By Peter Drekmeier
Scientific reports published over the past several years have been unambiguous. The delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, is on the brink of collapse.
Starved of freshwater inflow due to dams and water diversions, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s health has faced a precipitous decline over the past few decades. The recently released Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan offers our last best hope to revive the estuary that defines our region. The new plan calls for requiring more water to be released from dams into rivers, such as the Tuolumne, to help bring the bay-delta ecosystem and rivers that feed it back to life.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns and operates the Hetch Hetchy Water System, and its wholesale customers appear to want to weaken the plan by scaring the public with inflated economic impacts.
The socioeconomic study was flawed, and recent real-world experience proves its conclusions are baseless. Had the study been accurate, the Bay Area’s economy would have lost $7 billion and 24,510 jobs last year. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Flaws in the study included obvious things, such as confusing water demand with supply, treating local water supply as if it would be reduced by a plan to restore the Tuolumne River, and failing to sufficiently analyze the important role storage replenishment plays in our water system. For example, even after five years of drought, with one year of normal precipitation, total SFPUC storage is now close to 80 percent of capacity. We have enough water stored to last more than four years.
Currently, only 20 percent of the Tuolumne River’s natural flow reaches its confluence with the San Joaquin River, and salmon populations have suffered as a result. Before the Tuolumne was dammed, an estimated 130,000 salmon spawned in its waters. Last year, fewer than 500 of the iconic fish returned.
And it’s not just about salmon. The entire river ecosystem is facing collapse. Healthy salmon populations transport tremendous amounts of nutrients from the ocean to upland habitats where they fuel an entire food web, from hawks and eagles, to aquatic insects that feast on dead carcasses and in turn provide food for the next generation of salmon.
Of the more than 100 species that depend on salmon, humans have historically been at the top of the list. And the beautiful thing is that a healthy salmon population can rebound quickly while supporting a fishery.
In 2010, a report released by the State Water Board determined that 60 percent of natural flow from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries would be necessary to fully protect fish species. The current Bay Delta Plan proposes just 40 percent of unimpaired flow, with the flexibility to increase it up or down by 10 percent, depending on whether fish population and other goals are met.
We have proved we can use water more efficiently. In 2008, the SFPUC estimated it would need an additional 25 million gallons of water per day from the Tuolumne to meet future demand. Conservation groups were staunchly opposed to increasing diversions, arguing the demand projections were inflated and the potential for water conservation was underestimated. It turned out we were right.
To their credit, the SFPUC agreed to cap water sales until at least 2018. We then all worked together to promote water conservation, and even before the drought kicked in, system demand had dropped significantly. Last year we used 32 percent less water than the sales cap.
The big question with the new Bay Delta Plan is how much of the increased flow will the SFPUC be responsible for providing. If its obligation is proportional to the amount of water it diverts, it would be 20 percent (agriculture uses 80 percent of the water diverted from the Tuolumne). Under such a scenario, the SFPUC would have easily met its obligation over the past seven years due to exceptional water conservation efforts.
We must work together to protect our economy while reviving our rivers and the bay-delta. Accurate information, not scare tactics, will be critical.
Peter Drekmeier is the policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust.