Guest commentary written by Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield, Senior Scientist at San Francisco Baykeeper:
Last month, Governor Newsom finally made good on his threat to sue the federal government over water management plans that would further imperil San Francisco Bay’s endangered fishes. The Governor and Attorney General Becerra deserve credit for joining conservation organizations to fight the Trump administration’s baseless Endangered Species Act “biological opinions”. The action was welcome news for San Francisco Bay and those who depend on it for sustenance because, through its first year, the Newsom administration’s water policies mirrored Trump’s.
Take, for example, the state’s plan for its own water exports from the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Far from insulating fisheries, water quality, and endangered species from Trump’s water grab, the state’s proposed operations adopt most of the federal environmental rollbacks and associated impacts to the Bay ecosystem.
Newsom has also kept on ice the State Water Resources Control Board’s much-needed update of water quality standards for San Francisco Bay. These rules, required by both the state and federal Clean Water Acts to protect a host of public benefits (including commercial and recreational fisheries and endangered species), are likely to require that more water remains in the rivers that feed San Francisco Bay. The Water Board is now entering the 12th year of its effort to update those water quality safeguards.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Governor announced a new “framework” that would replace updated water quality standards with much weaker voluntary actions by the state’s largest water diverters. Although details of the new framework remain sparse, even a glimpse at Newsom’s plan reveals that it would abandon San Francisco Bay’s water quality, fisheries, and endangered species. Indeed, in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Bernhardt, Newsom praised federal help crafting this new framework and stated his commitment to “an aligned approach” for state and federal water management.
State, federal, and local agencies already divert, on average, more than half of the freshwater flow from Central Valley rivers before it reaches San Francisco Bay. Evidence shows this practice is unsustainable. State and federal laws list six of the Bay’s fish species as threatened or endangered and the state’s salmon fishery is regularly constrained because our rivers no longer produce enough fish. What’s more, water in the Delta is frequently so polluted that it’s not safe to drink or even touch–toxic cyanobacteria thrive in the remaining trickle.
The Governor is urging everyone to come together around his “new” concept. But his framework does not even attempt to meet state legal standards, nor will it result in the recovery of endangered fish species, important fisheries, or the food web that sustains them. The plan aims to bump up abundance of fish and their prey by just 10%, even though some of these populations would need to triple or more just to regain the levels that placed them on the endangered species list originally. Also, Newsom would delay for another 30 years a long-unmet state and federal requirement to double wild populations of Central Valley Chinook Salmon. So much for the Governor’s promise to “immediately” improve the health of our waterways.
Numerous scientific reviews define what will be needed to restore these irreplaceable resources, in terms of acres of new habitat and volumes of additional river flow. This voluntary framework, like its many predecessors, does not come close to the mark. Additional Delta habitat restoration touted by the state amounts to roughly 5% of what scientists estimate would be necessary to restore this vast ecosystem – and, the new habitat restoration work would not begin for years. Similarly, the additional river flows promised in the plan are a small fraction of the volume needed to protect water quality and fisheries, according to the Water Board’s rigorous analyses. At best, the Governor’s approach delays closing well-documented deficits in freshwater flow and habitat; at worst, Newsom is greenwashing Trump’s lawlessness.
We had hoped that, in his first year in office, Newsom would direct his team to let the facts lead towards viable solutions. Now it’s clear that his people were either not paying attention, or not being transparent about their objectives.
Baykeeper and our colleagues bring decades of scientific and policy expertise to San Francisco Bay protection efforts. We will continue to promote creative and enforceable solutions that are legally and scientifically credible. If the Newsom administration really wants to counter federal attacks on California’s environment, it must do more than challenge Trump – the state must hold itself accountable and align itself with laws that protect San Francisco Bay.
Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield is the Senior Scientist at San Francisco Baykeeper, a non-profit watchdog that defends San Francisco Bay and its wildlife from the biggest threats using science, law, and advocacy.
Featured image credit: San Francisco Bay by Doc Searls via Flickr.
Please note: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and should not be attributed to Maven’s Notebook.