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Judge Decides in Favor of Fish in San Joaquin River Watershed

by Bob Garbarino

A Sacramento County superior court judge recently handed down a ruling upholding an important decision by the California State Water Board that impacts flows in the San Joaquin River and its three primary tributaries—the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus Rivers.
In 2018, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a water quality plan for the San Joaquin River and the aforementioned tributaries that are part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta watershed. The plan called for increasing flows in the three tributaries to help increase severely decreasing populations of chinook salmon and steelhead trout. In order to increase flows, water diversions would need to be reduced. Diversions of over 80% of river flows are currently allowed. In 2022, a stretch of the Merced River was run dry. The 2018 plan was challenged with numerous lawsuits and claims by large agricultural water suppliers such as the Merced Irrigation District and Westlands Water District as well as municipal suppliers including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the city of Modesto.
The Decision:
A total of 12 lawsuits and 116 claims were rejected in this ruling. If and when the standards are implemented, diversions during certain times of the year will be limited to 50%-70% of total river flows. This will result in a double in water flow in the rivers at certain times of the year. Also rejected was a challenge to a limit to salinity levels. It is expected that lawsuits will challenge the court decision.
Another Idea:
Another approach governor Newsom has promoted are so-called “voluntary agreements”. This approach, where parties come together to work out a comprehensive, multi-year solution that brings together dozens of water agencies with the state and federal governments to pool resources and take concrete actions to provide targeted river flows and expand habitat in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and Bay Delta. These environmental improvements are supposedly guided by scientific monitoring and collaborative decision making. Many of the water agencies, including Westlands support the VA path. But, former Water Board chair Felicia Marcus says a voluntary agreement can be effective, regulatory requirements must be in place to enforce adequate water for the environment.
We will see how this saga plays out and if salmon and steelhead numbers bounce back sooner than later.