Baykeeper Update

More Water for Healthy Fish and a Healthy Estuary

In the face of alarming signs of ecosystem collapse in parts of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, Baykeeper is advocating in support of increasing freshwater flows to the Bay and Delta from the San Joaquin River. Currently, most of the water in the San Joaquin and its tributaries is diverted for use by agriculture and human consumption, leaving too little to support healthy habitat in the Bay and Delta.

An Ecosystem Starved For Water

The waterways of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary have historically provided habitat and freshwater for a rich aquatic ecosystem. Severe water diversions, however, have deprived fish and wildlife of life-sustaining freshwater flows and created ideal conditions for invasive species and harmful algae growth. The California drought has exacerbated the situation because there is even less freshwater available. These pressures have pushed parts of the estuary ecosystem to the brink of collapse.

As documented in a recent report by The Bay Institute, “San Francisco Bay: The Freshwater-Starved Estuary,” the health of the Bay-Delta Estuary is critically dependent on getting enough fresh water, especially during the winter and spring. Yet in a typical year, California diverts more than half the winter-spring runoff destined for the Bay—and during the current drought, has diverted two-thirds or more.

A New Proposal for Increasing Water Flow

After years of ignoring signs of ecological collapse, the California Water Board recently proposed decreasing diversions from the Delta. Their proposal calls for restoring flows to between 30 and 50 percent of natural levels in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Merced Rivers, which feed into the San Joaquin River.

The entities who face reduced water availability—including agricultural water users and the City of San Francisco—have expressed outrage and dire warnings of the consequences of this action.

More is Needed for the Health of the Ecosystem

In fact, the State Water Board proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Virtually all native species in the Delta and Northern San Francisco Bay have been hard-hit by water diversions, especially with low flows under recent drought conditions. The delta smelt, a key indicator species, is on the brink of extinction, and Chinook salmon have been decimated in recent years by low flows and inadequate fishery management. Salmon from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers were once the basis of a thriving local fishing industry, but the region is now wholly dependent on hatcheries to maintain current populations.

In 2010, the Water Board told the state legislature that restoring 60 percent of the San Joaquin watershed’s natural winter-spring runoff would be necessary to protect water quality and restore salmon runs. In 2012, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed that 50 to 60 percent of natural runoff is necessary to do the job.

Baykeeper’s Recommendations

Baykeeper and our partner environmental groups across Northern California have united to advocate for more flow, to promote the survival of native fish and to support a healthy Bay-Delta ecosystem. With smart and aggressive water conservation and more widespread adoption of recycled water, California has the ability to balance the needs of its fisheries, wildlife, and people. For example, last year the State Water Board instituted water restrictions, and Californians effectively reduced water consumption throughout the state—demonstrating that more efficient water use is achievable.  And recycled water plants in Southern California have supplemented local water supplies significantly.

With proper watershed management, the Delta ecosystem can be restored, providing major benefits to the health of San Francisco Bay. San Francisco Baykeeper strongly supports the California State Water Board’s proposal to increase water flows to sustain the vibrant Bay-Delta ecosystem, and we believe the agency should require restoration of at least 50 to 60 percent of the flows, rather than just adopting the bare minimum.  We are advocating for the Water Board and other agencies to work closely with agricultural water users and municipalities to encourage increased conservation and replenish local reserves.  That is the only way to support natural flows so that they will be sufficient to restore and sustain healthy fish populations throughout the Bay and Delta.

Read more about Baykeeper's position on the Delta Tunnels in our issue paper.

Bay-Delta river map