By Lisa Summers | Special to The Sun — With so much recent rain and water flowing through Sonoma County watersheds, it’s hard to remember that the San Francisco Bay is still suffering from the effects of a decades-long drought caused by over-allocation of the rivers that provide it with fresh water. It’s also hard to imagine, as our reservoirs fill and our roads flood, that water diversions from the three far away tributaries to the state’s second longest river — the San Joaquin River — could possibly affect the health and economic viability of Sonoma County.
But, forthcoming decisions from the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) regarding flow criteria for the San Joaquin River’s three main tributaries – the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers — will affect Sonoma County’s economy and ecosystems. And this decision will set the stage for even more important decisions, due this summer, regarding how much water from the Central Valley makes it to San Francisco Bay.
Phase I of the planned update deals with flow conditions from the San Joaquin’s main tributaries. Based on input from all parties, the Water Board concluded in 2010 that 60 percent of the San Joaquin’s winter-spring runoff would need to flow freely from February to June to rebuild historic salmon runs. But, the Water Board’s current proposal argues for leaving only 40 percent of the water in the streams, perpetuating conditions that threaten already struggling salmon populations.
According to scientists and fisheries managers a combination of massive investments in habitat restoration, better reservoir management, and increasing flows to 50 percent or more of what would flow naturally, could lead to production of 100,000 salmon in the ocean every year, from the San Joaquin Valley alone. The current proposal, however, is like being offered only part of a bridge over an abyss. The Bay’s fish and wildlife species, and humans that depend on them, don’t need all the flow in the Central Valley, but they do need a complete bridge to the future.
Tens of thousands of jobs in California are tied to Central Valley production of Chinook salmon; many of those jobs are in Sonoma County. Salmon fishing is a $1.5 billion industry in California, yet collapses are taking a financial toll. Historic salmon runs in the San Joaquin valley once numbered in the hundreds of thousands; unsustainable diversion of fresh water (up to 90 percent of the river’s flow in some years) is the major reason native salmon and steelhead runs in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers are imperiled. Commercial and recreation fishing fleets in Bodega Bay have suffered in recent years from low salmon numbers. Even though many of the salmon caught are native to the Sacramento River, San Joaquin salmon make a contribution and fish co-mingle in the ocean. A revitalized salmon fishery in the San Joaquin would certainly give Bodega Bay fleets an economic boost.
Salmon aren’t the only species suffering. For example, Chinook salmon are important to the survival of orcas that hunt off our coast but our orcas are now showing signs of starvation. These and other marine mammals that depend on fish produced in the San Francisco Bay watershed are part of the reason people visit the Sonoma Coast, and visitors mean jobs.
Finally, lest we forget, Sonoma County is bordered by San Francisco Bay. The Bay’s water quality, fish and wildlife, and natural habitats are important to all of us. The raft of endangered fish species in the Bay – from salmon, to smelt, to sturgeon – represent a direct loss and their decline reflects degradation, such as toxic algal blooms, of other values the Bay provides to our County and region.
Salmon are significant to Sonoma’s natural and cultural heritage. They and other fish that depend on adequate freshwater flows into and through San Francisco Bay will not find champions among the anti-environment picks of the incoming federal administration. The time to contact the Chair of the State Water Board is now — for the fish and for our future.