CSPA Protests State Water Board’s Protection of Irrigated Agriculture at the Expense of Fisheries and the Environment

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) and allies have vigorously protested two recent actions by the State Water Resources Control Board that virtually ensure a repeat of the last drought, when the Board’s disastrous decisions decimated multiple year classes of salmon and drove pelagic species in the Delta to the brink of extinction.  Fisheries have still not recovered from the effects of 2012-2015 drought.  This year, the SWRCB’s actions may push them over the edge.

Multi-year droughts are common in California, occurring more than 40% of the time.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) routinely deliver normal water supplies in the first dry year, assuming the following year will be wet.  When a dry year is followed by another dry or critically dry year, depleted reservoirs cannot be replenished.  The State Water Board’s traditional response has been to protect irrigated agriculture by drastically reducing flows critical to fisheries survival and weakening water quality standards that were already developed to account for dry and critically dry conditions.

The State Water Board’s pattern and practice, extending over decades, is a major reason that winter and spring runs of Chinook salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, Delta smelt and longfin smelt are listed as threatened or endangered under state and federal endangered species acts.  Conversely, irrigated agriculture, which comprises about 2% of California’s economy but consumes 80% of the state’s developed water supplies, has fared rather well during droughts.  Since 2000, Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farm production has increased 71.4% and  152.5%, respectively.  And the Department of Agriculture is forecasting that almond production and acreage will reach record highs this year.

The CSPA protests involve the Sacramento River Temperature Management Plan and Temporary Urgency Change Petition Order. Together, they pose significant risk to native salmonid and pelagic species.

Sacramento River Temperature Management Plan

Construction of Shasta Dam deprived Chinook salmon of the cold spring-fed spawning habitat of the McCloud, Pit and upper Sacramento Rivers: spawning now occurs below the dam.  In 1990, the State Water Board established temperature standards between Shasta Dam and Red Bluff that provided for 59 miles of spawning habitat.  The temperature compliance point could be moved upstream subject to uncontrollable factors.  Water deliveries are not an uncontrollable factor.

This year, the compliance point only provides five miles of spawning habitat.  Proposed temperature requirements are far above levels identified as lethal for spawning and rearing Chinook salmon.  In 2014 and 2015, egg to fry survival was only 4% and 3%, respectively.  This year is likely to be similar.

CSPA sent the State Water Board a letter on 14 March 2021 requesting immediate enforcement of Water Rights Order 90-05 and Bay-Delta water quality standards.  CSPA followed up with a 15 April letter urging the Board to reduce water deliveries in order to conserve limited cold water in Shasta Reservoir.  On 21 April 2021, CSPA testified at a State Water Board workshop regarding the proposed Temperature Management Plan.  On 5 May, USBR submitted a draft Temperature Management Plan that proposed lethal temperatures and inadequate end-of-year storage, while providing excessive water deliveries.  CSPA, Save California Salmon and the California Water Impact Network submitted an alternative approach to the State Water Board on 23 May 2021.  The CSPA et al. Temperature Management Plan, comprised of a transmittal letter, descriptive elements and spreadsheet, would provide protective water temperatures for salmon in the Sacramento and Trinity Rivers.  It would also provide increased carryover storage in Shasta and Trinity Reservoirs in case of another dry year.  CSPA and its allies issued a press release and fact sheet on 1 June.

USBR submitted a slightly modified but still wholly inadequate final Temperature Management Plan on 28 May 2021.  The State Water Board has ten days to approve or disapprove the Plan.  If the State Water Board approves the Plan, CSPA will request reconsideration and, if necessary, litigate the issue.  It should be noted that CSPA believes the State Water Board hasn’t complied with a settlement agreement in a pattern and practice lawsuit from the last drought; CSPA may need to seek court enforcement of the settlement.

Weakening of Delta Flow and Water Quality Standards

Present populations of Delta fishes are a remnant of their historical abundances prior to construction of the state and federal water projects.  Several are on the edge of extinction.  The current inadequate Delta water quality and flow standards were adopted 26 years ago and they remain in effect despite requirements to revise them every three years.  The rules still in force include specific standards for different water years, including dry and critically dry years.  However, the Governor’s 10 May 2021 Drought Proclamation waived mandatory compliance with these already-too-weak standards.

On 17 May 2021, DWR and USBR submitted a Temporary Urgency Change Petition to weaken the existing critical year standards.  The State Water Board noticed the petition and provide an abbreviated public comment period to conclude 4 June.  Before expiration of the comment period, the State Water Board issue an order approving the temporary urgency change.  The order significantly reduces Delta outflow, moves the salinity compliance point further east into the interior Delta, and facilitates export of transferred water.  CSPA, California Water Impact Network and AquAlliance filed a Protest, Objection and Petition for Reconsideration to the Change Petition and order on 4 June 2021.

The CSPA et al. Protest alleges that the State Water Board order is contrary to law, against the public interest and will have adverse environmental impacts.  It describes myriad consequences of the order, including: seriously degrading water quality for fish, farms and cities; reducing the food supply and viable habitat for endangered and threatened fish; impeding migration of native species; facilitating the spread of toxic algal blooms that threaten fish, plankton and humans; and expanding the range of non-native submerged aquatic vegetation and invasive predators at the expense of native species among other things.  The over-arching effect will be to transform one of the great natural freshwater estuaries in the world into a salty warmwater lake.

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