Battle Looms as California Moves to Dedicate More Water to Fish — Water Deeply

The state plans to boost streamflows in the troubled San Joaquin River by amending hundreds of water rights. It hopes settlement deals will avoid a showdown, but will they produce enough water to help imperiled salmon?

On the heels of the worst drought in California history, state officials are telling water users in the San Joaquin River basin to give up a major share of their water supplies – permanently.

The timing, in some ways, couldn’t be worse for farmers who struggled through the drought. On the other hand, the time is right for imperiled salmon that live in the river and its tributaries. This iconic species may not survive the next drought without more water.

The State Water Resources Control Board announced in September that it plans to return the San Joaquin River to 40 percent of its “unimpaired flow.” This means the amount of water that would naturally flow through the river without existing dams and diversions.

The goal, according to the water board, is to rebalance water demand on the state’s second-largest river. Policy and practice have long favored human water consumption over water quality and wildlife like Chinook salmon, a species in a steep decline for decades.

The board plans a similar process for the Sacramento River, the state’s largest river.

“We recognize this is very hard to do,” said Les Grober, the water board’s deputy director for water rights. “We just have to be smarter about how water is used overall.”

To reach the 40 percent goal on the San Joaquin River, hundreds of companies and individuals will have to give up a portion of their right to divert water from the river and three of its tributaries: the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. The biggest water users are farms and irrigation districts, who use the water to grow crops like almonds, cherries, peaches, apples and tomatoes.

Bud Rank walks on his property along the San Joaquin River in Fresno, Calif., in 2005. Rank and his family…

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