California Proposes More Water for Fish, Less for Farms and People

San Joaquin River (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

A new proposal by the California Water Resources Control Board aims to double the amount of water that flows from the San Joaquin River to the delta and the sea, cutting back on allocations for farms and households to save fish.

“Currently, flows left in some of these tributaries after human diversions are frequently less than 20 percent of natural, or unimpaired, flow,” the report notes. “… After balancing other uses of water, the staff proposal recommends a range of between 30 and 50 percent of unimpaired flow, with a starting point of 40 percent,” it suggests. Ideally, it says, unimpaired flow would be at least 60 percent.

The water board report explains that the new proposal is based on scientific studies that suggest crops in the San Joaquin Delta can tolerate water with higher levels of salinity than previously thought, meaning less free water needs to be diverted for irrigation purposes.

The proposal is certain to trigger wide controversy during the public comment period that begins this fall and continues into early next year. The Associated Press reports: “Water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus says restoring some of the flow is essential to saving crashing populations of salmon and other native fish. State Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger calls the proposal craziness.

The fight between fish and farmers over scarce water has already become a presidential campaign issue in 2016. Last month, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reiterated promises to help farmers. In May, he told a rally in Fresno that it was “ridiculous” that water regulators were “taking the water and shoving it out to sea” for the benefit of fish in the middle of a crippling drought.

Local water users have already blasted the state board’s new plan. “Our community has never faced a threat of this proportion,” said the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts in a statement quoted by the Los Angeles Times. The Turlock Journal added that the irrigation districts had estimated the economic cost at $1.6 billion in output and 7,000 local jobs. They have launched a website,, to fight the new proposal.

“The anger we feel over this thing is unbelievable,” Stanislaus County supervisor Terry Withlow told the Wall Street Journal.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger mocked the water board’s scientific claims: “Regulators have no idea how many more fish — if any — would result from dedicating even more water to environmental purposes,” he said, according to the Journal.

Environmental groups and fishing interests, however, praised the new plan as a long-overdue correction.

“After decades of getting it wrong and driving California’s salmon and fishing families into the dust by diverting the water needed by salmon, today the state water board staff took a historic step to right a wrong,” John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, told the Journal.



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