Local San Francisco pitches plan for future of California rivers

For decades, San Francisco has been blissfully removed from California’s water wars.

 The city’s pristine reservoirs in and around Yosemite National Park have been not only plentiful but also largely outside the reach of regulators.

But plans by the state to mandate an increase in the amount of water flowing down rivers between the Sierra and San Francisco Bay — a bid to prevent the collapse of some of California’s most precious wetlands — has drawn the city into the fray.

Worried about having to relinquish too much reservoir water and saddle Bay Area customers with restrictions on their taps, San Francisco officials plan to unveil a counterproposal Friday that they say restores river habitat and helps fish while maintaining water for cities and farms.

The proposal, shared with The Chronicle, calls for forfeiting city water supplies on the Tuolumne River, but only when deemed necessary to protect salmon and steelhead. It also calls for rehabilitating parts of the 149-mile river for the benefit of wildlife. The plan already has sparked an unusual alliance between San Francisco and the Central Valley agricultural communities along the Tuolumne.

The pitch, however, has yet to face the scrutiny of state regulators and environmental groups, which have long been critical of San Francisco’s system of dams and diversions.

The goal of the state, in what is being called the Bay Delta Plan, is to give a boost to the freshwater-deprived Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay by bringing California rivers closer to their natural, free-flowing state. The effort is beginning on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, which include the Tuolumne.

The stakes are huge. Several fish, including chinook salmon and steelhead, have struggled as the delta’s vast network of lakes, marshes and canals has lost water. The decline in fish has caused birds, seals and whales to go hungry in the bay and beyond.

At the same time, cities such as San Francisco that have worked hard to conserve water fear that further cuts to their supply could be catastrophic. Another dry period akin to recent droughts, water-agency officials say, could bring rationing and as many as 120,000 lost jobs a year across the agency’s service area from San Francisco to San Jose.

Seeking a middle ground in what has become the state’s latest water showdown, Gov. Jerry Brown brought in President Bill Clinton’s former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt. He has been meeting in private with San Francisco officials and others with interest in the rivers.

“You can bring in a lot of the key parties and you can get to some more creative outcomes than a strictly regulatory approach,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, who has supported the collaborative approach, but remains dubious of its success.

The city’s proposal, which emerged from the talks, may get consideration from state regulators as soon as Friday, when public comments on the Bay Delta Plan are due. The State Water Resources Control Board plans to finalize a policy for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries by the end of the year.

San Francisco’s proposal differs from the state’s draft plan in that it doesn’t call upon cities and farms to leave a steady amount of water in the Tuolumne River, but rather varying quantities based on when the fish need it.

Though the pitch is heavy on numbers, the idea is that the city can maximize the amount of water it keeps in storage at its high Sierra reservoirs, including Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, while releasing enough water on the Tuolumne to allow fish to swim up from the bay, spawn and return.

“This is not just putting water down the river and hoping for the best,” said Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “You’re putting water down the river for a purpose.”

The city water agency, which serves 2.6 million customers across the Bay Area, maintains that it has the experience and science to effectively manage river flows without state input.

The proposal also calls for the city and other water agencies to invest millions more to improve salmon and steelhead habitat through actions such as enhancing gravel beds where the fish spawn, removing predators like striped bass and restoring native vegetation along the river.

The Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District, big agricultural water agencies that also draw from the Tuolumne, appear to be lining up behind San Francisco’s proposal. Although the districts sometimes have clashed with the city over the river water, they share concern about losing supplies and recognize San Francisco’s political clout.

Read the entire article at SFChronicle.com