Supporting a Bay-Delta Plan that balances water reliability and environmental sustainability

The Tuolumne River fish population is struggling. We know this because we are one of the public utilities that relies on this system for drinking water, so we care about the health of this ecosystem. And we’ve put in the work to find out what’s happening and how we can fix it.

In fact, together with the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, we invested $25 million on more than 200 Tuolumne-specific studies to get better results for fish and residents. Those studies revealed that we can increase the fish population and ensure that Bay Area residents have a reliable water supply.

The SFPUC presented these results to the State Water Resources Control Board last year and urged the regulatory body to allow us and other stakeholders to reach voluntary negotiated settlements that can help the fish on the Tuolumne River without risking the stability of our City. It’s clear that the State didn’t just reject our plan. It didn’t even consider it.

Instead, the State put together its own plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that ignores our combined scientific research and focuses on releasing more water into the Tuolumne. This will have limited benefit to fish and terrible impacts on residents. If implemented, the State’s plan would significantly reduce San Francisco’s reservoirs, leaving the 2.7 million Bay Area residents who count on our system for clean, safe and reliable drinking water, vulnerable and unprepared for the next major water shortage. During times of drought, the State’s plan could require water rationing levels of up to 50 percent in the City.

Climate change is happening. This is undeniable, and in that unfortunate new reality, we must come to expect increasingly volatile weather patterns and unpredictable climate swings in our state. As a result, San Francisco must be more vigilant than ever when planning for the future.

In recent years, we have endured raging wildfires and lengthy droughts—tragic consequences of climate change that will sadly become the norm in California. Supporting a plan that hampers our efforts to deal with those developments would be irresponsible.

This is not a question of trading environmental values in exchange for increased security. We’re offering a win-win situation where we can both honor San Francisco’s commitments to environmentally sustainable practices and ensure that our City has the infrastructure in place for drought planning. Contrary to some misguided reports, we are not warehousing water simply to plan for the next big development project. This is about saving water for tomorrow for the benefit of all of us.

Communities throughout the Central Valley are having similar discussions on ways to improve fish populations while maintaining water supplies through voluntary settlement agreements with the State. We believe these voluntary settlement discussions, based on a common understanding of the best available science, are the most sensible paths forward to restoring healthy fish populations, while balancing the water supply needs of all Californians. Our own State agencies agree. The California Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife both sent letters expressing this sentiment to the State.

We are urging the State to delay voting on the plan until the SFPUC and other stakeholders can reach voluntary negotiated settlements that will help the fish on the Tuolomne River without risking the stability of our City. To secure our future amid the looming impacts of climate change, we must come together on a solution that works for everyone.

Harlan Kelly is general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Harlan Kelly
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