San Francisco Chronicle

Environmen­tal laws waived to store more delta water

- By Alastair Bland Alastair Bland reports on water and other environmen­tal issues at CalMatters, where this story first appeared. Email:

Facing an onslaught of criticism that water was “wasted” during January storms, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday suspended environmen­tal laws to give the go-ahead to state officials to hold more water in reservoirs.

The governor’s executive order authorized the State Water Resources Control Board to “consider modifying” state requiremen­ts that dictate how much water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is allowed to flow into San Francisco Bay.

In January, after floodwater­s surged into the bay, farm groups, Central Valley legislator­s and urban water providers complained that people and farms were being shortchang­ed to protect fish. They urged state officials to store more water in reservoirs, which would increase the supply that can be delivered this summer to farm fields in the Central Valley and millions of Southern California­ns.

Environmen­tal activists say Newsom’s order is another sign that California is shifting priorities in how it manages water supply for humans and ecosystems.

They said the order will likely harm Chinook salmon and delta smelt. Large numbers of newborn Chinook salmon have perished in recent drought years — the result of low flows in the Sacramento River and its tributarie­s.

Doug Obegi, a water law attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Newsom’s order the latest action in “a breakdown of law and order in the delta.” In every critically dry year since 2012, Obegi said, the state’s flow rules and water export restrictio­ns have been waived.

“Now, it seems, we’re going to start waiving them in average years,” Obegi said, adding that it’s the first time the state has waived delta outflow standards in a year that isn’t designated critically dry.

“The executive order seems to signal the governor’s intention to put his thumbs on the scale in favor of extinction in the delta.”

The state water board’s delta flow rules are designed to help enforce the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, which protect Chinook salmon, green sturgeon, delta smelt and longfin smelt.

Changing the rules is “like having a speed limit in a school zone except when you’re in a hurry,” said Jon Rosenfield, science director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

“We’ve got a violation of water quality standards, a petition (by a state and federal agency) to waive those standards, and a governor’s executive order encouragin­g the board to waive those standards through his executive order,” Rosenfield said. “There’s not much difference between a world without environmen­tal laws and a world where, at the stroke of a governor’s pen, environmen­tal laws are eviscerate­d.”

But farm groups and water suppliers said the governor’s action could bring needed balance to the delta.

Sarah Woolf, a farmer in the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, said that in the past several years, her family has fallowed roughly half of their land. Her family received zero allocation of delta water in the previous two years and relied almost entirely on groundwate­r.

Woolf said the regulatory system can be too rigid in dry years and said the governor’s order could provide flexibilit­y in better managing water supplies.

“We’re hopeful that this results in more water supply for a higher percentage of the contract water we are able to receive,” she said.

Randy Fiorini, a Merced County farmer, said farmers and other water users are routinely deprived of water to protect environmen­tal resources. Now, he said, the governor is tipping the balance in the other direction.

“This gives us the chance to capture as much water now as we possibly can,” he said.

Newsom’s order says: “To ensure adequate water supplies for purposes of health, safety, the environmen­t, or drought resilient water supplies, the Water Board shall consider modifying requiremen­ts for reservoir releases or diversion limitation­s in Central Valley Project or State Water Project facilities.”

His order adds that to enable those actions, two state laws — Water Code Section 13247, which requires state agencies to comply with all waterquali­ty rules, and Public Resources Code, Division 13, which ensures environmen­tal quality, and its regulation­s — “are suspended.”

The order means it’s likely that the water board will allow more water to be stored later this year in Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, the state’s largest reservoirs, plus more water to be pumped south into San Luis Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley. Oroville as of Wednesday contained 115.6% of its historic average and Shasta was at 88.1%. The order also aims to streamline and increase groundwate­r recharge projects.

In an immediate response to Newsom’s order, the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamatio­n on Monday jointly petitioned the state water board to loosen the delta flow rules “to ensure the availabili­ty of an adequate water supply while also ensuring protection of critical species and the environmen­t.”

Water board officials said in an emailed statement to CalMatters that they “are reviewing the request carefully, in coordinati­on with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.” They said the agency’s decision will come “within the next week.”

Newsom has been under heavy criticism in recent years for using his emergency power to issue orders for handling COVID-19, the death penalty and other state issues.

Newsom said in the order Monday that he hopes to help “maintain critical flows for fish and wildlife.”

Storing more water could “protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead” later in the year, the order says. During drought, low reservoir levels can lead to lethally warm water for salmon when they spawn in the summer and fall. Holding water in reservoirs now may help the ecosystem later with improved water quality, enhanced flows and cold water for reproducin­g salmon.

But Rosenfield and Obegi said fish need substantia­l flows now. High river flows push young salmon along in their spring journey from the Central Valley to the ocean, while reduced flows lead to higher mortality.

Put in place decades ago, the delta flow regulation­s at stake now are designed to help juvenile salmon reach the ocean and protect the delta from seawater intrusion, which can occur when flows from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are reduced. Many environmen­talists say the flow rules aren’t strong enough to protect fish, while some water user groups say they allow too much water to flow into the ocean.

Triggered by January’s conditions, the rules require that 29,200 cubic feet per second of water flow through the delta through most of February. But last week, state and federal agencies unveiled a forecast saying flows could drop to 15,000 cubic feet per second. Environmen­tal groups objected in a Friday letter to the state water board, warning “that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamatio­n and the California Department of Water Resources appear likely to violate the minimum Delta outflow requiremen­ts.”

Three days later, Newsom issued his order.

Newsom’s order points out that heavy rains in 2021 were followed by the driest January through March in over a century. A similar pattern, he said, is emerging now, with the December and January storms followed by a dry February, so more water needs to be held back in reservoirs to protect cities and farms from another droughtpla­gued summer.

As of Tuesday, delta outflow was measured at 18,000 cubic feet per second, which is 61% of the flow required under the water board’s restrictio­ns.

 ?? Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle 2022 ?? A Jet Ski rider makes his way down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle 2022 A Jet Ski rider makes his way down the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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