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San Francisco Chronicle
There is no map to California's water future
Published: January 28, 2016
Remember paper road maps?
They had a useful life of just a few years; eventually, construction, road closures and alternative routes would render them obsolete. Modern map apps on our phones have made us safer and better informed travelers. These days, drivers would be crazy to take a road trip into unknown regions with a 20-year-old map.
The San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary is in crisis. Multiple native fish and wildlife species in the estuary are on the brink of extinction because of lack of freshwater flows. Salt water now intrudes further into the delta than ever before, harming delta farmlands. New threats to human health such as toxic algae blooms were seen last summer due to lack of flows from the drought.Sadly, California water regulators are driving into unknown territory without a modern map.
The State Water Resources Control Board, the governing body in charge of determining water quality and flows through the bay-delta estuary, has not fully updated water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary since 1995.
Federal law requires the state to update the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary every three years and to enforce the standards it sets in these plans. The current review process finally began in 2009 with completion not expected until late 2018 despite clear scientific evidence that the 1995 standards are not adequate to protect the estuary.
During the drought, the state board issued itself hall passes more than a dozen times to ignore even the inadequate clean water standards of 1995. These were “emergency” actions, they assure us. Never mind the vanishing delta species, the collapse of iconic salmon fisheries, the increase in algae blooms, or delta farmlands facing saltwater intrusion.
The lack of an updated plan was noted by the Legislature in the Delta Reform Act of 2009 and in August 2012 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The State Water Resources Control Board claims to be on track now, but has yet to complete the first part of the four-phase process.
Now the board is under pressure by Gov. Jerry Brown to consider permits for the Delta Water Export Tunnels. This means the tunnels permit application will be reviewed under 20-year-old regulatory standards, not the best available scientific data and findings about how to protect species, delta agriculture and drinking water for public health.
The State Water Resources Control Board must act now. If the state board cannot handle its duties, it needs to get out of the way and allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and finish the task, as required under the federal Clean Water Act.
The future of the largest and most magnificent estuary on the West Coast is at stake. Let’s render a good map so we don’t get lost or make big mistakes. Destroying the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary with the delta tunnels project would be a big mistake.
Joan T. Buchanan of Alamo served in the state Assembly from 2008 to 2014.