California Water Board Suspends Laws Protecting Salmon in the Delta

California’s State Water Resources Control Board has temporarily suspended state rules that require water to be released from Central Valley reservoirs to protect salmon and other endangered fish, allowing more water to be sent to cities and growers who receive supplies from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta through the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. The state aqueduct delivers water to 27 million people, mostly in Southern California, and 750,000 acres of farmland, while the Central Valley Project mostly serves farms. The flow rules will remain suspended until March 31.

However, environmentalists have expressed their frustration and concern over the move, which they say could jeopardize chinook salmon and other native fish in the Delta that are already struggling to survive. Gary Bobker, program director at The Bay Institute, said the rule was aimed at simulating natural runoff in rivers, which is critical for native fish to reproduce and thrive. San Francisco Baykeeper Science Director Jon Rosenfield said this is the third year in a row and the sixth time in 10 years that the state has waived its rules that set basic flow standards in the Delta. The previous waivers were issued because of severe drought conditions, while the new waiver was triggered by high-volume storm conditions.

Governor Gavin Newsom suspended two state environmental laws and urged the board to act eight days before the waiver was issued. Water suppliers and growers had criticized the state for “wasting” water during January storms by letting it flow through rivers out to sea instead of capturing it in reservoirs. On the day Newsom issued his order, the state Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation petitioned the board to lift the flow rules.

While the suspension of the flow rules has been welcomed by water suppliers, who say the water is needed to provide enough water to cities and farms, environmentalists argue that it will have negative consequences for native fish in the Delta. Water that flows through the Delta and into San Francisco Bay helps young salmon complete their seaward migrations through the estuary, and it improves the estuary’s salinity conditions to the benefit of many species. If the state’s flow rules had remained in effect, water would have to flow through the Delta at a rate of 29,200 cubic feet per second, but as of February 21, outflow was less than half that, at 14,300.

The water board heard both criticism and congratulations from the public at its meeting on Tuesday, illustrating the great divide in California. Newsom’s order suspended two state laws – Water Code Section 13247, which requires state agencies to comply with all water-quality rules, and Public Resources Code, Division 13, which ensures environmental quality and its regulations. Environmentalists lambasted Newsom last week, saying that he was “putting his thumbs on the scale in favor of extinction in the Delta” and “eviscerating environmental laws” with the stroke of his pen.

The water wars in California continue, with no indication of an end anywhere in sight.

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