Great Editorial Pondering How To Protect California’s Rivers

Feather River photo by Chris Cocoles

Three prominent California professors teamed up to pen an excellent editorial in the Sacramento Bee on how the state can better protect its struggling freshwater fish. It’s an informative read, and here is a snippet from writers Leon Szeptycki, Buzz Thompson and Brian Gray:

We propose an approach that integrates environmental uses into the existing water rights system. The goals of this reform are to increase efficiency and flexibility and enhance certainty for all water users.

 Under our proposal, local water managers, water users and environmental and fishing groups would negotiate watershed ecosystem plans that determine how much water is needed to ensure the ecological integrity of a river system. This volume of water, which would vary from wet to dry years, would become the water budget for that river. This water budget would focus on overall ecological health rather than the current narrower emphasis on tracking individual endangered species.

To be most effective, the water budget must be like a water right. This includes storing ecosystem water in reservoirs or groundwater basins, trading it with other water rights holders and allowing managers to increase their water budgets through purchases, donations and exchanges.

We recommend that an independent trustee manage each watershed’s water budget with oversight by the State Water Board. The volume of ecosystem water should be set for at least 10 years.

Several western states and Australia use something like these water budgets already. California has taken small steps toward this approach with agreements on Putah Creek and the Yuba River. Also, the State Water Board has proposed designating blocks of water to support ecological uses in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems, though without the management flexibility we recommend.