More Answers Needed on Bay-Delta Water Plan

March 17 Deadline for Public Comment

By Adrian Covert, Vice President, Public Policy

The State Water Resources Control Board is currently considering a new set of regulations intended to help endangered salmon on the San Joaquin River. The salmon absolutely need our help, but as written these regulations leave many questions unanswered, and pose too serious a threat to the Bay Area’s economy and water supply to go forward as is.

Many years ago, rivers flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supported massive populations of salmon and other species. Today, 60–80 percent of the San Joaquin and its tributaries’ waters are diverted for human use, and enormous tracts of habitat where fish once thrived were lost. To restore balance, the Water Board is calling for an average 40 percent of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to flow into the Delta unimpaired. On the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable approach, but look closer.

One of those tributaries is the Tuolumne River, which fills the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. In an average year, about 48 percent of the Tuolumne’s water is diverted for Central Valley agriculture, 38 percent remains in the river, and 14 percent is diverted to San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and the East Bay, where it serves 2.6 million people and makes the region’s $720 billion economy possible.

However, during dry years, as little as 10 percent of the Tuolumne’s water remains in the river. Meeting the Water Board’s increased flow requirements in those years would require unprecedented cuts to water supplies for our region, the Central Valley, or some combination of both.

The Bay Area’s Tuolumne River users are already the most water-efficient in California, using 54 gallons per day versus the statewide average of 82 gallons. San Franciscans use just 41 gallons per day. Bay Area water agencies are investing in ways to conserve even more, but there are practical limits to how low we can go.

Under the proposed regulations, Bay Area water users could be on the hook to provide as much as 51 percent of the new environmental water — with no guarantee the water couldn’t simply be pumped by other downstream users. Residents in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Daly City could be forced to reduce water use to as low as 21 gallons per day during dry years. Residents in Hayward, Millbrae, and Menlo Park could have to make due with as little as nine gallons. Recall that a five-minute shower uses about 12 gallons, and the severity of the proposal becomes clear.

To seriously embrace water conservation, we should be encouraging smart growth in water efficient places like the Bay Area, which likely creates more economic value per gallon of Tuolumne water than is produced anywhere else in the entire United States. Ironically, the plan could result in a wave of building moratoria that would further worsen our housing shortage and push new residents to places where water consumption is far higher.

It’s been obvious for some time that California lacks the water needed to meet its competing obligations, and that without some sort of grand bargain that pairs conservation and new environmental water with major new investments in habitat, storage, recycling, and conveyance, we’re doomed to continue waging fruitless water wars through the regulatory process.

Until then, the best path forward lies in the ongoing talks between the Water Board, Bay Area water agencies, environmentalists, and farmers, to reach a voluntary agreement on how to provide increased water and habitat for fish without draconian effects. However, absent a larger package of investments, it’s unlikely regulators will find enough water to go around. The State Water Board is taking comments on the plan through March 17 — Bay Area residents should make their voices heard.

Submit your comments today>>

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