Two weeks ago, the “greenest city in America” sued the California State Water Board to prevent measures to restore the battered San Francisco Bay Delta.
After more than a decade of research based on the best scientific evidence available, the state of San Francisco plans to commit to dumping more water from its dams into the Tuolumne River – the source of our Hetch Hetchy drinking water – for fishing, wildlife, and downstream located waters to help quality.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, wants a “voluntary agreement” for the Tuolumne River. Instead of providing the river with much-needed flow, the city is proposing electricity-washing spawning gravel, building a fish barrier that kind of blocks unwanted fish but allows “good” fish to pass unmolested, and a small amount of floodplain habitat for. restore baby fish. These half measures are doomed to failure. Floodplains without enough water to flood them are useless. A peer review commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service exposed the science behind the SFPUC’s proposal.
City Prosecutor Dennis Herrera, whom Mayor Breed intends to appoint as the new director general of the SFPUC, is leading the indictment. The lawsuit is based on a Trump-era regulation that has been challenged in court by the California attorney general and is likely to be dropped by the Biden administration. The aim is to weaken the authority of the state to ensure water quality, which could have effects nationwide.
Is this really the position San Francisco wants to be in, on Trump’s side, to block the state’s ability to protect our environment?
If the SFPUC were serious about administration, the Tuolumne would not be in such dire straits. Where once over 100,000 salmon spawned, barely 1,000 returned last year. Gone are the millions of pounds of marine nutrients that the salmon faithfully transported to highland habitats, where they fueled the food web and fertilized the soil. The fact that 4 out of 5 gallons of water are drained from the Tuolumne is the main cause of its demise.
The negative effects of these unsustainable water diversions are spreading across the Bay Delta. Six fish species are listed as endangered or threatened due to insufficient freshwater inflow. The San Francisco lawsuit increases the likelihood that we will see mass extinction in the not too distant future. It also increases the risk that the commercial salmon fishery at Fisherman’s Wharf will be banned from history books and that delta communities will continue to suffer from toxic algal blooms associated with inadequate river flows.
The SFPUC wants you to believe that the state’s plan to protect the Tuolumne River and the San Francisco Bay Delta during periods of drought would lead to water scarcity. They claim their own plan would produce more fish and use less water than the state’s actions. Both statements are wrong.
Even after two strictly dry winters, the SFPUC has stored enough water in reservoirs to last for about 4½ years. In an average year, San Francisco’s water rights allow three times as much water as is needed, so its reservoirs fill up quickly after a drought. In 2017, shortly after the last drought, the city was allowed to take in enough water for 12 years, but had to drain 88% because its reservoirs were already filled with a six-year supply.
People who have conserved during this drought should be outraged that their efforts have brought almost no environmental benefit. Their work was hoarded behind dams only to be disposed of in a single year. The Tuolumne River had a good year at the expense of five terrible years.
San Francisco has a more sustainable way. By continuing our decade-long trend of using less water, investing much more in alternative water supplies such as recycled water, and working with the San Joaquin Valley’s irrigation districts to bring agriculture into the 21st restoration of the Bay Delta and Tuolumne River ecosystems while ensuring one reliable water supply into the future. Los Angeles and Orange County turned in that direction years ago. It’s time for the SFPUC to catch up.
The San Franciscans deserve a plan that represents their environmental values. Supervisor Aaron Peskin has tabled a resolution encouraging the city to suspend its lawsuit and go ahead with science. Environmentally conscious citizens should support the leadership of the supervisor.
Peter Drekmeier is Policy Director of the Tuolumne River Trust. He previously served as the mayor of Palo Alto.