How reliable are Groundwater Sustainability Plans?

by Alvar Escriva-Bou, Jay Lund, Josue Medellin-Azuara, and Thomas Harter

Earlier this year, the first local Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) were submitted to California’s Department of Water Resources for basins with the most severe groundwater overdraft.  To comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, these plans must address any “significant and unreasonable” impacts of groundwater overdraft that occurred after January 1, 2015, including lowering groundwater levels and other “undesirable results.” The math for ending overdraft is simple: groundwater basins must balance their budgets, by increasing groundwater recharge and reducing pumping.

In principle, evaluating the adequacy of these plans to achieve sustainability should also be simple: Does the anticipated reduction in pumping plus increase in recharge equal or exceed the basin’s long-term rate of overdraft?

In practice, however, it’s not so simple. Water supply in California is dynamic and variable, and groundwater overdraft can vary widely from year to year. In dry years more groundwater is pumped to replace reductions in surface water deliveries, while in wet years more water is recharged. Cropping patterns also vary annually with market conditions, agronomic conditions (fallowing, salinity, etc.), and labor availability, all of which can affect regional water use. Even estimates of long-term average overdraft have considerable uncertainty, due to California’s hydrologic variability and uncertainties in data and models used to estimate water balances. For instance, model estimates of average statewide groundwater overdraft for different periods range from 1.4 to 9.1 million acre-feet (maf) per year (Brush et al., 2013; Escriva-Bou, 2019; Famiglietti et al., 2011; Faunt et al., 2009; Xiao et al., 2017). Considering all these uncertainties, plans based on rigid and static assumptions are bound to miss their targets.

So how do we know if a proposed Groundwater Sustainability Plan will succeed? Or, put another way, how can we plan for sustainability given all these uncertainties?

Although we can’t ever be sure, we can make reasonable estimates that account for the range of uncertainties. In a recent paper, we outline a method for estimating the likelihood of achieving groundwater sustainability. This method highlights the relationship between restrictions on groundwater pumping and the likelihood of maintaining groundwater levels, trade-offs between pumping restrictions and agricultural revenue losses, and implications of defining thresholds—such as minimum groundwater levels—as part of sustainability plan rules.

Our analysis highlights the dynamic character of hydrology and water use in California’s Central Valley. Although we illustrate the method using regional modeling estimates of overdraft and hydrology that were available prior to the release of the new GSPs, the analysis is relevant for groundwater sustainability agencies as they implement and refine their plans going forward. The method can be applied to help estimate uncertainties in these plans, reduce these uncertainties over time, and plan adaptively for sustainability, considering the economic consequences of varying pumping restrictions and thresholds.

Here we highlight some of the paper’s main lessons.

Greater pumping restrictions increase the likelihood of ending overdraft

Uncertainty in overdraft arises from the state’s highly variable climate, uncertainties in future water use decisions, and imperfections in models and data representing water balances.

We estimated uncertainty in annual overdraft for 21 Central Valley sub-regions using the results of recent hydrologic history (1975-2003) of two Central Valley groundwater models (USGS’ CVHM and DWR’s C2VSIM).  Each model’s results show variability in annual water balances and overdraft. The differences between these models’ results can represent the uncertainty of data and models.

Our analysis directly combines both sources of uncertainty. A simple approach is to estimate average annual overdraft as the average of model results, and estimate the variability of annual overdraft from the standard deviation of these results.  A simple statistical equation can be used to estimate the probability of accumulated future overdraft for a given net reduction in pumping over a specified number of years. By defining sustainability as the inter-annual fluctuation of the groundwater table that does not exceed a minimum threshold (Figure 1), it is possible to estimate the probability of achieving sustainability as a function of the net reduction in groundwater use.

Figure 1 blog

Figure 1: Hypothetical representation of changes of groundwater storage over time and definition of minimum thresholds to define sustainability


Figure 2 shows results for all 21 Central Valley sub-regions. A net reduction in water use equaling the average level of overdraft has a 50% chance of achieving sustainability in any time period. Greater reductions in net water use increase the probability of ending overdraft, although the rates (the slope of the curves) vary across sub-regions depending on local conditions. For example:

  • Sub-regions that are sustainable (but that could become unsustainable with unfavorable conditions). Sub-regions 9 (Delta) and 12 (Turlock Basin) are sustainable on average, with positive average annual change in groundwater storage. Without net water use reductions their chances of balancing groundwater levels in 20 years exceed 70%, but with unfavorable hydrologic conditions they would have to reduce net water use to ensure sustainability.
  • Sub-regions with low levels of unsustainable pumping. Sub-regions 10 (Delta-Mendota Basin) and 11 (Modesto and southeast San Joaquin Basin) have some average annual overdraft (< 10 taf/year). Without net water use reduction, they would have almost a 50% chance achieving sustainability over next 20 years. To ensure sustainability for any future hydro-climatic conditions, they would have to reduce water use by much more (~ 80 taf/year).
  • Sub-regions with large values of unsustainable pumping. Sub-regions 8 (the valley floor east of the Delta) and 13 (Merced, Chowchilla, and Madera Basins) have larger average annual overdraft (55 and 116 taf/year respectively). Their larger variances also make the curves flatter. These sub-regions still have a 20% chance of becoming sustainable without reducing water use. Net use reductions at least three times the current level of overdraft are needed to reliably achieve sustainability.

For longer regulatory horizons, the range of pumping reductions for different probabilities narrows around the estimated average annual overdraft because the statistical average becomes more likely to dominate over rare favorable or unfavorable hydrology over longer periods.

Two caveats are worth mentioning. First, this analysis assumes all overdraft is addressed by net reductions in groundwater use. Smaller reductions will be needed if groundwater recharge can be increased in wet seasons and years. Some estimates find that 15-30% of long-term overdraft in the Central Valley could be supplied by additional groundwater replenishment (DWR 2018; Kocis and Dahlke 2017, Escriva-Bou and Hanak 2018). This could significantly reduce the economic impact of pumping restrictions. Second, our results are based on DWR’s C2VSim and USGS’s CVHM models, developed for the Central Valley. These models may have some difficulties representing local groundwater basins—the relevant geographic focus for GSPs. Even if GSPs are able to incorporate more accurate local estimates of overdraft and historic hydrology, it will still be important for these plans to estimate the uncertainties of these and other parameters in evaluating the likelihood of attaining groundwater sustainability.

Figure 2 blog

Figure 2. Probability of ending groundwater overdraft in year 2040 for a range of net groundwater pumping reductions for all Central Valley sub-regions

Increasing the likelihood of achieving sustainability rapidly raises agricultural economic losses

We also estimated economic costs and probabilities of achieving sustainability over different periods. Here, we assumed the sub-regions achieve sustainability only by reducing agricultural water use, with internal water markets within each sub-region.

Trade-off curves of the reliability of achieving sustainability versus economic costs of reducing farm water use follow an S curve (Figure 3). Small water use reductions have low likelihood of achieving sustainability, and lower economic costs for agriculture. Achieving sustainable groundwater levels with higher reliability requires more pumping reductions and much higher economic costs, because this requires curtailing water for more valuable crops. For example, the average cost to achieve a 50% chance of groundwater sustainability in sub-region 15 over 20 years is $10 million/year. However, to achieve nearly 100% reliability of sustainability would cost roughly six times more in lost crop revenues. Much longer compliance horizons lessen the tradeoff between farm sector costs and reliability of attaining sustainability.

Figure 3 blog

Figure 3: Higher likelihood of achieving groundwater sustainability reduces farm revenues (example for sub-region 15)

An important caveat is that we only account for agricultural revenue losses from reducing overdraft in this study. Plans would also need to consider costs of not reducing overdraft, including infrastructure damage related to land subsidence, capital costs of stranded wells, higher pumping costs, dry drinking water wells, and harm to groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

Some lessons

  1. Initial overdraft estimates will almost certainly be wrong. Uncertainties in data and models should be considered when developing overdraft estimates for Groundwater Sustainability Plans, and the plans should provide ranges of estimates. For instance, overdraft estimates for different historical periods could show the potential range of hydrologic variability, and the implications of this variability for attaining sustainability.
  2. Groundwater pumping restrictions will need to vary across years. To accommodate future droughts within the compliance horizon for attaining sustainability, required reductions in water use will need to vary across years.  Groundwater demand is generally higher during droughts, when less surface water is available. As droughts progress and groundwater is drawn down, pumping shares should be adjusted to avoid reaching the minimum threshold for groundwater levels too early, potentially causing significant investment losses in perennial crops.
  3. Long-term pumping and recharge efforts will likely need to adjust over time. Anticipating and building such adjustments into local groundwater plans should make it easier to implement plans and to anticipate changes in groundwater availability, as well as make it easier for state agencies to evaluate plans.
  4. Successful groundwater sustainability plans and institutions will analyze uncertainty to prepare to adapt to variable hydrology and new estimates of overdraft. Adaptive methods to account for California’s hydrologic variability and the inherent uncertainties are essential for a dynamic response to changing conditions. SGMA’s requirement that GSPs update their plans at least every five years provides an important opportunity to incorporate new information and lessons, and adapt to changing conditions.
  5. State regulators can help by providing common regional templates, data, and models for analysis and institutional response. To facilitate the transition to stronger sustainability accounting—incorporating uncertainties—state technical assistance should focus on standardizing and improving the quality of the data, documentation, modeling, and other key tools for GSP planning and implementation. DWR’s Draft Handbook for Water Budget Development (2020) may be a step in this direction.

Data availability and replicability

The data and code to replicate all the analyses included in this paper are available at

Further reading

Escriva-Bou, A., R. Hui, S. Maples, J. Medellín-Azuara, T. Harter, and J. Lund (2020) “Planning for Groundwater Sustainability Accounting for Uncertainty and Costs: an Application to California’s Central Valley,” Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 264, 110426,

Brush, C.F., Dogrul, E.C., Kadir, T.N., 2013. Development and Calibration of the California Central Valley Groundwater-Surface Water Simulation Model (C2VSim), Version 3.02-CG. California Department of Water Resources, Bay-Delta Office.

DWR (California Department of Water Resources) 2018 Water Available for Replenishment Report (Sacramento CA: California Department of Water Resources) (Now seemingly unavailable from the DWR website)

DWR (California Department of Water Resources), 2020. Draft Handbook for Water Budget Development. With or Without Models.

Escriva-Bou, A., and Hanak, E. (2018), Appendix A: Update of the San Joaquin Valley’s Water Balance and Estimate of Water Available for Recharge in 2017. In Hanak et al (2018) Replenishing Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley. PPIC.

Escriva-Bou, A. (2019), Appendix A: Update Assessment of the San Joaquin Valley’s Water Balance. In Hanak et al (2019) Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, PPIC

Famiglietti J S, Lo M, Ho S L, Bethune J, Anderson K J, Syed T H, Swenson S C, de Linage C R and Rodell M 2011, “Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s Central Valley,” Geophy. Res. Lett. 38

Faunt C C 2009 Groundwater availability of the central valley aquifer, California, USGS Professional paper No. 1766.

Kocis, T.N. and H.E. Dahlke, 2017. Availability of high-magnitude streamflow for groundwater banking in the Central Valley, California. Environmental Research Letters.

Orth, D. “SGMA IMPLEMENTATION: David Orth gives his observations on how sustainable groundwater management is playing out in the San Joaquin Valley,” summarized by Maven March 19, 2020

Scanlon B R, Faunt C C, Longuevergne L, Reedy R C, Alley W M, McGuire V L and McMahon P B 2012 Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US high plains and central valley Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 109 9320–25

Xiao M, Koppa A, Mekonnen Z, Pagán B R, Zhan S, Cao Q, Aierken A, Lee H and Lettenmaier D P 2017 How much groundwater did California’s Central Valley lose during the 2012–2016 drought? Geophy. Res. Lett. 44 1–8

Alvar Escriva-Bou is a Research Fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. Jay Lund is the Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis. Josue Medellin-Azuara is an Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Merced. Thomas Harter is a Professor of Hydrology and Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis.


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Protecting California’s Aquatic Biodiversity in a Time of Crisis

by Peter Moyle, Jeanette Howard, Ted Grantham

Fig. 1. Walking in the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve on the UC Davis campus, where wide trails permit social spacing of hikers. The flow of the creek is regulated to favor native fish and wildlife.

“Nowhere is the biodiversity crisis more acute than in freshwater ecosystems” (Tickner et al. 2020)

Weeks of being confined indoors under shelter-in-place orders increases our appreciation of the natural world. Walking and exercising outdoors, especially along a local stream like Putah Creek, is one of the best ways to escape the news cycle and to restore a sense of well-being.  Quiet streets and pathways have invited a growing chorus of bird song and can even inspire  interest in watching hatches of mayflies rising off gurgling stream waters. Online livestreaming of  wildlife cameras has surged. These experiences remind us how California’s natural environments and rich biological diversity improve the quality of our lives.  They also remind us that this natural heritage is threatened. California harbors more unique plants and animals than other state in the U.S but an estimated 30 percent of our native species are now threatened with extinction (Mooney and Zavaleta 2016).

Sustaining the amazing diversity of life on this planet and in California in particular is a major challenge of this frenetic era. The importance of this protection is reflected in the growing realization that maintaining the diversity of native species living in healthy ecosystems also results in an environment that is good for people. However, the demand of California’s ever-increasing citizenry for intensive use of our land and water makes this challenge extremely hard to meet. Meeting the challenge has just been made even more urgent by the new finding that since 2000 California and the western USA has been experiencing a megadrought, in part because of the aggravations of climate change. This era is being pegged as the driest period in over 500 years and there is no reason to think it is not going to continue, despite occasional wet years.

A major response to the state’s biodiversity challenge by the state has been the California Biodiversity Initiative of 2018, which was supported by Governor Brown and continues to be supported by Governor Newsome. The initiative proposes statewide measures to halt the decline of native species and ecosystems, under the leadership of the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Food and Agriculture.

We applaud this initiative as a good beginning, even if stalled by the effects of the present pandemic. However, it also has a major flaw: it is so focused on terrestrial ecosystems and native plants that it overlooks the needs of native aquatic (freshwater) species, habitats, and ecosystems. California’s aquatic biodiversity is particularly imperiled, as it is worldwide (Tickner et al. 2020). This problem is most clearly reflected in status of our native fishes. Of our 125+ native fishes, seven species are already extinct and 100 species are in decline and may be ultimately threatened with extinction. These include 31 species already listed as Threatened or Endangered under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts and 62 species listed as Species of Special Concern by CDFW (Moyle et al. 2011, 2015). These species include salmon and steelhead that are both iconic and support valuable fisheries.

Native fish declines are mirrored by other freshwater taxa. Howard et al. (2015) conducted the first statewide status assessment of California’s freshwater taxa. They found that of about 2,000 freshwater vascular plants, macroinvertebrates, and vertebrates for which adequate information was available, half were ranked as vulnerable (data were lacking for the other ~2,000 freshwater taxa in the state). California’s vulnerable aquatic organisms were mostly endemic species, found nowhere else in the world. But among the vulnerable taxa, only 113 (6%) were listed as endangered or threatened under the federal or state ESAs indicating a general neglect of non-charismatic species.

California has taken notable steps to protect its biodiversity, primarily through the establishment of protected lands under various programs. Unfortunately, efforts to protect terrestrial habitats and ecosystems rarely do an adequate job of protecting aquatic biodiversity; most of the key rivers that support threatened fishes, for example, flow outside of protected areas (Grantham et al. 2016). Of course, because terrestrial ecosystems drain into or encompass freshwater systems, management of terrestrial habitats is important for conserving aquatic habitats. However, most protected areas in the state are not explicitly managed to maintain freshwater ecosystems and their biota.

If native freshwater biodiversity is to be conserved, a systematic, statewide approach is required. Building on previous work by Howard et al. (2018), Grantham et al. (2016), Moyle (2002) and Moyle and Yoshiyama (1996), we argue that such an approach should be centered on the designation of priority watersheds and/or habitats for freshwater species management. Moyle (2002) identified a network of streams, lakes, spring systems, wetlands, and watersheds throughout the state that could potentially support all of the state’s native freshwater fishes and include representative examples of all of California’s aquatic habitats (as described by Moyle and Ellison 1991). Grantham et al. (2016) and Howard et al. (2018) extended this approach by using systematic conservation planning methods (Linke et al. 2011) to identify a network of watersheds in California that most efficiently encompass the distribution of all native freshwater taxa. Collectively, these studies provide an ecosystem-based blueprint for pursuing a systematic, statewide approach to freshwater biodiversity conservation, through Freshwater Protected Areas (FPAs), inspired by California’s system of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

In addition to the designation of FPAs, water supplies must also be secured for aquatic biodiversity protection. All aquatic species depend upon a sufficient quantity and quality of water throughout the year, no matter what type of habitat they live in. This is particularly true of riverine species that have adapted to the natural variation in seasonal flows – including winter high flows and summer low flows – that characterize the state’s rivers and streams. Yet most of California’s flowing waters have been dammed, diverted, and otherwise modified (Grantham et al. 2014), activities which have altered natural flow patterns and impaired aquatic habitats (Zimmerman et al. 2018). Only a small proportion of the state’s rivers and streams have environmental flow protections and many of these are managed mainly for single species, such as ESA-listed salmon and steelhead. Recently, a working group of researchers and agency staff has been developing a California Environmental Flows Framework (Obester et al. 2020; The Framework includes technical tools and guidance for developing environmental flow standards in streams throughout the state, focusing on specific functional elements of the flow regime linked to ecosystem health (i.e., functional flows). The overall goal of the Framework is to support a more consistent, and comprehensive approach to managing water for the environment in California.

The protection of California’s aquatic biodiversity, incorporating the above approaches, will require a large-scale effort. This effort should start now and accelerate when people and conservation agencies are less distracted by the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic, including a distressed economy. We can envision actions to protect aquatic biodiversity as being part of the economic recovery efforts for California.

Priority actions include:

1. Update and invest in mapping and assessment of freshwater taxa and habitats.

One reason that the state has been unable to implement a systematic strategy for managing native freshwater biodiversity is the limited collection, poor organization, and inaccessibility of data. Several recent efforts, including the PISCES database for tracking of the distribution of native fishes (Santos et al. 2013) and the California Freshwater Species Database for tracking additional freshwater species (TNC 2015), have been difficult to update and sustain because of lack of funds and personnel. Other data sources are either inaccessible to the public (e.g, California Natural Diversity Data Base) or are poorly organized (e.g., Biogeographic information and Observation System [BIOS]). These should be vetted, reorganized, and published, following modern data management and open source principles. TNC’s California State of Salmon website attempts to provide accessible data for all watersheds with salmon and steelhead monitoring ( However, monitoring programs are inadequate for accurately tracking the status of even these iconic species. Most other species are either monitored opportunistically or not at all. Successful management of the state’s freshwater biota and ecosystems cannot be achieved without a robust, comprehensive monitoring program.

2.  Designate and manage Freshwater Protected Areas (FPAs).

We already have a good idea where many of the most important areas for freshwater species conservation are located. However, there has been no formal designation or concentrated effort to identify and prioritize such areas for conservation and management actions. The 2018 Biodiversity Initiative aims to protect 20 percent of each major ecosystem type in the state, including freshwater ecosystems and to restore 15 percent of each ecosystem type from its degraded status. While this sounds good, the numbers are arbitrary and reflect terrestrial thinking. For rivers, for example, how do you protect an ”ecosystem type” that has not been clearly defined and changes as it flows downstream? Does it mean establishment of a statewide network of watersheds focused on their restoration and protection? If that is the case, how big (hydrologic unit) should each watershed in the system be? Whatever the units, FPAs should provide habitat for as much of the native aquatic biota as possible, throughout the state. Previous work by Moyle (2002), Grantham et al. (2016), and Howard et al. (2018) establish a blueprint for delineating FPAs that could efficiently protect native freshwater biodiversity and habitats.  With this information, a team of scientists, such that assembled for the California Biodiversity Initiative, should be able to come up with a site-specific plan to implement an FPA strategy, if California is willing to support it. The plan would, based on both expert opinion and computer algorithms, could provide preliminary designations of potential FPAs, much as Moyle and Randall (1998) did for Sierra Nevada watersheds. These could then be investigated more closely and appropriate action taken to protect the most imperiled FPAs.

3. Accelerate implementation of environmental flows.

California Environmental Flows Framework provides guidance for developing flow recommendations to maintain healthy freshwater ecosystems. The Framework provides a set of flow criteria (based on predictions of functional flows informed by reference stream hydrology) that can be used to immediately establish environmental flow standards in rivers where they do not exist. In rivers and streams with existing flow protections, the Framework can be applied to refine standards so that they are more effective in supporting ecosystem health. On-the-ground pilot projects are needed to implement the Framework across the diversity of California’s rivers and management contexts. As the foundation of the Framework, the functional flows approach also recognizes that environmental flow protections be coupled with strategic investments in physical habitat improvements, such as levee setbacks and barrier removals. For large rivers, it is particularly important to restore their connectivity to their floodplains to support the biological and physical functions that sustain salmon and other native species.

In short, California does a poor job of protecting aquatic biodiversity. A bold and imaginative, systematic effort is needed to protect and manage aquatic biodiversity. This will take leadership, money, and dedication to getting the job done by federal, state, and local agencies. As a biodiversity hotspot with an economy bigger than most nations, California should be leading the country and the world in protecting its aquatic systems. We have the tools at hand, but have been unable to muster the will to do the hard work. But as we reflect upon the natural world during the current public health crisis, it just may be that our growing appreciation of California’s biological richness is what is needed to inspire meaningful action.

Peter Moyle is an emeritus professor at the Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis. Jeanette Howard leads The Nature Conservancy’s freshwater science team for California; Ted Grantham is a Co-operative Extension Specialist in the Department of Science, Policy, and Management, UC Berkeley.

Fig. 2. The Long Valley speckled dace is an undescribed fish species that is now found in only one small stream and wetland in the wild, the Owens Valley region. The headwaters of the stream is hot springs that are now a public swimming pool. Its habitat needs protection if the fish is to survive. This is an example of an aquatic system that could be declared an FPA and managed appropriately.

Further Reading

Grantham, T.E., J. H. Viers, and P.B. Moyle. 2014 Systematic screening of dams for environmental flow assessment and implementation. Bioscience 64: 1006-1018.

Grantham, T. E., K.A. Fesenmyer, R. Peek, E. Holmes, R. M. Quiñones, A. Bell, N. Santos, J.K. Howard, J.H. Viers, and P.B. Moyle. 2016. Missing the boat on freshwater fish conservation in California. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12249.

Howard J.K. and 20 others. 2015. Patterns of freshwater species richness, endemism, and vulnerability in California. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0130710. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130710.

Howard, J.K. and 10 others.   A freshwater conservation blueprint for California: prioritizing watersheds for freshwater biodiversity. Freshwater Science 37(2): 417-431.

Linke, S., E. Turak, and J. Nel.  2011. Freshwater conservation planning: the case for systematic approaches. Freshwater Biology 56(1): 6-20.

Mooney, H. and E. Zavaleta. Ecosystems of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

Mount, J., B. Gray, K. Bork, J. E. Cloern, F. W. Davis, T. Grantham, L. Grenier, J. Harder, Y. Kuwayama, P. Moyle, M. W. Schwartz, A.Whipple, and S.Yarnell. 2019.  A Path Forward for California’s Freshwater Ecosystems.  San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California. 32 pp.

Moyle, P. B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California: Revised and Expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moyle, P. B., and J. Ellison.  1991.  A conservation-oriented classification system for California’s inland waters.  California Fish and Game 77:161-180.

Moyle, P.B., J. V. E. Katz and R. M. Quiñones.  2011. Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: a status assessment.  Biological Conservation 144: 2414-2423.

Moyle, P.B., R. M. Quiñones, J.V.E. Katz, and J. Weaver. 2015.  Fish Species of Special Concern in California.  3rd edition.  Sacramento: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Moyle, P. B., and P. J. Randall.  1998.  Evaluating the biotic integrity of watersheds in the Sierra Nevada, California. Conservation Biology 12:1318-1326.

Moyle, P. B., and R. M. Yoshiyama.  1994.  Protection of aquatic biodiversity in California: A five-tiered approach.  Fisheries 19:6-18.

Obester, A., S. Yarnell, and T. Grantham.  2020. Environmental flows in California.  California WaterBlog, March 18, 2020.

Santos, N.R., J.V.E. Katz, P.B. Moyle, and J. H. Viers. 2013.  A programmable information system for management and analysis of aquatic species range data in California. Environmental Modeling & Software 53:13-26.

Zimmerman, J.K., Carlisle, D.M., May, J.T., Klausmeyer, K.R., Grantham, T.E., Brown, L.R. and Howard, J.K., 2018. Patterns and magnitude of flow alteration in California, USA. Freshwater Biology, 63(8):859-873.

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Supreme Court Ruling Finds Old, New Middle Ground on Clean Water Act’s Application to Groundwater


Groundwater Replenishment Facility in Coachella, Calif. Photo: Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

By Thomas Harter, Steph Tai, and Karrigan Bork

In 1972, the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA) created a permit system for point source discharges to navigable waters of the United States – rivers, lakes, and coastal waters – with the goal of restoring and protecting their water quality. Typically, these permits are issued by the U.S. EPA or through state agencies to dischargers of wastewater, e.g., from urban and industrial wastewater treatment plants and to other dischargers of potentially contaminated water that reach streams by a pipe or similar conveyance. The goal was to provide some degree of regulatory oversight over such discharges.  In California, the State Water Resources Control Board implements the federal Clean Water Act using its authority under the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (Water Code, §13000 et seq.). Under the CWA, neither EPA nor the states are required to issue permits for pollutant discharges into groundwater or to nonpoint source dischargers.

This week, the Supreme Court decided on a case involving discharge from a wastewater reclamation facility owned and operated by the County of Maui.  In this case, the facility discharged 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into four injection wells about half a mile from the ocean.  Recent research showed that much of the injected waste eventually discharges to the ocean. Environmental groups sued the county for not obtaining a CWA permit, arguing that point source discharge of pollutants that eventually reach surface water is governed under CWA. All sides agreed that the case at hand involved a point source of pollutant discharge and that the pollution eventually reached the ocean. The disagreement was whether the CWA requires the permit only if the pollutant discharge is directly into surface water, as argued by the defendants (a “bright-line test”). Environmental groups argued that even if the pollutant discharge is via groundwater to surface water, the CWA permit must be obtained. The district court and the Ninth Circuit court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Ninth Circuit court held that permits are required when “pollutants are fairly traceable” from the point source to surface water.

In its final 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court majority now rejects both sides’ arguments as too extreme and returned the case to the lower courts with further guidance.  On the “bright-line test”, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, wrote “we do not see how Congress could have intended to create such a large and obvious loop hole in one of the key regulatory innovations of the Clean Water Act.”  On the “fairly traceable” approach, the opinion stated that such interpretation “would require a permit in surprising, even bizarre circumstances”.


Groundwater discharge to a nearby agricultural canal in Yolo County. Photo: 2013 by John Chacon / California DWR

Instead, the Court decision introduces the concept of a “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” as a guideline for when a point source discharge must obtain a permit. It cites the case of an injection well receiving pollutant discharge that then travels a few feet through groundwater into navigable waters as a clear case of “functional equivalent” to direct discharge. But it rejects the notion that such a “functional equivalent” exists in a case with “100 year migration of pollutants through 250 miles of groundwater to a river” and “likely does not apply” if “the pipe ends 50 miles from navigable waters”. The Court acknowledges that the concept of “functional equivalence” as the Court’s guideline leaves many point source discharges to groundwater somewhere between these extreme cases.  It relegates consideration of those cases back to regulators and lower courts, suggesting they consider the various groundwater flow and transport factors underlying individual cases – travel time and distance in particular, but also soils and geology, geochemical reactions, the locations where pollutants subsequently enter navigable waters, and “the degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity.”

Importantly, the majority opinion does not expect a “vastly” expanded scope of the CWA, such that permits would be required, e.g., for the country’s 20 million septic systems. It does so in two ways: by emphasizing (and affirming) the long history of CWA implementation, which has, at times, required permits even if pollutant discharge was via groundwater into surface waters, but not under other circumstances. And, secondly, both the majority and dissenting opinions repeatedly underscore the important role and sovereignty of states in regulating discharges to groundwater and nonpoint source pollution (groundwater pollutant discharge to surface water is sometimes considered nonpoint source pollution of surface water).

The decision will not make it easier than in the past for either regulators or lower courts to make their determinations as to whether a point source pollutant discharge to groundwater that eventually affects surface water is subject to a CWA permit. But the decision sides squarely with the use of science. And it shows a remarkable acknowledgement of hydrologic sciences and the interconnectedness of surface water and groundwater: “Virtually all water, polluted or not, eventually make its way to navigable water. This is as true for groundwater.” Perhaps this statement missed the nuance that some groundwater, particularly in the western U.S., will instead be pumped by wells onto crops or pulled by plant roots from the water table to be evapotranspired into the atmosphere. But it underscores that the court made its decision knowing and applying hydrologic science. “Given the power of modern science, The Ninth Circuit’s limitation, ‘fairly traceable’, may well allow EPA to assert permitting authority over the release of pollutants that reach navigable waters many years after their release […] and in highly diluted forms.”, an application that the justices find inconsistent with the CWA.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Alito rejects the introduction of the “functional equivalence” concept as too vague and inconsistent with the language of CWA.  Given the authorities of states on matters of groundwater and nonpoint source pollution, he supports the “bright-line test”.  But importantly, Justice Alito instead refers to the definition of “point source” as a means to avoid the loopholes cited in the majority opinion as reason to reject the “bright-line test”:  He points out that, according to CWA, “point source[s] include [….] ‘any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance… from which pollutants … may be discharged.’ §1362(14).” The opinion continues to describe how the pathway created by pollutant discharge from a pipe onto a beach and ending in the ocean” or many of the cases that trouble the Court” would easily be covered by applying common definitions of “conveyance”, “discernable”, and “confined”.  Groundwater hydrologists may further point out something not mentioned and perhaps not considered by Justice Alito: that we do have scientific tools (as referred to by the majority opinion) to similarly describe some groundwater pathways as a conveyance that is indeed discernable and confined, “i.e., held within bounds”.  So perhaps Justice Alito’s argument, from a scientific perspective, would in practice not be substantively different from the scientific criteria that the majority opinion associated with defining “functional equivalent” point source discharge. Such an interpretation would add further support and a consistent angle to the overall spirit of the Court’s decision.

The Maui decision is already having a ripple effect in other areas of environmental


Submarine Groundwater Discharge, USGS

concern.  Environmentalists have long been advocating against the use of coal ash impoundments—open pits for disposal of toxic byproducts left over from burning coal.  Many of these byproducts have allegedly moved from these impoundments through groundwater into streams and rivers.  Prior to the decision in Maui, power companies argued the CWA permitting program was inapplicable to impoundments.  But the Maui decision will likely lend weight to these challenges.

The Maui decision also will likely impact litigation over the federal administration’s repeal of the Water of the United States rule, a regulation under the Obama administration which clarified the views of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the reach of the Clean Water Act.  In this repeal, this administration specifically stated, in response to commenters, that “A groundwater or subsurface connection could also be confusing and difficult to implement, including in the determination of whether a subsurface connection exists and to what extent.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency, The Navigable Waters Protection Rule: Definition of ‘‘Waters of the United States,” 85 Fed. Reg. 22,250, 22,313 (Apr. 21, 2020).  Promulgated by the agencies before the Maui decision came out, the agencies will likely have to wrestle with the Maui decision in subsequent challenges.

While the decision leaves some previous uncertainty over the interpretation of the CWA, and perhaps adds some, California dischargers are unlikely to face additional regulation under this decision. Under the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, California already requires permits for discharges to groundwater, even if they don’t meet the “functional equivalent” test outlined by Justice Breyer’s majority opinion. California regulators may need to adjust their approach to reflect that some of these permits will also serve as CWA permits under the state’s authority, but this should not impose significant new burdens on regulated entities. California’s robust implementation of a strong groundwater quality regulatory program, implementing state laws (including the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SGMA) and other federal laws governing discharge of pollutants to groundwater (Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, state and federal Superfund programs) puts it in an excellent position to have little to worry about a new layer of bureaucracy and restrictions.

The decision’s reliance on strong groundwater science marks another significant step in the emerging integration of groundwater and surface water. The California courts and legislature have long regarded surface water and groundwater as legally distinct, but over the last decade that legal fiction has begun to break down. In 2014, SGMA explicitly recognized the relationship between groundwater and surface water, requiring groundwater managers to avoid significant and unreasonable adverse impacts on beneficial uses of surface water. In 2018, a California appellate court ruled that the public doctrine applies to groundwater extraction if it adversely impacts a navigable waterway. This decision validates the hard work of water scientists working to protect critical freshwater systems in the context of integrated watershed and water resources management, including efforts to protect many of these freshwater resources that depend on high quality groundwater discharge. And it reminds us to keep hard at working to achieve the larger vision of the Clean Water Act.

Professors Harter and Tai were both authors of an amicus brief in this Supreme Court case.

Thomas Harter is a Professor of Hydrologic Sciences and a Cooperative Extension Groundwater Specialist at the University of California, Davis.  He is currently Acting Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and Chair of the Hydrologic Sciences Graduate Group.

Steph Tai is a Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.  Their research focuses on areas of science, risk, and environmental and food regulation.

Karrigan Bork is an Acting Professor of Law and an Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on water law, environmental law, and natural resource conservation.

Further readings

Supreme Court opinion, County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 2020:

Supreme Court Docket, No. 18-260 (County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 2020):

Brief amici curiae of Aquatic Scientists and Scientific Societies, filed July 19, 2019:

Karrigan Bork, 2019:  What water is covered by the Clean Water Act? California Water Blog



Science Magazine:

Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck:

Frank, R. (2020), Here Today, Gone to Maui – U.S. Supreme Court Issues Environment-Friendly Ruling in Major Clean Water Act Case


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Science of an underdog: the improbable comeback of spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River

By Andrew L. Rypel, Gabriel Singer, and Nann A. Fangue

Fig. 1. (Left) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners prepare to release ~90,000 spring-run Chinook salmon into the San Joaquin River, 3/6/17. USFWS Photo/Steve Martarano, downloaded from (Right) Transferring juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon prior to release. Photo by Gabriel Singer.

“You can’t design a worse evolutionary strategy for the Anthropocene”

There are many variants on this quote, and we’ve heard them often in reference to the status of native fishes in California and other freshwater organisms worldwide. Indeed, the statement rings true for Pacific salmon, but especially spring-run Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in California. And although the current situation certainly looks bleak overall for endangered salmon (Moyle et al. 2017), there are signs in a few corners that the arrow may finally be pointing up. For the last four years, our team at UC Davis has been conducting scientific studies on reintroduced spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River and we wanted to take a minute to share some of what we’ve learned. Plus, everyone loves a good comeback story right?

Primer on the life-history of spring-run Chinook salmon

The complicated life-histories of Chinook salmon in the Pacific are well-known. Indeed they are a frequent topic of blog posts here! (examples, 1, 2, 3). Living as adults in the Pacific Ocean and migrating into freshwater tributaries, adults spawn and subsequently die leaving their carcasses to fertilize freshwater ecosystems with marine-derived nutrients. Young salmon must outmigrate from freshwater habitats to the ocean (and survive!) where they feed and live as adults. In California, we think of late summer and into fall, and maybe even into winter as prime time adult Chinook salmon migration time. But, spring-run Chinook salmon are different. These fish enter freshwater in spring months as sexually immature adults, and historically migrated long distances upriver to coldwater refuges in the mountains. Here, they “oversummer”, often congregating in deep coldwater plunge pools high in the landscape where they survived on their fat reserves, which dwindled as they continued to mature. When rains and flows increase in the late fall, barriers to movement suddenly become passable and fish would migrate further into the high California landscape to spawn in the fall. When you consider this life-history, and the current human-dominated landscape of California (think dams built without fish passage, climate change, landscape alterations), it is little wonder that this species (technically an “ESU, Ecologically Significant Unit”) has declined to where it is listed under the CA and US Endangered Species Act. Yet, spring-run Chinook salmon are full of surprises. Here’s some of them: 

Fig. 2. Long-term trends in adult abundances of spring-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento Valley. Data are from CDFW Status Report (1998), and Grandtab (Azat 2019). Historical (pre-1900) abundance estimates are based on extrapolations from cannery records.

Surprise 1 – Spring-run Chinook salmon historically were co-dominant with the fall-run in the Central Valley and in some years may even have exceeded the fall-run in overall abundance. Today, we tend to consider fall-run Chinook salmon as the main run of salmon in California, but alas, it was the spring-run that originally predominated in the early commercial salmon fishery due to its great abundance, wide distribution and higher food quality. In one year alone (1883), at least 567,000 spring-run salmon were reported caught in the commercial fishery, not to mention all the fish that escaped the fishery and spawned in their home streams. Through the 1880s, total commercial harvests (composed primarily of spring-run fish) generally hovered around 5 million to 10 million pounds — which, at an average weight of 16 pounds per salmon, would have equated to about 310,000 to 625,000 salmon. Current valley-wide numbers oscillate between only a few thousand to upwards of 25,000 adults (Fig. 2).

Surprise 2 – While it is hard to imagine now, the San Joaquin River at one time contained the most abundant population of spring-run Chinook salmon in the Central Valley, perhaps due to the extirpation of all the other great spring-run populations originally found throughout the Valley (Yoshiyama et al 1998). Most of these fish spawned in the upper reaches of the watershed in the Sierra Nevada where strong coldwater habitats allowed fish to over-summer as described above. Following the completion of Friant Dam, spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River were predictably extirpated in rapid succession. Identical stories of dams built without fish passage and subsequent salmon declines exist for every major river draining into the Central Valley. Yet in addition to blocking access to coldwater habitat in the Sierra Nevada, completion of Friant Dam and a chain of dams upstream (e.g., Kerckhoff Dam/Millerton Reservoir) also facilitated diversion of high proportions of water from the San Joaquin River such that ~ 60 miles were left completely dry when the project was completed (Matthews 2007). 

Fig. 3. Aerial photo revealing the landscape of the San Joaquin River, CA. Photo by Ken Lund, downloaded from, 4/14/20

Surprise 3 – Despite continued degradation of the river (Fig. 3), and its status as perennial contender for “America’s most endangered river”, spring-run Chinook salmon have been on the comeback trail for the last five years. Much of this success is largely due to a massive habitat restoration and reintroduction effort, spear-headed by the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP). The SJRRP has developed a comprehensive reintroduction strategy for spring-run Chinook salmon intended to overcome the various obstacles that impede reestablishment of a viable spring-run Chinook salmon population. Habitat projects include restoring connectivity in the river, increasing flows to provide suitable habitat to complete all phases of the life cycle, and removal and reconfiguration of structures that obstruct movement of salmon. The phased goals of the program include reintroduction of spring-run Chinook salmon (supported by a conservation hatchery operated by CDFW), establishment of self-sustaining local populations under contemporary river conditions, and finally long-term maintenance of a population of 30,000 spawning adults with negligible hatchery influence.

It is of note that spring-run fish from the Feather River Hatchery were used to initially jumpstart the conservation hatchery broodstock for the San Joaquin River. Thus, we can never truly “bring back” the original upper San Joaquin spring-run – a notable consequence of extinction overall.  However, a recently published genomic study on Central Valley Chinook salmon (Meek et al. 2020) revealed that Feather River Hatchery spring-run have distinctive genetic elements that set it apart from the two other Central Valley spring-runs (i.e., Mill/Deer Creek, and Butte Creek) as well as from the Feather River Hatchery fall-run. This finding in turn suggests the Feather River Hatchery spring-run likely retains ancestral genetic elements from the original Feather River spring-run varieties. Hence, the new reintroduced San Joaquin spring-run population is aiding in preservation of Feather River spring-run ancestry, but also, overall genetic diversity of Central Valley Chinook populations – this is a good thing.

Science to inform adaptive management of spring-run Chinook salmon

Over the last 4 years, our team has been developing science that can be used to facilitate adaptive management of reintroduced spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River. The centerpiece to this work has been a set of focused acoustic telemetry studies on juvenile salmon released each spring. Beginning each year in early March, our team usually tags 750 juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon produced at the Salmon Conservation and Research Facility (SCARF; Friant, CA) with miniature Juvenile Salmon Acoustic Telemetry System (JSATS) transmitters. Similar to a recent blog, these transmitters produce sounds that are then “heard” by receivers maintained by our team throughout the river (Fig. 4). Fish with uniquely coded transmitters swim past receivers and data are registered allowing us to study survival rates, routing and other fish behaviors of interest. The JSATS transmitters are the smallest available on the commercial market, allowing us to track fish as small as ~72mm in length, although we prefer to tag larger smolts.

Fig. 4. (Top) Taggable-size spring-run Chinook salmon from the SCARF hatchery. Resting on top of the fish is a miniature acoustic transmitter ready to implant in the fish. (Bottom) Finishing JSAT implantation surgery on a juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon. Photos by Gabriel Singer.

Currently, spring-run Chinook salmon are confined to only the lower San Joaquin River (below Friant Dam). Therefore, we track fish through this area which includes the lower region of the Restoration Area, but also continues through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, San Francisco Estuary, and entrance to the Pacific Ocean. We also maintain (fancier and more expensive) real-time receivers at the federal and state pumping facilities which provide a rapid window into how many juvenile fish are being entrained and salvaged at the water pumping facilities. These receivers transmit data in real time via cell phone towers. See example of real-time telemetry data from this year’s spring-run tagging.

With three years of data now in the bag, some patterns are notably clear. First, as is typical with juvenile salmon in the Central Valley – water matters! Years during which there was increased precipitation and high flows, survivorship to the ocean was higher. In 2017 (a wet year – remember Oroville Dam!), we estimated out-migration survival to the Golden gate at 2-5%, but in 2018 (a drier year) survivorship plunged to only 0.5%. In a wetter year, 2019 survivorship increased again to 5%. In 2020, real time receivers at Benicia Bridge estimate that so far only 0.5% of our fish have successfully out-migrated to the ocean – ouch again! As a comparison, telemetry studies for other runs of Chinook salmon in the Sacramento during 2019 suggested outmigration survival rates upwards of 15-20%. Our data therefore indicate survivorship is uniformly low for salmon in the San Joaquin River overall, and that flows here probably really matter for the fish. Most of the tagged fish that enter the interior Delta simply don’t make it out. 

Finally, we have found that many of our tagged fish are plucked out of the river at the fish salvage facilities located at the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (pumping facilities). Interestingly, these fish often have higher survivorship to the ocean versus fish remaining in the mainstem San Joaquin River or freely swimming through the interior Delta. This pattern is likely not because being salvaged is “good for fish” but rather, because upon salvage, fish are physically trucked around the interior Delta to the San Francisco Bay. Previous studies on fall-run salmon smolts in the system found highly similar patterns (Buchanan et al. 2018). Furthermore, a temporary fish barrier is often installed by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) at the head of Old River to prevent fish from being drawn towards the pumping facilities (DWR 1992). Yet it now seems possible that this barrier, originally installed to prevent fish from accessing an assumed low survival route in low discharge years, may sometimes actually block access to the highest survival out-migration pathway (salvage). It is notably sad and ironic perhaps, that the quality of habitat in the lower river is so poor that the best migration path for salmon appears to be as a salvaged fish, trucked around the Delta by DWR or BOR staff.


While the data we have paint a grim ecological picture for spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River, the situation is beginning to trend positive. At the end of May 2019, at least 23 adult spring-run salmon returned to the river, capping at least a 370 mile round trip journey to the ocean and back again. It also marked the first time in 65 years that adult spring-run Chinook salmon returned volitionally to the San Joaquin River to spawn. In fall of 2019, more than 200 redds were counted, a 4-fold increase from the previous year. Wild smolts have been increasingly captured in screw traps, indicating successful reproduction is occurring in the wild independent of hatchery efforts. 

As we continue to gain data on the biology of reintroduced salmon in the San Joaquin River, we will be able to provide increased information valuable for conservation. For example, we are conducting focused experiments on specific areas of the interior delta that we think may be especially problematic for salmon smolts (e.g., Frank’s Tract). We are also conducting innovative studies on the physiology of salmon smolts experimentally exposed to different parts of the river. Finally, we are conducting in-depth habitat assessments to further inform why there are major “hotspots of death” for salmon in the lower portions of the ecosystem. In the future, adding more upriver habitat to the current migration corridor for spring-run may be worth consideration. For example, historically, the very best spring-run Chinook habitat was in the area where Kerckhoff Dam (Millerton Reservoir) now stands, upriver from Friant. While these areas are now mostly flooded, remnants of deep pool habitat do exist below Kerckhoff Dam, making restoration a possibility in these areas. If these pools can be managed for coldwater through summer months, small runs of spring-run Chinook salmon above Friant may also be possible.

Finally, what we have encountered all along the way has been a constant dedication to the fish and ecosystem from biologists of all stripes at agencies, universities, fishing groups and others. We work hand-in-hand with a number of agencies conducting concurrent telemetry studies in the Sacramento River and Delta, and are constantly impressed by the professionalism and dedication needed to help recover our fish populations. It is heartening that against all odds, spring-run Chinook salmon are staging a comeback (albeit small currently) in one of the most endangered rivers in the USA. We are proud to be part of these interdisciplinary studies that provide, not only information needed immediately for conservation, but also as a training ground for the future of fisheries biology. There are so many to praise for these advances.

Fig. 5. View from the top of Friant Dam pointing downriver. The raging whitewater on the left is the Friant-Kern Canal which pulls ~75% of its water from Friant. The more docile waterbody to the right is the San Joaquin River. Photo by Gabriel Singer.

Andrew Rypel is an Associate Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and an Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Gabriel Singer is a postdoctoral research associate in the Rypel Lab at University of California, Davis. Nann Fangue is a professor and Chair of the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at University of California, Davis.

Further reading:

2019 Spring-Run Redds Set Record!

Azat, J. 2019. GrandTab 2019.05.07 California Central Valley Chinook Population Database Report. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sacramento, CA USA. 

Buchanan, R.A., Brandes, P.L., Skalski, J.R., 2018. Survival of Juvenile Fall-Run Chinook Salmon through the San Joaquin River Delta, California, 2010–2015. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 38: 663–679.

California Department of Water Resources. 1992. South Delta Temporary Barriers Project: monitoring, evaluation, and management program. California Department of Water Resources, Sacramento, CA USA.

Matthews, N. 2007. Rewatering the San Joaquin River: A Summary of the Friant Dam Litigation. Ecology Law Quarterly 34(3): 1109–1135.

Meek, M.H., M.R. Stephens, A. Goodbla, M. May, and M.R. Baerwald. 2020. Identifying hidden biocomplexity and genomic diversity in Chinook salmon, an imperiled species with a history of anthropogenic influence. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 77: 534-547.

Moyle, P. B., R. Lusardi, and P. Samuel. 2017. State of the Salmonids II: Fish in hot water. Status, threats and solutions for California salmon, steelhead and trout. University of California-Davis, CA USA.Yoshiyama, R. M., F. W. Fisher, and P. B. Moyle. 1998. Historical abundance and decline of chinook salmon in the Central Valley region of California. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 18: 487-521.

Yoshiyama, R. M., F. W. Fisher, and P. B. Moyle. 1998. Historical abundance and decline of chinook salmon in the Central Valley region of California. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 18: 487-521.


This research is being funded by the Delta Science Council, with additional support from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Our larger team of scientists at UC Davis working on this project includes Dennis Cocherell, Colby Hause, Leah Mellinger, Sarah Baird, Michael Thomas, Amanda Agosta, Heather Bell, Matthew Pagel, Emily Jacinto, Mackenzie Miner, Wilson Xiong. We also thank past scientists at UC Davis including A. Peter Klimley and Eric Chapman for their important contributions in the early years of this work. Lori Smith and Pat Brandes (USFWS), Don Portz (SJRRP), Towns Burgess (SJRRP), John Kelly (CDFW), Matt Bigelow (CDFW), and Josh Isreal (USBOR) have all been critical to supporting and continuing this work. We thank Peter Moyle, Ronald Yoshiyama and Towns Burgess for reviewing earlier versions of this blog.

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Striped Bass in the Pacific Ocean: When, where and why?

by Dylan K. Stompe

Fig. 1. Point San Pedro, California. Photo taken aboard Etrac Inc.’s vessel “505”.

Striped bass are an iconic and recreationally important fish species throughout the United States, including within their native range on the Atlantic Coast. Based on their value as a sport fish and as table fare, striped bass were one of the early introductions to the San Francisco Estuary (SFE). Their life-history and abundance within the SFE has been studied as much or more than any other fish present in the system, with only Chinook salmon, and more recently Delta smelt, approaching the same level of interest. Given the historical resources dedicated to monitoring and studying striped bass in the SFE, the question must be asked; why don’t we know more about what they’re doing in the Pacific Ocean?

The magnitude of striped bass migrations along the North American Atlantic Coast is well-known. Believed to be cued by increased ocean temperatures during summer months, a large proportion of Atlantic Coast striped bass migrate north every summer in search of productive feeding grounds. This behavior not only provides valuable food resources to migrants, it also exposes individuals to mortality risk from recreational and commercial fisheries. In California, striped bass’ introduction to the SFE occurred in 1879, and the first recorded catch was just one year later in Monterey Bay (Smith 1895). In relatively rapid order, the species became fully established and supported a large commercial fishery (Scofield 1931). Likewise, multiple permanent and transient populations have established via coastal migrations in estuaries up and down the Pacific Coast. One such population, in Coos Bay, Oregon, became large enough to support a commercial fishery for several decades before it collapsed, apparently due to inbreeding (Waldman et al. 1998).

Limited research has gone into understanding what conditions are responsible for striped bass venturing into the Pacific Ocean. Past studies have relied mainly on catch data from commercial party fishing boats that fish within the SFE and just outside of the Golden Gate. These data show that catch of striped bass in the Pacific Ocean increases during periods of unusually warm sea surface temperatures (Radovich 1963, Bennett and Howard 1997). Unusually warm, however, has shifted in meaning as climate change progresses. For example, extreme El Niño events that bring warm water to the Pacific Coast are forecasted to increase in frequency as the global climate warms (Wang et al. 2017).

Fig. 2. Striped bass captured in the San Joaquin River near Tracy, California by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nov. 28, 2017. Photo by Steve Martarano, downloaded from 4/12/20

Increased catch of striped bass in the Pacific Ocean during El Niño events, the establishment of Oregon populations, and the annual Atlantic Coast migrations indicate that Pacific Coast migrations have and will continue to occur. However, the specific dynamics and repercussions of this behavior for the SFE population are largely unknown. Along the Atlantic Coast, it is well-established that large female striped bass migrate. These same individuals also produce the highest number and quality of eggs. Thus, if female mortality is high in the Pacific Ocean, or if individuals permanently emigrate to other estuaries, a loss of juvenile production may occur. Bennett and Howard (1997) speculated that these dynamics may at least partially explain the long-term decline of striped bass populations within the SFE.

While the results from party boat data are compelling, these data are hard to interpret given changing effort and fishing gear over time. In addition, these results do not provide much information outside of the heavily fished areas near the Golden Gate and only a single data point for any given individual. My colleagues and I started the UC Davis Ocean Striped Bass Project with the goal of better understanding what large female striped bass are doing within the SFE and along the Pacific Coast. Part of this project involves tracking movements of individuals using a combination of acoustic telemetry and otolith microchemistry.

Acoustic telemetry is a technical term for what is essentially tracking animals using tags that emit coded high-pitched sounds. The tags used in this study emit a signal at a frequency far higher than what a human can hear, and which can effectively transmit a unique identification code through both freshwater and saltwater. When a tagged fish swims by an acoustic receiver (hydrophone), of which there are many deployed throughout the SFE and the rivers that flow into it, its tag code is recorded along with the time and date. Using this technology, we can track tagged fish for up to seven years throughout the SFE and upstream rivers.

But what about coastal migrations? As a part of the Ocean Striped Bass Project, a total of 22 acoustic receivers have been deployed from zero to three nautical miles offshore at Point Reyes and Point San Pedro, just north and south of the Golden Gate, respectively (Fig. 3). These receivers act as “gates” to migratory individuals, listening for tagged fish as they pass on their way north or south. If an individual is recorded only once at either of these gates, we know it either died or emigrated to another estuary and can be counted as “lost” to the SFE population.

Fig. 3. Graduate student Brian Williamson and Junior Research Specialist Caroline Newell rigging acoustic receivers for deployment at Point Reyes, California.

The other component of the study, otolith (‘ear stone’) microchemistry, relies on the unique chemical signals incorporated into otoliths as a fish grows. Otoliths are small calcified structures located in the inner ear of fishes. They serve as an excellent structure for scientific analysis because they continually grow and are not resorbed during periods of stress. By comparing the chemical signatures trapped within different layers of the otolith to the unique chemical signatures of different water bodies, we can effectively retrace the migratory history or even source of an individual. Using these techniques, we should be capable of estimating origin of birth for individual striped bass captured outside of the SFE.

Why do we care what happens to striped bass in the Pacific Ocean? Striped bass are an extremely important recreational species within the SFE and upstream rivers; they are a cultural, consumptive, and economic resource for thousands of people. They are also an important indicator species because they require many of the same environmental conditions as vulnerable native species, such as longfin smelt and delta smelt, that now exist at population levels too low to effectively track. By not knowing the coastal migration dynamics of large female striped bass, we limit our ability to identify drivers of population declines more broadly. Finally, while the effects of predation by striped bass in the SFE and upstream rivers is hotly debated, they may be a more tangible threat to native species in the small estuaries up the California and Oregon coasts. Striped bass are truly novel to these estuaries, and if climate change increases their colonization potential, native species declines may occur.

If you would like to know more about the Ocean Striped Bass Project please contact me, Dylan Stompe, at This project is funded by the California Department of Water Resources.

Dylan Stompe is a Ph.D. student based at the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further Reading

Bennett, B., and L. Howard. 1997. El Niños and The Decline of Striped Bass. IEP Newsletter 10(4):17–21.

Radovich. 1963. Effect of ocean temperature on the seaward movements of striped bass, Roccus saxatilis, on the Pacific coast. California Fish and Game 49(3).

Scofield, E. C. 1931. The Striped Bass of California (Roccus lineatus). California Fish and Game Fish Bulletin 29.

Smith, H. M. 1895. A Review of the History and Results of the Attempts to Acclimatize Fish and Other Water Animals in the Pacific States. U.S. Fish Commission Bulletin 15.

Sturrock, A. and C. Phillis. 2018. New paths to survival for endangered winter run Chinook salmon. California WaterBlog,

Waldman, J. R., R. E. Bender, and I. I. Wirgin. 1998. Multiple population bottlenecks and DNA diversity in populations of wild striped bass, Morone saxatilis. Fishery Bulletin 96:614–620.

Wang, G., W. Cai, B. Gan, L. Wu, A. Santoso, X. Lin, Z. Chen, and M. J. McPhaden. 2017. Continued increase of extreme El Niño frequency long after 1.5 °C warming stabilization. Nature Climate Change 7:568–572.

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Eating Delta Smelt

by Peter Moyle, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis

Delta smelt are an endangered species and the latest estimates of their numbers indicate they will likely not be around much longer as wild fish. When I first started working on them, in the 1970s, they were abundant and frequently caught in various sampling programs. One of my regrets is that I never ate any that we caught, despite the fact that smelt in general are highly regarded as food fish. Indeed, a memorable experience from my high school days in Minnesota was driving up to the North Shore of Lake Superior with friends and spending a night dip-netting rainbow smelt in the freezing water. We built a fire on the beach and luxuriously fried the smelt in butter. We ate them heads and all, a tradition I learned from my father. Delicious.

Fig. 1 Sunrise, Suisun Marsh, December 17, 2015. Photo by P. Moyle

Historically, the principal smelts of the San Francisco estuary were longfin smelt, delta smelt, and, probably, surf smelt; the latter is mostly a marine species. Archaeological evidence suggests smelt were caught and eaten on occasion by the indigenous peoples of the region. In the latter half of the 19th century, there was a smelt fishery in the estuary, but it was poorly documented, presumably because the fish were mainly caught and consumed by Chinese immigrants. In Jordan and Evermann (1896), however, the authors characterized the “pond smelts” – a group of related species that includes delta smelt, as  “…sweet little fish, delicious as food”  and again in 1923  as“delicious and excellent little food fish…”

I encountered delta smelt (and longfin smelt) on a regular basis after the UC Davis project began to monitor fish populations in Suisun Marsh in 1979. They were commonly captured in the otter trawls that we used monthly at multiple sampling stations. Given that we only trawled for 5 or 10 minutes at each locality, with a trawl-net dragged along the bottom (smelt are pelagic), it is a tribute to smelt abundance that enough were caught to make a meal. At that time, they were not a species of concern for any agency, much less classified as endangered.

I was reminded of their lost abundance then when Sonia Cook recently sent me some photos she had taken of sampling the marsh on November 16, 1982. Sonia at that time was a technician in the Botany Department who was interested in fish and enjoyed going out with my sampling crew as a volunteer. Being an adventurous person, she asked if she could bring some smelt home for dinner that night. The 35-40 smelt that Sonia kept were just part of the day’s catch. They are shown in the photo she took of the smelt that she kept.

Fig 2. Smelt for dinner. A sampling of delta smelt (lower fish with blue sheen) and longfin smelt (pale upper fish) from Suisun Marsh, November 1982. Photo by S. Cook.

This got me thinking about how badly we have managed the smelt’s pelagic habitat since that time. Now the greatest fear of many fish sampling programs is that one or two delta smelt will be caught, which could shut down an entire program (like the one in Suisun Marsh) because of take restrictions stemming from the Endangered Species Act. Think of how much better off the Delta ecosystem would be if the protections for smelt existed to protect a fishery, not the few last individuals. I am sad that I missed the opportunity to dine on delta and longfin smelt. But that is the goal we should be working towards: restoring delta and longfin smelt to a point where they can be harvested in the San Francisco Estuary and watershed…or at least contribute significantly to the food webs as they once did.

Further Reading

Jordan, D.S. and B. W. Evermann. 1896. The Fishes of North and Middle America. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 47, Part 1.

Jordan, D.S. and B. W. Evermann. 1923. American Food and Game Fishes.  New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.

Moyle, P.B., K. Bork, J. Durand, T. Hung, and A.L. Rypel. 2019. Futures for Delta Smelt. California WaterBlog,

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MWDC Proposes Overarching Delta Solution

by Nestle J. Frobish

Montpellier Aqueduct by Pitot 2020

Aqueduct in Montpellier, France built in 1753 by Henri Pitot

Today the Megalopolitan Water District of California (a consortium of southern California and Bay Area urban water suppliers) proposed building a new aqueduct to take water from the Sacramento River to Bay Area and southern California cities.  The aqueduct, depicted below, would avoid the subsurface uncertainties of a Delta tunnel, ease monitoring and inspections, and avoid interference with fish and wildlife migrations in and through the Delta.

The proposal states, “For centuries, major Mediterranean urban areas relied on aqueducts to supply waters to sustain their economic and cultural prosperity.  For decades, we have built canals and pipelines in California for this purpose.  Our cities in southern California and the Bay Area have concluded that a more classical Delta conveyance solution should be sought if the state’s currently proposed tunnel is rejected.”

Proponents stated that an above-ground aqueduct would allow all sides of the Delta debates to “win”.  There would be no tunnels or peripheral canal, there would be water for cities that does not reverse flows for fish in the Delta, and there would be highly-visible attractive naming opportunities.  Indeed, if constructed in the old style, each southern California and Bay Area resident using the water could have their name engraved on one of the aqueduct’s many stones, with each Delta land owner immortalized with the naming of an arch.

Donald Hightower, a spokesman for the Bay Area Water Suppliers Alliance (BAWSA), noted, “Major State Water Project facilities were built with great pride and extensive staffed public visitor centers.  Sadly, these visitor centers are now largely closed, and visitors can hardly see some of California’s most important public infrastructure.  An above ground aqueduct across the Delta would provide a visible monument to California’s successes in water management, from miles away, and a tourist attraction for the Delta economy.”

The Transportation and Recreation Authority of California (TRAC) is considering joining the proposal, seeing it as a potential water slide to enjoyably increase public transport capacity from Sacramento to the Bay Area.

Valens aqueduct 2020

Valen’s aqueduct built by Romans to supply Constantinople in 368 AD

“Today, we proposed an above-ground aqueduct across the Delta that will define the Delta as a very special place, the home of the world’s longest above-ground aqueduct. All aspects of this project will be above ground and visible, from construction to operations,” said Geoffrey Kiteflyer, the retiring Director of the District.  “I hope this project serves as long as Valens’ did for Constantinople and Istanbul.”

Some expressed skepticism, noting the high expense of the project and the low flows supplied by such aqueducts in ancient times, compared to modern expectations.  “Valen’s aqueduct served one of the world’s largest cities in 400 AD with less than 100 cfs of flow.  That was a lot then, but is not so much now, compared with the Delta pumps 15,000 cfs current capacity,” said former DWR employee Sam Gei.  Several environmental groups, although not unhappy about the reduced Delta diversions, expressed concern for the effects of an above-ground aqueduct on waterfowl flight paths and solar shading of native plants, and are organizing themselves into a group called “Delta Arch-Enemies”.

Past solutions for Delta conveyance have concentrated on taking water through the Delta, around the Delta, or under the Delta.  Perhaps it is time to look at taking water over the Delta.

With or without an aqueduct, the Delta is a beautiful region with some problems which cannot be solved perfectly.

Further reading

Frontinus, Sextus Julius (97 AD), The Aqueducts of Rome,*.html

Istanul Ottoman aqueduct 2020

Nestle J. Frobish is former chairman of the Worldwide Fair Play for Frogs Committee and an avid advocate for wetlands and rivers.

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Is California’s dry 2020 water year a drought? Prepare anyway

by Jay LundFig 1

Not again!

There was not a “Miracle March” to follow California’s precipitation “Flat-line February.”  Instead, we’ve had a “Meh March.”

With the near-end of its wet season, California’s 2020 water year is and will be dry.  The Northern Sierra 8-gage Precipitation Index is now about 25 inches, and might increase about 10% more by the end of the water year.  This would place the 2020 water year somewhere between the 3% – 7% driest year on record for this index (98 years).  Other precipitation and snow statistics for California tell a similar story.

Sacramento Valley runoff for 2020 also will be greatly reduced (see first figure).  Other basins in California are similarly dry.

Just how dry is 2020?

On the whole, with about 50% of average precipitation and snowpack, California can expect dry conditions for its forests and upland habitats, particularly later in the summer as soil moisture is depleted.  These impacts will be somewhat dampened because recent years have not been terribly dry, so there is more soil moisture and groundwater.  Next year could be different.

From Figure 1 above, we can expect about 50% of average stream runoff, maybe a little less.  This of course has implications for reservoir inflows, hydropower generation, agricultural and urban water supplies, and aquatic and wetland habitats.  Fortunately, most California reservoirs are still pretty full and many groundwater supplies have at least partially recovered from the 2012-2016 drought.  So for many water users, the first dry year is not so bad.  Still, there will be impacts.

Is the 2020 water year a drought? 

Maybe for some, but mostly not yet.

In some pragmatic senses, a drought is a dry event that water users are not prepared for.

For some users and uses, a single dry year is a drought.  This includes upland habitats which depend on soil moisture to get through our long dry season, more junior summer and fall water users on streams without reservoirs, rural water users with marginal supplies subject to groundwater depletion, and wetland and aquatic habitats, especially if they lack supplemental water supplies.

Most of California’s human water users have become prepared for dry years and droughts over the last 150 years by adopting a portfolio of infrastructure and actions, including irrigation systems, water storage, groundwater, water trading, and water conservation practices that sustain their activities through California’s annual 6-9 month drought (worse annually than most of the US ever sees).  For most major cities and many agricultural areas, these preparations also suffice for most multi-year droughts (Lund et al. 2018).

The difficulties of managing drought increase with a drought’s duration.  Most of California, even ecosystems, are adapted to a long single dry season, preceded by a wet season.  A dry year extends and reduces water stored for this dry season.  Sequential dry years further reduce the water stored in soils, reservoirs, and groundwater for dry-season water demands.

By the third and fourth dry years, ecosystems and human water supply systems go from straining to breaking.  In long multi-year droughts, cities can be forced to ration water, farmers must consider sacrificing their most profitable crops, more rural drinking water supplies are left dry by declining groundwater, and salmon runs can no longer rely on stored cold water.

Is 2020 the beginning of a major statewide drought?

Maybe.  The plot below shows each year in a 113-year unimpaired Sacramento Valley Fig 2streamflow record plotted against the previous year’s unimpaired streamflow.  There is only a slight tendency for a dry year to be followed by another dry year (a previous post shows this another way).  The dryness of the previous year explains less than 1% of how wet the next year will be.  So the probability of this dry year being the beginning of several years of drier-than-average conditions is slightly more than 50%.

What should be done?

Prepare for this year to be dry (a certainty) and prepare for next year to be dry (fairly likely).

Preparation is key to reducing the impacts of dry years (Lund et al 2018).  Many with dry-year contingency plans will begin their implementation.  For those without prepared plans, now is a good time to start making plans and preparations.  Active preparations should include:

  • Reducing less crucial water uses, particularly where water can be directly or indirectly stored.
  • Support and prepare to support wetland and aquatic ecosystems, including and especially the Delta.
  • Inventory regional groundwater availability, and think about SGMA consequences of drought.
  • Work with your neighbors to prepare.

The various COVID-19 shut-downs and slow-downs are likely to make late preparations more difficult, especially where plans, such as those for the Delta, ecosystems, and groundwater, require coordination among many agencies and entities, now with few and smaller face-to-face meetings and competing with a pandemic for attention and resources.

Pandemic concerns will require managing water and ecosystems amid a drought of attention and resources and viral distractions.

Also prepare for next year to be wet and have flooding, because this can easily happen too.

Welcome to California.

Further reading

Lund, J.R., J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Durand, and K. Stone, “Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought,” J. of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol 144, No. 10, October 2018. (free access)

Lund, J., California’s Driest February and Coming Drought?,, March 1, 2020

California Department of Water Resources’ California Data Exchange Center (CDEC) web site:  True California water wonks will enjoy this distraction.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Geography, and a few other things at the University of California, Davis.

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Environmental Flows in California

By Alyssa Obester, Sarah Yarnell, and Ted Grantham

The California Environmental Flow Framework was recently highlighted in the 2020 Water Resilience Portfolio to address the seemingly impossible task of establishing of how much water our rivers and streams need to support healthy ecosystems. While many methods for setting environmental water needs exist, the Framework provides a unique and flexible approach that is applicable statewide.

What is the California Environmental Flows Framework? Developed by a workgroup of researchers and agency staff from across the state, the Framework is a guidance document for developing ecological flow criteria, which describe the timing and magnitude of streamflow required throughout the year to support native species and their habitat. These criteria are defined according to the natural range of hydrologic conditions under which native species have evolved, but can be refined under the Framework to prioritize specific ecosystem management goals (e.g., endangered species needs) or to accommodate novel ecosystem conditions. The Framework also describes desirable practices for making decisions on how to balance ecological flow needs with human water uses.

Unlike other environmental flow assessment methods, the Framework offers an approach that:

  • Considers all aspects of the annual hydrograph, focusing on flow components linked to ecological function in streams (functional flows);
  • May be applied across a broad diversity of geographic and water management settings and desired ecosystem goals;
  • Provides tools and guidance for developing ecological flow regimes;
  • Provides guidance for balancing multiple management objectives; and
  • Provides recommendations for, and examples of monitoring and adaptive management programs.
Fig. 1. Streams in California with existing instream flow requirements, data provided by the State Water Resources Control Board’s Cannabis Policy Program’s mapping tool.

Protecting stream flow is essential to the persistence of native species and health of our freshwater ecosystems. To date, however, few streams in California have legally recognized environmental flow protections (Fig. 1), where regulators have set the amount and timing of water to be left instream to support fish, wildlife, and habitat maintenance and creation. Where environmental flow protections do exist, they are limited typically in geographic scope and generally are focused on the needs of a few endangered species and fail to consider ecosystem needs holistically.

A key action recommended in the Governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio is protecting and enhancing natural systems. To do so requires a broad understanding of the flows needed to support aquatic and riparian species and tools to translate this knowledge into management practice. The California Environmental Flows Framework provides a means of doing so. A draft of the Framework will be available for public review in early summer 2020. Further information about this effort can be found at

Further Reading

California Environmental Flows Framework Technical Team. (2018). The California Environmental Flows Framework website.

California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture. (2020). Draft Water Resilience Portfolio.

Yarnell, S.M., Stein, E.D., Webb, J.A., Grantham, T., Lusardi, R.A., Zimmerman, J., Peek, R.A., Lane, B.A., Howard, J., and Sandoval-Solis, S. A functional flows approach to selecting ecologically relevant flow metrics for environmental flow applications. River Res Applic. 2020; 1– 7.

Yarnell, S., Obester, A., Grantham, T., Stein, E., Lane, B., Lusardi, R., Zimmerman, J., Howard, J., Sandoval-Solis, S., Henery, R., and Bray, E. (2018). Functional flows for developing ecological flow recommendations. California Water Blog.

Alyssa Obester is a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Sarah Yarnell is a senior researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Ted Grantham is faculty at the University of California, Berkeley and an affiliate of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Alyssa, Sarah, and Ted are part of a larger technical group that is continuing to work on implementing a functional flows approach across California via the Environmental Flows Workgroup, a sub-group of the California Water Quality Monitoring Council. Technical group members include individuals from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Utah State University, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, The Nature Conservancy, California Trout, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Board.

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New science or just spin: science charade in the Delta

By Karrigan Bork, Andrew L. Rypel, and Peter Moyle

Fig. 1. Aerial view of the Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant, the first major plant designed and constructed within the California State Water Project. Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources.

Science-based decision making is key to improved conservation management and a legal mandate in the US Endangered Species Act.  Thus supporters of federal efforts to increase water exports from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) have claimed that these efforts are based on new science. Yet unpacking those claims requires some legal analysis, a basic understanding of science, and more than a little nuanced reading.

First, some background. For a review of federal efforts to increase Delta exports, and the recent biological opinions (BiOps) released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approving those efforts, please see this earlier blog post. California has elected to sue the federal government over the recent BiOps, and, at the same time, California is proceeding with its own analysis of plans to change the operation of the SWP. Finally, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) is updating the state’s Bay Delta Plan, which addresses water quality and quantity in the Delta. The SWRCB has adopted a new plan for the San Joaquin River watershed, and is in the process of adopting a plan for the Sacramento River watershed. However, adoption and implementation efforts appear to be on hold while the Newsom Administration attempts to negotiate voluntary agreements with water users and environmental groups. The voluntary agreements might ultimately replace (or be integrated into) a comprehensive Bay Delta Plan update. There are many moving parts, but one thing tying all these efforts together is the proponents’ claim that their approach is mandated by the best science.

Supporters of the federal plan in particular seek to wrap the effort in the mantle of science. On the media call for the roll out of the new BiOps, Paul Souza, Regional Director for US Fish and Wildlife Service cited “tremendous new science now that we didn’t have a decade ago.” On the same call, Ernest Conant, Regional Director of the Mid-Pacific Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, argued that the new approach was “infused with new scientific information.” U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, told Fox News “this president has worked greatly using science, not based on politics but on science, to allow to have more of that water stay with the Californians and America.” Finally, during his remarks to Rural Stakeholders on California Water Accessibility in Bakersfield, CA, President Trump argued that the old plan was based on “old science, obsolete studies, and overbearing regulations that had not been updated in many, many years, and sometimes for decades,” promising that the new federal plans “use the latest science and most advanced technology.” The science drumbeat has played a central role in this media blitz.

The rationale for this approach is easy to understand. Policy makers frequently cloak political decisions in a scientific framework; in policy circles, this is known as the science charade (Adler 2017; Wagner 1995). The science charade lets political leaders avoid responsibility for unpopular decisions – they’re just following the science, not making hard decisions based on their own ethical considerations (Doremus 1997). The science charade also lets decision makers minimize public input on policy decisions – why should the uninformed public have a say in technical decisions (Adler 2017)? Scientists themselves sometimes embrace this approach because it affords them a measure of control over policy decisions (Adler 2017). The courts only reinforce the science charade – they are very reticent to overturn federal agency decisions that claim to be based on science, rather than policy preferences (Clark 2009).

This approach is not limited to supporters of the federal plans; everyone claims that science is on their side. But the current federal roll out is uniquely focused on claiming that new science justifies increased water exports from the Delta. Moreover, NMFS brought in new scientists to rewrite their draft BiOp last summer, after the first draft concluded the federal pumping plan was likely to drive species to extinction. This suggests some skepticism about NMFS’s claims to rely on “new science.”

Natural resource sciences are unique compared to many fields (e.g., physics). For example, the best natural resource science normally involves understanding not only the organisms of interest, but also the dynamics of their complicated ecosystems, which in turn are typically controlled by people. Indeed, most scientists are trained to view natural resource management quite broadly, e.g., as the intersection of organisms, habitat and people (Nielson 1999). Each aspect is critical and affects the other two, and managing with all three in mind presents opportunities for enhancing natural resources overall. However, management frequently goes awry when a disproportionate focus is placed on only one aspect of the problem (Sass et al. 2017). The science charade preys on the misconception that these spheres should be disconnected, suggesting we can somehow separate organisms and ecosystems from the decisions people make.

The US Endangered Species Act explicitly requires that federal decisions consider the best available science. For example, 16 U.S. Code § 1536(a)(2) requires that “each agency shall use the best scientific and commercial data available” when preparing biological opinions under the Act.  This is, objectively, the right approach. Bad science leads to bad decisions. But this mandate also encourages the cloaking of policy preferences as scientific mandates (Adler 2017). Consider three aspects of the current political struggle over Delta water.

Fig. 2. Dissection of Delta smelt as part of a study to monitor the effects of introducing hatchery smelt into the wild. Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources.

First, the roll out for the new biological opinions treats existing science as old and obsolete, claiming it is no longer the best available science. But science is not milk. It doesn’t just go bad. New science can illuminate, and the state of the art sometimes changes over time, but older science is not inherently wrong or less valuable. Science grows by building on existing ideas and knowledge, not by rejecting it outright. As Isaac Newton famously wrote, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” For example, the 2010 report “Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem” found that flow standards aimed solely at protecting fish populations in the Delta would require 75% of the unimpaired flow in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds. Certainly, other water needs mean that the Delta will not get these flows, but simply dismissing this report as old science is inherently flawed.

Second, to the extent that new science requires new approaches in the Delta, existing new science indicates that restoration of the Delta will require more water to be left in the Delta, not less. The 2017 Scientific Basis Report for the SWRCB Bay Delta Plan effort noted that additional flows into the Delta, and decreased exports of water from the Delta, always benefits native biota, provided that temperature, timing, and quality targets were met. Zero new science shows that native fishes and most other native organisms in the Delta can survive on less water.  Keep in mind that the Delta is one of the best studied estuarine ecosystems in the world, with continuous major research producing new and improved understanding of the ecosystem (i.e. science).

Third and finally, the new science claims in the biological opinions seem to focus on emerging approaches that might reconcile water use with ecosystem needs based on real time monitoring and habitat improvements. But immediate claims that this new science allows greater water exports from the Delta hides key policy decisions on acceptable extinction risks.

Fig. 3. John E. Skinner Delta Fish Protective Facility, located two miles upstream of the Banks Pumping Plant. Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources

For example, the real time “Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM)” program is supposed to allow managers to reduce pumping from the Delta when monitoring detects smelt in the area around the pumps, thus keeping smelt from being sucked into the pumps. But smelt populations are currently too low to detect, and a January 2018 independent scientific review concluded, “it is difficult to see how the EDSM currently can be used to inform water operations in near real time.” The review encouraged FWS to attempt to validate this approach, but the BiOps offer no such validation. Using this approach without showing that it works places all risk of failure on the Delta Smelt, and ultimately risks their extinction. This is a policy decision, not new science standing alone.

Similarly, the BiOps indicate habitat improvements will reduce the need for water in the Delta. As prior blog posts here have noted, better habitat improves salmon growth, which may improve salmon survivorship. Better habitat also may allow managers to reconcile human uses of the landscape with ecosystem needs. Could this approach allow managers to achieve ecosystem and species recovery targets with less water? It seems unlikely, but the BiOps depend on habitat improvement to make up for increased water exports. Even if this approach could work, it would require that suitable habitat improvements be in place before water exports increase. But most improvements mandated in the last round of BiOps are merely proposed, not complete, and most ongoing improvement projects remain unfinished and untested.

The increased pumping anticipated in the BiOps would begin well before any improvements in species numbers would result from habitat improvement. This approach assumes that additional unspecified habitat will compensate for decreased water in the short term. Success would depend entirely on protected species being lucky enough to persist under current conditions but with less water. Suggesting that the decisions expressed in the BiOps are based solely on science masks this central policy calculus, which is never explicitly revealed. However, the benefits of such an approach to Delta water users are well-documented: there is less political accountability, less public input, and more deferential court review.

Fig. 4. Release of tagged Chinook salmon into the Sacramento River. Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources.

What’s the solution? There’s no magic bullet to stop the science charade, but using properly vetted (i.e., peer-reviewed) science literature and independent science reviews of new rulemakings can go a long way toward ensuring true science-based policies. California’s Delta Science Program, for example, relies on an independent review panel to provide objective feedback to policymakers. Adaptive management approaches that would increase ecosystem protections if new approaches fail would better allocate risk in uncertain situations. The science community itself must also watch and safeguard how policy makers use its work. It is not enough to simply conduct and publish scientific articles – not anymore. And courts asked to review decisions that touch on science must distinguish between scientific conclusions and policy decisions that are cloaked as science.

In the near term, California agencies may soon face this challenge head on. First, as noted above, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is preparing an environmental analysis of its own plans to change the operation of the Delta pumps. DWR has proposed a plan that embraces some of the same approaches to science used by the federal plan. Comments from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the SWRCB to DWR have raised these concerns, but it is not yet clear how the DWR will respond and whether CDFW will ultimately grant DWR the permits it needs to proceed on the terms DWR has proposed.

Second, the SWRCB will have to approve any voluntary agreements that are developed for the Delta. The Newsom Administration is pushing hard for a suite of voluntary agreements to benefit the Delta ecosystem while also meeting water user needs. The benefits of successful voluntary agreements are tantalizing: an infusion of private funding, improved habitat, improved ecosystems, and continued availability of needed water, all done faster and with fewer lawsuits. But any agreements must ultimately comply with state environmental law, and the SWRCB will make the first determination as to whether the science supports whatever voluntary agreements the Administration can develop. The voluntary agreements appear to rely on the same habitat-for-water hopes that undergird the BiOps, and the agreements would lock in the water withdrawals before regulators know if the habitat improvements actually work. A safer approach would be to improve the habitat, and then conduct scientific studies to see if listed species actually benefit before withdrawing additional water. Failing that, the agreements should at least provide for water use reductions as a fail safe if species declines continue despite the new habitats. The best available science recognizes that nature is sometimes unpredictable and science is sometimes misread or just wrong. It requires contingency plans.

If the Administration succeeds in developing a set of voluntary agreements, and as DWR concludes its environmental analysis, look for the media blitz to emphasize that science supports their approach. It will fall to the state regulatory agencies to determine whether they are truly supported by science, or merely by a science charade. 

Further Reading

Jonathan H. Adler, The Science Charade in Species Conservation, 24 Sup. Ct. Econ. Rev. 109, 116 (2017).

Sara. A. Clark, Taking a Hard Look at Agency Science: Can the Courts Ever Succeed?, 36 Ecol.L.Q., 317 (2009).

Holly Doremus, Listing Decisions Under the Endangered Species Act: Why Better Science Isn’t Always Better Policy, 75 Wash. U. L.Q. 1029, 1038 (1997)

Carson Jeffres, Frolicking fat floodplain fish feeding furiously, June 2, 2011.

Peter Moyle, Jeff Opperman, Amber Manfree, Eric Larson, and Joan Florshiem, Floodplains in California’s Future, Sept. 10, 2017.

Peter Moyle, Karrigan Bork, John Durand, Tien-Chieh Hung, and Andrew Rypel, Futures for Delta Smelt, Dec. 15, 2019.

Larry A. Nielsen, History of Inland Fisheries Management in North America in Inland Fisheries Management, 2nd Ed. 3 (Christopher C. Kohler and Wayne A. Hubert eds., 1999).

Greg G. Sass, Andrew L. Rypel, and Joshua D. Stafford, Inland Fisheries Habitat Management: Lessons Learned from Wildlife Ecology and a Proposal For Change, 42 Fisheries 197 (2017).

Wendy Wagner, The Science Charade in Toxic Risk Regulation, 95 Colum. L. Rev. 1613 (1995).

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