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Competing water priorities in Sonoma County

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If, for the last five years, you have followed the news about the flow of Sonoma’s water supply from what should be its primary catchment in Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam, then you know that the availability of that water during periods of peak summer demand is uncertain.

It’s uncertain because, after years of river management negligence, and following the precipitous decline of coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout in the Russian River, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion in 2008 mandating that steps be taken to restore the river’s fishery habitat to a level that would be self-sustaining.

That official opinion, driven by the Endangered Species Act, put habitat restoration first, above all other beneficial uses of Russian River water. As a result, a series of steps is being taken to enhance and restore nursery features in the bed of Dry Creek, which serves as both a nursery for juvenile salmonid fish, and as the delivery channel for stored water released from Warm Springs Dam. Enhancement, in this case, means limiting the amount of summertime water released so that young fish aren’t flushed out of their nursery pools.

Habitat recovery therefore dictates that first we fix the fishery, then we fix the water supply.

And that leads us to the continuously contentious Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which has an infinitely more complex ecosystem to restore and far greater demand for a finite water supply. The $14 billion centerpiece of the BDCP is a pair of 35-mile-long tunnels to be dug under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to transport fresh Sacramento River water straight to the pumps that feed the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

According to the state’s Delta Stewardship Council, the BDCP is mandated to achieve two co-equal goals: providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. If that isn’t utopian enough, those goals are supposed to be achieved “in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.” Those words are straight from the California Water Code and the cost for all that restoring and enhancing is about $11.4 billion, to be paid for through a state water bond.

Plenty of well-informed political and water policy strategists consider the Stewardship council’s mandate to be impossibly ambitious.

That’s because, unlike the biological opinion that drives management decisions on the Russian River, a host of competing goals may guarantee that no goals are really met for the Delta. It may be simply impossible to give every vested interest a happy outcome, primarily because, many argue, there is not enough water flowing through the Delta to achieve all the goals built into the BDCP.

Our 3rd District State Senator, Lois Wolk, D-Davis, seems to understand this dilemma and has authored an alternative,  $5.6 billion water bond bill – SB 42 – that could provide many of the benefits of the ill-advised tunnels at a fraction of the cost.

We should all be watching Wolk’s initiative with interest.