Feinstein urges voluntary water agreements ahead of vote by State Water Board

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2015. Feinstein proposed legislation to prohibit persons banned from flying on airlines from purchasing weapons.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2015. Feinstein proposed legislation to prohibit persons banned from flying on airlines from purchasing weapons. Associate Press file

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and some state representatives in the Bay Area are calling for voluntary settlement agreements, rather than a State Water Board proposal, to bolster the salmon population in tributaries of the San Joaquin River.

In a letter Friday to water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus, Feinstein said a voluntary settlement will achieve more in restoring fish in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

The water board is slated for a Nov. 7 vote on a Bay-Delta water quality update, which would require 40 percent runoff from the watersheds to remain in the rivers to revive chinook salmon migrations through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Approval of the flow requirement is expected to trigger lawsuits by irrigation districts in Stanislaus and Merced counties and southern San Joaquin County.

Opponents predict the flow regime will have serous economic impacts in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. More severe water rationing in dry years and rate increases are predicted for Bay Area cities that rely on water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the upper Tuolumne River.

“We are concerned that the board’s proposal would drastically reduce the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s ability to provide water to meet the basic needs of 2.7 million people in the Bay Area,” state Sen. Scott Wiener wrote in a letter last month also signed by assemblymen Phil Ting and David Chiu. All three are Democrats from San Francisco.

They urged the board to postpone a vote until agreements are negotiated with the San Francisco PUC and Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. The three agencies say their alternative plan would more quickly restore the salmon fishery and yield better outcomes for the environment.

Feinstein wrote that a voluntary settlement would bring substantial funding from the water districts for science and restoration work. “I believe a voluntary settlement ... will accomplish more in fishery restoration over the next decade than a flows objective dictated from Sacramento,” the senator wrote.

Leaders of Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts have said the state board has ignored their plan for well-timed flows, habitat restoration and control of nonnative bass that prey on young salmon. District-funded studies on the Tuolumne found that predation eliminates more than 90 percent of juvenile salmon before they can reach the lower San Joaquin River and delta.

With the districts’ approach, more water would remain in reservoirs for agriculture, city customers and other needs.

An MID spokeswoman said the districts are active participants in discussions with the state. “Senator Feinstein’s letter adds to the growing list of elected officials that are encouraging the parties to seek a voluntary agreement and further bolsters the district’s position that a comprehensive, science-based approach is vital to meet the fishery goals set by the state,” the MID said.

The State Water Board has expressed concern the salmon population is in serious decline. About 70,000 fall-run adults returned to spawn in the San Joaquin tributaries in 1984, but the number was just 8,000 in 2014.

A state report in 2010 concluded that 60 percent flows in the San Joaquin tributaries from February through June would support native fish species in the delta. In setting the flow standards, the State Water Board is obligated to protect the beneficial uses that rely on water including cities, agriculture, industry and the environment.

According to a statement from the State Water Board, the settlement talks are confidential and conducted with the state’s Natural Resources Agency. “The board feels that voluntary settlements can provide the most durable and effective ways to protect fish and wildlife at the least water cost to water users,” the statement said.

The proposed delta plan update is structured to provide a discount on flows to water districts that come up with significant proposals, the board said. River flows could be reduced to 30 percent or raised to 50 percent, depending on whether goals are met for doubling the salmon population.

The water board’s statement cited the Yuba Accord, a product of protracted litigation, as a robust agreement that balanced the needs of fish and wildlife, water districts, agriculture and electrical power generation on the Yuba River.