California drought: Key talks over water use break down, S.F. may face tighter regulation

By: Kurtis Alexander

For nearly three years, some of California’s biggest water users, including San Francisco, have been quietly meeting with the state to figure out how much water they should be taking from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.

The talks were launched to prevent some of California’s mightiest rivers from drying up, and keep fish populations from disappearing, while still allowing cities and farms to draw the supplies they need. The vision was nothing short of a grand compromise on divvying up California’s water.

But late last week, the state conceded the negotiations had failed. In a letter to San Francisco and the other mostly agricultural water agencies involved in the discussions, state regulators told the parties they had made insufficient concessions on water use. The breakdown in talks means the state will begin directly regulating river draws, a move that could significantly squeeze the water users, and one they’re bound to fight.

San Francisco gets about 85% of its water from the Tuolumne River in and around Yosemite National Park, one of the most stressed of the rivers in the San Joaquin River basin.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, told The Chronicle this week. “It’s literally been years and there’s a need to improve environmental conditions in the rivers, not only for the fish but for the communities downstream that rely on the water.”

The conflict stems from a 2018 plan put forward by the State Water Resources Control Board to rescue the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the rivers that feed it. The sprawling watershed at the center of the state’s water supply chronically runs short of fresh water, largely because of how much is being drawn out. The result is shallow, polluted waterways and ravaged wetlands and wildlife, including the collapse of the state’s prized salmon runs.

Under the plan, sometimes called the Bay Delta Plan, 40% of the natural flow of the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers would have to remain in these waterways during peak flows — not pumped out — to salvage the basin. This would leave 60% of the water for cities and farms, which compares to the 90% they currently draw at times.

With San Francisco and five big irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley opposed to these terms, state regulators, at the urging of former Gov. Jerry Brown and later Gov. Gavin Newsom, began working with the parties to come up with “Voluntary Agreements” in lieu of the plan.

The city and the water districts pitched alternative proposals, though their options involved only slight reductions in river draws. They wanted to revive the rivers by improving fish passage and restoring native habitat. The state, however, joined by environmental groups and fishermen, said the alternatives didn’t go far enough to rescue the languishing delta watershed.

“It was time to say this process wasn’t working,” said Peter Drekmeier, policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust, one of the groups pushing to keep more water in the rivers. “For months we were hearing that there was going to be a breakthrough, but nothing materialized.”

Officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages the water supply for San Francisco and several other Bay Area communities, said they’re not happy to see the state fall back on regulation.

The agency is already part of a lawsuit challenging the terms of the Bay Delta Plan. The litigation was put on hold while the parties were in talks. The SFPUC filed a separate suit in May against the state, challenging how much water the state wants the city to forfeit as part of a plan to relicense two dams on the Tuolumne River.

“We’re disappointed,” SFPUC spokesperson Will Reisman said in a statement about the recent negotiations. “We continue to believe we have a good proposal and are interested in pursuing early habitat restoration projects in cooperation with the state.”

The Bay Delta Plan, which will take effect when the State Water Board officially approves an implementation policy, would have little impact on San Francisco and its agricultural counterparts during wet years.

However, when water is tight, as it’s increasingly become, residents and businesses in the Bay Area could be forced to make major sacrifices, according to agency projections. A severe drought like the one between 1987 and 1992 could prompt water cuts of up to 40%, SFPUC officials say. Water rates could go up 17%.

Environmental and fishing groups have challenged the SFPUC’s projections, saying the agency is inflating its numbers to generate opposition to the state plan. Critics say the city should be conserving more water and finding new supplies instead of taking so much from the river at the expense of fish and wildlife. Leaving just 10% of the water, they say, is unacceptable.

“San Francisco’s public utility commission needs to get onboard with the city’s environmental values and develop recycled water and other water sources rather than wipe out the salmon that made Fisherman’s Wharf,” John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, said in an email.

The diminished Tuolumne River once supported chinook salmon runs of tens of thousands of fish each year. The runs now average less than 2,000 fish.

The water agencies that had been working with San Francisco and the state on an alternative plan include the Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

“We set out very clear parameters of what legal and scientific adequacy looked like,” said Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, who helped lead the negotiations with the water agencies. “We welcome them to reconsider.”

State regulators continue to work on Voluntary Agreements with water users on the Sacramento River and its tributaries. That basin is similarly overdrawn, with waterways and wildlife bearing the brunt.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @kurtisalexander