Imagine Stanislaus County supporting not only a robust agricultural economy, but a vibrant Tuolumne River coursing through its core as well. A river teeming with fish and wildlife, providing abundant recreational opportunities and supporting a flourishing tourist industry – visitors coming to fish and boat on the waterway, sample locally produced wines and enjoy local restaurants, hotels and other amenities.
Working together, we can make this happen.
But we have our work cut out for us. The construction of water infrastructure projects to dam and divert the Tuolumne helped build a strong regional economy. At the same time, these activities degraded the environmental and recreational values of the river by blocking access to upstream salmon spawning areas, decreasing the overall river volume and reducing riparian habitat.
The fisheries’ decline underscores the severity of the problem. Historically, more than 100,000 salmon spawned in the Tuolumne, providing protein-rich food for people while transporting vast amounts of nutrients from the ocean to fertilize forests, meadows and farmland. However, last year fewer than 700 salmon returned to the river.
Spring-run chinook salmon are gone from the Tuolumne, Central Valley steelhead are listed as a threatened species, and the fall-run chinook population has plummeted. In 2008 and 2009, California’s salmon population was so dismal the commercial salmon seasons had to be canceled, costing tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
At the core of the problem is low river flows, which impede fish passage, concentrate pollutants, raise water temperatures, eliminate migratory clues for fish, and make it easier for non-native predators to devour juvenile salmon (yes, predation is part of the problem, but there’s a lot more to it).
On average, only 20 percent of the Tuolumne’s natural flow makes it down to the San Joaquin River. About 60 percent is diverted directly for agricultural and urban uses, and approximately 15 percent percolates into the soil where it recharges the groundwater basin, serving as a supplemental water supply.
But as many farmers and residents are keenly aware, groundwater is currently being pumped faster than it can be replenished, causing the water table to drop and creating tensions between neighbors. Overpumping can lead to land subsidence and decreased underground storage capacity, as well as cause serious damage to roads, bridges, buildings, canals and other vital infrastructure.
Reviving the Tuolumne will not only provide long-term economic benefits, but the restoration process itself will bring resources to the area. For example, a study by economist Shawn Kantor from UC Merced found the nearby San Joaquin River Restoration Program would create more than 11,000 jobs in the Central Valley.
Co-operation works. In 2008 the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission proposed diverting an additional 25 million gallons of water per day from the Tuolumne. Opposed by environmental groups, as well as the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, the plan faced an uphill battle. A compromise was reached that capped water sales and committed SFPUC and its wholesale customers to pursue water conservation and recycled water projects.
Everyone worked together, and water consumption decreased by more than 15 percent. Future demand projections were revised downward by 20 percent, and all parties came out winners.
Through better monitoring of the snowpack, a sustainable groundwater recharge program in wet years, more efficient irrigation practices, and infrastructure improvements, we can maintain Stanislaus County’s standing as a world-class agricultural region while injecting new life into the Tuolumne.
There’s enough water in the river to meet all our needs, if we use it wisely. Let’s work together to pursue programs and grants to help achieve a common vision for this dynamic region.
Peter Drekmeier is the policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust.