Water wasted to the sea?

by James E. Cloern, Jane Kay, Wim Kimmerer, Jeffrey Mount, Peter B. Moyle, and Anke Mueller-Solger

This article originally appeared in the journal San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science.

Water flowing to the sea from the San Francisco Bay Delta. (Image source: Joey Lax-Salinas Photography)


If we farmed the Central Valley or managed water supplies for San Francisco, San Jose or Los Angeles, we might think that fresh water flowing from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers through the Delta to San Francisco Bay is “wasted” because it ends up in the Pacific Ocean as an unused resource. However, different perspectives emerge as we follow the downstream movement of river water through the Delta and into San Francisco Bay.

If we were Delta farmers or administered Contra Costa County’s water supply, we would value river water flowing through the Delta because it repels salt intrusion (Jassby et al. 1995) and protects water quality for drinking, growing crops and meeting other customer needs.

If we were responsible for protecting at-risk species, we would value river water flowing through the Delta to the Bay and ocean because it stimulates migration and spawning of native salmon, delta smelt, longfin smelt, and splittail while reducing the potential for colonization and spread of non-native fish (Brown et al. 2016). River flow reduces toxic selenium concentrations in clams eaten by sturgeon, splittail, and diving ducks (Stewart et al. 2013), and it delivers plankton and detritus to fuel production in downstream food webs (Sobczak et al. 2002).

If we managed a Bay Area storm water district or sewage treatment plant, we would value water flowing from the Delta into the Bay because it dilutes and flushes such urban contaminants as metals, microplastics, and nutrients (McCulloch et al. 1970).

If we directed restoration projects around the Bay, we would value water flowing from the Delta into the Bay because it brings sediments required to sustain marshes that otherwise would be lost to subsidence and sea level rise (Stralberg et al. 2011; Schoellhamer et al. 2016). Sediment input from rivers also sustains mudflats (Jaffe et al. 2007) used as habitat and probed for food by more than a million willets, sandpipers, dunlins and other shorebirds during spring migration (Stenzel et al. 2002).

If we fished the Pacific for a living, we would value river flow into the Bay because it carries cues used by adult salmon to find their home streams and spawn (Dittman and Quinn 1996), it brings young salmon to the sea where they grow and mature, and it creates bottom currents that carry young English sole, California halibut and Dungeness crabs into the Bay (Raimonet and Cloern 2016) where they feed and grow before returning to the ocean.

If we liked to romp along the shore or served on the California Coastal Commission we would value rivers flowing to sea because they supply the sand that keeps California’s beaches from eroding away (Barnard et al. 2017).

Finally, if we were among those who want to conserve California’s landscape and biological diversity, we would value river water flowing to the sea because it creates one of the nation’s iconic estuaries and sustains plant and animal communities found only where seawater and fresh water mix (Cloern et al. 2016).

Is the fresh river water that naturally flows through the Delta to San Francisco Bay and on to the Pacific Ocean “wasted”? No. The seaward flow of fresh water is essential to farmers, fishers, conservationists, seashore lovers, and government agencies that manage drinking water supplies, restore wetlands, protect coastlines, and clean up sewage and storm pollution. Wasted water to some is essential water to others.

James Cloern is a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Jane Kay is an independent science writer. Wim Kimmerer is a research professor with the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. Jeffery Mount is a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. Peter B. Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Anke Mueller-Solger is the Associate Director for Projects at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Further reading

Barnard PL, Hoover D, Hubbard DM, Snyder A, Ludka BC, Allan J, Kaminsky GM, Ruggiero P, Gallien TW, Gabel L, McCandless D, Weiner HM, Cohn N, Anderson DL, Serafin KA. 2017.   Extreme oceanographic forcing and coastal response due to the 2015-2016 El Niño. Nat Commun 8:14365. doi: 10.1038/ncomms14365.

Brown LR, Kimmerer W, Conrad JL, Lesmeister S, Mueller–Solger A. 2016. Food webs of the Delta, Suisun Bay, and Suisun Marsh: an update on current understanding and possibilities for management. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 14(3). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15447/sfews.2016v14iss3art4.

Cloern JE, Barnard PL, Beller E, Callaway JC, Grenier JL, Grosholz ED, Grossinger R, Hieb K, Hollibaugh JT, Knowles N, Sutula M, Veloz S, Wasson K, Whipple A. Life on the edge – California’s estuaries. In: Mooney H, Zavaleta E, editors. 2016.  Ecosystems of California: a source book. Oakland (CA): University of California Press. p 359-387.

Dittman A, Quinn T. Homing in Pacific salmon: mechanisms and ecological basis. Journal of Experimental Biology. 1996 Jan 1;199(1):83-91.

Healey M, Goodwin P, Dettinger M, Norgaard R. 2016. The state of Bay–Delta science 2016: an introduction. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 14(2). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15447/sfews.2016v14iss2art5.

Jaffe BE, Smith RE, Foxgrover AC. 2007 Anthropogenic influence on sedimentation and intertidal mudflat change in San Pablo Bay, California: 1856-1983. Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science 73:175-187. doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2007.02.017.

Jassby AD, Kimmerer WJ, Monismith SG, Armor C, Cloern JE, Powell TM, Schubel JR, Vendlinski TJ. 1995 Isohaline position as a habitat indicator for estuarine populations. Ecological Applications 5(1): 272-289. doi:10.2307/1942069

McCulloch, DS, Peterson DH, Carlson PR, Conomos TJ. 1970. Some effects of fresh-water inflow on the flushing of South San Francisco Bay – a preliminary report: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 637A, 27 p.

Raimonet M, Cloern JE. 2016. Estuary-ocean connectivity: fast physics and slow biology. Global Change Biology (Internet]. [cited 2017 March 18]. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13546/full

Schoellhamer DH, Wright SA, Monismith SG, Bergamaschi BA. 2016. Recent advances in understanding flow dynamics and transport of water-quality constituents in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 14(4):1-25. doi: https://doi.org/10.15447/sfews.2016v14iss4art1.

Sobczak W, Cloern J, Jassby A, Muller-Solger A. 2002. Bioavailability of organic matter in a highly disturbed estuary: the role of detrital and algal resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99(12): 8101-8105. doi: 10.1073/pnas.122614399.

Stenzel LE, Hickey CM, Kjelmyr JE, Page GW. 2002. Abundance and distribution of shorebirds in the San Francisco Bay area. Western Birds 33: 69-98.

Stewart AR, Luoma SN, Elrick KA, Carter JL, van der Wegen M. 2013. Influence of estuarine processes on spatiotemporal variation in bioavailable selenium. Marine Ecology Progress Series 492: 41-56. doi:10.3354/meps10503.

Stralberg D, Brennan M, Callaway JC, Wood JK, Schile LM, Jongsomjit D, Kelly M, Parker VT, Crooks S. 2011. Evaluating tidal marsh sustainability in the face of sea-level rise: a hybrid modeling approach applied to San Francisco Bay. PloS one 6(11): e27388. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027388.

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9 Responses to Water wasted to the sea?

  1. Jai Rho says:

    If we were frackers in the San Joaquin Valley, we would be wasting fresh water while poisoning groundwater and accelerating carbon emissions.

    If we were farmers in the Central Valley using toxic fertilizers, we would be wasting fresh water to produce excessive quantities of unhealthy agricultural products while poisoning the groundwater with carcinogenic runoff and compacting aquifers by overdrafting and overdrilling wells.


  2. YES, the water is wasted because it is BAD water management!!!!

    South 1/2 of Benicia bridge should have lock in shipping channel and tidally controlled louvers to regulate the salt water intrusion and thus making the Delta more of a FRESH water Delta supporting more life like it did 100 years ago. NOT a barrier or DAM, which I oppose. 1/2 mile under the Benicia bridge would be open for small water craft and aquatic life.

    Keep in mind some stats: 1.5 MAF of water is what CA saved with 20+% reductions — 12 MAF of water in drought years is available for export or go to sea 48 MAF in wet years. Exports is 3 MAF in drought years and want to get 6 MAF in wet years.

    Key issue for water export is to replace 1.5 mile levee with a fish screen to eliminated Clifton Court Forebay being a fish DEATH trap.


  3. Dane Locke says:

    I find it comical but disturbing that that sewage and urban contaminates are mentioned as a reason for increased water flow . The facts about those two are that the liberals that live in the bay/delta cities won’t vote a tax hike to handle their own waste . Those same will gladly lobby to stop water deliveries to the central valley .


  4. Fred Douglas, the other Fred says:

    Strip bass is another fish that benefits from fresh water run off. This fish planted in the delta around the 1860 or so, from the east coast, also goes to the ocean and returns to spawn in the delta each year. This game fish is found along the coast, between the golden gate all the way to Stockton and is fished all the way to Stockton. It is caught the whole way from the ocean to stockton and some time it become land lock and travels all the way to High way 152 and 99.


  5. Pingback: Water wasted to the sea? | Romick in Oakley

  6. Maria kouyoumijian says:

    Very interesting, thank you for sharing. The only thing I’m concerned about is the “it dilutes and flushes such urban contaminants as metals, microplastics, and nutrients (McCulloch et al. 1970).”–> water shouldn’t be used to dilute pollution. The contaminants should be removed (and reused for other purposes).


  7. Jazmin says:

    Great post! It irks me when I hear someone saying it’s a waste to let water flow down rivers and into the ocean.


  8. jaylund says:

    Waste is always water used by someone else.


    • Wasted, not recycled, not reused, not put to more uses for food production and many other uses like ground water replenishing.

      At Benicia DWR reported 1.2 MAF of water is required to naturally hold back the fresh water if the channel was narrowed.

      PPIC reported that 71% of our fresh water released into Delta is to hold back salinity.

      Per previous comment if 50% of Benicia is blocking salt water intrusion that would give us 50% of 71% or = 35% more water saved in our reservoirs. Keep in mind salt water is heavier than fresh water and most salt water comes up the shipping channel into Delta.


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