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Sacramento River report adds to water concerns

Issue Date: October 26, 2016
By Christine Souza

California farmers and ranchers say they're drowning in proposals, regulations, plans and deadlines affecting the future of water supplies. The latest wave came in the form of a "draft science report" from the State Water Resources Control Board that would potentially require dedication of more Sacramento River water to fish.

The draft scientific report for fisheries and flows in the Sacramento River and Bay-Delta represents part of what the board calls Phase 2 of its update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The draft report suggests instream flows to the Sacramento River and delta in an average range from 35 percent to 75 percent of unimpaired flow. It came just weeks after the agency announced a proposal to leave more water for fish in the lower San Joaquin River watershed.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger called the Sacramento River report "part of a one-two punch aimed at rural California."

"When you add the Sacramento River plan to the San Joaquin River plan announced a month ago, you have a combination that strikes at the very heart of the rural environment and economy," Wenger said.

The board noted that its report does not yet include balancing of other water uses, including irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. But each of the proposed river-flow initiatives would generally involve dedicating more water to fishery flows. As with the earlier San Joaquin River proposal, the Sacramento River report suggests dedicating more delta outflow to fish during the winter and spring—when that water could be filling reservoirs for human and environmental uses around the state later in the year.

The water board said its draft science report identifies the science that will be relied on in considering potential changes to the Bay-Delta Plan to enhance flows in and out of the Sacramento River basin and within the bay-delta system to protect fish and wildlife. But because the report concentrates on leaving more water in the system without clearly demonstrating the benefits of that, representatives of Sacramento Valley water users described its approach as flawed.

David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, described the board's reliance on unimpaired flows as "18th century water management."

"They want a big, unimpaired flow into the delta, and this is a big percentage of the flow that is in the system," Guy said. "They want that water just to flow out to the Golden Gate. The flows are not helping the fish. The fish are starving, the fish need safe habitat away from predators and they need migratory corridors that are safe. We've tried the flow experiment; it failed."

The amount of water the water board staff suggests be diverted, Guy said, would not help the fish and would represent "a large amount of water that will be redirected away from cities, rural communities and farmland, wildlife refuges, and from the cold water that is necessary for salmon during certain life stages." He said the proposal would also increase groundwater pumping throughout the Central Valley, contrary to the goals of the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Guy said he prefers a "functional flow" approach, which incorporates targeted flows for the environment, waterfowl and delta fish for maximum benefit, while also ensuring efficient use of scarce water resources.

Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District general manager Tim O'Halloran said he continues to review the science report, but also supports a functional flow approach for managing water and aiding the environment.

"We have been developing and promoting a comprehensive, science-based approach to Sacramento River water resource management that takes into account not only the needs of the fishery, but of the total environment and agricultural and economic factors," O'Halloran said. "We work closely with the SWRCB on these matters, and hopefully they will take into account this approach when considering their options."

Don Bransford, a farmer and director of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, said the district is still analyzing the draft document but added, "A 75 percent unimpaired flow requirement will have huge impacts on every single grower, north and south of the delta."

He said the range of unimpaired flow contained in the report, 35 percent to 75 percent, "doesn't seem too scientific of a proposal."

State agencies and those affected by these ongoing water decisions, Bransford said, "do not have the manpower required to tackle the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the California WaterFix and now these flows."

In addition to the recommendation for unimpaired flows, the water board science report also encourages the use of non-flow measures, such as efforts by various stakeholders to develop voluntary agreements that would implement updated Bay-Delta Plan objectives.

Lewis Bair, general manager for Reclamation District No. 108 in Grimes, which delivers water from the Sacramento River to farmers in southern Colusa County and northern Yolo County, noted that non-flow measures are already in place and said the report could serve as motivation for interests to get together and develop a more complete package of what can be done to improve the delta and the watershed.

"We all need to have a conversation more around, how does water produce functions that our species and our watersheds need?" Bair said. "It doesn't take much water to have actions that are very functional and helpful, but aren't at all related to unimpaired flows."

View the SWRCB full scientific basis report at

Comments on the draft science report for the Sacramento River and delta flow requirements will be accepted through Dec. 16. A public workshop has been scheduled for Dec. 7 in Sacramento at the state EPA building, 1001 I St., beginning at 9 a.m.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

See related story: Hearings set on SJ River flow plan

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

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