By John Hart

It was a rare decisive moment in California water. On December 12, the State Water Resources Control Board resolved, at the close of a marathon meeting, to require more water to be left in the Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus, and lower San Joaquin Rivers. In the first of three planned amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan, the board set early season flows in the three mountain streams at 40 percent of “unimpaired” levels (actually a range of 30-50 percent). These targets are well below the 60 percent of unimpaired that the ecosystem really needs, as determined in 2010 by the board itself (see also pp. 9-12). But they are much more than the meager flows the streams have in fact been getting, and much more than agricultural and urban diverters would willingly let go.

During the nine years the board has been working up to this moment, a parallel process has been dragging along: negotiations among water suppliers, state agencies, and some environmental groups to produce Voluntary Settlement Agreements that could help fish while minimizing legal and political battles. On the 12th, the directors of the state’s Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife showed evidence of recent rapid progress and asked the board to defer its own action. Some novel and promising ideas were sketched, which the board promised to study as it turns its attention to the Sacramento drainage and the Delta itself. In the end, though, the long-awaited plan for the southern rivers passed, on a vote of four to one. Next stop, if history is a guide: the courts.

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River Flows on the Brink

By John Hart

It was a rare decisive moment in California water. On December 12, the State Water Resources Control Board resolved, at the close of a marathon meeting, to require more water to be left in the Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus, and lower San Joaquin Rivers. In the first of three planned amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan, the board set early season flows in the three mountain streams at 40 percent of “unimpaired” levels (actually a range of 30-50 percent). These targets are well below the 60 percent of unimpaired that the ecosystem really needs, as determined in 2010 by the board itself (see also pp. 9-12). But they are much more than the meager flows the streams have in fact been getting, and much more than agricultural and urban diverters would willingly let go.

During the nine years the board has been working up to this moment, a parallel process has been dragging along: negotiations among water suppliers, state agencies, and some environmental groups to produce Voluntary Settlement Agreements that could help fish while minimizing legal and political battles. On the 12th, the directors of the state’s Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife showed evidence of recent rapid progress and asked the board to defer its own action. Some novel and promising ideas were sketched, which the board promised to study as it turns its attention to the Sacramento drainage and the Delta itself. In the end, though, the long-awaited plan for the southern rivers passed, on a vote of four to one. Next stop, if history is a guide: the courts.

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About the author

John Hart is an environmental journalist and author of sixteen books and several hundred other published works. He is also the winner of the James D. Phelan Award, the Commonwealth Club Medal in Californiana, and the David R. Brower Award for Service in the Field of Conservation. For ESTUARY, he writes on groundwater, infrastructure, and California water politics and history.

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