Climate change and instream flows

During the 2012-2016 drought, the State Water Resources Control Board temporarily suspended at least 35 minimum instream flow standards. The Department of Fish and Wildlife reported in 2015 that there had been 783 fish rescues in 52 different watersheds, comprising 51 species, and more than 264,000 fish. Six hundred wild McCloud River redband trout were captured and held in nine holding tanks in the Shasta River fish hatchery until stream conditions improved.  In the Scott River, an estimated 116,000 endangered Coho salmon were rescued and relocated. This was crisis management.

In reviewing the effects of the 2012-2016 drought, Hanak, Mount, Chappelle and Lund et. al. noted that “many of California’s aquatic ecosystems remain chronically starved for habitat and water in all years,” and that as a result, “native species enter droughts with diminished and geographically limited populations, only to encounter greater stresses during drought.”  In the Delta, critically endangered Delta smelt may have gone functionally extinct from relaxation of minimum Delta flow standards.

Unless we do a better job of keeping water in our rivers and streams, California’s native aquatic species will not survive climate change.

Scott River, Reach 14, August 2014      CDFW / NOAA Fisheries et. al.
Cooperative Report of the Scott River Coho Salmon Rescue and Relocation Effort, August 2015.

Comprehensive instream flow standards

During the 1976-77 drought, Governor Brown created a Commission to Review California Water Rights Law.  The blue-ribbon panel was charged with reviewing the Water Code in light of the drought and Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution on “Reasonable Use” of water.  The Commission’s 1978 Final Report recommended increased protection for instream flows, and providing for better management of groundwater.  The groundwater recommendations were ahead of their time and were not implemented for decades.  For instream flows, the Commission proposed:

  1. That comprehensive instream flow standards be set on a stream-by-stream basis by the State Water Resources Control Board and that the Board comply with these standards in its administrative and adjudicatory decision making; that instream flow standards be expressed in terms of certain quantities or flows of water which are required to be present at certain points along the stream at certain times of the year to protect fishery, wildlife, recreational, aesthetic, scenic and other beneficial instream uses; and
  2. That compliance programs be developed where it is determined that the limitations on administrative actions imposed by the instream flow standards are inadequate to secure the beneficial instream uses of water envisioned by the standards.

(p. 129.)

Although legislation was subsequently passed mandating the determination of instream flows, doing so has been delayed for decades.

In 1982, the legislature passed a law requiring the then-called Department of Fish and Game to “identify and list those streams and watercourses throughout the State for which minimum flow levels needed to be established in order to assure the continued viability” of stream-dependent fish and wildlife.  DFG was then required to prepare proposed “streamflow requirements” for each stream not later than July 1,1989 (Pub. Res. Code §§ 10001-2.)  The Department of Fish and Game did not even transmit the identification list to the Water Board until 2008. The transmittal identified 20 priority streams and was accompanied by obsolete and incomplete streamflow studies done over the previous 20 years.  The now-called Department of Fish and Wildife has since proposed only two actual “streamflow requirements” for the identified streams, for the Big Sur River and Butte Creek.

In 2014, Action 4 of Governor Brown’s California Water Action Plan mandated that the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife develop “defensible, cost-effective, and time-sensitive approaches to establish instream flows using sound science and a transparent public process.”   However, the action was not even begun until after the drought ended, likely due to agency resource limitations. The chosen streams include:

  • Shasta River, tributary to the Klamath River
  • South Fork Eel River, tributary to the Eel River
  • Mark West Creek, tributary to the Russian River
  • Mill Creek, tributary to the Sacramento River
  • Ventura River

The Water Board passed a resolution authorizing additional funding for instream flow studies for these five streams on October 3, 2019.

Klamath river
Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake,  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2010, pursuant to the 2009 Delta Reform Act (Water Code section 85087), the Water Board sent a report to the legislature estimating that comprehensively determining instream flows for 100 priority streams outside the Delta and its watersheds would cost $107 million.  The Water Board has been collaboratively developing analytical tools for assessing instream flow needs that may reduce the costs.

As part of recommendations for the Water Resilience Portfolio, California Water Research collaborated with the One Water Network of environmental groups to propose the following actions:

  1. Launch a major new initiative for the Water Board to set long-needed comprehensive instream flow standards statewide.
  2. Require explicit analysis of the constitutional principles of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine in state water management decisions. Make those principles the foundation of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update.
  3. Determine instream flow needs before consideration of petitions for major new diversions.
  4. Create mechanisms for public funding for alternative water supplies where needed to mitigate impacts of reduced diversions to maintain instream flows.
  5. Provide dedicated funding to support and expand the Water Board’s core water rights and water quality actions.

While the political fashion has swung towards non-regulatory actions and voluntary agreements, such actions have manifestly failed to keep enough water in our streams and rivers for aquatic and stream-dependent species.

Regulatory actions would be consistent with the 1983 California Supreme Court decision in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court that “[t]he state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.”

They would also be consistent with the 2009 Delta Reform Act. California Water Code section 85023 mandates that “[t]he longstanding constitutional principle of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine shall be the foundation of state water management policy and are particularly important and applicable to the Delta.”

California’s constitutional principle of reasonable use and the public trust are fundamental to creating more resilient aquatic ecosystems in the face of population growth and climate change.

The history of instream flows was researched and written by Deirdre Des Jardins in collaboration with Lowell Ashbaugh and the One Water Network of environmental groups on recommendations for Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio.

This blog post was updated on 10/15/19 to add a picture of the Scott River in 2014.

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