In summary

As California faces another dry year, the state will have to decide whether to allow the violation of water quality standards in the Delta.

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By Darius Waiters

Darius Waiters is a member of the Climate Water Team with Restore the Delta,

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Brandon Dawson, Special to CalMatters

Brandon Dawson is a policy advocate with Sierra Club California,

A series of key decisions await Gov. Gavin Newsom as the state heads back into a potential drought.

So this seems like the right moment to review what happened last time: Water was prioritized for big agriculture at the expense of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, endangered species and California communities. The State Water Board, in a review of the drought of 2014-15, found operations “not sustainable.”  

We hope Newsom will prevent a repeat of that disaster by setting new priorities for a prolonged drought: Protecting the human right to water for drinking and sanitation, protecting public health for those who live adjacent to our rivers, and protecting endangered species.

Sadly, the operation plans for the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project are starting to look like a repeat of 2014 and 2015. The projects plan to deliver 5 million acre-feet of water – 1 million from the SWP and 4 million from the CVP – from the Delta largely to corporate agribusinesses, regardless of the impacts to the Delta, people, fish and wildlife. 

We are now hearing that the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may petition the State Water Resources Control Board to waive water quality standards in the Delta again, as they did in 2014 and 2015.

As California faces another dry year, Newsom will have to decide whether to allow the violation of water quality standards in the Delta, which could lead to  harmful algal blooms that will devastate our communities, and native fish and wildlife, like 2014 and 2015.

With water flows reduced by massive water exports, algal blooms will become a huge problem in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region. Because spring months are warmer earlier than prior years, water quality conditions are more degraded than seven years ago – all of which are significant contributing factors to the spread of algal blooms throughout San Joaquin County waterways.

Algal blooms caused by lack of Delta water flows create an additional air pollution source on top of our already extremely high levels of ozone and particulate matter, which helps cause South Stockton to suffer one of the highest rates of asthma in the country. 

Asthma attacks are the primary cause of respiratory related emergency room trips in San Joaquin County. Lack of clean, fresh water moving through the Delta makes asthma conditions worse for environmental justice communities.

Recreation in the Delta, once a big local industry, has declined over the last decade because lack of water flows prompts algal blooms to spread into our waterways each summer. Families no longer feel safe making contact with the water. Family traditions and recreational fishing become impossible in an estuary of toxic muck.

The state and federal plans to deliver 5 million acre-feet to agribusiness this year will significantly draw down two of the state’s largest reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville. This will harm endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, a vitally important resource to our state’s Indiginous tribes and coastal communities.

During the last drought, endangered salmon runs on the Sacramento River downstream of Shasta Dam were decimated by lethal water temperatures. Reviewing this man-made disaster, the State Water Resources Control Board found that: “the status quo of the past two years is not sustainable for fish and wildlife and that changes to the drought planning and response process are needed to ensure that fish and wildlife are not unreasonably impacted in the future and to ensure that various species do not go extinct.” 

Let’s listen to those findings and do better this drought. Growing almonds in the dry Central Valley for export should no longer be the driver of California water management during a drought.

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