Commentary: Why a water board plan should worry the whole state

Issue Date: July 25, 2018
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Don Pedro Lake on the Tuolumne River, would be one of the facilities directly affected by a proposal to redirect flows in three Central California rivers, but the proposal could affect water use throughout the state.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

It's not just the northern San Joaquin Valley that should be concerned about the state water board's plan to redirect water away from farms and cities in a misguided bid to save fish. No matter where you live in California—and no matter your source of water—you should be worried.

For now, the focus rests on regions along the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. From there, it moves to the Sacramento Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and from there, who knows where?

In their plan, staff at the State Water Resources Control Board aims to restore "unimpaired flows" below dams by cutting in half current diversions to people and farms.

The theory is that, by redirecting large volumes of water and dedicating them to highly modified rivers and ecosystems, the result will be more fish.

People in the regions around Manteca, Oakdale, Modesto, Turlock, Merced and other communities have made a compelling case about the significant impact the plan would have—fallowed farmland, lost jobs, damaged economies. Impacts in the Sacramento Valley would be similar.

But the threat doesn't stop with agriculture or the Central Valley. Here are nine reasons people throughout California should be worried about what's being proposed for the three rivers:

  1. The plan would reduce water supplies throughout California. Along with its proposed redirection of 30 to 50 percent of the water in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, the board staff has already put the Sacramento River watershed on notice that it plans to seek 45 to 65 percent of the flows there. When half the runoff from the state's two largest watersheds is siphoned off, the shockwaves ripple up and down the state.
  2. The proposal discounts years of successful, good-faith efforts to find different ways to improve the health of salmon populations. Functional flows—providing the right amount of water at the right times—have been shown to be more effective than the sort of flat-percentage standard the board would apply. For best results, functional flows must be combined with non-flow strategies to create habitat, improve fish passage, address salmon predators and manage water temperatures. Under the board's plan, significant progress toward comprehensive solutions would be hampered.
  3. Significant reductions in surface water supplies would seriously hinder local efforts to balance groundwater basins under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
  4. Beyond the Central Valley, the flow proposals pose a direct threat to Bay Area water from the Tuolumne and Mokelumne rivers.
  5. A fact that should make water rights holders elsewhere nervous: The proposed approach would call into question some of the most senior water rights in California.
  6. By hampering reservoir operations and reducing available water for junior water rights holders, the proposal would inevitably reduce water exports from the delta—thus further constricting already tight deliveries to points south throughout Central and Southern California.
  7. Droughts like California's terrible 2012-15 drought would pose an even greater threat to a system that would become less flexible and resilient than the one we have today.
  8. Obstacles to desperately needed investments and improvements in our overall water system would become greater. The proposed river standards could drive up costs and reduce the benefits of possible system enhancements. By taking millions of acre-feet of water off the table for any other purpose, the standards could foreclose the few options left to address a large and growing supply-demand gap.
  9. By reducing reservoir storage in both wet and dry years, the proposed standards would lead to chronic water shortages throughout the state. That would harm human uses of water and escalate conflicts among regions, and among water users within regions.

The plan is guaranteed to hurt people, but there's no guarantee it would help salmon or other fish. Instead, it would only be the latest version of the tried-but-failed approach that certain environmental groups and regulatory agencies have pushed since the early 1990s.

That approach is based on the simplistic formulation that more flow equals more fish—and if it doesn't, just add more flow. Except that has been tried, and it hasn't worked.

More than a quarter-century of laws and regulations devoted to enhancing flows for fish has only brought us to the mess we're in now: fish populations still struggling, water systems hamstrung, local communities—especially rural communities—in distress.

There has to be a better way—and, indeed, there is.

Irrigation districts and others in the San Joaquin River watershed have provided the state water board with alternatives for managing the system that include many of the elements discussed above. The alternatives focus on functional flows and non-flow strategies that could avoid the potentially widespread community impacts the board plans promise.

But, immovably focused on fixed percentages of flows, the board has, so far, rebuffed every solution.

That, to me, is disappointing.

If you live in California, it should concern you, too.

(Justin Fredrickson is an environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.