Photo credits: Rob Dickerson, Mary Ann King, Mary Ann King.
Despite the public focus on the big water projects in California, approximately 25 percent of all the water in the state that is diverted for agricultural, municipal, industrial, or personal use is done so under the so called “prior appropriation doctrine” and governed by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). These small and large diversions are having profound impacts on the state's rivers, and in particular the effort to restore salmon and steelhead. With California's population projected to grow by 50 percent in the next two decades, the impacts on fish and wildlife are likely to grow as well.
Since Trout Unlimited founded the California Water Project in 2000, it has become a leading legal, science, and policy advocate focused on California water law and its effects on trout, salmon, and steelhead. Through reform of California's system of water rights administration in California's north coast, strategic agreements for instream flow protection in key watersheds, cooperative programs with water users, and hydropower reform efforts, we are achieving lasting streamflow protection for salmon and steelhead and changing how water rights are managed in California.
Coastal Stream Flows
California's legal regime for administering water rights has largely failed to protect either the interests of water users or the flows necessary to support aquatic life. For example, there are now about 500 pending applications for new water rights in California, including 300 clustered along the north central coast. The numbers tell only part of the story. Most of these applications have been pending for many years, and many water users have chosen to divert water without a valid water right - and without ecological safeguards. Building on nearly 20 years of work by TU volunteers in the area, we are turning the situation around.
- Legislative Mandate for Instream Flows. TU championed legislation ordering the State Water Board to implement a new policy to maintain instream flows in coastal streams from the San Francisco Bay to the Mattole River. Written by Sen. Kuehl and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, the statute (A.B. 2121) requires the Board to adopt a comprehensive system in 2008 for protecting stream flows as it administers water rights. A.B. 2121 covers about 5,900 stream miles and 3.1 million watershed acres in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and Humboldt Counties.
- Water Rights Petition. TU filed a formal Petition with the Water Board and other state agencies demanding top-to-bottom changes to the water rights system, including compliance, monitoring, and enforcement. We filed the Petition jointly with the Mendocino County chapter of the National Audubon Society and immediately convened a stakeholder group to work through the issues presented by A.B. 2121 and the Petition.
- Water & Wine. Low stream flow in summer and fall adversely affects salmon and steelhead rearing habitat and leads to unreliable water supplies for growers. In response to dwindling wild salmon populations in California's streams and rivers, TU is partnering with grape growers in Northern California Wine Country and working with them to adopt water management practices that restore and reconnect critical salmon and steelhead habitat on their properties. Water and Wine was launched in March 2008, and current Water and Wine participants account for more than 30 generations and 725 years of experience of agricultural stewardship. Together, we're tackling the dysfunction in California's water rights system and turning California's wet winters and dry summers into opportunities rather than obstacles for wild salmon and growers alike. For more information and to see if your favorite vineyard is a participant, check out www.tu.org/waterandwine or download Water and Wine: Partners in Wine Country Stewardship (pdf, 1.46 MB).
- Coastal Streamflow Stewardship Project. Traditionally, water diverters have been regulated individually, if at all, with little regard to how their actions relate to other diversions in the area or contribute to cumulative impacts on the stream. The Coastal Streamflow Stewardship Project will pilot a new model for administering water rights in California so that the river comes first. It will replace permit-by-permit regulation with a system that sets performance-based measures for streamflow and other habitat conditions and creates stream management plans. Groups of water users can then cooperatively manage diversions to achieve more cumulative protection and more cost-effective results than any water user could achieve alone. We plan to pilot the approach in 5-6 coastal California watersheds over the next few years and are working to identify locations. For more information about participation in the program, please contact Brian Johnson at (510) 528-4772. To learn more, visit http://www.tu.org/cssp.
Photo Credits (L to R): Mary Ann King, Mary Ann King, Friends of the River/Steve Evans
In the next 15 years, the licenses for 50 of California's hydropower generating projects will expire. These licenses affect 150 dams and hundreds of stream miles, more than in any other state. Hydropower licenses are important not only because the projects include invaluable habitat, but also because hydro dams frequently divert 95% or more of a river's summer flow out of its channel. TU is among the nation's leading experts on hydropower reform, and our record in California is strong.
Klamath River. TU is leading the charge on the relicensing of the four lowermost Klamath River dams. Together with other NGOs, commercial fishing groups, and tribes, we prevailed over the utility's challenge to strong fish passage and flow management conditions. We are currently working on a negotiated settlement with the utility and irrigators to provide a lasting solution to the Klamath's infamous problems.
- Watershed Stewardship. Trout Unlimited's leadership in the PG&E bankruptcy case led to a historic agreement to protect 140,000 acres of watershed land in the Sierras and the Cascades. The resulting Stewardship Council has become the largest provider of grant funds for youth outdoors activities in California.
- Pit River. TU, PG&E and other groups reached an agreement that provides for an increase of minimum stream flows, a flow regime that mimics natural river processes, a reduction in rapid flow fluctuations that harm fish, enhancement of recreational opportunities, a long-term monitoring program with a fund of up to $500,000 a year, and additional resources for the famous Hat Creek wild trout fishery.
- Stanislaus River, American Rivers, South Cow Creek. TU and its partners brokered agreements to protect fish flows and restore habitat in and along the Middle and South Forks of the Stanislaus, including the Spring Gap area, and the South Fork of the American River. On South Cow Creek, we are working with PG&E and others to remove a small project and restore habitat for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and native trout.
- McCloud River, Yuba River. We are gearing up for the upcoming relicensing projects for both the McCloud River, one of California's greatest fishing destinations, and the upper Yuba River system, where several inter-related licenses control the operation of 40 dams and 200 miles of river.
Historic Opportunities to Protect Stream Flows
Although California's laws enable instream flow dedications, the concept is still in its infancy compared to other western states. Here too, Trout Unlimited is helping to pave the way.
- Yuba River. On the Yuba River, TU served as the lead legal voice for a collection of conservation groups in the development of the lower Yuba River Accord, an innovative settlement agreement. With successful pilot programs in 2006 and 2007, California's SWRCB approved the agreement, which provides significantly higher instream flow requirements to better protect the river's wild Chinook, which are the Central Valley's best, last remaining wild Chinook populations. These higher flow requirements range from an increase of 25,000 acre-feet in dry years to over 170,000 acre-feet of water in wet years. A multi-million dollar fisheries fund will also improve knowledge about the Yuba's fisheries. TU's work on behalf of the Yuba's signature salmon and steelhead has been recognized as essential to the success of the settlement agreement.
- Lagunitas Creek. TU worked tirelessly with the North Marin Water District to resolve disagreements over NMWD's water plans for Lagunitas Creek, near Point Reyes Station in Marin County. The result was a robust agreement that allows the district to meet its customers' needs and dedicates a portion of the District's water rights to instream use. This dedication will preserve and enhance habitat, fish and wildlife in Lagunitas Creek, which is home to nearly 10 percent of the state's returning native Coho salmon.
- Proposed Nestle Plant in McCloud. TU is working to protect the McCloud River from a massive new water bottling facility proposed by Nestle on the flank of Mt. Shasta. The plant would draw water from a critical tributary to the McCloud River. With our allies, CalTrout and the McCloud Watershed Council, we recently forced Nestle and Siskiyou County to withdraw a critically flawed environmental impact report and start over. For more information, see Protect Our Waters .
For more information, please contact:
Brian J. Johnson
Director, California Water Project; TU Staff Attorney
2239 5th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Contact the California Staff