State Water Board Member D’Adamo: We must find a better approach

Protecting California’s fish is an important duty of the State Water Resources Control Board. But it is not our board’s only duty.

I am one of five members on the board, and the only one who lives in the San Joaquin Valley. Our board is required to provide for the reasonable protection of all beneficial uses of water. This calls for balancing the needs of fish with the needs of cities and the people who live in them – people whose lives and jobs are dependent on that water. We must also consider the needs of agriculture, and the beneficial use of water to grow crops.

On Nov. 7, the State Water Resources Control Board is considering the adoption of a controversial and divisive plan that would require 40 percent of flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to remain in the rivers to benefit native fish. That is almost twice as much as currently is dedicated to environmental use, and could mean a 25 percent reduction in agricultural water supplies during normal years; more in dry years.

It is clear that in successive dry years our staff’s proposal will result in major reductions in surface water supplies in 23 Bay Area cities and zero to near zero supplies for agriculture. This in turn will redirect impacts to already oversubscribed groundwater aquifers, devastate rural communities, and result in water rationing for residents, businesses and industries in the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, the high flow proposal before our board is unlikely to result in an increase in fish populations. There are other approaches that show greater promise. These alternative approaches would at the same time reduce the serious impacts to cities, agriculture and industry.

It is obvious that fish need water, but they also need usable habitat to spawn, feed and rear. Because each of these rivers have suffered severe degradation from historic mining and dredging, fish biologists point to the essential need for river restoration in these highly altered systems.

Water agencies throughout the Central Valley have partnered with fish agencies and environmental organizations on habitat restoration projects in these highly altered stream river systems. The early results from these projects show promise for improving fish populations.

Additionally, we need to restructure and rearrange flows to better maximize this interaction between flow and habitat. All of California needs to effectively and efficiently use water, including in-stream flows for fish. All water uses – environmental, agricultural and urban – should be provided reasonable protection under our plan, and each of these sectors should use water in the most efficient and responsible manner possible.

We must base these crucial decisions on the most current science. Unfortunately, the proposal before our board relies on outdated science, which assumes high flows will automatically create habitat, rid the rivers of predators, and result in improved water temperature conditions.

Our scientific understanding has evolved over the past decade, and the leading scientists are pointing toward more targeted “functional” flows, targeted at environmental restoration. Functional flows tie water to restored lands, timing of flow for life cycle, food production and water temperature. Leading scientists also stress the need to control non-native predators.

This kind of approach is essential, particularly in the highly altered and managed water systems we have in the Central Valley.

Gov. Jerry Brown has encouraged the California Natural Resources Agency to work with water suppliers and others to develop voluntary agreements that encompass flow and non-flow measures, saying these agreements can offer more durable and longer lasting solutions.

The State Water Board has applauded the Governor for his leadership and has also encouraged parties to present us with these types of voluntary agreements.

However, if we do not receive agreements by Nov. 7, the State Water Board is positioned to adopt the flow-centric plan. Adoption of the high-flow plan will result in 10-15 years of litigation, uncertainty for water users, and no improvement for the fish in the meantime.

If we are confronted with this lose-lose scenario, I intend to propose an alternative that includes targeted increased flows, habitat improvements, predation control and other measures as part of a comprehensive package.

We can do better than staff’s extremely divisive proposal. Our communities, our rivers, and our environment deserve fair and balanced solutions.

Dorene D’Adamo was appointed by Governor Brown in 2013 to the State Water Resources Control Board. She resides in the San Joaquin Valley.