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Letting California's rivers run isn't a 'water grab'

Letting California's rivers run isn't a 'water grab'
The Stanislaus River in the central Sierra Nevada foothills. (Los Angeles Times)

What’s the deal with San Francisco? It’s always been so environmentally oriented, so water thrifty, so protective of its bay, so — well, how shall we put it? — concerned about the toll that Southern Californians’ thirst takes on the rivers that sustain California’s fish, wildlife and ultimately people.

Yet here it is, joining with San Joaquin Valley agribusiness in opposing a state proposal to partially restore three great rivers that play a crucial role in sustaining California’s ecology. These rivers once rushed from the Western Sierra, but dams and diversions have reduced them at times to a mere trickle.

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The problem for San Francisco is that one of those rivers is the Tuolumne. Much of it is redirected from its natural course in order to fill the reservoir behind Don Pedro Dam, and from there it supplies Modesto and nearby cities and fields. But further upstream, not far from where it begins in Yosemite National Park, the river is dammed and a portion of it is diverted to the Bay Area. San Franciscans are prone to calling that pure snowmelt their birthright.

All Californians must make do with less.


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Diversions from the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers affect the downstream ecology in the San Joaquin River, which they feed, as well as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the San Francisco Bay, which are saltier because they now have less freshwater to push back against the Pacific Ocean’s incursions. Diversions also seriously shrink the river highways used by migrating salmon that spawn in the foothills and mountains. That, in turn, cripples the state’s once-great ocean fishing fleets and seafood processors.

To partially revive those rivers, state regulators in 2010 proposed that diversions to dams and fields be scaled back enough so that 60% of the natural, unimpeded flows would remain from February through June — the key period for fish. Environmentalists and the struggling fishing industry applauded.

The State Water Resources Control Board has since revised its proposal downward to 40% — less than half the rivers’ natural flow — and this week is conducting public hearings on the plan. Nevertheless, agricultural interests are calling it a “water grab.”

That’s a curious use of the term. Those are words usually directed toward Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California to describe projects to redirect Sierra mountain water southward. And let’s be honest: L.A. has grabbed a lot of water over the years — from the Owens Valley, from Mono Lake, from the delta.

But then, all Californians grab and transport water, San Franciscans and San Joaquin Valley farmers included. What the water board is proposing is the direct opposite of a water grab. It’s a sort of un-grab — a proposal to keep just enough water in the rivers so that they can continue to sustain the salmon, the fishing industry and the state’s complex ecology.

Water is so vital that any change in accustomed use is seen as a kind of a plot, and reality is turned upside down. Stanislaus County almond growers describe plans to leave a little more water in rivers as a diversion, or as exporting it to distant locations. San Francisco residents begin to sound like officials in the Trump administration, who see rivers reaching the sea as wasteful, and who are seeking ways to circumvent state water laws.

Those farmers and those residents are inheritors of legal water rights, but their rights are not absolute. Lawsuits and settlements have required Los Angeles, for the public good, to leave in place much of the water it once took from the Eastern Sierra. Likewise, other regions must leave some — not most, just some — of the water they currently take from the Western Sierra. All Californians must make do with less. In L.A., that means developing alternative water sources, such as cleaning and recycling wastewater and stormwater. In the San Joaquin Valley, that may mean planting less thirsty crops.

The water board’s proposal falls well short of what environmentalists want, but it is reasonable and measured. The board is expected to vote later this year.

It’s also expected to vote on a similar proposal to increase flows on the Sacramento River. There is some question as to how compatible that plan would be with the WaterFix — the state’s project to send water to the California Aqueduct through two giant tunnels. Southern California needs those tunnels, but it also needs a healthy Sacramento River and a healthy delta. We can’t all get all the water we think we need. L.A., San Francisco, the San Joaquin Valley — we must all leave some water in place for the good of the state, each other, and ourselves.

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