bay-Delta estuary, and healthy salmon runs that support thousands of fishing jobs. Our letter also discusses the need for the State to consider improvements in agricultural and urban water use efficiency, water recycling, floodplain restoration, and other measures that water users can take to improve water supply reliability and river restoration. In addition to our detailed comments, more than 8,200 members of the public emailed the State Water Board, urging them to increase flows to protect healthy rivers and wild salmon runs. Thank you for speaking up for healthy rivers and wildlife!

The public comment period was an important step in the process of updating the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which began in 2008 and was supposed to conclude years ago. The current schedule is for release of a final environmental document and responses to comments in July 2017, with a final decision adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in September 2017. 

But the State’s legal duty to protect these rivers and fisheries that are held in trust for the Public goes back to the earliest days of Statehood. When dams were first constructed back in the late 19th century on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, California law required dam owners to protect downstream fisheries. These laws, which were adopted in California’s earliest days, are now embodied in section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code, which requires that:

The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway, or in the absence of a fishway, allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.

The State Water Resources Control Board last updated the flow requirements for the Lower San Joaquin River more than 20 years ago. In 1995, the Board adopted a Plan objective to provide the flow conditions necessary to double salmon populations from their average returns in the years 1967-1991, consistent with state and federal law. Even though biologists, fishing groups, and agencies were skeptical that the low flows would protect and restore salmon runs and the health of these rivers (and achieve this salmon doubling Plan objective), the Board also adopted a voluntary settlement proposal from water users, with the expectation that we would learn whether those low flows were adequate to restore and sustain native salmon runs.

Since 1995, salmon populations in these rivers not only have failed to meet the salmon doubling objective, but they have continued to decline, which is not surprising given the unsustainable water diversions allowed by the Board’s decision two decades ago. On the other hand, over the past two decades State and federal agencies have collected substantial scientific data and information demonstrating that low flows during the spring months are the primary cause of salmon declines and worsening water quality in these rivers. While increased flows are not the only thing salmon and healthy rivers need, they are necessary to restore the health of these rivers and their salmon populations. 

Ultimately, these rivers and fisheries are held in trust by the State for the benefit of all of us. To date, the State has failed to protect these rivers and their native fisheries, allowing excessive water diversions to reduce flows in the rivers to unsustainable levels, destroying native salmon runs and other native fish and wildlife. Now, after stakeholders, scientists, and the public have submitted their comments, the State Water Resources Control Board will have to make its decision. This fall we will find out if California will substantially increase flows on the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries (the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers), as the biological science demonstrates is necessary to protect and restore native salmon runs and healthy rivers. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Senior Attorney, Water program

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