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Science

California Debates What to Do With Water From Recent Storms

February 17, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Weeks after powerful storms dumped 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow on California, state officials and environmental groups in the drought-ravaged state are grappling with what to do with all of that water.

State rules say when it rains and snows a lot in California, much of that water must stay in the rivers to act as a conveyer belt to carry tens of thousands of endangered baby salmon into the Pacific Ocean.

But this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked state regulators to temporarily change those rules. He says the drought has been so severe it would be foolish to let all of that water flow into the ocean and that there’s plenty of water for the state to take more than the rules allow while still protecting threatened fish species.

If Newsom gets his way, the state would stop about 300,000 acre feet (370 million cubic meters) of water from flowing through the rivers. One acre foot of water is generally enough water to supply two households for one year.

Environmental group say pulling that much water out of the rivers would be a death sentence for the salmon and other threatened fish species that depend on strong, cool flows in the rivers to survive. They’re furious with Newsom, whom they view as a hypocrite for touting himself as a champion of the environment while disregarding the laws designed to protect it.

“This governor is the most anti-environmental governor, with respect to endangered species and California water, that we’ve had in my lifetime,” said Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist for the San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental group that focuses on the San Francisco Bay and its watershed.

It’s one of the oldest disputes in California, a state that for more than a century has manipulated the natural flow of rivers and streams to transform the Central Valley into one of the most fertile stretches of farmland on Earth while also supplying some of the nation’s most populous coastal cities.

Those demands have threatened the delicate environmental balance of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, one of the largest estuaries in the country. That has put multiple fish species at risk, including the Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Central Valley steelhead, spring-run Chinook salmon, winter-run Chinook salmon and the green sturgeon, according to Rosenfield.

Those rules protect more than just fish, including host of other rare and endangered species while also benefiting commercial and recreational fishing and other recreational pursuits.

The Newsom administration says a changing climate requires new rules. Historically, rain has been spread fairly evenly through the winter months. More water is typically left in the rivers when it rains because there’s an assumption that more rain will follow.

That’s not happening now. Scientists say climate change is contributing to so-called “ weather whiplash,” when periods of intense rain are followed by extreme dryness. Newsom fears California’s intense January storms will be followed by an unusually dry spring.

That makes it more difficult to manage the state’s sparse water supply, especially “this early in the season before we’ve really had a sense of exactly how the water year is going to turn out,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Jennifer Pierre, general manager for the State Water Contractors — a nonprofit association representing 27 public water agencies — said the proposed rule changes are an “appropriate action to help realign California’s water management decision making with the latest and most relevant science and the current hydrology.”

“California is still recovering from years of drought and water cutbacks,” she said. “We must be nimble in ensuring responsible water management for both water supply and the environment.”

If the state doesn’t change the rules, Nemeth warned that would mean the state has far less water to make available in the spring and summer for farmers and major cities such as Los Angeles.

Nemeth said there’s plenty of water in the rivers to support fish, though the Newsom administration acknowledged in its proposal that it could lead to more deaths of baby salmon. The state would monitor the fish and “quickly respond,” if needed. For example, Nemeth said if state officials detect fish near the pumps in the river, they can turn the pumps down so as not to harm them.

“That’s protective enough of the species,” she said.

Environmental groups argue that the administration’s plan for fish is not enough. Last year, the survival of winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River was the lowest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once state officials see fish near the pumps, that means many more have already been swept away, said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association.

Most of the state’s reservoirs — including the two biggest ones at Oroville and Shasta — are at or near their historic averages. Plus, the amount of snow in the mountains is nearly double what it has been historically for this time of year. That’s why McManus says Newsom is acting too soon to change the rules to store more water.

“The only real emergency that we’re facing is the collapse of our salmon runs in California and the family income jobs all up and down the coast and inland California tied to our salmon fishery,” he said.

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