SWRCB Should Finally Adopt New Protections for our Rivers

After 10 years of study and extensive public outreach, the State Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to vote Wednesday to adopt new flow and water quality standards for the Merced, Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and lower San Joaquin rivers as part of its update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. Wednesday’s scheduled vote to update the Plan comes after the Board agreed to delay the vote in August and then again in November, in order to allow secret, back room negotiations between the Resources Agency and stakeholders who signed confidentiality agreements. This raised concerns that the Governor would prevent the Board from adopting new standards, as Governor Wilson had done in the 1990s. However, at November’s SWRCB meeting the Resources Agency publicly promised that it would not seek any further delays in the Board’s process.

Even though the State requested to delay the vote for these secret settlement negotiations, the Board’s adoption of new standards to protect the Delta increases the likelihood of stakeholders reaching durable and scientifically credible settlements to implement those standards. First, virtually every major settlement on water issues in California has come after a court or board has taken action to protect the environment, including the Yuba Accord and the 2006 settlement agreement to restore the San Joaquin River. Second, these new standards will not go into effect immediately, and instead it likely will take several years to implement as the Board assigns responsibility to water rights holders to achieve these standards. That means there is much more time for stakeholders: (1) to try to negotiate voluntary agreements that would achieve the Plan’s salmon doubling objective through a mix of flow and nonflow measures like floodplain habitat restoration; (2) to identify potential projects to reduce or avoid water supply impacts, like water recycling, stormwater capture, and groundwater recharge; and, (3) to work out the details of how to implement these standards on each of these rivers, including during droughts. Third, Board’s proposal includes a very wide range of flows (30-50% of unimpaired flow) which a settlement implement; even if all stakeholders agreed to require more flows than this range (politically unlikely) or less flows than this range (scientifically dubious), the Board could always amend the Plan. 

And of course, having new standards is essential if there is no viable settlement agreement. Settlement agreements should implement standards, rather than being a substitute for new standards.  

The science is clear that substantially increased flows are critically needed to protect and restore these rivers and their native salmon runs. Floodplain habitat restoration and other restoration actions are important to complement increased flows, but do not substitute for them.  Effective flow and water quality standards are incredibly important to restore the health of these rivers and their native fish and wildlife, to sustain thousands of fishing jobs, to help restore the health of the Bay-Delta estuary, and to ensure that these rivers remain a public resource for future generations. It is even more important that the State of California use its authority to protect our public resources because of the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back existing protections for California’s rivers, fish and wildlife.

Wednesday’s vote by the Board, to exercise its authority to require improved standards to protect fisheries and healthy rivers that are held in trust for all Californians, is an important, albeit insufficient, step in the right direction. While it’s an important step forward, the proposal is inadequate to achieve the salmon doubling objective in the Water Quality Control Plan, something that fishermen and conservation groups have been waiting decades for.  

There’s no more time or reason to delay. It’s time for the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt new water quality standards protecting these rivers, the estuary, our fish and wildlife, and the thousands of jobs that depend on healthy salmon runs.


The Board’s new standards will require that 40 percent of the unimpaired flow (unimpaired flow is the amount of water that would flow in the river absent dams and diversions) remain instream for the critical February to June period, with farms and cities allowed to divert 60 percent of the water. This means that in wetter years, when there are more unimpaired flows, there will be more water flowing down the river, and in drier years, when there are less unimpaired flows, there would be less water flowing in the river. The Board’s proposal allows for flows to range between 30 percent and 50 percent of the unimpaired flows, using adaptive implementation to manage within this range depending upon whether implementation is achieving biological objectives relating to salmon survival in these rivers. For instance, significant floodplain restoration work could potentially reduce the flows needed in some years, if those restoration efforts increase salmon survival at lower flow levels. The Board’s standards also requires implementation of minimum reservoir storage levels in order to maintain adequate water temperatures to protect salmon and ensure that water is carried over to following years for farms and cities.

For the Stanislaus River, the new requirement for 40% of unimpaired flow is similar to existing flows and regulatory requirements on that river for that February to June period, whereas on the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers the Board’s action will require increased flows and reduced water diversions in most years. Today nearly 80% of the flow is diverted on the Tuolumne River in a median year, and in dry years nearly 90% of the flow is diverted. 

The current flow and water quality standards are woefully out of date, and they have been an abject failure in restoring and sustaining healthy rivers and salmon. In 1995, the Board adopted minimum flows for the lower San Joaquin River and adopted the salmon doubling objective, which states that, “Water quality conditions shall be maintained, together with other measures in the watershed, sufficient to achieve doubling of natural production of Chinook salmon from the average production of 1967-1991, consistent with the provisions of State and federal law.”

However, since the Board adopted the 1995 flow standards, salmon populations in each of these rivers have declined precipitously. For instance, on the Tuolumne River, the average population from 1968 to 1992 was nearly 19,000 salmon, the doubling objective is 38,000 salmon returning each year on average, but the average returns from 1992-2015 are less than 6,000. Not surprisingly, salmon runs on the Stanislaus River are doing significantly better than those on the Tuolumne River, particularly since 2009 when higher flows have been required on the Stanislaus.   

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2016 (similar graphics for the Stanislaus and Merced Rivers are available from that link)

As the Court of Appeal concluded in a 2006 court decision, “Determining what actions were required to achieve the narrative salmon protection objective was part of the Board’s obligation in formulating the 1995 Bay-Delta Plan in the first place.” The same is true today: the State Water Board’s flow standards must demonstrate that they will achieve the salmon doubling objective. Unfortunately, while the Board’s action increases flows in the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, numerous state and federal agencies have concluded that this 40% flow standard is inadequate to achieve the salmon doubling objective in the water quality control plan. For instance, in 2013 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded that a standard of 50-60% of unimpaired flow was needed to achieve the doubling objective.  Our colleagues at The Bay Institute performed detailed analyses, including analyses of floodplain inundation and water temperatures under different flow alternatives, which likewise showed that flows less than 50 percent of unimpaired would not achieve the Plan’s salmon doubling objective.

The use of unimpaired flows is scientifically sound, and the Board’s technical analysis of the relationship between flows and underwent independent scientific peer review (note that the peer reviewers did not evaluate whether the 40% alternative would achieve the doubling objective, but instead reviewed the scientific basis for the board’s conclusions regarding the effects of flow on salmon and other species). Similarly, peer reviewed scientific studies have documented that higher flows in these tributaries during the winter and spring months results in significantly higher survival of salmon, with the volume and variability of flow in the Stanislaus River during these months accounting for more than 2/3rds of the variability in juvenile salmon survival in the river.

The Board’s new standards will require reduced water diversions. The Board estimates that the 40 percent of unimpaired flow requirement will result in an average reduction in water diversions of 14 percent from these rivers, assuming that the these standards are implemented during droughts (unlike in recent years, when the Board waived flow and water quality standards protecting salmon and other fish), and assuming that that these cities and agricultural water districts take no actions to reduce or minimize water supply impacts. However, there are significant opportunities to reduce the impacts of reduced diversions from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers, including: improved water use efficiency on farms and in cities; increased water recycling; increased water diversions in wet years for groundwater recharge and in the proposed expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir; and stormwater capture in urban areas. Moreover, any water supply reductions from the new standards would be shared between cities and farms, and the Board’s action today does not determine how much any water rights holder will have to reduce diversions. 

There are many details to work out, and lots of hard work ahead. But hopefully the Board will vote on Wednesday to adopt new standards. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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