California Court Backs Less Water for Agriculture and Residents, More for Salmon and Trout

California Court Backs Less Water for Agriculture and Residents, More for Salmon and Trout

Water flows over the Feather River Fish Barrier dam as it diverts Chinook Salmon up a fish ladder to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Feather River Hatchery below the Lake Oroville dam during the California drought emergency in Oroville, Calif., on May 27, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Sophie Li

Sophie Li

3/28/2024

Updated: 3/28/2024

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge recently upheld a decision by California’s water board to reduce the amount of water routed from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to farms and communities for drinking in order to protect two species of fish.
In a March 15 ruling, Judge Stephen Acquisto rejected lawsuits by a dozen water agencies and local governments, which had been consolidated, attempting to overturn a 2018 update to a state water quality control plan, known as the Bay-Delta Plan.
The update approved by the California Water Resources Control Board, aims to boost river flows to support the recovery of native fish populations, specifically chinook salmon and steelhead trout, by mandating agencies extract less water from the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries—the Tuolumne, Merced, and Stanislaus rivers.
Chinook Salmon enter a tank before they are tagged at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Feather River Hatchery after climbing a fish ladder just below the Lake Oroville dam in Oroville, Calif., on May 27, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinook Salmon enter a tank before they are tagged at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Feather River Hatchery after climbing a fish ladder just below the Lake Oroville dam in Oroville, Calif., on May 27, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Currently, as much as 80 percent of the San Joaquin River is diverted for farms and communities along its basin for urban usage, according to the water board. Under the updated plan, diversions would be limited to between 50 percent and 70 percent certain times of the year.
According to the board, current diversions from the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and other rivers feeding into the Bay-Delta have had a major impact on native fish speciescausing what they say is a dramatic population decline in recent years, with some species nearing extinction.
The updated plan also seeks to increase salinity allowed in the southern Delta—which previously was lowered during the spring and summer to protect crops in the region.
Historically, farmers have needed to keep ocean water from San Francisco Bay away from the nutrient-rich Delta soils—either through releasing fresh water to lower salinity or building physical barriers to separate fresh from saline water—to ensure an optimal growing environment for crops.
However, the board said in the updated plan that recent analysis “shows that the existing April through August salinity objective is lower than what is needed to reasonably protect agricultural beneficial uses.”
Farmworkers harvest curly mustard in a field in Ventura County, Calif., on Feb. 10, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Farmworkers harvest curly mustard in a field in Ventura County, Calif., on Feb. 10, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Water pump pipes are seen at the Little Connection of the San Joaquin River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Stockton, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2005. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Water pump pipes are seen at the Little Connection of the San Joaquin River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Stockton, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2005. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In the 162-page order, the judge agreed with the board’s argument that releasing more water into the rivers would significantly enhance the vitality of the fish.
“There is more than enough valid scientific evidence in the record to support the Board’s general conclusion that increased flows in the [lower San Joaquin River] and its three eastside tributaries are of critical importance to reviving and sustaining native migratory fish populations,” the ruling reads.
In addition, the judge said that evidence submitted by the board showed “it has also demonstrated that it is maintaining a salinity standard in the southern Delta that is sufficient to protect agricultural beneficial uses.”
Modesto Irrigation District, one of the large agricultural water agencies in the case, told The Epoch Times in an email that the updated plan would significantly impact not only the local farming community but other sectors reliant on water.
“[We are] disappointed in the Court’s ruling,” Modesto Irrigation District Public Affairs Manager Melissa Williams said. The plan, if implemented, she said, “will have devastating long-term impacts on our region, depriving it of the water necessary to support locally grown food at affordable prices, high quality drinking water, and creating permanent economic impacts and additional burdens on our disadvantaged communities.”
Water flows in an irrigation ditch next to a farm in Modesto, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Water flows in an irrigation ditch next to a farm in Modesto, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Other plaintiffs that had filed suit were the Westlands Water District, which serves Fresno County and Kings County, the Merced Irrigation District, urban suppliers like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the city of Modesto, as well agriculture non-profits such as the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Besides concern on the plan’s impact on farming, San Francisco’s public utilities commission—the third largest supplier in California which provides water to San Francisco and surrounding communities—argued it could result in water shortages for its users.
“As a public water provider to 2.7 million residents and thousands of businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, we remain disappointed,” this plan was approved, the commission told the San Francisco Chronicle after the ruling.
Appeals are widely expected in the case.
“While we continue to review the Court’s decision and weigh potential next steps, [we remain] committed to striking a balance between maintaining reliable water supplies for our agricultural and urban users and promoting a thriving environment,” Ms. Williams, of the Modesto Irrigation District, said.
San Francisco Recreation and Park workers use recycled water to water plants at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on May 6, 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco Recreation and Park workers use recycled water to water plants at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on May 6, 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Additionally, the ruling dismissed several other lawsuits filed by environmental groups, which had sought the plan go further in protecting fish and wildlife in the Delta.
The Bay-Delta Plan, adopted in 1978 and last revised in 2006, is a water quality control strategy that seeks to protect the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary’s uses for municipalities, industry, agriculture and fish and wildlife.
The 2018 update on the San Joaquin River—released after the state experienced one of the worst droughts in its history—followed almost a decade of studies by state water experts and negotiations with stakeholders.
Now, with the recent ruling, the water board will need to approve a strategy for implementation including possibly updating water rights and creating rules for its use.
“It’s a real validation,” Felicia Marcus, who oversaw the 2018 plan’s adoption as then-chair of the water board, told the Sacramento Bee following the ruling. “We have over-diverted from our rivers, for good things like agricultural and urban development, but diverted so much that we’ve shorted the environment.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (L), Wade Crowfoot, CNRA Secretary (R), and Chuck Bonham, CDFW Director (2-L) walk along the Lower Yuba River to the Daguerre Point Dam in Marysville, Calif., on May 16, 2023. (John G. Mabanglo-Pool/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (L), Wade Crowfoot, CNRA Secretary (R), and Chuck Bonham, CDFW Director (2-L) walk along the Lower Yuba River to the Daguerre Point Dam in Marysville, Calif., on May 16, 2023. (John G. Mabanglo-Pool/Getty Images)

As the dispute over the plan continues, Gov. Gavin Newsom has advocated for an alternative approach called “voluntary agreements.” Such would allow water agencies to commit to voluntarily reducing their water usage and funding projects to protect the environment.
Some local water suppliers have expressed more interest in this approach.
“We’re fully engaged in the voluntary agreements process … we believe in a comprehensive strategy achieved by working together,” Westlands Water District spokesperson Elizabeth Jonasson told the Sacramento Bee.
The water board has scheduled a public workshop to discuss proposed voluntary agreements from April 24-26.
Nonetheless, some environmental advocates remain skeptical of them, saying they don’t offer sufficient accountability to genuinely ensure enough flowing river water to save the salmon and trout.
Additionally, a case study from January by the UC Berkeley School of School of Law said that the volunteer approach is “a perilous strategy that risks continued environmental degradation and legal noncompliance.”
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Sophie Li

Sophie Li

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Sophie Li is a Southern California-based reporter covering local daily news, state policies, and breaking news for The Epoch Times. Besides writing, she is also passionate about reading, photography, and tennis.

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