The relentless rain soaking the state is great news for salmon. In previous years, drought and water diversions significantly lowered California’s rivers and contributed to dramatic drops in fish populations. For example, in the Tuolumne River, San Francisco’s primary source of drinking water, Chinook salmon estimates have ranged from a high of 45,900 fish in 1959 to only 77 in 1991. In 2011, there were an estimated 893 fish.
The high and low numbers generally correspond with wet and dry years. This year’s winter storms have filled the river and inundated the surrounding flood plain, which may increase the survival rate of young salmon.
“We’re really excited,” Peter Drekmeier, policy director with the environmental nonprofit, the Tuolumne River Trust, told me. “Flood plains are great habitat for juvenile salmon because there’s more food and they’re shielded from predators.”
The Tuolumne River Trust and other environmental and fishing organizations also found some hope last week in a unanimous resolution passed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The resolution requires staff to submit its salmon management proposal to independent scientific review. When the review is complete, it may put to rest a remarkable confrontation that has pitted San Francisco officials against environmentalists and fishing industries.
This controversy began a decade ago when the State Water Board announced its plan to address a collapsing San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed aquatic ecosystem. Water pollution, dams, droughts and diversions have decimated fish populations in the area and contributed to widespread starvation among marine mammals and birds. It’s also hurt the region’s once vibrant fishing industry.
“This is not just about ecosystem health,” Barry Nelson of the Golden Gate Salmon Association said at the hearing. “It’s also about people’s lives.”
The Tuolumne River is one of the tributaries to the San Joaquin River – a key component to the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed. Last December, the State Water Board voted to require 40 percent of the river’s natural flow to reach the San Joaquin River between February and June. While this would limit diversions, the State Water Board believes the decision balances the needs of people and wildlife.
But San Francisco officials protested anyway. Working with the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, the City Attorney is currently suing the State Water Board.
SFPUC staff and the irrigation districts also presented the state with an alternate proposal that would address concerns about managing water supply and the environment. The proposal envisions a more modest increase in flows on the Tuolumne River and offers $76 million in funding for habitat restoration projects, such as gravel areas for spawning beds and reducing predators. The proposal also includes a science program to oversee measures’ effectiveness.
Last week, commissioners asked staff to include specific goals in their proposal and commence an independence scientific review at the earliest opportunity.
“If it’s really going to work, why not get it reviewed,” Commissioner Francesca Vietor asked me after the hearing. “This resolution calls for a plan on how we can get healthy fish populations and meet our water supply obligations.”
The Tuolumne River Trust and the Golden Gate Salmon Association believe staff has avoided review on purpose. They point to flaws in the proposal and other studies that have determined similar projects don’t increase salmon populations.
The organizations also highlight that staff has had a decade to develop its proposal and independently verify the science. If they were so certain in the validity of their proposal, environmental and fishing groups assert, they could have submitted it to review a long time ago.
“Peer reviews work and they hold real value,” Nelson told me. “They narrow the controversy.”
Until the review is conducted, City officials and San Franciscans must remain skeptical of staff’s proposal. We don’t know whether it’s possible for The City to reduce diversions from the Tuolumne River only slightly and still increase fish populations. We don’t know if the staff’s proposed habitat restoration projects will work.
All we know is that during wet winters — when Tuolumne River water is flowing and flooding — salmon have a better chance of survival.
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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com