Solutions to San Joaquin Endangered Fish Problem Ignored
Protecting several species of endangered fish in the San Joaquin River watershed has become an exercise in weighing false environmental precepts and zero-sum-game conservation assumptions against commonsense practicalities.
With 3.5 gallons of water flowing out to sea in 2016 for every gallon pumped from the Delta to southland cities, some still say that Delta smelt, winter-run Chinook salmon and spring-run steelhead are not getting their fair share of El Niño’s bounty.
Such arguments, often clothed in dense scientific discussions about pump “fish entrainment” — fish being sucked into the pumps feeding the state’s aqueducts and killed — are more easily understood in plain talk: When the pumps run at full power, Delta water flows backwards from its normal path, toward the pumps. Fish sometimes follow those flows. When they enter the pumping basin, they are harmed.
To protect the fish, water managers order the pumps to stop, cutting off Southern California, the Central Valley and Coast, and the South Bay Area from their chief source of water. That’s what happened this spring in a repeat of many years’ similar events.
A solution seems simple: send more water down the San Joaquin River now, but also in late spring and summer. “What water,” you ask?
Doug Obegi of Natural Resources Defense Council, Sonia Diermayer of Sierra Club California and Maurice Hall of The Nature Conservancy say it should come from either more water conservation by the public and farmers, or we should store the water in underground aquifers and pump it into the San Joaquin river when rains stop and natural flows diminish each spring. They also claim surface storage facilities are costly and make no sense. They would like to use $2.7 billion in recent water bond surface-storage project funds for environmental projects.
They ignore a much larger potential source of water for the San Joaquin River: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco’s historic Sierra water-supply preserve. They also ignore the benefit to endangered species of new dams to capture more Sierra snowmelt runoff.
Experience gained this year and last shows conclusively that urbanites impressively conserved water, but couldn’t help recharge the San Joaquin or permit Delta pumps to operate. The reason for this failure is commonsense; nearly all of California’s largest cities are far from the impacted rivers’ paths.
Because San Francisco taps Hetch Hechy at the source high in the Sierras rather than allow the water from the dam to flow downriver and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, then extract it for municipal use near the Carquinez Straits and San Pablo Bay, the San Joaquin River is overdrawn for months at a time.
Loud political objections rose immediately when the State Water Resources Control Board’s chair, Felicia Marcus, suggested that Hetch Hetchy water might be on the table to protect migrating salmon and steelhead. Yet there is no legal or moral reason why San Francisco’s pure water supply shouldn’t be on the table along with all the rest of California’s water. There’s nothing special about San Francisco’s historic senior water rights, Marcus publicly noted in 2015 when her board instituted across-the-board conservation cutbacks on urban water users.
An alternate view held by many highly qualified water experts is that the fisheries’ plight might be solved by fueling the San Joaquin’s flows with water held in a new dam at Temperance Flat, above Friant Dam near Fresno.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that about 77% of the total winter flows of the San Joaquin River pass through existing Friant Dam and flow to the Delta because that facility’s half-million acre-foot capacity is too little to capture the river’s annual 1.8 million acre-feet of flow. It’s a lost opportunity.
A new dam above Millerton would raise the total catch to 1,780,000 acre-feet, providing abundant cold water for release later in the season.
If maintaining normal Delta water flows and protecting endangered fish is the goal, a new San Joaquin River surface storage facility at Temperance Flat is a commonsense answer. So is tapping — not removing — Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park.
Surface storage’s advantage is that water releases from dams is free, while pumping water from the ground or fallowing croplands are costly and inefficient. Unlike pumps, dams release no greenhouse gases and help keep the Central Valley’s air clean. Another plus: clean, green and free hydropower, helping California attain its green-power goals.
Building Temperance Flat and tapping water from Hetch Hetchy for environmental purposes are elegant solutions to help achieve the San Joaquin River Settlement’s promise of a restored river flowing its historic course, fix the Delta’s plumbing problem, and allow more water to flow to Southern California.
It’s a pity shortsighted conservationists won’t concede that retaining the existing Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and adding new surface storage at Temperance Flat are the best alternatives to save the Delta’s endangered fish and restore the San Joaquin River.
Environmentalists and state boards would rather sacrifice the fish and river and continue their protests against efficient and useful dams in an effort to usurp the $2.7 billion California taxpayers voted to build new dams.