San Franciscans are weeks away from the start of the 2020 salmon season, and the forecast looks fine. Plentiful rain and runoff during the last several years coupled with improved hatchery release practices has created a “conveyor belt” that is moving baby fish from rivers in the Central Valley out to the ocean through the San Francisco Bay.
“We have reason to be hopeful as we look to the start of salmon fishing in 2020 and we’re glad to see that programs supported by the Golden State Salmon Association are apparently resulting in more fish for everyone to catch this year,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
But our somewhat dry winter could hint at trouble for future salmon seasons. San Francisco’s primary water source is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is fed by the Tuolumne River. Even though San Franciscans are conserving water and The City has expanded groundwater and recycled water use, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) still takes the same amount from the Tuolumne in wet and dry years. This means precious water isn’t going to those most in need — the salmon and all those that depend on them.
The fight to get the SFPUC to leave more water in the river has burned since the State Water Board proposed reducing the amount of water municipalities and agricultural users can take from rivers that feed the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Delta. Thankfully, SFPUC Commissioner Francesca Vietor is pushing staff to come forward with a plan to meet The City and the salmon’s water needs.
“I think she is taking her job as representing our environmental interests very seriously,” Peter Drekmeier, policy director at the nonprofit Tuolumne River Trust, told me.
Although the SFPUC joined the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts to oppose the State Water Board’s Bay Delta Plan, the proposal passed in December 2018. The victory for environmentalists was quick-lived. Almost immediately, the SFPUC and irrigation districts convinced state lawmakers to let them finish developing a voluntary agreement to protect fish instead of comply with the requirements.
Unsurprisingly, over one year later, the SFPUC, irrigation districts and environmentalists have yet to come to a voluntary agreement. Then, last month, the federal government made things worse for wildlife and fishermen when President Donald Trump signed an order taking more water from the Tuolumne.
While the federal order throws the state’s efforts into question, it would be prudent for the SFPUC to voluntarily implement the State Water Board’s requirements. Volunteers at the Tuolumne River Trust developed a water supply calculator, to show the SFPUC that it could voluntarily release its share of unimpaired flow from the Tuolumne for two years during a drought. If The City hits a third dry year, the SFPUC could revert back to current diversion rates.
“What the SFPUC plans for is a worst-case drought that would last for eight years,” Drekmeier told me. “With the calculator I was looking for a scenario that could get the SFPUC through its Design Drought.”
Drekmeier presented these findings to the commission in February. In response, Commissioner Vietor asked staff to report on whether the SFPUC could release more water into the river this spring without compromising long-term supply. But the one-page memo staff provided last month didn’t address the issue of water availability. Instead, it discussed the SFPUC’s work to come to a voluntary agreement to protect fish and the need to coordinate with the irrigation districts.
San Franciscans who care about salmon cannot let SFPUC staff continue delaying meaningful action to protect them.
“We can’t keep approving new development when we haven’t approved enough water for the fish,” Commissioner Vietor told me. “I feel a sense of urgency because the fish are not doing well.”
Commissioner Vietor has asked staff to come forward with a plan for how The City can meet our water supply needs and have enough water for the fish. The hope was that SFPUC will have a resolution ready for the March 24 meeting. However, President Ann Moller Caen canceled the meeting in an abundance of caution due to COVID-19.
San Franciscans can email email@example.com and stay tuned for future meetings. If we want to enjoy delicious pink fish in the future, we have to act today.
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