Salmon dwindling while SFPUC fiddling

Decreasing numbers in Tuolumne demand science-based solutions

While wetter streets and a greener White House may offer San Franciscans some hope for the future, the situation remains dire for salmon in the Tuolumne River. At the end of the 2020 spawning season, just over 1,000 salmon passed through the weir at the Tuolumne River — the source of the City’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

“The numbers are pretty pathetic,” Peter Drekmeier with the Tuolumne River Trust told me. “Historically, well over 100,000 salmon spawned in the Tuolumne.”

Drops in salmon populations have wide-reaching impacts on the environment, local economy and San Francisco’s culture. The City used to have wet, winter salmon openings, where hundreds of fishermen and thousands of anglers caught fish that were “biting like dogs.” In September 1989, The Examiner launched the “Big Fish Club,” a service to highlight readers’ prize catches. Collins Jones caught a 40-pound salmon.

These celebrations are unfamiliar in today’s city, and it’s hard not to feel that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s water policies are partially to blame. Californians are significantly reducing or eliminating dependence on river water. But the SFPUC continues to side with agricultural users to fight limitations on the water it takes from the Tuolumne.

To support its position that San Francisco can continue to take river water and protect salmon, staff is presenting a study developed by the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts this Friday, Feb. 5. The study is based on modeling federal officials questioned and salmon advocates labeled “junk science.”

“The SFPUC is one of the biggest obstacles to protecting the San Francisco Bay and the fishing industry,” John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association told me. “They’re on a river that’s diverted up to 90 percent in some years and they cling to false studies finding that fish don’t need water.”

Last August, an independent third-party review by the National Marine Fisheries Service identified concerns with the Districts’ study and noted — boldly — that substantial spring flow increases would best protect Chinook salmon from extinction. It contradicted the Trump Administration’s promises to California agricultural users of a “magnificent amount, a massive amount of water.”

Unsurprisingly, the Central Valley Irrigation Districts struck back calling the report “ill informed,” and “possibly biased.” The SFPUC appears to support the Districts’ claims.

“Our plan is based on significant scientific study and discussion specific to the Tuolumne River, which demonstrates that fisheries improvements can be achieved through a well-planned combination of flow and non-flow measures, producing improved habitat and rearing conditions,” an SFPUC spokesperson told me.

It’s hard to understand why the agency continues to rely on a questionable study and a water system developed over 100 years ago. It contradicts The City’s recognition of science-based climate policies, and its reputation as an environmental leader. It could undercut other efforts, such as a legislative push by Bay Area members of Congress to restore the region’s water quality and help endangered species.

It also sets San Francisco behind other California counties and cities. For example, the Orange County Water District is developing the world’s largest water reuse project that will supply drinking water to 1 million people in 2023. The city of Santa Monica is also working to eliminate its dependence from imported Sierra Nevada and Colorado River water completely by 2023.

While San Francisco has reuse programs in place, The City should announce a goal to end its long and unsustainable relationship with the Tuolumne River too. At the very least, the SFPUC should adopt state and federal Tuolumne River flow recommendations.

New agency leaders may help move recalcitrant staff in a better direction. In December, Mayor London Breed appointed Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University’s Water in the West program. This laudable appointment is strengthened by the environmental dedication of new Commissioner Ed Harrington and could be bolstered by a new, yet-unnamed general manager.

The minuscule number of salmon counted at the Tuolumne River weir is heartbreaking. San Francisco should do everything in its power to address this environmental, economic and cultural loss. It would be great to see The Examiner revive “The Big Fish Club.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at