In summary

It’s time for the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a comprehensive, science-based plan to restore San Francisco Bay.

By Jon Rosenfield, Special to CalMatters

Jon Rosenfield is a senior scientist with San Francisco Baykeeper, jon@baykeeper.org.

San Francisco Bay’s life support systems are unravelling quickly, and a wealth of science indicates that unsustainable water diversions are driving this estuary’s demise. 

Yet, with another drought looming, federal and state water managers still plan to divert large amounts of water to their contractors and drain upstream reservoirs this summer. Meanwhile, the state’s most powerful water districts are preparing yet another proposal to maintain excessive water diversions for the long-term. 

By delaying reforms that the law requires and that science indicates are necessary, Gov. Gavin Newsom encourages wasteful water practices that jeopardize the Bay and make the state’s water future precarious. Will Newsom act to protect San Francisco Bay and put the state on a more sustainable path before it’s too late?

Numerous signs indicate that unchecked water diversions are choking the Bay. Toxic algae blooms proliferate in the polluted trickle of water that enters the Delta from the San Joaquin River – in a dry year like this, 90% of that river’s winter-spring runoff is diverted by industrial agriculture and cities like San Francisco. 

Six of the Bay’s native fish species are officially endangered, as are orcas that feed on dwindling Central Valley salmon; the once ubiquitous delta smelt could become extinct in the wild this year. And, regulators will cut the ocean salmon fishery again this year because Central Valley rivers are not producing enough young fish. 

Californians should ask why San Francisco Bay’s native species continue to slide toward extinction. And why some Central Valley’s rivers have been reduced to toxic drains for agribusiness. After all, multiple federal and state laws require protection of imperiled species, fisheries and water quality.

Over the past four years, then-President Donald Trump’s ridiculous claims about California water presented new threats to the people and wildlife that depend on San Francisco Bay. Recent reporting revealed how the Trump administration’s pandering to corporate benefactors steamrolled the expertise of federal biologists, and allowed industrial agriculture and cities to further plunder Central Valley rivers before they reached San Francisco Bay. 

But now that Trump is gone, who should Californians blame for the ongoing neglect of the West Coast’s largest inland estuary and its watershed? For more than a decade, the governor’s office has rebuffed calls for the State Water Resources Control Board – which is charged with protecting the public’s water and fisheries – to improve water quality standards. Since 2010, the water board has repeatedly documented the need for more flow to reach the Bay from its Central Valley watershed – in a typical year, more than half of that water is diverted under current rules. 

The water board is required to review its water quality standards every three years to ensure that they protect the public’s interests. In 2018, it took a first step toward overhauling standards that dated to 1995. But additional necessary protections were never completed, and even the new, partial update has not been implemented. 

Newsom has blocked the water board’s adoption of science-based standards, hoping instead to entice water districts to contribute only what they are willing to part with voluntarily. His lieutenants argue that the water purveyors will delay implementation of any plan that isn’t their own. For example, when the state sued over Trump’s endangered species plan, large water districts abandoned negotiations because they saw the feeble new federal requirements as the basis for their voluntary offer. Undeterred, Newsom’s team has pursued talks, even expressing their desire to settle claims over Trump’s fraudulent plan.

For years, required updates to the state’s water quality requirements have been held hostage to one voluntary proposal after another; drought planning has also taken a back seat to discussions of voluntary agreements. These talks led nowhere, even as diversions continued, fish populations plummeted and water quality became increasingly toxic. Now the water districts are cobbling together a new offer. And Newsom seems eager to talk. 

California doesn’t need endless talk about illusory deals. It’s time for the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a comprehensive, science-based plan to restore San Francisco Bay. Such a plan will force realistic discussions about sustainable water use in our drought prone state – and it might even lead to creative solutions. But first Newsom must stop kicking California’s water problems down the road and let the water board do its job. 

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Jon Rosenfield has also written about water agreements and the need to set new objectives and protections for the Delta.

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